I’m gonna need a bath when I get back home. But I don’t mind.”
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“Yeah? You like to take baths buddy?”
‘Yep. I feel just like my tongue does with a mouthful of apple juice. The whole thing covered up. Sometimes I hold a mouthful as long as I can. My cheeks get big, My Mom says I look like a fish. My tongue is so happy I almost feel like laughing, but I hold it so I don’t spit the juice out.”
The pile of dark moist earth gradually took shape as the boy smoothed its sides and balled up his lemon sized fist to pound the flat top. “We can live in it mister.”
“You better make it a lot bigger than that buddy, if you want us to live in there.”
“No mister, this is just the top, the rest is all underneath. It goes deep enough for us to run and play all right under here.” He pointed his finger and touched the surface as he stared at Peter, wide eyed, convinced of himself.
“What about the bugs?”
“They can come too, I like bugs a lot.”
“Hey pal. It’s time to go home.”
‘That’s my Mom. I gotta go mister.” He ran quickly, then stopped, and turned, panting, “are you my friend?”
“Well, if friends build dirt houses together, than I think we’re friends.”
“OK, great, I thought you were my friend. Bye.”
The park was bustling and coffee made Peter giddy, laughing to himself at the innocent boys imagination. He stood up slowly from the wooden park bench, his knee joints cracked; he’d been sitting for nearly an hour. As he made it to the back door of the restaurant, he felt his body change and tighten, a quick transformation initiated by the smell of the kitchen, the sound of several people tasking at once. Knives chopping, sink water rushing into deep steam filled basins, steam mixing with humid pungent exhales from bubbling pots of fish stew. Quick greetings, nods, mumbled hellos to faces he’d greeted nearly everyday at this time. These faces moved the same way at the same time like human tides making up his pulsing habitat.
“I’ll take a bottle of your best cabernet, keep it behind the bar, I’ll drink it by the glass, what I don’t finish is yours. A glass of ice water, and keep the empty rocks glass where it is on the bar beside me, I like the privacy. Thank you, Peter.” As soon as the words left his mouth, the man unfolded his paper and began pouring over a column of very small printed text. As he walked back to the other end of the bar, Peter realized he hadn’t given his name. The stranger was observant despite his disinterested facade. As the hours passed, he sipped his wine methodically between articles of the thick folded grayish paper. Other patrons filled in the seats further down near the door, but avoided the stoic well dressed man and the seat beside him, the empty cocktail glass serving as a buffer from loud drunks and cigarette smoke.
Peter toweled the mahogany surface’s perpetual shine mindlessly as he did countless times each shift, and meandered back toward the espresso machine to polish metal surfaces in need only of relief from his relentless obsessive shining.
“They seem to need you to look busy, to make it all seem legitimate.” The frank tone and the break in his silence of two hours unsettled Peter. “Sir?”
“You know as well as I do, that machine needs no more polishing than I need more wine, but you must move in some direction, spill to clean up, one action necessitating the other just to arrive back where you started, valid only in that time has now been consumed.”
“Sir, that’s an interesting take on things, can I get you,” He stopped, realizing the ridiculousness of his habitual routine. “You’re right, but it serves a purpose, as humiliating as it tends to be sometimes.”
That’s quite a book, another solution to the problem of too much time?” Under the espresso machine, below the counter behind the bar, Peter’s book lay open.
“It was recommended to me by a customer.”
“You seem just past the middle. Still interesting?”
“More or less, it is tough to stay interested in something that long. What brings you to town sir?”
Peter second guessed his question as though he had opened himself up to scrutiny by playing such an obvious role that disrupted the informal tone of their conversation.
He jumped at the chance to regain the man’s respect, “They tell us back here to avoid politics and religion when fraternizing with the guests.”
The acknowledgement of his intended restriction and its futility earned a smile and glare of approval, like a father’s beam, watching his son strike a hammer solidly against wood, nothing but a dark circle remaining of the nail that had just trembled, pinched in young fingers.
“You know Peter,” the man began, his head slightly wavering, searching his dry, purplish lips for the right word. “We walk around, each in our own world, with sharp edges, soggy ground. Store windows cage in, like animals, bright things aching to escape and become part of our collections. You stand behind this bar, not to pour me a drink or shine countertops, but to achieve ambiguous things.” He hesitated, and responded to his own words as though his ideas were as surprising to his own ears as they were to Peter, apathetically leaning against the bar. “Ahh, maybe tangible things, a new car, your rent, but each of those things that keep you here, captive, have meaning beyond chrome shine and a new car smell, something that justifies all this.” With a look around the bar, scanning the animated faces of a couple seated near the door, he sipped his glass and began again. “Well Peter, these aren’t accusations, just observations from an old man. My point, my point is, Peter, you want something vague or specific, beyond the satisfaction of pouring other people’s wine. Perhaps you’ve fallen in love and you share ambiguous dreams that make it worthwhile, but, dear boy, the secret to love is ambiguity. Specificity will make you feel alone just as you succeed in getting closer. The more you learn about her and yourself, you’ll realize that you don’t share the same future; you don’t even agree on the meaning of love. To her it’s a Patsy Cline song, to you, a look your mother gave your father on your fifth birthday. Whatever it is, it’s yours alone.” He stopped to breathe in deep, and seemed lightheaded. “We wander alone in worlds of our own creation and find only conflict when we try to join others.”
His eyes gently shut and stayed closed for a few seconds as he emptied his fourth glass. Without looking up to meet Peter’s face, he pulled out a leather clip with crisp bills and a multicolored stack of plastic cards. Peter fumbled with his bar towel as the man unrolled a hundred dollar bill and placed it where his glass had been. He leaned the stem forward and back staring admiringly at the viscous legs still coating the inside of the round transparent cup. “Peter, it’s been nice meeting you, keep the change and enjoy the book.”
“Sir, if you don’t mind me asking, have you ever been married?”
“Still am, happily, I’ve got seven children, one grandson. Take care Peter.”
The words the old man spoke stayed with him all morning as he boxed all the props that made the apartment his own. With it empty, his stomach hurt, nowhere even to sit, he’d felt the point of no return out of sight, “just another apartment I don’t have to clean.”
Outside by the car, Jane fidgeted with his stack of books on the back seat.
“So you’re leaving.” She kept her eyes on the laundry basket filled with his camping gear and paperbacks. She knew he’d brace his jaw tight and close his eyes as her words hit him. It was the first time she’d actually said it, though every day of the last month was punctuated with actions bursting to release what she just did with those three words. She held her neck still, pretending to tuck the basket in the back seat, wanting to witness it, to see him feel what she felt. She had no more time to leave it to him.
“I have to, come on, you know that, what am I going to do wait tables and bartend the rest of my life.”
“Well do something else, here.”
If I stay, you’re right it’ll be like this for now. We’ll have perfect lunches in restaurants we’ve never been in, and laugh when the food is terrible. We’ll stay in bed all afternoon and wander around together on our days off pretending that we aren’t thinking about anything else. But what about when we do start thinking about how long our days are and how bad our jobs are. I don’t want you to be the drug that makes me forget about how bad the world outside us is. I don’t ever want to resent you Jane.”
“I want to do more too, we are, we can do more, here. So what if it is like this, is this that bad?”
“No, no, you know I don’t think this is bad, we’ve, I’ve got to at least try to, I can’t just do this. We’re going to stay in touch. If we’re suppose to be, we will.
“We are, we are now, what needs to legitimize this for you?”
“Listen, I’m leaving tomorrow. Let’s go have a drink. I’m packed, I want to enjoy you and this place before I go.”
“I need to get my jacket and phone.”
As her front door swung shut, he leaned against the car, arms folded, chin on his forearm. He stared at the curb across the street where his car usually stayed while at her place. Here, parked to load his things that made their way into her life over the last few months, he stood looking at the bits of broken glass and dry crumpled leaves stacked sloppily right over the storm drain, against the rising edge of the sidewalk. Brown crackly leaves shoved by the wind, washed by rainwater now long gone on its disciplined pursuit of the lowest point in the city. He wondered where the water went, exactly where was the lowest point in the city? Did the rain drops that exploded on his windshield days ago there break up and roll off to join the rest and make it all the way down to some river and eventually all the way to the Pacific a few miles from here, or were they stuck in an oily drainage under the sidewalk of some seedy pub?
It hadn’t rained in two days, the sky wasn’t showing signs of it today either. He thought of how different this spot looked when he pulled in two days earlier, the day he decided definitively that he was going to leave. It was raining then. He stood in a drizzle enough to make his eyes tighten, to crinkle his face. She stood under her umbrella avoiding eye contact, refusing any stares of acceptance as she listened to him talk about what was obviously not up for debate. The concrete slab he stood on seemed distant from hers, separated by a thin line that divvied each slab into five feet rectangles. Each line separated by less space as the sidewalk ran away behind her body ringed with deflected rain drops.
“OK, where to, you pick, I don’t care.” She bounced and smiled deliberately. She could do this, change demeanor, smile now when tears seemed inevitable before she went in to get her jacket. The night began with her contrived cheerfulness. He hated contrived talks but he knew the effort was intended for him, he was leaving, he decided to disrupt things, he had to bear seeing her act out the role of happy girlfriend. Someone less familiar would easily have been fooled, she played the role well. As the evening passed, her acceptance taunted him, every smile, each feigned laugh divided him. He wasn’t sure if she was getting over him before his eyes, or projecting strength for his sake and her own pride. Close enough to touch but already closed off from him, she became an ambassador of a place he’d enjoyed but was now far from.
He had to leave, the thought of her like this, tainting his memory of what seemed effortless days before made him cold and irritated. Music in the bar washed over the sound of her voice, but she mouthed something to him. He pointed to the door and she nodded, they pressed past the crowd squeezing only deeper into noise and stumbling people.
“Hey lets go get coffee, I don’t want to go back in there. Is that alright?”
She clenched her fingers around his forearm, and leaned in to him for warmth, ‘Yeah, I’m freezing out here though, let’s go somewhere close.”
He grabbed the cold handle to the door of the café, and hesitated, they both stepped back as the door opened. A girl tumbled out oblivious to them both, plastic cup in hand steaming through the narrow slit in the cap, her voice chirping back into a small cell phone pressed close to her ear, arm seemingly conditioned to the posture, nustled on her chest like a cat burrowed on its owners lap. In her wake the lights screamed at them. “Hey lets just head back to your apartment. It seems crazy in there too.”
”It is the weekend. Fine, let’s go” Her irritation betrayed her effort all night at apathy. He could tell she was still there, and although this meant a fight was likely, he craved it, to feel her care.
“Listen, I’m not going to pine for you, I mean, don’t expect me to give a shit if we don’t stay in touch, you’re leaving and that’s it.” She tore a piece of tissue and wiped her nose, took her earrings off and sat down on the bed.
“Come on, I’m not leaving you, I’m going to do something else, it’s not as though I don’t care. You don’t have to pretend that you don’t.”
“Okay, Peter, you’re right I do care, this isn’t fair, I don’t want you to not do things that make your life more full, but I don’t understand how emotions, how this is so expendable. It’s not the smart thing, it’s not the best use of time, but what is? What is more than a silly distraction to you, what isn’t expendable to you? Don’t tell me you care, you haven’t, you never cry, you never show your vulnerability Peter, because it’s not what guys do, because it doesn’t get things done, whatever. You feel, you have to. I just hope you figure that out before you walk out on something that you regret losing.” She smeared her cheek with a closed hand strangling the wad of tissue. The tears welled in her eyes despite the angry repulsion she felt to her own exposed vulnerability.
“I’m going to go, I’ll call you tomorrow from the road. I’m sorry Jane.”
Wednesday, week one nearly, well, not quite finished. The park here was bigger, but the same, all parks were the same. Green things made to seem spontaneous. The buzz of the mower betrayed it all though, Peter thought the man should be more discreet, he should do this at night, when no children were around to realize the staged nature that made the city and its totalitarian rule over the land seem harmonious. Sitting in parks always kind of seemed strange, maybe that’s why he liked it, because it didn’t make sense. People who did it with a book or lunch seemed to have gone out of their way, to put more effort than the activity required to arrive at a location that was somehow more appropriate. It seemed such a waste of time and effort. Of course, older people, probably not working and more likely to be tired, did things like sit on park benches, but they were just resting. Young healthy busy people walking all the way from wherever they came from to sit on a bench in a park to eat or read didn’t make sense. But their must be a priority, an objective, obviously not efficiency, the pages wasted in the time it takes to get to the bench, then even more time on the walk back. The book must serve as a prop. The idea must be to appear as someone who reads for the benefit of those in the park. But who then, is in the park other than those truly passing through it and those others with props observing like minded people?
Now he sat, paper in hand, spread open, world section, names vaguely connected to ideas in his memory of radio news. The crease in the center dividing the right side horizontally, its topography like a little smooth edged mountain range had his attention more than the column it ran through. His paper now a prop. “This is why their here.” He looked down the winding concrete path to the next bench, an older man in blue dress slacks, shiny black thin laced shoes, glasses on, scanned a tightly folded section of newspaper with very small print. Peter tried not to stare as he walked passed him to the corner to wait for the river of city traffic to part. Cars lurched with too much effort for the bits of ground gained with each thrust. Cold crept through his sleeve, his arm leaned against the rounded top of a mailbox next to several boxy newspaper machines and a crisscrossed metal wire garbage can whose bag was loose, with cans and bunches of wet newspapers inside. The signal flashed and Peter walked across the street with dozens of others oblivious to one another’s faces only inches apart.
He stopped writing, letters always came out with a tone too vague or just wrong. He hated letters, but his isolation here away from her made this seem better than calling. The phone would carry her voice, and in turn his, she’d hear his loneliness, and they’d both choose artificial excitement to bear each other. Besides, writing it down would ensure that it came out the way he wanted.
I remember one of the last times I cried. I had talked to my Dad, he thought that his wife might have cancer. I don’t know her all that well, I don't dislike her, actually I kind of like her, she's always been nice, and been a cause to think that step mothers are mean is a silly idea. I wasn't really sad for her. I wasn't sad for him and his children so much either. I did feel bad for them and how intense an experience cancer would be but that wasn't what made me cry. My uncle died when I was in high school, and my grandparents had died when I was a few years younger, all three had hospital stays, nights in hospital rooms sitting holding each of their hands, wondering if the person now weakened by illness, pounds lost, eyes tired and drugged, could understand that I was here to sit; just to be with them, that although I wanted to be here now for them and for me, I would not compromise the time spent before by letting this be the lasting memory of our shared experience.
My uncle died just a year ago, we were close as well, he was the lawyer. Again I watched a loved one weaken over time and prepare for his own death with deliberate effort and acceptance. The idea of prolonged death, the roles that everyone connected plays had gotten to be an offensive ritual of contrived mourning. I knew that I would lose him, but I also knew that I had gained alot from him. It wasn't a surprise when he died, because he was sick for so long. But the constant overt mourning by my family was tough for me and my sister to take.
With my Dad, I felt something different, something so sharp I had the wind knocked out of me. In telling me he thought his wife might have cancer, he, through exhaustion and vulnerability, forgot to put effort into playing the role of asshole judgmental patronizing father. He really sounded over the phone in my driveway like he wasn't sure how things were going to turn out and answers were so far out of reach that he didn't try. He just seemed to shiver with no coat, and tell me he was cold, with the knowledge that I didn't have a coat to give him, but just the same it wasn't a waste of breath because he though I might understand cold.
The wind was out of me at the complexity of emotion of that moment. I felt compassion for him and how human he was, and anger for it taking this to relate to me as a person, and likely unintentionally, as though I had seen him clench his teeth in pain when he thought no one saw, but would insist he didn't feel anything in their presence.
Peter tucked the letter in his bag, and went to bed. Sleep came easy and the next day began just as the other four that week, his first week in his new life had, with coffee and a walk through crowds of strangers. He stopped at the same corner to watch the yellow cab cars lurch. They seemed like larger fish more knowledgeable of the current, less disheveled by pedestrians and the crumbling asphalt collapsing into oily puddles. He pulled the letter out and smelled the papery envelope. “Why does new paper smell that way?” The signal changed and he turned to the row of boxy newspaper stands, put his coins into the the one that held the small printed grayish bulk. The door slapped shut and he tossed the letter in, and watched it fall. The bag rustled as cold wind flapped his letter and the wet bunched newspapers. Peter walked to work.