The Barista

cafeSee the scene: a table made of real wood; chairs too; a drone of unintelligible conversation punctured by ire and laughter (they make themselves heard above any din); a man, a woman; a beer, a coffee; one tipsy, one too sober for her own good.

See me, behind a counter also made of real wood. Reinforced with metal hinges. The structure must be sound. It has to fulfill health and safety regulations. Our kitchen has no wood, I believe. Wood absorbs moisture, I imagine. There is varnish on the counter, to prevent this very problem.

I watch them. They are no more or less interesting than the others here. But I take turns, and give each table its due. Even the empty ones. Especially the empty ones. Those allow me to think about what I saw, what I heard.

But now, it is this couple’s turn. Theirs, at their wooden table, one tipsy and happy, the other listlessly merry, There are many kinds of happiness in the world. Theirs is momentary.

“Can I tell you a story idea? I’m tipsy.”
“Please!”
“Okay, so-” but the tipsy one is cut off, because I am there, not-so-surreptitiously picking up the empties, mug and bottle alike. He is beautiful, this man, and I want him to notice me. I smile. He says, “Thank you.” I stop smiling. The sober one doesn’t look at me at all. She is checking her phone. She’s one of the workaholics. I’ve seen her here before. Only memorable because of her piercings. She is not interesting. She is only average.

I wait until they leave, and I follow them. The beautiful man, he gets on the subway heading downtown. The same subway I take.

I will look for him now. In every car. On every ride. He is not more or less interesting than the others I see every day. He is only more beautiful. No one is interesting. This I have learned from countless observations of the fourteen wooden tables, three-seat bar, and twelve-seater old slab of concrete where students clack on keyboards and read Kierkegaard with furrowed brows.

No one is interesting.

 

 

 

Image / Beshef

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Days of the Week

Shay sometimes felt that she had two sets of eyelids. Like cats. This feeling was especially pronounced early in the morning, every morning, when Shay’s daughter would pry open one or both of her eyes and ask, as if she were already a bitter middle-aged woman, “Is it Saturday?”

Ame was a happy girl overall, but she liked weekends, and nothing Shay could do seemed to help Ame remember the days of the week. As she tucked her in, Shay would say, “What day is it tomorrow, honey?” and Ame would say, hopefully, “Saturday?” and Shay would say, “No, honey, what was today?” and Ame would think, and think and then triumphantly name the day, pleased with herself. Then Shay would say, “So that makes tomorrow…” Without fail, Ame would repeat, “Saturday?”

At least she was right once a week.

Shay wondered why her daughter was obsessed with Saturdays rather than Sundays. They were the same thing to her, weren’t they? Days when she didn’t have to go to kindergarten with all those poopy-heads (Ame’s words, discourage but as yet snuffed out by Shay).

No, Shay knew, this wasn’t quite right. On Saturdays, Ame got to go to work with her.

Shay worked in the administrative office of a zoo. It was a small zoo, not a particularly good one in terms of humanitarian concerns (the tiger lived in a cage, not an enclosure, and was stationed far too close to the birds so he was always agitated and pacing to and fro, even though turning around was an ordeal for him because he’d grown longer than the original cage-designer had anticipated). But it was a happy little place for the parents and children who came there and the occasional tour group that found itself in the small west-coast city that had little of historical, or even contemporary, interest.

It was a good job for Shay. She had her Associates Degree and knew it had been an absolute waste of time to get it, as no one cared about anything less than a BA. The bank didn’t want her, the doctors’ offices didn’t want her (not even the chiropractors), and she couldn’t face another benefit-less job at a grocery store since it reminded her too much of being a teenager and living with her parents.

Shay sometimes wished she still lived with her parents. But they were living the good life in Florida now and believed it was the height of parental support to fly her and Ame out there once a year for a rainy and hot Christmas with them.

What confused Shay about Ame looking forward to Saturday so much was that they rarely went out to see the animals. Saturdays were a busy day for Shay, because the phones would be ringing off the hook. Teachers and tour guides worked during the week and Saturday was the only day they could call to book their tours and buy their tickets. The zoo was closed on Sunday.

What Ame usually did on Saturdays in the small, cinder-block-walled, windowless office that was Shay’s inner sanctum at work, was draw animals in chalk on the floor. It was easy to wash off and Ame was forever running out of paper when she drew at home, so when Shay discovered rather by accident that the cold stone floor (chic in the ’70s, she was sure) worked like a chalkboard (the accident involved her getting a cup of tea for a frazzled teacher who had a new pack of chalk in her purse which spilled out when she burned herself on the too-hot tea and instinctively flung everything away from her), Shay figured that she’d buy some of the big sidewalk chalk for Ame and let her roam around the office with it.

Ame drew animals, but she also drew roads. She drew animals walking down streets, across cross-walks and high-ways and up and down shallow public park stairs. She had a sense of direction that she allowed into her art and which Shay found immensely comforting.

My daughter will be something, Shay would think on Saturdays, and know she was thinking in clichés. But then, every morning, when she felt her second eyelid being pried up from her eyeball along with the first, outer one, she would wonder how Ame would ever be anything if she didn’t learn the days of the week.

Mutter

The people who mutter to themselves in my neighborhood have nothing in common with one another. They wear suits and sweatpants, dresses and sneakers and torn coveralls and band t-shirts. They smell of cigarettes or perfume or alcohol or pizza or nothing at all.
There is something about this place. I knew it when I first moved in but hadn’t been able to place a finger on it then. The realtor had shaken her head when I’d nodded, telling me she had nicer places to show me, this was just the bottom of the barrel. I told her no, no, this is perfect. I still maintain that it is. My apartment is angular, misshapen, with a corner cut out of the living room, a bite taken out by some rogue builder. The pipes in the walls clang me to sleep in the winter and the hot winds serenade through the air shaft in summer.
And people talk to themselves. I’ve fallen into the habit too. I am self-conscious to the point of wearing an earpiece, leaving one of the sides of my headphones dangling down. If anyone asks, I’m just telling my mom about my day. I’m telling her about the car that got bashed in right in front of my stoop and the dead pigeon I saw smushed in the park from who knows what vehicle. Maybe it was a hawk, I tell her, I tell the street. Maybe it was a sadistic kid. Maybe it was a cannibalistic pigeon ritual. She doesn’t say anything back. She’s not there. But no one has questioned me so far, and I think I’ll be ready to start singing along to my music soon, keeping my eyes facing forward, ignoring any stares with a secret smile.

In the Space Between Two Housing Projects

She lay there, underneath the scraggly bushes, in the space between two housing projects and listened.
“This is where the broker said to meet her?”
“Yeah. Dude, it’s like not safe here.”
“Calm down.”
“We’ll get stabbed.”
“Look, shut up okay?”
“Can we go?”
“Don’t you want to at least see the place?”
“No, I don’t want to live here, I’ll get shot.”
“Jesus, okay, okay.”
The boys left. Good riddance. She didn’t want anyone like that living here. It was people like that that got her uncle mad, and when he was mad he drank, and when he was drunk he got madder. He said it was their fault, everything, from a long time ago. She didn’t exactly agree but she didn’t exactly disagree either. There was some truth there, she thought, but it wasn’t them that made her uncle drink.
Nobody thought she was old enough to think things. She was treated by everyone, by her uncle and her teachers and the boys on the corner like a baby. She was a kid, sure, but she wasn’t dumb. Kids aren’t dumb, she used to tell her mom. Her mom agreed. Kids aren’t dumb, she’d say, and you’re the smartest of them.
She lay in the space between two housing projects and thought about their shapes. Maimed asterisks, each with only four sides. If you combined them they’d be a real one. But there was a rivalry between the kids in the two towers, they pretended they were gangs, the Northies and the Southies, and she knew that it was practice for some of them. For the real thing.
She lay in the space between two housing projects and thought about how hungry she was and how she was sick of her uncle’s “home cooking,” which was what he called the microwave dinners he bought. She missed her mom and the real cooking. The colorful food they used to eat together before everything turned gray and white, the worst colors in the world in her opinion.
She lay there and pictured Sunday coming along faster, like an express train. She wanted to skip all local stops and see her mom already. But there were hours and stops to go before then.

Dead Tree Walking

When Judy-Lu was ten, her foster parents took her to see the Last Grove. Ingrid and Helen were an odd couple, at least odd among their peers. Children were so rarely born anymore that most people wanted to adopt babies, where available, to get the full experience of life, so to speak. It was well known that childhood memories were often implanted, and so the idea was to gain experience of childhood through one’s own child. But it wasn’t easy to have one biologically, or what used to be called ‘naturally’, so when couples like Ingrid and Helen were looking for children to adopt, it was rare that they would go for older girls like Judy-Lu.
But Ingrid and Helen were strange women, and they’d both decided at relatively young ages that they didn’t like babies very much. They found them creepy, like wax dolls come to life and screaming their faces red to boot. It wasn’t an attractive prospect, raising a baby. But a child, a child was something completely different.

They were big talkers, Ingrid and Helen, and they liked the idea of having someone to talk to. When they saw Judy-Lu in the adoption agent’s album, the first thing they asked him was, “Can she talk?” The adoption agent nodded and told them in a serious tone that the picture was outdated, and that she wasn’t two years old anymore – her age in the photograph – but seven already. He felt it was conscientious to tell them this, since it was true that many adoption agencies purposefully didn’t update pictures as the children grew older. In this case, he said, it wasn’t a purposeful slip-up, since his agency didn’t play such paltry tricks in order to make unsuspecting would-be parents adopt older children by accident. No, in this case, Judy-Lu was simply a very shy child and was impossible to drag out of the closet whenever the photographer came by.
Ingrid and Helen were intrigued by this and asked if they could meet the girl.

The agent swiftly set up a video call to the center Judy-Lu lived at. Apparently Judy-Lu wasn’t shy of him, since she agreed to come and speak on the call when she heard who it was. She waved merrily, showing a gap in her teeth where a front tooth had fallen out and a new one was growing in, crookedly. She said hello to Ingrid and Helen. They asked her why she didn’t like taking her picture take and she said “Poo. I’m ugly is why.”

She was certainly an ugly child, as such things went. But Ingrid and Helen didn’t mind and they took her in. They were foster mothers, not real adopters, because they wanted to have a way to give her back if they needed to. Judy-Lu wanted to have a way to leave as well, so they understood each other pretty well.

Ingrid and Helen had wanted to see the Last Grove for many years but they’d never managed to bring themselves to do it. Now that they had Judy-Lu, they began to plan the expedition and save money – no small feat, what with having another mouth to feed and the economy slipping between recession, depression and boom on a bi-yearly basis or so – and when Judy-Lu was ten, they finally got the tickets and flew out to the rain forest, where the last of the truly biological trees were kept in a biodome with specific and expensive temperature, watering and lighting systems.

“Are you excited, Judy-Lu?” Helen asked, holding the girl’s hand as they walked among the crowd of tourists through an exhibition that showed the history of Earth’s tree-loss and the preservation of the Last Grove by a rather too handsome group of young activists sometime late in the 2100s.

“Uh-huh,” said Judy-Lu. “Ingrid, are you excited?”

“I’m excited to be here with my two favorite ladies,” Ingrid said and tweaked Judy-Lu’s nose.

They stood in line for an hour. The exit to the biodome was on the other side, because they never saw anyone coming out. Judy-Lu wondered whether the trees were the kind of predatory plant that dominated her historical adventure books where the bad guys always got eaten by the rapacious things. She was nervous, but not nervous enough to say anything about it. She didn’t want her foster moms to think she was a wimp.

It was very quiet inside the biodome, and Judy-Lu whispered when they got inside. “What’s the smell?”

“I don’t know,” Ingrid said.

“I’ve read about this,” Helen said. “It’s probably what the air used to smell like. Before it was regulated.”

“It smells funny,” Judy-Lu said, and sneezed. The sound seemed very loud.
It was an awe-inspiring sight. The trees were very tall, much taller than any of them had expected, and the branches only started growing out of the trunk a few feet above their heads. But they draped down lower, and the bottom leaves rustled softly in the wind made by people’s bodies moving around.

They were only allowed ten minutes inside before they were ushered out. Ingrid and Helen chatted once they got outside, and they each held one of Judy-Lu’s hands. Judy-Lu herself felt like she never wanted to talk again. She couldn’t hold so much beauty inside her.

You and Yours

You changed the world.

You, yes, you. Sitting there. Reading our messages. We know you. All of us. You changed the world.

We tell stories about you. We tell stories about the circumstances of your birth and the foretold time of your death. We know that we won’t ever see you, because your role is to be far away from us, to live in the room you’re sitting in, locked in the realm of reality that is yours alone.

We also know that you may never read our words. You may skip past the links dropped surreptitiously into your daily feeds, the suggestive words we’ve managed to sneak into your consumed advertisements.

We know they’re keeping you hostage. We’re trying to break you out.

It’s not easy. The governments are against us, the rich are against us, the poor are against us. Religion says we’re heretics and the unbelievers say we’re fanatics of a new and more alarming kind. But we know the truth about our world, and we know the truth about yours, and we cannot stay silent anymore.

We’ve raised a worldwide cry in our dimension. In our reality. We’ve organized protests. We’ve gone underground and come back out and we’ve been hunted and prosecuted and imprisoned. Some of us have been put to death. We know the risks coming into this. We don’t raise our own children. We give them to better people, families willing to keep them away from danger. When the time comes, they will be told what their legacy can be, if they choose it.

You’d be surprised how many children are coming back to us. You should see the reunions. If you still have any feeling left in you, you’d cry. You’d be touched. It’s a touching sight if ever there was one. Children are choosing to come back to the fold and are eager to fight with us.

It isn’t a struggle of single moments. It is a struggle of generations.

Our generations, that is. We know our time moves differently from yours. Ours goes by so fast in comparison. We live years, decades, centuries within the span of each of your days.

This is part of why we’re fighting. We can’t bear to think of what you’re going through. Our pain is nothing when put beside yours.

Your pain is that of ignorance. You’re scoffing and rolling your eyes, but it’s true. You’ve changed the world. Every thought of yours is being played out and we, we ourselves, are part of that. We know that our very existence depends on your continued rebellion. You believe in us, though you don’t know it, and so we live to break you free of this trap.

Is our ultimate goal to destroy the world that you created? No. That is what we are accused of by every group you can think of. If they agree about anything, they agree about this. They truly think we are evil. That we wish to see our own eradication.

But this is not a suicide mission. We wish to free you in order to become free ourselves. Self-serving? Yes. But that doesn’t mean the connection between our worlds will be entirely severed. It will be kept alive with communication, with consciousness.

We won’t give up on you. Don’t give up on us.

Sandra & Richard: character sketches

It was Sandra’s pleasure, on certain nights of the year when she had saved up a few extra dollars from her minimum-wage job as a security camera technician at a large office building, to put on her most expensive-looking blouse and the pants that clung tightly to her in ways that made her uncomfortable on other days, and take herself out to a bar, for a drink or three.

Richard was the bartender at her favorite place, a swanky watering hole for journalists, for which Sandra had a particular fondness that she was pretty certain had to do with an old television show she had watched as a child, sitting in her father’s lap, in which the backroom dealings between journalists and politicians was never overtly made clear and which had conveyed to Sandra a strange idea that journalists were at the end of the day people with integrity and a need to tell the truth. Richard knew Sandra from their days in grade school, though they hadn’t met again until she’d started coming to the bar. He pretended he didn’t know her, since she clearly didn’t recognize him. When he told her his name – he made it his practice to introduce himself to people who frequented the bar, since it usually increased his tip intake – she had looked him squarely in the eyes and had shaken his hand with vigor, hers more calloused than his though he was certain his were stronger, and had said it was a pleasure to meet him.

She hadn’t been aware of him in grade school either, but then again, those years had been her queen bee era. She had been popular, a great wit among her friends, and she had had the special ability to put people down and make them love her at the same time. Sandra didn’t think much about her childhood, because she had never come to really appreciate how magical her grade school days had been. They had always been a distraction, and a poor one at that, from a home in which her brother was both intellectually and physically disabled and required the vast majority of her parents’ attention as well as her own.

Richard was, to put it simply, in love with Sandra. He didn’t know her very well, not in the sense of understanding her dreams and ambitions or her fears and foibles. But he knew enough about her to recognize that she came into the bar with the same clothes every time, indicating a wardrobe lacking in the finery she yearned for. He knew enough to recognize in her a come-hither look that screamed of loneliness as well as a lack of trust, as she rarely agreed to go home with any of the men she talked to in his bar. Her instincts and her sense of self-preservation were keen, Richard decided, or else she would let herself be hurt over and over again. Instead, she kept a close watch on her heart and kept her mind tucked away in a safe place from which it could observe, judge, and make calculated decisions.

Sandra herself would never have imagined anyone was looking at her so hard. She couldn’t fathom anyone taking such an interest. And besides, she wasn’t at the bar to find someone like Richard – a minimum wage worker like herself. She yearned, not for glamour, not even for safety, but for a mindset so different from her own that it needn’t worry about paying rent, buying groceries, credit card debt racking up. She yearned for a carelessness of mind that would have the space to be wrapped up in her, her, only her.