The Cafe




This short story appears in the LARB Print Quarterly Journal: No. 19,  Romance

To receive the LARB Quarterly Journal, become a member  or purchase a copy at your local bookstore.

 

¤

 

Three women sat together in an outdoor cafe. The walls of their semi-private cell were made of curtains, sheer ones — in turquoise, pink, and gold. There was no ceiling. The sun was out. It was really very pleasant, but because it was one of those cafes that just make you want to transcend, dissolve, advance, et cetera, there were no other customers present, so the women could be, in their comportment, as they really were: quite free.

They sank into low cushions around a bright white slab of table, their knees buckled up close to their chins, and ordered with confidence from the waiter, who was always away, but never sufficiently gone, decaffeinated coffee with cream.

The cream came to the table in a handmade ceramic, the bottom rounded so it wouldn’t sit flat. A spill seemed imminent, and the cafe didn’t help, being spirit-like, always responding to its wavy medium, so the cream sloshed out of the ceramic, and the women couldn’t stop it, not even with their minds. The waiter reappeared at once.

He was not handsome, but he was exceedingly unpleasant, so their instinct was to treat him very well, by groveling.

“I’m so clumsy this morning,” said Ava, as the waiter folded neatly at the waist and wiped the cream off the table. “I shouldn’t be allowed to live.”

He nodded and vanished through a shifting wall of curtain.

The women did not seem to watch him go, but they knew everything about how he went. Posturally, they had an ease, as if they had slept together, woken up together, walked to the cafe together, and would someday merge together, when it came time for that, into the triple-sided god they felt sure they would someday become.

“I’m getting that itch,” said Ava. “I’m feeling exactly like a prisoner. I need to take a trip.”

“But you’re already on a trip!” said Eve, winking. “Where are you going to go?” “Romania, I imagine.”

“Do you know anyone in Romania?” asked Ovelle.

“No. That would ruin it, don’t you think?”

The women nodded.

“Even thinking about it,” said Ava. “I start to feel free. Even just anticipating, in extreme detail, the Romanian landscape I haven’t seen, even drawing it with my own thoughts, inside of my own brain, where there is no eraser, makes me feel like I’ve already been there. But I’ll still go, to make sure I’m right.”

“I should take a trip too,” said Ovelle. “Otherwise how could I claim to have lived these past three months?”

“You couldn’t,” said Eve.

“I couldn’t!”

“Where are you thinking of going?” asked Ava.

“God, I don’t know. Somewhere no one would ever guess I would want to go.Somewhere that would really destroy my personality,” said Ovelle. “And then remake it in someone else’s image.”

“But whose?”

The waiter returned. He delivered a plate of seedy crackers, and then flowed out through an opposite slit. The women laughed.

“The service here is unreal!”

A warm breeze lifted the walls of curtain — pink, turquoise, gold — and dragged the sheerness over the faces of the women. The combination was rite-like. They were the color of a multi-nodal sex organ, gilded.

“We are the buried tool of someone else’s afterlife,” exclaimed Ava.

But they were not dead, or even dying. On the contrary — they seemed to have too much of life.

“Maybe South Korea,” said Ovelle, making the curtains back into walls.

“I’ve always wanted to go there,” said Eve. “Maybe I’ll go after you go.”

“I’ll leave no trace,” said Ovelle. “I promise. The country will be untouched, by me. Only I will be changed.”

The three nodded gravely.

“Do you remember my Egypt story?” said Ava.

“There were so many stories from your Egypt trip. Remind me.”

“There were so many stories. That trip was pure meaning. But I’m talking about the dream I had, in Egypt. The story of that dream.”

“Sounds familiar, but tell it again. Why else are we in a cafe?”

“I was in Egypt. I’d spent all evening with youth organizers, revolutionaries, when something happened. They’d been trying to build up to something, something momentous and consequential, but then the build-up culminated prematurely in a single event instead: a dramatic reading. The reading, of a secret list, happened late that night, in someone’s underground home. The list was of 198 methods of nonviolence. Each item in the list was chanted, emotionally, by a person who was so tall he looked sick. I laughed the whole way through, but the youths didn’t seem to mind. They seemed to understand how I might feel, as someone who was not from there, about this kind of recitation, but I was being a real shithead, which I forgive myself for, because it was a lesson about me that I couldn’t have learned in any other way than by taking that trip and laughing at those kids, but I don’t have to tell that to any of you. In the end it was worth it, but that doesn’t erase my bad behavior. I do know that. I’m not a total monster — I can reflect. Anyway, back at the hotel after the reading, I stood on the balcony in a long violet nightgown. I had no idea who had sent the gown. It was just outside of my room, on the floor in the hallway, in a shallow box, when I got there — I just slipped it on. That’s the way things were back then. Unknown senders — they positively proliferated. I think I assumed it was a suitor who would otherwise never materialize, and you know how I am, that was fine with me. Out there, on the balcony late at night, with no underwear on, I felt mentally large, and I could remember many items from the list, but they didn’t seem so funny anymore. The items had organized, somehow — against me. But this was wrong, I was their friend! It was all supposed to be very funny!

Delivering symbolic objects. Wearing of symbols. Symbolic lights. Symbolic sounds. Symbolic reclamations. Why could I not stop remembering the list, and why was I taking it so personally? Was it the gown? Had I unwittingly put on the vestment of revolution? And if so, why, now, did I never want to get out of it? I started to panic. Would someone try to take the gown from me? Would they come, even there, to my private room, which I had paid for, to get it back? I had never wanted anything so badly as I wanted to keep that gown. It was my clothing(I finally understood the word). It had become, in the space of an hour, the only possible outfit for me!

“I got into bed, pulled the covers up tight. The list pursued me. Total personal noncooperation. Stay-at-home. Lysistratic nonaction. It started to become very clear: The youths had got it all wrong. They would never succeed by reciting that list. They had to interpret it, which in that particular case, meant doing the opposite of what it said. It was blasphemy what they had done, speaking the items out loud, without qualification, as if they were facts — the last facts! It was contra-revolutionary!

“Lying there, I determined that I was going to help them with their revolution. I would set them on the right course, I fully intended to — I was in a state — and I was about to get out of bed and, wearing the gown proudly, go back to that underground home to tell them exactly what they needed to do, but suddenly my mind began to drift. I started to think of my young lover, the one who left me for someone exactly my age. Remember him? Had I been fair to him, I wondered, when I sent him that little note? I had known it would stick in him forever, like a barb, just infecting him with doubt when all I’d really wanted was to decreate him for a single brilliant second with some custom-made attention (I always intended for him to recover). No, it had not been fair, that note. He’d been so right to leave me — I had no intention of taking care of my body or my skin. I wanted to look old and he was incredibly superficial. It wouldn’t have worked out. So why did I send the note? And why did I also, into the envelope that contained the note, slip a small green gem that had been in my vagina? And why did I then deliver the note, by hand, to his parents’ house, knowing how he felt about his parents? Poor thing — I had ruined him! With all this on my mind, I have no idea how I fell asleep, but I did, eventually, still wearing the gown. And that’s when I had the dream.

“I was lying in the bottom of a cup. My throbbing groin subtended a thistle. It was, or I was, flowering. As a being, my function was to embrace, to enclose, but also to bloom. It was all very obvious, I thought so even then, as my dreaming self. It was all simply gorged with meaning. But I was happy, in the dream. I knew my function, and I performed it well.

“Two men, in dull crowns, peered into the cup. I was picked up, or the cup was, by these men. They passed the cup back and forth.

Good work, Ava, said one of them. You do such good work.
Don’t praise her
, said the other. It’ll ruin the bloom.
There’s no such thing as a too-proud bloom. There’s only such thing as a humble bloom, which stinks.

“The men began to fight over the cup I was in. I was tossed all around, and my groin was grasping at the thistle, but it wasn’t strong enough. The thistle slipped out, and out of the gaping hole in me came a blinding light, a real cock-slam of a big golden ray. It was a vision! Knocked their crowns right off. Bored partway into their skulls so that their heads were living grottos, not empty. Not at all. There was snow in there. Lots of it. And little people on skis. But I did not want to go in there. I just didn’t.

“When I woke up, it was clear to me that I had to leave Egypt at once. The gown was gone, and I was naked. Someone’s gnarled stick, not mine, leaned next to the door. I went to the bathroom, and when I came back the stick was gone. The next day, I traveled to Switzerland, where I saw a dog drown in the most beautiful lake I had ever seen. And that is still the case. I’ve yet to see a lake that can beat that one in Switzerland for beauty.”

“I think I do remember that story,” said Ovelle. “But hearing it again, I feel I’ve learned something new. What a fount travel is.”

“What a boon.”

“I pity anyone who’s never left home,” said Eve. “And to be honest, I judge them too.”

“But wasn’t there more?” said Ovelle. “To that story? Something else happened in Egypt, didn’t it? I seem to remember there was some other thing.”

“In Egypt? Not that I can recall. I left that morning, so it was just an airport day for me.”

The waiter materialized in their cell. “More decaf ?” he asked.

He looked straight ahead, his chin rough as a rock, his mouth singularly unenticing. He blinked, and the cafe flickered on and off. He touched, discreetly, the secret defect of his outfit, which was the exposed and tooth-torn zipper of his fly.

“Why, yes,” said Ava. “I’ll have another.”

“And me,” said Eve.

“And one for me, too,” said Ovelle.

“Do you feel,” said Ava, when he was gone, “like I feel? Like he doesn’t want us here, but only so he can act like he doesn’t want us here? I almost apologized just now — just for having come!”

“Never apologize for visiting a place,” said Ovelle. “I can’t stand to hear anyone debase experience.”

“Experience is neutral,” said Eve. “Or it is virtuous. Those are the only things that experience can be.”

Ava cleared her throat. “You are so right. Like one time I went to Caucasia in the dead of winter. The hotel was empty except for one other woman with an infant. She walked the halls all night wailing with grief, the child screaming too. We met only once, in the drab hallway, when I was on my way to the shared bathroom. She pleaded with me in a language I didn’t understand. She kept pointing to my left eye, which had begun to water uncontrollably at the idea that this woman might actually touch it. Normally, this kind of accidental antagonism would have been completely inexcusable to me, but in this particular situation, I found it very easy to endure. I tried to take the baby from her, and she let me. She stopped crying and sat on the floor. I sat next to her, singing to the baby, cooing at it, tickling its toes. Then she started to use her hands to communicate. She moved them in front of us in the hallway, painting a picture in the air that I could read. She was crying, her hands said, because she’d written a book that described a coming catastrophe. It wasn’t fiction, she insisted. It was very real but it read just like a novel. She had lost this text, this prophecy, during the course of her travels. It had been stolen by a man who had also stolen her scarf — she showed me her neck, which was red from exposure. This man, whom she’d met at a very different sort of cafe than the one we’re sitting in now, had revealed to her a few details about his itinerary, which was why she was in this particular hotel — she was following him. She hoped to find him and get her book back. She didn’t care about seeing Caucasia, or about recovering her scarf, even though her grandmother had given it to her. She cared only about the book, which would be misunderstood if she couldn’t accompany it wherever it went, if she couldn’t, as the author, provide the genre: nonfiction, prophetic. The book was the truth, she said, but the man was probably reading it right now as if it were a novel. If she couldn’t find it and impress upon people that it was not just something she’d made up, thousands of people would die.”

“Did she ever find him?”

“That’s the thing: I don’t know.”

“See? Neutral,” said Eve.

“Yeah, like once I met a beggar on the streets of Valparaíso,” said Ovelle. “He was deeply concerned for a tree that was growing, or really failing to grow, in the center of a courtyard there. It was old, he said, nobody knew how old it was, it had always been there — so why was it dying now? Why did he, the beggar, have the bad luck of being alive to witness the death of this tree that had seemed, for generations of people, to be eternal? I took him to a cafe not at all like this one and bought him some bread, which he didn’t touch. I asked him if he’d like to shower back in my hotel room, and he said yes. While he showered, I tried to lure a bird through the window with the bread I bought, and when he emerged from the shower and saw what I was doing he smacked the bread out of my hand. I fell onto the bed, but he wasn’t interested in sex. His skin was a totally different color than it had been before the shower. What is love if it isn’t this? I said, and he started to cry. You remind me of my most recent boss, he said. She was very cruel to me, to the last. She died beneath me in bed.

“We spent the night together, not fucking. We told each other everything, all about our childhoods and our dreams. In the morning, I went out and bought him some rope, then left him alone for a few hours. I fully expected that he would hang himself, but when I got back to the room he was still there, sitting on the bed, surrounded by a small crowd of people, who were draped all over each other on the floor. He was giving a lecture on the reductions of Paraguay. The reductions were some sort of strategy cum building, where people were instructed in methods of dehumanizing nature, I think. Maybe I can’t remember exactly, or I didn’t understand some of the Spanish because I wasn’t really listening. He was whipping the rope around as he spoke, and it was mesmerizing because the rope was not behaving like an object at all, but like something aspirational, something with muscle and heart. The tail end curled around his neck, caressed it, let it go. The rope was showing what it could do — kill him — but would not, because it loved this beggar, who was its master. The crowd kept reaching for the beggar’s feet. Coyly, he kept moving them out of reach, then extending them again, then removing them, and so on. He never allowed them to make contact, but neither did he convince them that they should stop trying. My boat was leaving in an hour, so I handed him the key to the room. He took it without looking at me and said, It’s the least you could do. On my way to the port, I told the driver to take me to the tree, the one that was dying, in a courtyard somewhere. It was supposed to be eternal? I said. An eternal tree? But now it’s dying? The driver shook his head. Your guidebook must be old. That tree died years ago. Someone hung himself from it, and then his mother came out in the middle of the night and cut it down. All by herself. With an axe!

“Virtuous,” said Eve.

A cell phone rang, and Ava took it from her purse, crossed her legs, held it a few inches from her ear. “I’m having a lovely time, yes. I’m at this wild cafe, it seems to be made entirely of air. There’s really nothing urgent, is there? Nothing pressing? I mean, I’m on vacation. Yes. Right. This is travel. Thank you for saying that. Nice to talk to you too.”

She hung up the phone and turned excitedly to the other women. “So as I was saying: Should we take a trip?”

“We are overdue. But it really depends, I should think, on the forecast,” said Ovelle.

The waiter arrived with their refills.

The lean of his delivery was unnecessarily extreme. His fingers lingered on the last saucer, pinching it suggestively. “Travel is a boat,” he said then, tucking his tray beneath his arm, “that floats on the sea of heaven and never sinks.” Then he slipped through the curtains again.

Eve huffed. “A riddle. How rude.”

“Check please!” shouted Ava.

This time, the waiter did not come right away. The women, in anticipation, inched forward on their low cushions. With their knees, they steadied themselves against the low white table. At last, the waiter arrived. His eyes closed and his thin nose held aloft, he presented an abalone shell containing the bill. “Whenever you’re ready,” he said. “However, the cafe is closed and has been for some time. You can see that there’s nobody else in here. But please don’t hurry — it’s no rush.”

“Here you go,” said Ava, tossing a single coin into the shell. The coin was a shifting color. Pink played over its surface, then gold, then turquoise. Neither side was marked. The edges of the coin were smooth and tapered toward an impossible thinness.

The waiter carefully examined the coin. “I’m sorry, ladies,” he said. “But we can’t accept this.”

The women jumped. Eve locked the waiter in a strange embrace, twisting his body, so that Ovelle, with a kick to the back of his knees, was able to send him all the way down to the table, which was so far down, being so very low, that when he hit the surface, the result was spectacular. What had appeared so permanent — that broad white surface, flawless as a field of salt — turned out to be anything but. The table splintered, its particulate interior was revealed, and the waiter lay prone in the midst of the debris. His eyes were shocked, even hurt, and his mouth grimaced in pain.

Ava jumped onto his chest, Ovelle had his arm, Eve was on his feet. He stopped struggling and stared plaintively up at the sky.

“All currency is accepted everywhere,” said Ava. “You know that.”

“We will travel,” said Ovelle. “We will go here and there. You can’t stop us.”

The waiter was moving his lips around. He seemed to be working up the courage to speak.

“We’re not tourists,” said Ava. She signaled to Ovelle. “It doesn’t have to be vicious or dramatic,” she said. “Just the right amount of pressure should do it. Fact is, that coin is very sharp.” She drew a line across the waiter’s throat with her finger.

“Wait,” he said finally. “Can I tell you something?”

“That depends,” said Ava.

“It’s about a trip I once took.”

The women were curious. They agreed to listen, but they would not relax their grip. “Okay,” said Ava. “Go for it.”

“I once took a trip to Japan. I’d wanted to go for years and had worked and worked to afford it. On the flight over, I got very sick. When I arrived, it was all I could do to get off the plane. I spent four nights on the floor of the arrivals terminal, unable to summon the energy to ask for help. A young boy visited me in the midst of my illness. He wore the feet of a goose and the hands of a beautiful woman. He applied chapstick to my cracked lips, balanced a hollow apple on my stomach, then disappeared. When I finally had the strength, I opened the apple, which was neatly hinged, and I saw that the inside was an exact replica of my childhood home. My father was lying prone at the bottom of the stairs, not moving, and my mother was watching TV in the living room. I wasn’t there, but I wanted to be. So I tried very hard and soon I was. In my room. How I had missed it! I looked around at all my objects — the seed crystal, the thunder egg, the giant quartz. Then I walked the hallway slowly. It was dark. I ran my hand along the wall until I felt the banister. I stopped at the top of the stairs. I could see the outline of my father’s body at the bottom. I called down to him: What are you doing? Did you fall again? He didn’t respond. Instead my mother’s voice floated in from the living room. He’s reflecting on his life, she said. And on what he’s done to deserve it. And then, just like that, I was back in the airport, the apple rushing toward me. I bit it hard, to defend myself against the impact. It was instinct. I don’t like apples. But once I’d started biting, I couldn’t stop. I ate the entire thing, even the core, even my childhood home, even my parents. When I had finished, I realized: I had forgotten to eat me. It was on the flight back home that it hit me, what that trip to Japan had meant. It meant that I might never die. I might never die. I might never die. I might never…”

Ovelle slapped her hand over the waiter’s mouth. “There’s no point in killing him,” she said. “He’s already finished.” She flipped the coin into the air and did not catch it. “Now I remember what it was about Egypt.”

“Yeah?” said Ava. “Tell me.”

“You said you got very ill there, with some sort of fever only foreigners get.” “Oh,” said Ava. “That’s right. But then I thought of travel and came back to life.” The women relaxed into the cushions. The waiter rolled onto his side and spun the coin among the loose shards of what had previously been a table. “But it is like a coin,” he said. “It is what a coin is like.”

Eve watched him, her interest waning. She produced a limp cigarette. “I can always tell when a person doesn’t quite get travel,” she said, her thumb hovering, undecided, above the lighter’s little wheel. “They’re more like symbols than people, and yet their fright makes them seem so alive!”

 

¤

 

Kristen Gleason’s  writing has appeared in Boston Review, BOMB, A Public Space, The White Review, and elsewhere.


RELATED


PRESS ENTER TO SEARCH, OR ESC TO EXIT