A young man approached the door to a pizza parlor. He was late. He had spent a considerable amount of time musing over which shirt he should wear to the engagement, but he was not late for this reason; he had deliberately arrived late.
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She’ll be impressed. She’ll see that I’m aloof - I’m not concerned with lunch. Or that I’m busy! She’ll see that I’m busy, like I have a lot of plans. I have a lot of plans, and I can’t keep track of them all. I nearly forgot to come today. I forgot about having lunch with her, and I remembered at the last minute. I forgot because I have so many plans; it’s hard to keep track of them all.
He came around the side of the building, opting to park in the rear so that he could wait in his car for a few minutes. As he reached the front window of the building, he stopped; he pulled out his cellular phone and began pretending to talk to someone on it. He braced himself, took a deep breath, and walked before the building’s window, subjecting himself to the observation of the people within. Lunch had begun. He couldn’t retreat now.
Please don’t let me ruin this; please don’t let me squander this. I promise Ill make the most of it, I just want a chance; I cannot do this on my own. Please just let this go well and Ill handle everything else. I just need this one opportunity. I cannot do this on my own.
He entered the building and spotted her. She had chosen a booth near a window; she was already eating. He paused as he approached the booth: what had begun was now out of his control.
This moment is the result of a million circumstances working in unison as a fantastic cosmic ballet. I am standing here today because 13 billion years ago time began, and yesterday I made a phone call. I still don’t know how I did it. Given a thousand opportunities, I would only make that call once. If I had never asked her here today, we might both have walked away from this day unscathed.
“Hi, Jay!” She was beaming.
“Jessica! Hi. I’m sorry I’m late, I actually forgot-“
“No problem. I was hungry, so I already ordered; I hope that’s alright.” Jessica had ordered two pieces of pizza, and she was halfway through with the first. He had one and a half pieces of pizza at his disposal.
Jay took his seat across from Jessica in the booth. He had pondered this layout intensely before leaving his house: sitting next to her would come off as presumptuous, as if they had been dating for months. Besides, sitting beside her would inhibit the conversation. He looked her in the eyes. She had beautiful eyes. He thought about telling her that, expressing his appreciation for her bulbous, green eyes, thanking God for crafting such mesmerizing spheres, telling her that nothing in this world could match the searing awe of her intense stare. He didn’t; he simply smiled, and she smiled back.
“Hello.” A waiter hovered over the table, pen and notepad in hand. He was an older man, perhaps sixty, and his long, silver hair seemed to sit atop his head as a King sits in a throne. His shirt was worn but in immaculate condition; the collar was starched and white, but the fabric, like his raspy voice, had been eroded by time. His eyes seemed out of place; situated between profound grey eyebrows and wrinkled canvas cheeks, they emanated an insatiable lust for life. "What would you like to order?"
What should I order? Does it matter? What makes me look best? Pepperoni? No. Pepperoni is too civilian, too pedantic. Everyone orders pepperoni. I want to be exotic. I want to surprise her. What should I order? What do I want.
As the remnants of this question absconded from the recesses of his mind, Jay realized that he had no idea.
"What do I want?" He articulated the phrase silently on his lips; he maintained eye-contact with her as he did so.
"What do I want?" He repeated it aloud, softly.
"Well, yes. What do you want to order? What type of pizza?"
I want to leave. I want to get up and leave. I want to drive home and go upstairs and close my door and realize that I have-failed do-fail and will-fail and that this was the last straw the straw that broke the camels back except there is no camel only a life of solitude punctuated by the misery of self-realized aggravation manifested in events such as this. I want to kiss her. I want to lean across the table and brush the hair out of her face so that I can see her eyes (my God her eyes are serene) and put it behind her ears and grab her from behind the head and say something (something witty, like in the movies) and kiss her and the waiter would probably be embarrassed and he might even walk away but I wouldn’t stop and she would think that I am whole and I would have fooled her.
"I'll have one piece of pizza with everything on it."
That's exotic; I bet she's impressed by that.
The two men locked eyes. An invasive sense of anxiety overcame the waiter; there was something unspeakable about the man who sat before him: an ineffable, compelling despair. He stood at the table and imagined himself at the age he assumed the young man to be: the difference was staggering.
“What a lovely young woman,” he thought to himself. “I remember those days fondly.”
The waiter took the order and retreated to the kitchen.
“So, are you excited about college?”
Jessica initiated the first of the small-talk. They were both graduating from high school in a matter of weeks, and, incidentally, planning to attend the same college. He envisioned the next year of his life daily, and the landscape of his new existence was always accentuated by her presence. He lived for what he was about to become, but he hated what he now was; he was sure that this would somehow destroy both.
“Yes, I am. Are you?”
“Definitely!” Her ebullience was a constant reminder of his acrid persistence. “I can’t wait to get out of Dallas; it’s so dull here, there’s never anything exciting going on. College is different, you know? It’ll be so…so…”
She blushed, revealing a wry smile.
“Shut up, you know what I mean!”
“I do, and I can’t wait.” This wasn’t the first time that he had told this lie; the impending change scared him. He didn’t want to move on, and the thought of it, like a wave descending on a schooner at the height of a storm, engulfed him in disquietude. The storm was his life, the great transient maelstrom, swirling and brooding and sitting low on the horizon, promising to swallow him whole. An ineluctable terror loomed ahead, and Jay coupled his destiny with that of the ship.
Jessica had one piece of pizza left. She brought it to her mouth and bit into it.
“But do you ever wish that things would just stay the same?”
“What do you mean?” Jessica finished chewing the pizza and looked at him inquisitively. Seven-eighths of a slice left.
“Well…do you ever wish that nothing had to change? That we could remain here, continue doing what we’re doing?”
“But we’re about to…”
“I’m not happy,” he could not pause what had now overcome him, “but I’m familiar with being unhappy, and so I’m at ease. All this is about to change, Jessica. Everything. Everything we know will be taken from us.”
“I don’t understand…”
“What if the world is not round?”
“What?” The expression on her face had changed; she was still smiling, but her demeanor was no longer coquettish. She was anchored to her chair, to this experience, by morbid curiosity.
A young man approached the door to a pizza parlor. He was late.
“What if we have been lied to? If everything we have ever believed is a lie? We are leaving our homes in droves to avoid the realization that we are completely insignificant. We’re not going to college for enlightenment, we are going to keep busy. I’ve always been told that I could change the world, but it seems like everywhere I look, all I can see is the steadfast progress of infinity. If that was a lie, then what if the world is not really round? What if the world is flat and this is the end of the line? Then we are standing at the precipice of the death of our character. Then our lives are meaningless.”
He stopped himself and reeled; his vision was blurred by the dizzying effects of a euphoric haze, but the fog was lifting, and the disgusted expression on her face was the first thing he saw.
Oh God, what I have done.
Neither of them spoke for a moment; the silence was excruciating. Jessica looked to the ground, ostensibly in a state of deep concentration, but more likely not thinking of anything at all: she withheld all thought until the last remnant of what she had just heard was dispelled from her mind.
“I’m sorry.” He tried sheepishly to repudiate his words; he wasn’t sure if it would work.
Please God, give me another chance to redeem myself; if I had just one more chance I could turn it all around. All is not yet lost, but I need your help: I cannot do this on my own.
“It’s ok.” She raised her head, but she avoided making eye-contact with him. He had been given another chance.
“What are you going to major in?” He realized immediately that he should have changed the subject, but it was the first question that came to mind, and he knew that he had to say something.
“Really? Why is that?”
“Math is the only thing I’ve ever really been good at. Well, I’m not sure if it’s the only thing, but it’s the primary thing.”
“What kind of engineering?”
“I’m not sure. Anything except civil; my dad is a civil engineer, and he’s always told me that it doesn’t make enough money. What do your parents do?”
My parents are those whom I truly do not know: they are two individuals who lived entire lives that I have never seen. I know who my father is; I wonder who my father was.
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know what your parents do?”
“Well, what do you mean?”
“I’m asking you what your parents do for a living!” Her voice represented a clever balance of vexation and amusement.
“My dad is an investment banker, and my mom is a lawyer, but I don’t know what they do. They leave in the morning and live lives independent from mine; I have no clue who my parents are.”
“It sounds like they make a lot of money, though.”
“Yes, they do,” he had never considered that his parents had bartered away their own lives like antiques at a flea market, “but what’s a dollar worth when there is so much in this world that is free.”
Those mesmerizing green eyes were free; your face is the most elegant museum. Those radiant emeralds were crafted by God’s hands, they are God’s art and I would give anything to wake up to those eyes just once. Yours is the image of a siren: please wake me from this tortured slumber.
“Those aren’t free.” She diverted his attention through the window of the restaurant to an expensive sports car waiting at a traffic light. The driver of the car was middle-aged, dressed in expensive clothes, and smoking a cigarette. His fingers were pale and lithe; he gripped the base of the cigarette and held it to his lips, taking a deep, thorough drag of it. He dropped his hand to his side and leaned forward, expelling the smoke from his body through coughs, convulsing in horror at the thought of the substance he had just inhaled; or, perhaps, at the fact that his virulent habit had not yet served its purpose. The man’s eyes were shielded by dark, thick sunglasses, and he wore a full week’s beard about his face. He turned to face the restaurant; his head stopped when it met the window adjacent to their booth.
“There’s a young man with a lovely young woman. I wonder if he realizes that today is the most beautiful day of his life. I wonder if he appreciates her. I would give anything to be him right now; I would give anything to live once before I die. Who is the man in my mirror? What a wretch. I wonder if he realizes that I am dead, and that one day he will be, too.”
The man flicked the cigarette from his hand onto the ground. As his arm retreated into the safety of his hyperluxurious automotive facade, he removed the sunglasses from his face and investigated a ring on his finger: it was his wedding band. Years of aging had inflated the man’s finger beneath the golden noose, and his bloated digit was now constricted by the ring like an animal being suffocated by a snake.
“I regret everything.”
The man’s dark, listless eyes ascended to meet Jay’s. The two traded glares.
There’s a man who has seen success. God, how I would give anything to know that I would survive this, that I would evolve from my primordial anti-existence into a human who could impact something. My life thus far is completely untraceable. I can imagine his life: he has a beautiful wife who adores him and two children who idolize him. He knows true happiness. I wish I was that man.
The stoplight changed to green, and the driver of the car sped through the intersection.
“No, I suppose they’re not.”
He looked at her plate; half of a slice of pizza stood between now and forever-after-now. Forever didn’t seem very promising.
“It’s funny,” he said aloud to himself, “but I had envisioned this lunch being completely different. I don’t know why, though.”
Jessica looked up and embraced him with her eyes. Her beauty overwhelmed him like an avalanche.
“Different in what way?”
“You’re much less endearing in my head.”
“I don’t know whether to thank you or be offended.” She took a minute to think about the proposition. “Thank you.”
Do it. Say it. You’ve wasted your uneventful life; now you have a chance to do something, and you have to take it. You cannot let this opportunity pass. Tell her she is beautiful. Tell her that she has made your squalid life bearable for the past year. Tell her that her gaze is worth a million sunsets, that you cannot and would not live without it to usher you into eternity. For God’s sake, do it; do SOMETHING. You’ve wasted it all, wasted every last second. Now is your chance to actually engage someone, to have something to look back on at the end of the road, to be able to say that you did something once and my how you wouldn’t trade that moment for the world. Do it; in a moment this moment will be gone.
“You know, it took me almost an hour after I sat down to call you before I dialed your number. I was really nervous.”
“Really? You didn’t sound nervous on the phone. You don’t seem nervous now.”
“It’s a strange thing, that phone call. I had been considering what to say to you, and suddenly, without any sort of thought, I just let go. I picked up the phone and called you. I’ve never done anything like that before.”
“You’ve never called a girl before?”
“No, I have.” He paused for a moment and assessed the abrupt depravity of what had to come next: “But they’ve never said yes before.”
She gently pushed her plate away from her: three-eighths of a reprieve from an invincible Siberian winter discarded by a slight of her wrist. He couldn’t stop now.
“You see, ever since I can remember, I’ve wished that I was never born. I don’t know if that makes sense; I don’t know if anyone else could understand the way I feel from just hearing me describe it. You have to feel my life to know my life. You have absolutely no idea who I am. Everything you’ve assumed about me is a misconception extrapolated from totally meaningless, superficial things; the clothes I wear, the car I drive, the friends I have. The truth is, I am totally lost, and I live my life waiting to die.”
A raindrop hit the window beside them. Thick, dark clouds had congregated overhead, and the street, which had moments before surged with the activity of an indefatigable human machine, was now bereft of pedestrians. Her face was flushed. Outside, the skyline of a previously picturesque spring day was marred by clouds like great shadows of inevitability, but inside, within him, the climate was tinged by the bitter freeze of an inescapable winter. Her cheeks had become red and swollen. A tear began its treacherous descent down her face.
“Why are you telling me these things?”
“Because you’re the first person I don’t want to lie to.” Her eyes were distorted by tears. He had destroyed the most graceful objects he had ever known. “I love you.”
She collapsed into a fit of sobbing. A strange tranquility swept over him: in this moment of total crisis, he was at ease.
“Jay, I have to leave.” She stood and started to walk away. A few feet from the booth, she turned and faced him: “please, get help.” With that, she turned and left the restaurant.
The waiter looked up from a sink where he had been washing his hands; through a window in the kitchen, he saw the young woman distancing herself from an indescribable terror. Her pace was brisk as she crossed the street, and she stopped to collect herself once she reached the sidewalk. She sobbed in pronounced thrusts.
“What a sight.” He sighed an acrimonious testament to a foregone conclusion: “that man is broken.” He was distracted from the woman by a plate being set before him; it was the man’s pizza. From the corner of his eye he saw the woman step onto a bus; he took the plate of pizza and started for the dining area. The swinging Dutch doors oscillated wildly from his passage as a weather vain greets a tentative downpour.
The waiter walked slowly to the man, who sulked low within his seat and cradled his chin with his right hand. His eyes were fixed blankly on the window; he had no reaction to the plate being set before him.
“Here is your pizza: one slice with everything on it.”
He turned to face the waiter, but he retracted his salutation after only a brief moment. The waiter almost left the table, but something about the situation he’d witnessed intrigued him: he was compelled to stay, to seize closure of the story he had watched unfold. He had to discover what inside the young man had caused him to repel beauty.
“She is a lovely young woman. What’s her name?”
The young man once again turned to face the waiter; his languid posture recited the misery of a thousand encounters gone awry.
“Her name was Jessica.”
The two faced each other for a moment. The waiter’s gambit had uncovered the graveyard of countless shattered men; these men bore the burdens of assassinated dreams.
“Why did she go?”
“I don’t know.” The young man considered the question for a moment. “The reason she left is irrelevant, though; nothing could have changed the way this ended. I’d be content simply in knowing why she came in the first place.”
“Do you believe in fate?”
“Is this your fate?”
He turned again to face the window. The black sky growled and spat upon the beleaguered urban plane. Across the street, a dog huddled beneath the overhang of a building for shelter. He placed an assortment of bills on the table and got up from his seat. As he approached the door, he heard the waiter take the money and walk back into the kitchen. He left the restaurant; the stern rain stung his skin like needles.