Her hair is tied back into her French braid and her forearms are covered in either climbing chalk or flour, and given the circumstances my guess is the latter because she is at work, I am at work, and both of us are on opposite sides of the counter as if all we’ve ever been is on opposite sides of some counter. I order my soup and sandwich, she gives me my soup and sandwich, I sit at the bar. The whole transaction, every bit of it, feels very tense. Very uncomfortable.
I can’t stomach this soup, I can’t even look at this sandwich.
She’s not looking at me. She’s peeling carrots. Her face is the same color as the carrots.
“So,” she says to me without looking up, “I read it. I read your draft.”
“Oh yeah? You’ve read it?”
“Yeah, I read it.”
I wait for her to say whether she liked it or not. She doesn’t say anything. Her focus is on the carrots and their peels that sprinkle the compost.
My focus is on her forearms.
“I’m not actually, you know, I’m not actually in love with Brian,” I say to her. “Just so you know. The Brian love story is for the story. So you know.”
Her peeling slows, her face once again the color of gold as opposed to carrots, and I wonder if she actually believes this, that I’m not actually in love with Brian.
She wipes her hands clean, her smile rising back into the permanent creases of her cheeks. “I was wondering,” she says. “It’s interesting, not knowing what’s real and what’s not. It’s very interesting, very mysterious. You’re very mysterious.”
And I smile at that, tears welling up in my eyes. That’s all I ever wanted to be—mysterious.
“How goes the Tindering?” I ask her.
“I hate it,” she tells me, “I hate it so much. How much longer do you need me on it?”
I shrug a flirtatious shrug, smile a flirtatious smile.
“Is this even helping you? I feel like this can’t be helping you. It isn’t, is it?”
“You’d be surprised,” I say, “the depth of information I got out of last night.”
She waves me off. “I guess I wouldn’t know.”
There’s an unusual tiredness to her eyes, some ancient LCD glow. Her right thumb twitches as she steams milk.
Later in the night, when the cafe is empty, I see her on her phone, swiping, swiping, swiping. Juggling too many conversations at once. The bend in her back begins to look like the bend in my back.
Past closing— she’s consolidating the trash. On the prep counter, her phone won’t stop vibrating. She does her best to ignore it.
“KyAnne,” I say.
“Yes?” She remains hunched over the trash, only now she’s not breathing.
“I’m sorry. I have what I need. You don’t need to continue this. You don’t need to keep doing this.”
The release of breath from coffeeshop lungs.
She turns to me and I see nothing but truth in her eyes. I don’t know if she’s relieved or disappointed. On the counter her phone still shivers.
“Are you sure?”
I nod. “I’m sorry.”
She reaches for her phone. A few quick swipes paralyzes it.
In that moment, I hear a hundred conversations die, I hear a hundred men fall to their knees and sigh. It’s just us now.
Because all I ever see is the presence of mountains in her eyes, I ask her if she’d like to go for a hike sometime.
That smile, it creeps back. She says yes.
The hike is more of a steep hill than a mountain, and being the mountain climber she is, somehow she stomachs this for me.
Our bodies fall into a step crunch rhythm. Our conversation falls into the depths where all conversation becomes irretrievable. Something to do with Alaska, and a little fishing town. I can’t remember it now. Just as this conversation is getting to the deepest, the rockbottom from where no depth can escape, a small dog scampers toward us from a bend in the trail, a black Shih Tzu yapping and strutting and bouncing and jumping. Beyond are too old men sitting on a felled tree tucked to the left of the trail. The Shih Tzu darts back and forth between us and the men, its laps growing shorter as we approach.
“Hello,” we say to the men, both of them bald and sweating.
The one with still some remains of hair smiles and asks us, “how many times?”
“How many times?” we ask.
“How many times up,” he says. “How many times have you gone up?”
Both of us, KyAnne and I, look up toward the up we’re going toward and then we look at each other.
“Twice,” I say.
KyAnne says this is her seventh time, maybe, but it’s been awhile.
“We’ve been doing this for forty years,” the not-quite-bald-man says. “We’ve been doing this every week for forty years.”
I tell him that’s a long time. They both nod in silence. The little dog still yaps though, bouncing on all fours and ruining a particularly good silence.
“Beautiful,” says the completely bald man, “just beautiful.”
I follow this man’s gaze and I say, “yes, yes it is.”
“Nine months ago I was dead,” he says. “It’s hard not to see this beauty after you’ve been dead. Not after that darkness, no sir.”
I feel KyAnne tense up beside me, or maybe it’s just my own body, tensing up.
He wears brand new Nikes, grey sweatpants tucked into tube socks. The bald man goes on— “The darkness changes things, you see. It changes the things you never see, you see?”
“I see,” I tell him.
The man nods. “The darkness, man, the darkness.”
And then there is a long pause where everyone is nodding, even the dog is nodding and nobody saying anything. The silence is pure. There’s a wind in the trees and the leaves are waving us either hello or goodbye. But they are waving. Dust at our feet already on the move. KyAnne shifts, a scattering of pebbles rolls down the hill.
The bald man seems anxious to talk more about the darkness but he won’t be prompted. The two old men, together, wait for us to ask, to inquire further about the death and the darkness. To ask— how? I’m afraid to ask though, because men don’t just die, see death and the darkness and then come back to tell the tale, to tell me. I’m afraid to ask because I believe this man really did die nine months ago and see the darkness and he’s still in the darkness now, for in that sleep of death what dreams may come, and right now he dreams of me. We’re all still nodding in unison and I’m terrified to say our fare-thee-wells because if I walk too far, disappear from this man’s dream, what will become of me? I focus on my breath, the sweat of my skin and the muted sun between the trees.
KyAnne says, “well, it was great talking to you guys.”
The two men wave us off, their focus now on their yapping Shih Tzu. We continue our trudge up the hill, turn a bend and disappear from view. Dead men’s dreams, all we are are the dreams of dead men. I’m the dream of a dead man yet here I am, walking up some hill, a beautiful girl beside me and my hand grazes hers, the wet sweat of soft skin, here I am alive.
The trail we follow is that of Pine and Cedar Lakes, but we turn right at Hemlock and follow Hemlock to Raptor Ridge. Other than the shortness of breath, the weight of your legs, the sweat on your back, there’s no evidence of upward movement. Wind shrieks through the brown toothpick trees. To our right, the caves of old boulders.
Reaching the ridge called Raptor, walking through the last of the pines to the sky that breaks open before you, the world breaking open before you, it feels like everything, it feels like rapture. Thick clouds blanket the sky but it seems like those want to break open too, the sun wants to get through. A faded glow where the sun floats, long away beyond.
We lay out on the rocky crag, feels like sandstone, waiting for the clouds to break, waiting for the sun, for everything else. Green hills beyond green hills stretch out before us, the wind shredding the trees with blind ripples. From here, there is no sign of civilization. The dream is desolate. It’s only us.
Carved into the sandstone someone once wrote— ‘fuck you and your world.’ No other message survives from the ancient days.
KyAnne turns to me and asks, “Do you hear that?”
I tell her yes.
“I just imagine that the distant sound of cars is the ocean. If you listen hard enough,” she says, “or listen less, it sounds like the ocean.”
And now I’m pissed, because I thought the distant car noise was the ocean.
Down by the lot, at the end of the hike or the beginning, I lean against my minivan, already or still sweating. I’m looking at KyAnne who doesn’t seem to be looking at me at all. There is a presence in her eyes, some other lone mountain calling her and this mountain calls her alone. She never stops moving, she never stops climbing. I can’t keep up, I can’t hold her still.
“I like seeing you,” I say. “It’s nice seeing you out here.”
And then there’s that smile again, that smile that reminds me of dead men’s dreams. “I like seeing you too.”
Though I’m not sure I believe her because I think she’s talking to the mountains.
And then she hugs me and I believe everything. Once again, I believe in Something.
In the brief moments her arms are around me, it seems like she wants to say something, but she doesn’t. Something to do with a conversation I can’t remember.
She backs away. “Well then, bye.”
I only wave as she walks away, not quite understanding the sadness of this departure, the hunger in my chest knowing that I’ll be hungry for much longer. It’s amazing how the hunger still takes you, drives your blood so wild after fasting for so long, abstaining so long. I remember her as she peels those carrots and the need in my body as I watch her do this, her shirt hanging down just enough to see the midnight light of Alaskan skin, otherworldly, and the rest is only shadow.
The next time I expect to see her at the cafe she’s not there. She’s not there the following day either. Or the following week. She disappears, I die. I fall to my knees and sigh.
In her place is a shorter coffeeshop girl, with beetle black hair and mascara that makes her look tired. She doesn’t smile at me, I’m not sure it would matter if she did. Now I pack my lunch, eat in the break room alone and fear the worst— that original coffeeshop girl got lost in the dead man’s dream, or escaped it, I don’t know.
Turns out, or so I hear, that she just went to Alaska, but maybe that’s the same thing.
P.S. Dead man, if you are no longer dead, there is something I wanted to ask you. When you leave your body and come back to it after an absence, do you know what you smell like, the same way you only know the smell of your home after returning from a long vacation? You smell like an old man, dead man. Surely you must know that now.
join man next week for journal #14 (in which said man gets kicked in the head)