At the coffee shop, all the tables are full, both the rectangular tables and the smaller square ones. People fill each side, hunched over computers and stacks of notes. There are boyfriends and girlfriends in turd-colored hoodies and skimpy white tank-tops, parents and children dissecting fractions and Abraham Lincoln, laughter, hugs, shoving, F-bombs deployed with cheer, fusillades of life fired into my ears.
But I’m the only one at my table. The little square one in the corner between that old Stieff upright piano and the front window, a corner that smells of stale feet, pot, and lingering coffee. The other sides of the table glare at me, oak covered in blemishes. Two chairs gape, while I try to pay bills and fill out applications for teaching positions. I slink through sections that require self-promotion.
How do I promote publication in online journals? How do I fill gaps in employment? How do I describe overcoming adversity?
The truth: Drinking Merlot and taking pills on Mother’s Day and Memorial Day. Watching Curb Your Enthusiasm or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Laughing at the Gang using and abusing Charlie Day and roaring while Larry questions social conventions, caviar, Lazy Susans at dinner parties. And don’t forget Larry disrupting a gay wedding and shattering a family before they’ve even begun.
I suspect the expected answer is I pull myself up by the bootstraps. Hands are on the plow, looking ahead, not backward. I channel grief to write the Great American novel and smile. I do not try to hug an English department printer and have to be pried away. I do not tell jokes about Anna Karenina being mowed down by a train.
Sometimes, I fill the spaces with an extra notebook or two, stacks of mechanical pencils. Diet Pepsi cans. A veggie sub, something large to be exchanged and shared, with crunching delight, arms brushing each other. Sometimes, I even bring a bouquet of lilacs and place them there. Lavender soothes. It offers possibility, promises something, even if I don’t know what.
It was my older sister’s favorite color, I think my mother’s, too, but I try not to think of that. Sometimes, I just put a box of Kleenex at the other end of the table. At least that has its use.
Daily, I envision a smile across the table, a laugh. An insistence on taking a lunch break and grabbing a beer at the bar around the corner. Talking childhood memories. I conjure hypothetical questions, posed with snark and sisterly solemnity. How are you? How are you really?
I envisage shouting quotes from a favorite movie. My older sister and I loved The Big Lebowski, especially Walter screaming, over the line, over the line. Mom loved romcoms and Hugh Grant.
Sometimes I want to wipe away that self-deprecating smile he wears in every movie. It’s not his fault, but the smile’s too neat. No nuance, no acknowledgment of darker things. The smile holds the weight of foibles, yes. But not of tragedy.
I conjure hugs, secrets whispered, all extensions of people. I breathe, try to capture old scents of lavender perfume, mint soap, and gasoline.
I can’t even smell them anymore.
All around me are histories. Even the tables with just two people. Loss to them is something in the shadows, darting out from time to time. It’s not something that comes in litanies like freight trains, one after another.
I hate freight trains like nothing else. Their grinding efficiencies. Their ability to wreck absolute destruction and take away in an instant. Freight trains hold histories and create new ones, unable to stop for the helpless. Thank God in this shop I don’t have to hear their whistles, arresting, arrogant, with odd hints of mourning and contrition.
Thank God for the laughter, as shrill and cracked as it is.
Meanwhile, I create more histories. Fill the tables with stock photos of smiling families and images of smiling sisterly types, the latter bearing sarcastic smiles, crooked smiles, and confident, hawkish noses. None of my own sister, though.
I wish I hadn’t deleted every picture I stored. But sometimes impulse grabs you, chokes you even, and you do the dumbest things. On top of that you delete emails and other records.
I even buy blank love-you cards, write that phrase over and over. I love you, I love you. I can’t write their names yet. I also write miss you in another then cross it out. Too flippant, as if this is just a week-long separation. Or a month. Then I place them in neat envelopes on top of my exhibit.
But people know. They know I sit here alone during the day, sometimes not going home until just before closing. They always ask if the other chairs are in use, and then drag them away before I answer. Their eyes bear down on my piles, my creations, assessing artifice. I can only imagine the words rising to their minds. He’s in denial, he needs to see a psychiatrist. Why can’t he work in his room, away from us?
Someone always asks if the other chair’s being used. Every time, it seems. They know the truth, eyes bearing down on the piles, arresting artifice. Or they suspect it. They even arch precise eyebrows, don condescending smiles, which they can’t wipe away.
And what would I say? Someone’s coming. They’re just late? Just caught in traffic at a railroad crossing?
No one’s coming. Not today, not tomorrow.
I whisper those words in secret.
Sometimes I reach out, lunge for the chair. I try to form words, ask them to leave them, just for now, but laughter is rising around me. The laughter drowns cracked words. People are moving, moving, backs turned. The chairs are already being dragged away, letting out the loudest squeal, a squeal of inevitability and surrender.