The tree rustled. It had made music before they were born, and would continue after their deaths, but its song was of the moment. –E.M. Forster
Once upon a dream, I took myself to a coffee shop on a main thoroughfare in downtown Chicago. The mottled marble of the sidewalks harbored dim shadows, or reflections of shadows. Reflections of things that would or would not be. The sun refused to be outdone by the thin gray clouds that persisted across the sky that day, and shone steadily through the restless veil. The streets were wind blown, clean. My heels clicked along the sidewalk with its muted sheen. And I came to the café.
The front was all windows and I could see inside, the elegant women, all business in their tailored suits and high heels, sitting on tall stools around tall wooden tables. On the tables were long-stemmed white lilies in glass vases for ironies sake. (The women did not know they were not lilies but ivory pawns). Between the tables walked the men. Some of them, in black pants and buttoned suit vests, carried trays and looked straight ahead, going about their work of cleaning and delivering drinks to tables. Blank faces that hid the lies and lives. Careful masks protecting the wife or wives of their hearts. Stories untold. The other men were dressed impeccably in fine, linear suits, talking amongst themselves or leaning against the various tables, speaking to various ladies. All of them hiding behind their fine suits, fine faces, animated in conversation, full of borrowed graces. No thoughts of deception, no contemplation. It was a world unto itself. A whole word inside a coffee shop called Broken Hart’s. It was like watching a play where every face was a mask. Where everyone looked bored or boring to hide the things they had to hide. Or were they really so bland and bare? Players in a play, playing their parts? I opened the door. I stepped inside.
For the briefest of moments, they stopped to stare. And perhaps I was the only one there with any wonder in my eyes at all. They did not know me or seem to care. There was a bell on the door that tittered sweetly and then faded to the sound of voices in idle communication. Soliloquies and monologues traded amongst acquaintances. I caught pieces of conversation:
…waste of time to agree to the meeting. Nothing was resolved and I had places to be…
…It came as quite a shock of course, reading about it in a newspaper of the same name as the town where we grew up…
…and he said there was no reason for me to be there…
If only the sun would shine through…
I never thought for a second that I would find you here.
This last was spoken so close to my side that I turned to find myself looking into the eyes of a face I did not know.
“You know me?” I said and he smiled.
I was standing by the bar and he was wiping down the counter from the other side. His sleeves were rolled up to just below the elbow.
“I’ve seen you around.” He said and his eyes traveled past me to the window at my back. “And I know what’s going to happen now.”
He nodded his head that I should turn around and I did so, only to see a man walking past on the sidewalk outside, his head bent down to watch the sidewalk beneath his feet. He had on a suit like the rest of the men but with a white shirt underneath, unbuttoned a little and he moved to open the door. When he came through it he looked around like he was looking for someone when his dull eyes fell on me and he paused for a moment or more. There was recognition in his face but he did not smile. He averted his gaze but made his way toward me, slowly, the longest mile. When he approached me, he stood there shuffling like a boy, stuffed his hands in his pockets and would not look me in the eye, which only frustrated me as I struggled to know him.
“It’s over,” he said in front of me and when I said nothing he went on, “I haven’t been happy for a while and I found myself looking for a distraction. She just happened to be there…”
“Who?” I asked
“You’re leaving me for Rebecca.”
“I didn’t want to tell you this way, but you had to know. You had to see it coming.”
“Does it make you feel better to believe that?”
“Don’t make this harder than it has to be. We weren’t happy and you know it.”
“How can you say that, standing here in all your arrogance? I don’t even know who you are!”
But I could feel despair welling up inside. I was angry. Angry that I could be so completely devastated by this man who was a stranger to my eyes only. Angry there was nowhere to hide. But he stood a little straighter and finally met my eyes. “I should have known you would be childish about it. I said what I came to say.”
He looked out the window and I followed his eyes, knowing that he was looking for her. I saw people moving along the avenue, gathering briefly to exchange pleasantries. And one beautiful woman in particular with long brown hair and brilliant composure.
“Then go.” I said and he turned half away from me, made a move as if to turn back, then overcame the impulse, nodded, and walked away for good.
I watched him leave me. The wind had picked up again outside and the trees along the avenue shivered and shook. He walked with the wind along the sidewalk, past the beautiful girl and to a car parked nearby where another wrapped her arms around him and held him in that self-assured hook. Only a horrible, petty jealousy embraced me in return.
It was dusk now and the clouds had overcome the sun at last, so that my view out the window was obscured by the reflection of the lights within. I turned back and sat at one of the leather barstools. The bartender threw his towel into the sink and leaned his elbows on the lacquered counter in front of me. I sat there, trying to understand. Trying to resolve the turmoil.
“He broke your heart,” he said.
“But how?” I asked feeling numb and dumb and looking up at him for answers.
He smiled a little and I found myself looking around to see that there were others sitting alongside me at the bar. My cousin Andrea, a few old friends I recognized, and down at the end a man who looked very much like my father as I remember him. So this was the company I would keep now. They all sat there looking around blankly. They did not know me they were all so lost in their own heartbreak.
“I am tired of living with ghosts,” I said quietly looking at my bartender. He looked as if he might reach for my hand across the bar but I did not think I could handle such a superficial showing of affection. Knowing this, I think, he straightened up and walked around the bar to put his hands on my shoulders. It was a kind gesture. I did not have to face him that way. I saw the flowers in their holders, the precarious order of things. But it made me uneasy too, because I had been comforted by his face and now he was a faceless body whose grip was strong but made me feel safe nevertheless. I saw the suits move around each other and around the various tables. Were they patrons or saints?
And when he said, quietly in my ear, not all ghosts are dead, I understood. I had seen and read one thing. The living look of wonder in his eyes. When I awoke of course I recognized more than that. It was no big surprise. I recognized who he was though I had not rested my eyes on his face for many years. And in the end there is no truth but this: we shall differ in our nothingness.