(a short story)
Late at night, right before morning, the air feels lonely. He forgot how to sleep so long ago. His mind does not stop. When he lays down and attempts thinking of nothing, forgotten memories rush into mind. Old decisions, forming the bridge to desolation, taunt him.
There were supposed to be more chances. That’s what he believed, anyway. When you act like someone else to protect the person inside that is fragile to the touch, that time goes away forever. And circumstances almost never repeat. New situations are different in critical ways. It never gets easy to diagnose.
Lies made to avoid immediate pain tend to create distorted realities. He has paid a hard price for learning so much. There are many types of lies. He stands up, sheets still around his ankles. He puts on sweatpants and a hooded sweatshirt. He walks out of his big, empty apartment. The well-decorated box. He closes the door behind him, does not bother locking up. He walks down the stairs toward the lobby. His footsteps echo. The railing gets repainted once every two weeks.
Sometimes he cries when there is not a real reason to cry. He feels a desert in his heart. He feels guilty about suffering when so many people have real reasons. He is lonely and that is not a crime. This may not be permanent. Why does the suffering feel so intense? Lies can come in pill form. They can be shot into your bloodstream. You can take a simple problem and make it complicated simply by not facing it. They told him that enough times and he repeats it to himself. He can deal, today. He can deal. Today he can deal, and that’s all he needs to worry about. Just today. Today, the bagel store, the manuscript. Keep it simple. Focus on the work. No! No italicized inner thoughts Gus, no, no, no!
He has not shaved for a long time. His beard is wild, the brown strands dip into the coffee he drinks from the bagel store down the block. Waitresses who used to smile at him now just looked concerned. He can’t ask women out on dates. He is inept, interacting with strangers. And there are so many people he does not know. His father was a military man, they moved often. Everywhere he went nobody let him forget the strangeness. He was always reminded. He was a freak, and he could never figure out why. Was it just because he was the new kid? Was it just because he hummed songs to himself in the back of the classroom because music settled his racing mind and otherwise he might burst into tears in front of the class?
There’s this one waitress at the bagel shop. Her name is Jennifer. She’s a beacon beam. He nods at whatever she says. She knows when he’s been up all night. When his eyes are bright and not beaten down, she notices and compliments him. If he doesn’t love her, it’s at least an approximate love.
One day he said, “hey you bought me decaf,” and he said it kind of angry. But just because the Knicks had lost the previous night and he watches all the games because they calm down his mind, so he takes it seriously. “Sorry,” she said. Jennifer had not expected that. He knew she did not expect it. Not from him, of all people. Jennifer did not deserve that. He apologized to her when she came back with his usual and promised himself never to be angry with Jennifer again. That was seven months ago. Things had gone swimmingly since, but the past few times he had been to the shop she had not been there.
They had these little tables set up in the corner that only him and these two elderly friends sat at, he remembered that day two years ago when they first put up those tables and the bagel store became his morning hangout, his haunt. He had not called his parents in awhile. They were always concerned. He’s a damn good editor. “They shouldn’t worry about me,” he thought often, “I’m a professional. I work. It’s not fair.” He would tell his mother often, “You shouldn’t worry about me, I’m a professional, I work, it’s not fair.” He even said it to Jennifer once or twice, “they shouldn’t worry about me, I’m a professional. I work. It’s not fair.”
A common mistake that most writers make is over-emphasizing description. “Read Hemingway,” he told Gus, a young novelist who he felt like should be his best friend, but one time there was an awkward silence in one of their conversations by the movie theater and he figured Gus realized he was a big weird-o, maybe even gay, and what’s a cool guy like Gus going to hang with a weird-o for? He thought there was nothing wrong with being gay, but even if he was, and he was not, being weird would make it uncomfortable for everyone. So that was that for calling Gus to rendezvous. For all he knew, Gus thought he was a weird gay. One time he told Gus, “Read Hemingway. Subtlety, Gus. You write like your trying to impress someone. You don’t need to impress me or anyone else.”
He liked staying awake for a week straight, bringing an author close to the dream of publication. The sun was coming up. The bagel shop was open. He eagerly stepped inside, heard the familiar ringing of the bells, smelled the warm bread, grabbed the New York Times, kept his head down, heard that mean kid behind the counter say, “the day’s officially begun, the beard has landed, people,” and peered up to see if Jennifer would be walking toward him, notepad in hand, taking down messages for God. And there she was, Jennifer. Smiling Jennifer.
“Hey sleepy head,” she said. “Before I get you a coffee, I got to tell you something.” His whole body froze. “I googled you, buddy,” she said. “I finally googled you. I read that you are one the best book editors in the industry. That’s what this article said.”
“What else did it say,” he asked, biting on his thumb, voice shaking.
“Oh, well, that was it, kind of, that article anyway. In so many words,” Jennifer said.
She smiled. Jennifer. “Oh, cool, cool, that’s cool, that’s cool, that’s cool,” he said. Then, he leaned forward in his seat, “Are things better with your boyfriend,” he asked, not wanting to make their morning conversation just about himself. “Yes,” Jennifer said. “Yes, thanks for asking. And thanks for that advice you gave me. I think it helped a lot. He understood. He’s going to try and be more subtle around my parents.” Jennifer nodded and walked toward the counter. He sunk back into his seat. The elderly friends walked into the shop, arguing about some old ballgame.
Google. Son of a gun… He knew he’d be on cloud nine for a long time.