"When I was a young man, I met a young woman. And as is wont to happen, we fell in love. Countless lifetimes ago. We married, and in those early days, we were happy.
"We built a life together, or tried to. Bought a home, dreamt of a family. Alas, as it is sometimes with dreams, it was not meant to be.
"We tried to conceive and had so many close calls. But you can only console your love after so many stillbirths before you just... give up. So our dreams of three remained two and we two passed the decades. Happy, but less so then we might have been. Always haunted by our lack.
"And then our two became one. She was the lucky one who died first. Sobbing, apologizing to me for what we couldn't provide each other. How do you tell the dying 'It's not your fault. I failed too.'
"I held her, wept, felt her frail form go slack.
"I whispered: 'Hush now... Hush now.' Cradling what was once everything
"Then I waited for one to become zero. How all stories end. And eventually I did. I died. My eyes closed one last time. A welcome reprieve from the emptiness.
"But somehow... somehow, they opened again. I was a young man. She lay in my arms. Our lives were still ahead. I couldn't believe it. Was this heaven? Hell?
"Once again, the decades pass. With three never to be. With two becoming one, becoming zero. The same happiness, same lack and same heartbreak. I die... then wake.
"A hundred times, a thousand, I replay my grief. Nothing changes. Nothing, except for this conversation. Telling you, here, about my pain. In my first lifetime I sat here unmolested every night, bereaved, but hopeful that soon would come an end. Unaware that my life would be my grave, that my memories would bury me again and again."
I look the young man in the eyes, stained with familiar tears I've seen a dozen score of times.
"And you know what? This gives me hope. I know the woman in these echoes of lives is not my Layla. She is lost, a wraith. I chase her through a desert of memories. I chase death. But, if this can change, if I can tell you my story, one day there will be another change. Maybe I will have atoned, and be allowed to die.
"And on that day I will rejoin her, my true love. Dead so many lifetimes ago. Maybe I can leave her reflection behind in this false land. This reflection."
The bar listens in silence, my tale carrying to every corner.
The young man who had so brashly sat in my seat stands.
"I'm sorry," He sobs, "I had no idea."
I sit, and the world retracts into the hookah before me. I inhale deeply. Her face dances in the smoke. She calls to me from beyond. I look up at the young man, still standing there, waiting for forgiveness, or absolution, or…
"Like I said, you were always going to get up."
He disappears, back into the world of friends and drink. Where he can try to forget that he ever met me. Where he can try to forget my pain. Maybe he will, maybe he can be so lucky.
"One day I will die, and wake to see her truly. Bearing every mark left by our lives together, left by the suffering and the joy. But until then-"
When I was a young man...