Cafe Studies

café

It can be found in the girl at the cafe as she raises her oversized cup up past her eyes, the girl with a habit of cutting spirals into the skin of her thigh, seeing to herself nothing but a drain pulling her down but to her future husband something like a whirling galaxy. He’ll be surprised she hid it for so long, but she’ll say you get good at it after a while.

It’s in the crossed, jostling legs that jingle keys but not the reason for the jostling, the sarcoma that’s come back in the breast of his wife, occurring in less than 1 percent of breast cancer cases, but she’s got it.

There will be the barista hiding his trans identity from family and friends, dipping toes in water with adjusted pronouns, the liberal use of binders. Eschewing makeup, then cutting off his long locks, cringing when his family thinks it’s just a phase, one that’ll hopefully be over soon. As if he could just turn it off, delete the dysphoria, go back to being that little girl that you know his parents see, take it all back and become something that didn’t even exist back then. He knew who he was for as long as he could remember.

There’s the elderly woman whose husband fought in Korea and stayed there after the war, taking up with a woman he met and trying to pass off for dead back home, but word travels far, even from the Far East. She tore up the letters, the photos, all of it. She heard he’d just passed. They had a service back home, she was invited. His other woman didn’t go, just yesterday it was. Today she sits in this cafe, ordering a latte, wondering about memory and forgetfulness, about the undying passage of time.

There will be the man with a substance abuse problem, on parole for a DUI when he was ready to stay sober this time, wanted to, but his dealer got back in touch with him. He saw the same old people and cracked, went back to using. He’s wondering what will happen with his visitation rights after this charge, if he’ll be able to watch his boy grow up or will be shut out until he’s eighteen. And then what? Is he even considered a father at that point, or nothing more than a sperm donor? He was going to toss it all out before he was pulled over, give it all up after this one last high, but this high will cost him dearly. He’s waiting for his parole officer to come and relate his fate.

You’ll see the professor waiting for tenure, about to meet with the student he needs to discuss terms with, the professor so-called “happily married,” the student with text messages and pictures that could put him out of a job and marriage. They’ll be discussing terms of class passage, and the student doesn’t even know that he was going to give her an A before the blackmail. Now she might try for more, might collect hush money. This girl used to be the bully of the spiral-cut girl when they were much smaller than they are now, and the spiral-cut girl will consider cutting again when she gets home, replaying memories she buried deep. It was the student’s behavior that drove her to cutting in the first place, the student giving one of those false “Hi!”s now, the cringeworthy ones that are disgusting.

The professor was good friends with the soldier who went to Korea, the two of them growing up together in the cornfields of Indiana, capturing lightning bugs and making fake crop circles with tennis racquets strapped to their shoes.

The trans man will meet the substance abuser in the emergency room, both of them going to psych–the trans man for a dysphoric panic attack, the abuser for detox. They’ll chart their changes and recoveries over lunch, trading hospital food with each other and musing on the people they are, the people they want to become. The substance abuser will get the pronouns wrong at first, but after being told will get them right every time. They will trade numbers before they go.

The elderly woman will end up in the hospital shortly after the service of her once-husband, a pain in her chest that won’t go away. During the routine checkup, it will be discovered that she has cancer. She’ll become a close confidant of a certain woman with sarcoma, keeping her spirits up day after day, making it her life’s mission to cheer this woman and fight alongside her, war buddies they are, even sharing the same uniform of hospital green, bald heads to prove their solidarity.

All of these things will happen, but for now there’s nothing more than people in a cafe, sipping their lattes and trying to forget the passage of time.

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Pictures of You

You in a fever dream, sweaty, gloss-pooled to the bed like a face fighting past plastic bag. Something freeze-dried.

You marching down the stairs in my boots and hardly anything else, wearing a cowboy hat you stole from the resale shop that one time, me wondering how in the hell one successfully steals a cowboy hat.

You in a dollar store Halloween costume augmented by my makeup job that left you looking like Frank-N-Furter after he got out of the pool at the end of the movie, before Riff killed him.

You holding a camera to my face, the resolution good enough that you can see the reflection of my camera in the lens, a hinted whisper of me off to the side.

You afloat in the pool with all your clothes on, unbuttoned shirt set stiff above the water, a struggling jellyfish below, shirt tails wishing and washing in the mini undertow.

You blocking the camera with your hand, unsmiling, in a way where you can imagine my come-on laughter, my protestations or prostrations, whichever came first in the end.

You in the crack of the bathroom door, trying not to smile and doing it, caught in mid-get out, when you used to laugh at these things, these towering simplethings.

You in the bed again, not feverish but cold, you can almost see your breath rising from you, the only way of describing you here being sarcophagal.

And the last one, when you were gone but your impression remained, mountains and valleys of bed that Lilliputians could explore, wondering where to settle down but having no idea where to start.

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No Thing

I find you on the lawn, building a grassbridge across the sidewalk, one blade at a time, for the worms evicted from their homes by the late-season rain. You are wearing your camiseta bonita. English is our only language, but we have made an exception for this shirt. I smooth my hem, where a string waits to unravel me into my composite parts.

You are doing this thing on a sidewalk and a lawn that are not yours. The lawn once belonged to you, but the sidewalk never did. The city gets to keep all the sidewalks.

Your eyes are flecked with shadow and liner; your blonde roots are palimpsests on a strawberry page, the hair showing through again at the ends to stand in for seeds. You tell me you are cold, and this means I am to swaddle you in my shirt. I cross my arms against my bare chest and hope you don’t notice the unincorporated hairs you used to pluck; the stragglers. When your eyes come to mine I find the grassbridge very interesting. My shirt becomes a scarf and then a shawl and finally a shirt again. I don’t tell you you look like a child in my shirt because I don’t want to see the way your nose will scrunch up if I do.

I try to explain why I’ve come back but you tell me be shushed and you pat the sidewalk next to you and when you do loose gravel sticks to your palm like a fortune waiting to be told. It’s too bad you no longer have your gypsy shawl. We sip the silence together and you hand me one blade and then another. When I lay them down I try to graze your fingers like some cheesy movie but you are agile. You are nimble. I want to pour out what’s inside and sift through this floodwater, this standing stagnation, but you tell me be shushed and so I lay another blade down.

When you aren’t looking I put a dandelion in your hair and blow the seeds so they cling to you. This flower cannot reproduce here, but it will try.

I expect many things, but not a smile. Your teeth show for a second but you hide them behind your lips like you always do. You finger-paint grass stains onto my chest, shoulders, face. I am to be a warrior. When I ask you who I’m fighting you tell me be shushed.

A worm wiggles across the bridge we’ve made, displacing some blades and gluing others to the sidewalk with its residue. This worm has a family, but they hesitate to cross. They come from a long line of noble hesitators. You coax them with dandelion seeds and I ask where she is. Or he. They must be… (I fake mental mathematics) four years old by now. You take off my shirt and hand it to me. Your camiseta bonita comes next. Underneath there is skin that is untouched snow. You do not hide the snow. You guide my hands to the cold. You were given these mother tools but have not used them. I see this when you trace my finger down, over the scar like scorched earth challenging winter, incomplete Caesarean, and when we’re done the camiseta can stay right where it is.

The worm family starts to cross.

There are no things I can say, and I see that nothing is No Thing. You try to speak and I tell you be shushed. We speak with our fingers and make the alien like we used to, the one with ten fingers on each hand. Our song comes out and we hum the tune in the spots where the words won’t come, the places memory’s forgotten. But we remember some things. We remember the tune, and the hum, and the many-fingered alien, and the steps segueing from sidewalk to grass where our toes touch, and maybe that’s okay. Maybe that’s all right.

The worm family makes it to the other side.

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SEEN AND BELIEVED

Down the roads that are more pothole than street, past the boarded-up windows and the year-old for sale signs and the gravel swept neatly from faded old welcome mats, there are memories that come only with the arrival of their bearer.

These are sights that stop existing when they leave the field of vision, places that fill up the heart but not the mind. They need to be seen to be believed.

He came bearing a bike he would’ve stolen as a child, eyeing suspicion that he’d scoff at back in the day. You could have told past-him this, but he wouldn’t have listened. His present self, too, needed to be seen to be believed.

There was the wreck of a rec area, more weed and mud than grass and dirt. There were the monkey bars he chipped his teeth on, the playground where he got in his first fistfight.

Eyes followed as he rode past–hungry eyes, but eyes that knew they couldn’t push too hard. This was obviously someone who didn’t come here often. They had no idea.

Here was the block he once rode around with no hands, with nothing but his ass to steer the circles. Here was the net-less hoop he used to play on, that same corner of backboard that had torn off years ago after an aborted alley oop attempt.

His work’s khakis were getting frayed and wet from the loose gravel that shot up from the bike’s chain, but he didn’t mind. Here was the old block. Here were the memories.

Here was the lake he fell into after misjudging the thickness of the ice. Here was the alley he’d found the used condom in, the one he’d thought was a strange, wet balloon.

The creek that always died out before reaching the lake, and the pipe it fed into, the one he got stuck in and had to holler for help to escape from during a game of hide and seek.

And there was the old neighbor, his eyes not used to seeing this young man in khakis and dress shirt, and so not seeing the boy he used to know. The boy in torn-up jeans and hand-me-down shirts.

Here was the park where he’d first kissed her, when he’d thanked the moonless sky for covering up his blush. There’s the forest preserve where they walked and talked for hours, where he first told her he loved her.

His throat was dry and hands shaking on the handlebars, but there were some things that needed to be seen to be believed. And until he saw her, he couldn’t leave. Not now and not ever.

There was the doorstep where he’d cried for as many hours as they’d talked all those years prior, where he said someone else could take the scholarship, that he didn’t need it, and she’d insisted he couldn’t pass this up.

There’s the bus stop where he said goodbye with a “see you later,” knowing at the time that he was likely lying. But he’d make good on it now. He had to.

There was her old apartment, the numbers still nearly falling off and name still spelled wrong. He got off his bike and set it down where they’d first looked up at the stars together. He didn’t bother locking it.

To the door she’d pushed him up against all those times with rough kisses and the delicate ones to soften the blow, too.

He knocked. And he watched. And he waited. And he turned around to the bike with his khakis and his dress shirt. And he took a step toward it.

But the door’s creak stopped him. And he turned. And he saw her.

Some things need to be seen to be believed.

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BE

Stop.

Look.

Breathe for a second and realize you’re living.

Listen to the birds sing.

Feel the ice cube slide down your back as your brother runs away laughing.

Smell the freshly cut grass as you tumble end over end; ground then sky then ground again.

Feel the thump of your heart in your wrist and run in place to speed it up.

Wonder a while about what you’ll look like when you’re older.

Give a high five to someone who’s stretching.

Army crawl in the mud, your legs only pretending to be paralyzed.

Think.

Crack your ankle to the beat of the song.

Realize that you’re reading right now.

Laugh and then listen to the timbre of it, the way it carries.

Watch the clouds cut wisps before the sun.

Tie knots in laces, one on top of the other.

Do a dance for no reason at all.

Slow walk as if you’re on the moon.

Embrace.

Make your life lively.

Be.

 

WE

We are here.

We make decisions, we mend fences, we live and breathe.

We are still.

We wander in fields, we climb up trees, we eat till we’re full.

We expect things.

We feel our way around, we think of all the ways, we sit beneath the stars.

We tell stories.

We dig under the snow, we play tag on the blacktop, we think of one another.

We laugh sometimes.

We heal our wounds, we dance in the rain, we watch as the water becomes frozen.

We trade cards.

We empty out tanks, we collect all the shells, we wonder who’s out there.

We sing songs.

We run till we’re tired, we jump into puddles, we breathe in the helium.

We clap hands.

We get the chores done, we color inside the lines, we dip toes in the pool.

We hammer nails.

We fold over the pages, we drown waffles in syrup, we scratch off fake tattoos.

We smile within.

 

THE PICTURE

There was a recliner. He was on it and the TV was on and there was some game playing. Remember when he played in college? Which team was it? They had leather helmets back then, not even enough to keep you from concussing. Like the ones now were any better.

There was a recliner. Someone walked in the room and behind them was a TV. On the TV there was some game. Didn’t he play in college? Who was it for? The person stood in front of him and just wouldn’t move out of the way. The TV was on behind them.

“Hey, grandpa. Watching the game?”

The person just stood there, expecting something. There was a TV on behind them, but he couldn’t see it on account of the person. Who was the person?

“You okay, grandpa?”

“Yes, yes, fine.”

He didn’t know where the words came from. The person looked familiar, and they were smiling, so it couldn’t be all bad. The TV was on. There was a game or something playing on it. What was it again? Football. It was a football game.

“You know what today is?”

The person was looking at him now, giving that facial cue that meant that they were expecting an answer or something. Did they ask him something? Why was he on the recliner? There was a game on the TV.

“Grandma’s birthday. She would’ve been ninety-three today.”

Birthday. Candles on a cake and some wish that you had to close your eyes for and really focus on. Don’t spit when you blow them out. Ten candles on the cake, yellow. Good frosting. Stack of presents in the corner, people all smiling. All happy.

That person was looking at him again. What was it? Was it about the TV and the game? He leaned back in the recliner and scratched the stubble on his chin.

“I fished this one out of storage. Thought you’d like it.”

The person held something out. Silver frame, reflection in it. Distorted old face in the reflection, eyes lost and far away. Gray stubble on the chin, hair disheveled but distinguished still. Got a real shape to it.

Between the frame, in the center of it. A picture. A dream.

She was beautiful then, beautiful till the day she died. The wife. His wife. He had wedded her and she was his wife. Her name was Jean Marie and she became his woman then. Her golden locks and that smile that made his heart get funny. She was funny and he was too. They had each other.

He held that picture in his hand. There was the recliner and the TV and the game, but they didn’t matter. He had the picture. His Jean Marie.

He looked up. His grandson was there, looking at him. Not just a person, his grandson. His grandson brought him the picture of his Jean Marie, and he was happy. Thankful.

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