“Large, soy, no-whip hot chocolate!” The barista exclaims as I approach the counter, obviously pleased with his recollection of my hot, tasty beverage of preference. It’s impossible to hold it against him with his soft blond curls. That he has memorized my order has less to do with his anamnesis than the fact that I am, if nothing else, a creature of habit. I am horrified to realize that I have become a coffee shop regular.
When I talk to her later, Hannah points out that there are worse things than patronizing a coffeehouse. “You could always be the “Norm” of the VD clinic.”
“Your usual double dose of penicillin, sir?”
We laughed about it, but still, it bothers me that I am so predictable. I start to tell the barista, “No, this time I’ll have a mocha,” but think better of it. I really like hot chocolate.
My green t-shirt smells like him. His scent seems to permeate every thread of the fabric. Masculine and strange. The disconcerting sense of his presence in his absence.
I sit at a table by the window. The reflection of my face is superimposed over the building across the street. Rust red brick building covered entirely by thick, green ivy. Swollen clouds of a ruptured sky bleeding the orange and purple brush strokes of sunset. So beautiful it doesn’t seem real. Downtown, above the jagged spine of skyscrapers and construction cranes the clouds are dark with rain. My reflection in the window is faded like a rub-on tattoo, disconnected from my being and any meaning. A pair of chapped red lips, upturned in an absent smile and newly formed wrinkles at the creases of my mouth. Cheeks darkened by the scruff of 5 o’clock shadow. A face that’s punctuated by a pair of eyes, blue, that are themselves windows. The reflection of a reflection, an infinity of coffee cups and longing.
I do not like the taste of coffee, but I love the way it smells, in seas of teacups steaming. Despite not liking coffee, I spend an inordinate amount of time in coffee shops, honing my mythology. The night before, he’d said, with stalwart certainty, “You are a Buddhist.” I don’t remember what prompted this assertion, but I remember thinking how little he must know me. I explained that Buddhists are interested in surrendering the sense of self, and I spend more time than anyone else I know analyzing, contemplating and inhabiting myself.
My anachronistic desire to be a writer, despite the fact that no one reads books anymore. The string of foolish decisions that have led me from being “Most Likely to Succeed” to sitting in cubicles and coffee shops and on park benches, counting joggers, counting leaves, counting the wrinkles on my hand. One more wrinkle than my wrinkled heart can stand. Counting every breath I breathe. Anything to keep from thinking.
I’m supposed to be working on my alleged novel. But instead I pull out an old journal from five years ago and read about what I was thinking and doing then. A worn, brown journal full of the black felt tipped scrawl of my messy handwriting. Words that become more tiny and insistent spidering toward the edges of the page, because it’s so important that I fit in as many of them as I can, to describe how I feel to my perennially fascinated audience of one.
I wonder if I’d been raised by apes or wolves, how I would perceive the world around me. How could I differentiate between objects and feelings if I didn’t have the words for them? What would thought be comprised of without words? Can you feel lonely if you don’t have a word for loneliness?
Maybe one day we’ll evolve beyond the need for language. We’ll be able to telepathically communicate our needs and desires directly from one brain to another and be intrinsically understood. All of the untranslatable longing and confusion will be unnecessary. Words obsolete.
In the coffee shop there is a dark haired young man with a black jacket and a red scarf. He is both a young man, sitting in a coffee shop alone, and at the same time he is the idea of a young man in a coffee shop alone. Which is more provocative? The young man with his individual likes and dislikes, a distinctive voice, a distinctive smell, a body and a mind full of faults and desires. Or the idea that a young man in a red scarf is sitting in a coffee shop alone?
Either he will leave, or I will leave and neither of us will have spoken to the other. If noticed at all we will remain archetypes, filed away in the other’s subconscious. The idea of a man sitting in a coffeehouse alone.
I cannot speak. I cannot connect verbally with other people, which is why, no matter how meaningless, how counterproductive, I am bound to the dream of being a writer. I don’t have a choice. Writing is simply the best way that I’m able to connect with people. I understand this about myself. That without my words I’d be stumbling around like a man with no senses, touching no one and being touched by no one.
A blond woman with fake fur around her collar sits between me and the young man in the red scarf, which is just as well. He’s already served his purpose.
Walking home from work the other night, in the rain, I was stopped at an intersection when I witnessed an accident. A car skidded on the wet street and rear ended the car in front of it which was stopped at a traffic light. I thought how lucky they must feel, on some level, to have momentarily escaped the mundane routine of their daily lives. To have made a connection with another person.
I am sitting across from a girl with pink hair, pink eyebrows and a low-cut pink blouse. She smiles at me and I smile back. I put my journal away and pull out a book he’d given me. Letters to a Young Poet. An early birthday present. He’d given it to me the night before, and no sooner was he out the door, than I’d pulled the iridescent ribbon away and ripped apart the white wrapping paper. I am an only child, and I have no patience. I am touched by the thoughtfulness of the gift, and the understated inscription on the front cover. “A special book for a special person.” He signed it “Fondly.”
My shirt smells like him. Remembered, his kisses, so insistent. Remember falling momentarily out of myself. Out of the moment. How I started thinking about the story I was writing, and my mind wandered into the safe, familiar territory of my impotent prose. Curled naked on my bed. His fingers tracing my spine.
Earlier I’d had brunch with the faggles. We sat in the Broadway Grill, a bright blue building decked with rainbow flags in honor of Gay Pride. Ducky comments on how buff my chest has gotten while I preen like a spoiled peacock. I sit at the edge of the table, and seem engaged, scooping up my eggs and home fries with a piece of french toast, and try to be engaged, but my thoughts are elsewhere. Clouded and sporadic as a vagrant storm. A long wait for food and a longer wait for the bill, no refilled drinks. Hugs all around and nice to meet yous.
I go from there to home to the grocery store and home again. I go from coffeehouse to coffeehouse. Illuminated by my laptop, or hiding behind a book. Every time the doorway opens, hinged and gasping like a startled ghost, I look up to see who has walked in. I fold up discarded poetry and drown it in my coffee cup (full of hot chocolate.) Write “I sit across from you in coffeehouses too afraid to speak to you.” Then delete it. A young man sits across from me in a worn, blue, western style shirt. And Willie Nelson sings “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” And it rains. But just a little. And I want so badly to feel the touch of another person against my skin. To really feel it. Fingers that flicker across my flesh, that bore holes into the very fabric of my universe and unravel it. Unmaking my mythology until every object is divorced from all meaning. There are only lips and hands. A body pressed against another body.
I want to talk to the man beside me, smiling over his newspaper. His fine features, reading glasses, stylish, square toed leather shoes. Now he speaks on his cell phone to someone else. Now he stands. Buttons his jacket. Leaves. I want to speak to the barista who wipes down the table. His pale, white back visible when he leans over above his studded leather belt. Later I do speak to him. He asks if I’d like to try a gingerbread latte. I say “No thank you.” Now I sit across from a handsome man with dark, spiky hair and blue eyes. He is the kind of man I expected to grow up to become. He sits near me, but miles away, a distance I can’t imagine crossing. The gap that divides the beautiful from the ordinary.
My thoughts are crabs that sideways walk along the beach of coffee seas. The embarrassed sinking ships of long misspent poetry. Tracing trails of cheesecake crust across a plate. Find myself staring at the hint of dark brown hair at the unbuttoned collar of a stranger’s shirt. His jaw. His lips. His eyes. He sees me seeing him, and he smiles. I look away. Fold in on myself like a Japanese bug of paper origami, drowning in cooling coffee seas. Close my book and put my laptop back inside my bag. Roll up the power cord. Put away my cup and plate. The air disappears from the room, and I’m outside. Blue eyes crying in the rain.