“How is the Tinder research going?” she asks me, leaning over the counter. Her shirt hangs down a bit, but just a bit—I can’t see anything. As she leans toward me, her forearms laid across the countertop, she seems to stretch her back, working out some sort of knot with her slowly snaking spine. She watches me with eyes that smile in the way only her eyes can smile—their corners permanently pinched skyward. Her eyes are the color of bark. Her earrings are feathers. A slash of scab stripes the skin just above her left elbow—a souvenir from rock climbing in Canada. Today, her skin is gold. So gold in fact, that I don’t hear her question the first time—
“The Tinder research, how’s it going?”
“It’s going,” I say, and I say it in a way that implies that it’s not going, that I don’t care about Tinder, I don’t care about Brian, I only care about you, coffeeshop girl. You’re the one who keeps popping up in my writing, all throughout the empty spaces in my head. But I scratch you out, I erase you. Your name is a violent strike, a gray cloud. My readers won’t know a thing about you—you who works in the coffeeshop above the bookstore.
This story isn’t about you.
You ask me when I’ll post the first journal. Soon, I say. You ask if I’ve met anyone yet. That would be a spoiler, I say. You ask if there’s anything you can get me. Soup, if I may.
I watch you scoop me my soup. You return with my soup and you tell me it’ll get better.
I think you’re talking about the soup.
You’re not talking about the soup. “It’ll get better,” you say with a voice that knows things won’t actually get better. Things never get better. I will always be on this side of the counter, you will always be on that side of the counter, and both of us will smile at each other because we are paid to smile at each other and this will not change.
“I used to be on Tinder,” you say.
“Did it get better?”
“No. I deleted it.”
“It was awful.”
“I couldn’t stop using it.”
“But you did.”
You nod. I nod. We stare at each other, nodding.
“I’m sure it’ll get better for you though,” you say.
“I don’t think so.” And then I explain why. The few matches I get don’t talk to me, and if they do they don’t talk to me for long. “Because I can’t sustain virtual conversation,” I tell her. “Because there is something inherently wrong with me.”
“There’s nothing wrong with you.”
“My soup is getting cold.”
Sitting down, I do nothing but watch you—your graceful, athletic movements, those toned and elegant forearms that really know how to hold a pitcher of milk as it steams, really feels the way to let loose a ribbon of white into a puddle of black and brown where latte foams rise.
She knows man, she knows everything.
In the emptiness that follows, Brian arises. Brian, I haven’t seen Brian since the night I cut his hair, the night we covered ourselves in the shred of said hair. My body still itches. Weeks later I still find his hair scattered on parts of my body I know very well I washed. And still I can’t stop scratching. Rashes of red bloom on my arms, on my chest, on the back of my neck.
I slurp my soup.
It’s one of the slow nights at the bookstore. I’m on the third floor, at the information station where I’m checking my email. I have no emails. I wonder if I’m the only one. Everyone else, they always have emails. I sit there, staring at the computer clicking on links leading to links that lead to dark corners of the internet I should not be touching at work, should not be touching anywhere. The shriek of milk steaming tears through the passages between books. Espresso drips from an abandoned machine.
A quiet falls. A stillness takes me. Somewhere, footsteps.
“Hey you.” Her voice breaks me from my dark, brooding, poetic depths of mysteriousness and darkness and I look up. It’s the coffeeshop girl. She holds a broken cookie. “Whatchyu doing?”
It’s rhetorical, I know, but I answer. “Oh, you know.”
“I know,” she says with her smile, her dimples deeper than usual. “Brought you something.” She extends her hand with the cookie. “It broke, can’t sell it. Want it?”
“I want it,” I say, and take it. “Thank you.”
“No problem.” She takes one look at the screen I’ve been clicking at, says “stay busy,” and swivels in her floured, espresso stained apron to disappear behind some bookshelves where her little cafe lives. I take a bite from the cookie, watch the spot where she vanished. I turn back on the computer. I click. I click. I click again. The computer is off, it’s always been off and all I see is my reflection in its dark, my beard a scattering of cookie crumbles and my eyes so dead I’m surprised they can see how dead they look. I close my eyes, shove the rest of the cookie into my mouth and swallow. I need water.
As the clock ticks closer to closing, I only think of coffeeshop girl and the cookie that symbolizes everything and nothing at all. And how this everything and nothing at all—after passing through a twist and trial of intestines—will really be nothing but shit. I don’t know what this means, I don’t know why I’m telling you this. Everything is shit, I guess is what I’m trying to say.
When I approach her in the final minutes of the night, she’s stroking the silver steamers of the espresso machine with short, violent movements that make my mouth go dry, my throat close up. She’s in a hurry.
“I have a proposition,” I announce, because I really, clearly know how to talk to women. She jumps and turns, drops the white rag she’s been cleaning with and says—
“Jesus, you scared me.”
That stops my breath. How inappropriate it is to mention Jesus to me in a time like this. It’s no good, no good at all. It brings all involved far too close to the darkness. Swallowing the thought, I say it again— “I have a proposition for you.”
“Oh yeah?” she says, straightening her back. She brushes her hands against her apron, only smearing the flour further, and smiles in the way she does—the way that murders butterflies.
I explain to her that the writing isn’t going well, that the Tinder research is going poorly. “It’s soul numbing,” I say. This is not news to her. This is not news to anyone. I go on—
“I need your assistance.”
“I want you to get back on Tinder,” I tell her. “You’ll get back on Tinder and I’ll watch you, I’ll take notes. I want to know your swipes, see in which ways your fingers move, who they move for, and why. ” I say that, or something like that. “It’s for research,” I tell her. “It’s essential for the blog. I’ll buy you a beer, two even, because you can have mine.”
She leans against the espresso machine, her elbow pressing into the grate. “You’ll buy me a beer?”
“Two,” I say.
“Then it’s a deal.”
“Ah— yes. Well then.”
“Thursday night? After work?”
“It’s a date,” I say, not meaning to say that at all. “It’s a night.”
I spin on my feet, turn away with a speed that screams coward—what have I done!—and make for the stairs. Before I descend the first step, I turn toward the cafe and catch a glimpse of her, wiping down the counter, a softer smile now, a redness to her cheeks, a look that hasn’t been paid for because nobody is here, the store is closed, she is alone and I’m not watching her—I’m already gone, stumbling in a dizzy state of WTF down the stairs.
join man next week for journal #12 (in which said man eats Thai food with coffeeshop girl, is definitely not a rapist)