I stand steady on large foot decals and rotate at the waist to survey the room. Wary, appreciative, exhausted. People fresh out of quarantine cup their beverages as though they’re security blankets. They type or scroll their phones. Soft shoulders, exploratory gazes, heavy eyes.
We are all vaccinated, animals that can interact again; those of us in this coffeehouse crave solitude among the masses. Baby steps. These are my people—the writers, introverts, artists, and students. I glance around the room, smiling at each of them, my gaze settling on a woman sitting in the corner with long hair that rests heavily on her shoulders and a delicate arrow of a nose.
Her face is too symmetrical, too familiar. When she lifts her head to return my gaze with narrow eyes, I feel the kick to my ribs she delivered when we were kids. Michaela.
I’m sick of this team being so damn lazy. It’s like people don’t know how to be productive anymore. These fuckers are going to cost us our quarterly bonuses. I close every deal, and they benefit, and they still can’t be bothered to do the basic-ass work that’s expected of them.
I’m going to quit.
I should start a shop on Etsy or find a hustle like the rest of the world. I can’t keep breaking my back for this place. Yes, I make seven figures. Enough money that I’d be well-off enough to invest and settle back. But then what would I do? Hole up like there’s another pandemic?
My husband used to call me high-strung. He used to try to get me to go out more, to relax. “Look at you,” he once said, as I sat calculated the commission numbers during a dinner. It was pre-2020 when things were normal. An anniversary maybe.
No one likes a strong woman. I look up from my tea, and someone is staring at me. Uncomfortable. She’s got thick hair that holds too much moisture. I want to smooth it down in the back for her. Why would someone leave the house like that? I move around in my chair as his voice tickles my ear. “You’re horrible,” David says.
He only talks to me when I’m focused. He says he’s there to give me balance. He’s still trying. Dead all these years. I tell him to go ahead. “Bring it home to me like always. Bring home all the baggage, all the pain, all the stress. Never ask about me. I’m used it.” I forget I am saying it aloud, and the woman’s eyes narrow. Now she’s judging me, but I don’t have time to care because he’s yammering on.
I used to yell at David because I wanted him to grow the fuck up. He would come home so despondent at times, smoke weed in the garage and complain about how he wanted to quit and take off for some remote island or learn to raise chickens and live off the land. He’d say it so often, but he wasn’t a man of action. He was a dead fish. A Pisces with no school.
He was always at his best when he was painting, creating something. I hear a tapping sound and look up.
“Are you Michaela? Do you remember me?” the woman asks. Unlike most people, she’s prettier up close.
“I’m busy,” I tell her, going back to my work. David is still in my ear. My goddamn inner ear. Fucking die for good already, I thought as loudly as I could.
“You were a bully in second grade. Guess you still are,” she said, and it clicked. I remembered her. The little redheaded stepchild, we called her, lived in one of those horrid gray buildings downtown. I used to ask her to tie my shoes, which made all the kids laugh because she’d always do it. The nervous energy she emanated was contagious, so I pummeled her near the water fountain to save us all. I watch the way her mouth tightens.
I know she won’t care. Why should she? She’s busy, probably talking to someone important on Zoom in London or Hong Kong. She probably brings in enough each year to hire people to tie her shoes to this day. People she could kick for fun. She has a beautiful partner and two kids and a tennis court and could give a fuck about me.
But when I look down, I see that her computer isn’t even on. She’s wearing tennis shoes, and there’s a brown bag inside her black briefcase that holds a package of lunchmeat and a half of a loaf of bread that looks like the kind of fare the shelter on 17th used to offer on Tuesdays when I volunteered there. The letters on her coffee cup said “COMP.”
“Well, it was good to see you anyway. That used to embarrass me because … I mean, I know we were young, but I only did it because I wanted to be your friend.”
She stares at me with little marbles for eyes, glazed and cold. She rolls them up and to the right, and her gaze sticks as though she sees something. “Don’t tell me about your fucking dreams,” she told the wall. I too stare at the wall. I stare at it for a long time wondering whose dreams she’s talking about and trying to see, illogical as it is, what she sees.
I stare for longer than makes sense. People are beginning to look at me the way they look at her, and I remember the way the teachers would sometimes lead her to the back of the room, and her mother would be called. I remember the teachers always shushing her. I remember whispering the answers and her calling them out boisterously.
She was a bully. That was all I knew. I figured she just picked on some other kid when she was called away or shushed. I never imagined anything else, but now I wonder.
“Good seeing you,” I say, eyeing her delicate chin as I back away. Her face is beginning to twist as though someone is yelling at her, and I ask the woman at the counter if she comes in often.
“Every day since we’ve been open. I give her a scone and a tea. She’s usually quiet enough, but lately, it’s been bad. Sorry if she bothered you.”
I nod. “I’ll buy those scones for the next few weeks. Can I write a check?”
If he does not stop yelling, I’m going to strangle him. I wish I could, anyway. It was nice to see that girl from school. I forgot her name. I knew her mother died when she was in first grade. I remember that. She probably doesn’t remember how I gave her half of my sandwich at lunch that day. People only remember the bad shit, like when you kick the shit out of them.
I need to get to work or get home, but I’m not sure which. I lose time, almost like I’m slipping into a portal, emerging dazed and confused, but we all feel like that since Covid-19. I see posts and news about it all the time. I’m not alone. I fumble for my mask, looking around. My stomach growls, and I decide to make a sandwich instead of deciding right now. I tear off a piece of bread and smash it into a piece of ham. I roll the smashed bread and ham between my palms until it’s a ball before taking a bite. I used to be sharp—on top of shit. I look around, orienting as I chew.
When I see my old classmate staring at me from behind the painted glass, I tilt my head at her. She is staring at me as though I was a painting, so I examine her in much the same way. “You’re always so tit for tat,” he screams, this time with too much volume, and I cover my ears. His words are crunchy, nauseating. I wanted another tea. Another scone. I spit out the sandwich. “Put on your damn mask,” he booms.
I do. I walked in the direction of my destiny, not my fate. I think that is supposed to be the trick to life. Decision making. The air feels too thick though, and I began to reject it the way he did. I wonder when these assholes are going to get their projects into me. I look down at my palm, searching for an email or message. We need this commission.
I sit at a table near the fireplace, rather than the window. I had been dreaming about sitting at this table by the window again, but as I watch her, I get a little fidgety.
I have a hundred compare-and-contrast essays to grade. Our teaching support wasn’t hired due to budget cuts, so I open the folder and get to work. After two essays, one comparing summer and winter and another comparing cranberry and ice cream, I open an essay that juxtaposes robots against humans and sigh. Glancing up with a gentle smile as people line up to buy sweetbreads and warm beverages and the leaves began to turn outside, I close my eyes the way I remember coming here when I needed a break. Spontaneous meditation.
I think of the flat grayness of my childhood, the constant disappointment and longing to be a part of something. I think of all I had and didn’t realize, and when I open my eyes again, I feel the desire to write. I hear the door chime and Michaela yell thank you as she rushes by and pushes past a couple on the way out the door. She almost knocks a man over, and he responds by reaching for his sanitizer like a weapon.
She heads for the bathroom, then darts back out with a large clump of toilet paper in her hand. “Thank you,” she announces to the barista, who looks concerned.
I think about following her, trying to insert myself in her life as she stands out front for a while, and I return to the essay on humans and robots. The contrast was weak. The similarities are abundant. “A robot can recharge. Humans are provided a finite number of breaths.” the student claimed. He cited a Wikipedia page. I think about the undefined timelines we are given, the illusion of no timeline at all.
A robot is rational. It wouldn’t hold anger toward a childhood bully for so many years, but it also wouldn’t ache when it saw her struggling in a world too busy healing to care. I make a few notes on the student’s paper and close my computer.
Michaela wears shoes with loose laces. She wears a business suit with a deep tear in the back. Her hair shines in the light, and she turns sharply, exposing her profile as she begins to cough. She bends over and holds her knees. By the time she stands again, she is immersed in conversation. She finally begins to walk with whatever spirits surround her. To where I’m unsure. There is no one to tie her shoes. She decides on a direction and takes a purposeful step forward.