Aromas of fall wafted past my nose in ribbons as I sat in my little corner of the coffee shop. The morning rush had passed and the chatter of tourists ordering coffee and pastries to fuel their walks with caffeine and sugar buzzed in the background of my thoughts. Just out of the glare of the morning sun my thoughts were strolling singularly, some hand in hand, and some felt like they were jogging backwards just to tease me. “Come on,” they beckoned, “you know you want to.”
It has always amazed me how my thoughts taunt me like friends. These inanimate, intangible, not quite objects that know me better than I know them at times. It makes no sense, but so many things don’t these days. The hot beverage choices of strangers distracted me from the remembrance of my own cooling next to me, a crumb cake pinched out of habit and not hunger. The window just up from my corner catches my eye with passersby and the natural wonder of what others are choosing to do in the sunshine. In the back of my mind it is silly to be sitting here with so much unknown taking place outside but I had work to do, deadlines to meet, bills to pay.
The spreadsheet was open the whole time with my attention closed from it. The camera and photo icon on my desktop colluded with one of my hand in hand thoughts and made me open it. I don’t recall actually moving my finger to hover over the icon but there were my albums, open and inviting me to take a tour of my memories. My brother and I at an amusement park. My parents’ anniversary dinner. The birth of my first niece. Snowmen built in the Snowpacalypse. Me in formal gowns and posing with girlfriends. Drinks in hand, confetti, pictures of people I love. Hiding in the mix were the pictures of he and I. One album that I tried to look past, look beyond, look around, pretend it wasn’t there. Again, without any recollection of moving my finger to hover the arrow over the album, it was open before me.
At first I looked at all the pictures as a whole. They were a collage of moments in our happiness. His scent, the one under the cologne, leapt off the screen stronger than all the coffee blends brewing and for a moment I thought he was there. I caught myself glancing left, where he usually planted himself, calling me his right side and his right hand. I took a deep breath and exhaled into a flashback.
A park bench with him left and me right. Ruddy brown birds landed and left, some hurried and others lingering, for cookie crumbs. Oatmeal and chocolate chip, sometimes maintaining their sticky relationship, hit the ground just in front of our feet. I said something corny like, “Promise me we’ll feed the birds in the park when we’re old,” and him promising, “For as long as you’ll have me.”
Before I could blink twice I returned to my senses, flooded by something like regret riding the wave of a ribbon of the Kenyan sort. In that moment it crossed my mind that I should have studied art instead of accounting. Emotions rang far truer than numbers. A deep shade of purple blurred by the window, catching my eye and invited a much needed mental break. I felt myself slipping but I was trying to fight it. In undergrad I learned to get up and stretch when my concentration waned so I slid out of my wooden chair and returned to the counter. My hot cider had moved closer to chilled apple juice, staring back at me with cloudy resentment. I really did try not to be wasteful. I changed lanes and decided to go iced coffee for the boost. The return to my corner was hesitant, afraid of what ghosts would be sitting across from me. I began reciting the phone number and address of my employer hoping it would put me in a business state of mind.
My seat had cooled, removing the homely feeling and helping with the conscious shift back to spreadsheets. Old school at heart, I had an actual calculator in my bag for double checking and reached for it. I needed to manipulate something other than a finger pad that had clearly plugged into me like that white dude in the Matrix. Autopilot has always been frightening for me so it was natural for me to resist it.
Deeply engrossed in checks and balances, literally, I heard an alert followed by a bubble: _____________ was online. I pretended to ignore and found myself counting the letters in his name, throwing off my accounting and forcing me to do double work. “STOP IT!” Shouted that to myself in my head, trying to shut my own voice down and thoughts of him out. I noticed I hadn’t even so much as minimized our album of photos. The arm of his houndstooth jacket peeked out on the right side of the screen and caused me to feel the jacket around me under the stars. Did the lights really go out in the coffee house? Coffee house. That’s where I was supposed to be and when I opened my eyes, it’s where I was. My sigh of relief and pointing the arrow on the red “X” happened simultaneously and left me to my numbers. I took a sip, swallowed, and exhaled deep. Another sip and cracked my knuckles. I put my feet up in the chair across from me to prevent any more ghosts from being able to sit comfortably and jumped back in.
Another alert sounded, letting me know I had received an email. I dutifully opened the screen to view my email, read and responded in the timely manner I had come to be known for. The bottom left had a litter of green lights showing which contacts were online. _____________’s name was still lit. Consciously I clicked on it, opened a chat screen. I began typing.
ME: is this thing on?
The silence that followed almost stopped my heart and made me wonder what kind of unnecessary pain I was setting myself up for. I could barely breathe as seconds stretched out into several eternities, infinity multiplying exponentially.
ME: I saw you were on and thought I’d speak.
I started to wonder if maybe the silence wasn’t a better option than this conversation chillier than my iced coffee and completely free of the buzz.
_____________: What’s up, you alright?
ME: Working and saw you were on.
_____________: You need something?
That’s when my head started to spin and I was sure I was remaking the Exorcist right there in the coffee shop.
Do I need something? I need you. I need to know that when I leave here and go home you’ll either be there or you’ll be on your way. I need to know that whatever day that was, however long ago, didn’t happen. I need to know that you didn’t let me go, that it was a nightmare and when I woke up you were still next to me. I need to know that…
And right at that moment it all made sense. We had stopped being what the other needed and years of habit kept us inactively choosing to keep waking up in the same state. Comfort is a broad in a short dress—attractive—but then you find out she’s got on too small shoes and wonder why you keep doing this painful shit over and over. Being brave enough to end a cycle takes the kind of balls that I suppose made the most sense for _____________ with his built-in testicles. There I was waiting for him to track back and make it better when he had already and I was too dense to see it.
ME: No, I don’t need anything, I’m fine.
I immediately deleted him from my contacts and got out of his way.
It’s funny how much sense those numbers started making again, the moment I stopped seeing the letters of his name all in the equation.