Costa Mesa Cafe

    I wasn’t sure if she was familiar because I knew her from somewhere, or familiar because she had that look that reminded me of when I’d lived here. Reminded me of the brunettes in the land of the blond.

    Her summer dress was flattering in the way it showed her curves but avoided ostentatiousness. The woman who met her with a chaste hug seemed to be an old friend. The conversation was quiet enough that I could only catch bits and pieces. Obviously they had known one another years ago, maybe school.

    It didn’t take long for subtext to arise. She had a wife, but her romantic notions hadn’t been met by the real world experiences. The post-school years in Europe led not to a country lifestyle, but to a nominally appreciated corporate job. Words like sustainability and inclusion don’t mean as much when the checks have a conglomerate logo on them. Her tablemate smiled sweetly. 

    The reminiscence shone in her eyes. The sky outside was cloudy, but the blinds were down in anticipation of the typical eastern sun. I wondered how her eyes would have looked in the sun.


    When I thought of Victoria, I thought of high school sweethearts and missed opportunity. She had been not only kind and thoughtful, but smart and sexy in a way that was effortless. She may have been generous enough to survive my emotional wreckage if I had been strong enough to be honest. Instead of telling her that I needed time to figure out who I was and whether I needed something that I didn’t know how to find, I could have told her that I didn’t know how to avoid recreating the wreckage of my childhood. I could have told her that I was lost and confused and that I had no understanding of how to show love to a human being that had needs distinct from mine.

    I had told her things that I had never told anyone, admitting faults that I had barely acknowledged to myself. I had told the stories to push her away, as though my self-hatred could create pity in someone else. It only brought us closer in a way I couldn’t understand at the time. Intimacy in my family had come with sarcasm and unspoken betrayal. Intimacy with Victoria had been earned. I broke both our hearts.

 

    Her tablemate actually reminded me more of Victoria. Straight chestnut brown hair that demonstrated more burgundy in the sun. An easy smile of bright white through plump pink lips. Lean legs and friendly curves, and a slight limp that brought memories of the elegant scars that Victoria had across her left leg from a childhood dog attack. Her lilting inflection so that I could hear her smiles, even though I couldn’t see them. Her economy of words, allowing every syllable to build the conversation, to help it grow, like interconnected logs of a cabin, somehow more impossibly straight and sturdy together than the individual pieces could ever be.


    I had failed at finding love and instead found marriage. A dozen years of relationship is a victory, but it had imploded and exploded simultaneously, blowing up quickly and painfully on me, and burning inside her for years after. I was stubborn and insistent, but I at least knew to toss my cards once the other players had left the table. She kept them crumpled in her hand until the lights went out. And yet, here I was, twenty years later, wondering what Victoria was doing.

    That may have been why this woman a few tables over was familiar. Not for the hair color, but because she had that same grace in her eyes. The same smart fire that couldn’t hide her emotional intelligence even while she was speaking about education and history and the expanse of personal dreams in a global world.

    Victoria had provided me with so much, I wondered if she ever got anything in return. I had cared for her, provided affection and the behaviors of love, spoken in the only language I knew, kind gifts and brutal honesty, clear commitment and confused self-pity. We had provided one another with clumsy sexual awakening and tentative experiences. Even now, many lovers later, hers was the skin that I thought of. Hers was the ideal thigh that would could picture between the spread fingers of my grasp. Hers was the breast with the dark freckle that I would think of sliding my tongue over. Hers was the silky body hair tickling my nose. The earlobe under my teeth. The leg intertwined with mine on a cool night. The slick, neutral taste of her tongue. The gentle scent of her sweat in bed. Even now, decades later, I can feel her in my arms.

    This reminiscence is my undoing. It prevents me from overlooking the upturned nose of the woman in the summer dress. The nasal drawl of her tablemate. The gap of the server’s teeth, to much like my hated own. The slumped posture of the young woman eating with her dad. I create reasons why each of the women in my life, each of the failed romances and clumsy second dates end because they fail in comparison to a romantic ideal that memory has created. It sits, not in gauzy recollection, but in clear-eyed, picture perfect recall. But it is only that, a picture. Not a real world, only a two-dimensional shutter click. A perfect moment in time that fails to acknowledge the decay that would accrue, and the beauty that it can bring.

Annie and John [1500 Words]

1.

    Annie told him it was over. The weight of the words could be seen on his shoulders.  They sunk in, slowly, until he shriveled. His face melted in disbelief.  His jowls and brow fell, and his ears turned red as though stung. He sat back on the couch, turning away from her and stared through the blank black screen of the television.

    She stayed silent for a minute. She wanted to talk, the silence was so uncomfortable. It was a full minute later before she whispered, “John?”

    He exhaled. A sound, not a sigh, not a groan, but a tiny death rattle, guttural and weak.

    “Why?” 

    She paused. 

    “I just…know. I just — know that it’s not — going where we need to — go. I know you don’t feel the same way.”

    “Of course I don’t.  I picked out a… how could…“

    “That’s what I mean— I know you don’t feel the same way. I just couldn’t stop it— I didn’t know how.”

    “But…why? What’s…why?”

    “I just know. I know it’s not going to work for me. I’m too young, I’m not done with school, I still live with my parents— I just— there’s too many things. You’re 30 now, you’re an Atheist, you’re still in the same apartment, the same job.”

    “Wait— what? All those things were the same a year ago. My age, my religion, you living with your parents, my house, my job, it’s all the same.  Why now?  What changed?”

    “That’s — I mean — I did. I changed.”

 

2.

    As John walked to his car, he felt his shoulders continue to shrink.  His shirtsleeves felt heavy.  His steps slowed. The night was quiet. The walk to the car took hours; he was standing its door, staring at nothing. He put the key in his pocket and kept walking past.

    The night was cool. Cool nights were rare, and the night was dark enough that the bugs were gone. The moon was only a sliver. His steps were slow and light; as his body fell into itself its lightness allowed him to levitate. He was floating, free from anchor, weighted by nothing, the atoms spinning and bouncing bouncing so fast that he moved like a spectre.

    He felt a buzz in his pocket and his head snapped.  His left hand twitched and he unclenched his fists. He grabbed his phone and looked at the screen. A message from his brother. He clicked the phone dark and put it back.  He looked up and around to see how far he had walked. The trees were denser and the lots were larger, the houses set back just a bit more and looking so dark and far away.  It was only 10:30, but on a winter night, it felt like light had disappeared a day ago. 

    The houses were all ranch houses, wide and flat fronts that smiled at passerby.  Most of the windows were dark, save for the occasional single bulb behind closed curtains.  John’s gaze floated from window to window, dark to light to dark. Occasionally a bay window would offer a painting of the room inside, lit from some other source, a hallway or kitchen light, and the shapes of the room would tell a story.  Long lampshades were spectators to the grappling match between silhouettes made by couches and tables.  A wall of photos enshrouded by darkness but enshrined by a halo of secondary light.  The drama and comedy that these scenes offered was not lost on him.  He saw all the endings to all the stories at once: openings and embraces, estrangements and deaths.

    He walked on.

 

3.

    When he first saw them through the window they appeared to be still, but their body language told him they were locked in a battle.  Three paces apart and entirely focused on one another.  When John joined the story her arms were straight out and 20 degrees from her body, hands splayed out with long fingers taut.  His head was bowed ever so slightly and the shadows his brow and nose cast accentuated his despair. John stopped walking and turned toward the window silently, his shoulders square against it from 60 feet away. A stone pine covered him in shadow.

    The silence in the room was evident from outside.  His head eventually lifted and her hips shifted as he began to talk. Her splayed hands turned to loose fists and she squeezed them softly in and out.  His hands offered apologies and recriminations at the same time, one hand open and flat palmed while the other pointed sternly down.  As their conversation continued, John studied what he could make out of the pictures, family shots on a background of greenery, solo shots of the kids in school and sport uniforms.  

    Even focusing on the small details, his distance from the scene allowed him to read the stories they were telling each other.  He could see that they were telling truths. The strain in the faces, maybe the defeat shifting from her stance to his and back again, but there were no lies between them.  Nothing hidden, nothing spared in the language of their hands and arms and eyes and lungs. Just shifting awareness and understanding. 

    Eventually they settled in, sitting. At first on opposite ends of the long couch, then turned toward one another, then leaning in.  At some point he got on his knees in front of her on the couch and she rested her hands on his shoulders, then they embraced.

    John retched and heaved.  All at once his mouth filled with bile.  He spit a mouthful onto the grass and sidewalk, stared at it for a moment. He wiped his mouth, then turned back the direction he had come from.

 

4.

    John’s phone buzzed.

    It was five days later, 7:30 in the morning.  He looked at it, then swiped it to read the message she had sent.

    (I wanted to check in. How are you?)

    (i’m fucked) he typed, then deleted it. (i’m ok)

    (I didn’t know if we were going to talk more. I know you’re hurt and I didn’t want to pressure you)

    (yeah. i don’t know what to say)

    (Can I stop by so i can see how you’re doing?)

    (sure. i’ll be getting ready for work soon)

    (I’ll be there in 20 minutes.)

    John stood up from the bed and looked at himself in the bathroom mirror.  He had already showered, but was in gym shorts and a worn t-shirt with a band logo on it.  He shrugged, walked to the living room and parked on the couch. He turned on the TV, settled on a poker game and left the sound off.

    There was a quiet knock on the door.

    He opened the door and Annie nodded lightly, then stepped past him. She was in her uniform, from the restaurant across from his work, where they had met.  She sat down in the chair.  He sat on the end of the couch closest to her, as she glanced at the screen and saw an insurance commercial.  They sat in silence for 90 seconds as she looked at him and he stared at the wall above the television.

    Her white sleeve with the button collar was riding up her right arm and he saw something on the inside of her wrist.  They were shiny and small and he couldn’t read them, he could only recognize the crosses that bracketed them. 

    “A tattoo?”

    “Oh, yeah, I got it Monday. Just a reminder of Grammy.” John realized that the words he couldn’t read were a set of dates.

    “I haven’t seen you this week.”

    “I had two days off, and I ate in the lunch room twice. I wasn’t quite ready to see you.”

    “I know that we’re going to see each other, and I don’t want it to be awkward.”

    “Well, it’s going to be. At least for me…at least for a while.”

    “I know and I’m sorry.”

    John turned and looked at Annie. The tears started, welling in the corners of his eyes. She blurred in his vision and he blinked. He was silent, looking at her and blinking, as she looked down.

    He stood up silently, and walked to the bathroom. He wiped his eyes, then came back past her and walked to the door and opened it. She stood and walked past him, a light touch of her hand on his shoulder. His flinch was barely perceptible.

 

5.

    John waited another week before he started going back to her restaurant. He ate there three times that week and never saw her. The following week he was there three times and never saw her. On Friday, after he signed the check, he looked at the pen in his hand.

    He looked at the pen, and set his left wrist up on the table. He wrote two dates on the inside of his wrist and bracketed them with Xs. He set the pen down, got up and walked out of the restaurant.

Oxnard Stories (fragments)

   Of course he wanted to be there, she was there.

   She was taller than him.  He was five foot ten, but she was nearly six feet.  She was built thick — not fat, not even chubby, but muscular.  She had strong, thick thighs that lead up to a broad, firm ass.  Her wide shoulders spread her shirt to a tight seam.  He noticed mostly, of course, that this tightened the front over her otherwise modest chest.  Waves of hair fell to just past her shoulders, and the flaxen color was blissfully consistent.

    He noticed all of this, every inch of her.  Her stubby, inelegant fingers, the left eye set too low, the ears that peeked out past the waves at the tops.  Her idiosyncrasies were the source of even more lust.  The incisor that was set back so far that it appeared to be hiding, the wide birthmark settled on her right eyelid, the 10 inch long scar running along her right knee.  All reminders of her perfect imperfection.

    She had a broad voice, deep and wide.  She would sing along to the radio, no range, but holding a note to harmonize with the pop music. It wasn't the music he liked to hear, but he wanted to hear her sing it.

    And so he was there.  This fucking movie, with all these people.  He had managed, at least, to sit next to her.  It took angling, but he stepped quickly in the aisle, burst through the group, and ended up floating up the stairs a step behind her, her scent stronger than the popcorn he was carrying.  He settled in next to her, and wanted to lean in, but he knew he should wait for his moment.

    The movie was a superhero blockbuster that he normally wouldn’t have time for, and the theater was packed for opening weekend, which he usually wouldn’t put up with, but there he was, sitting right where he wanted to be, next to her.