I spent the past few weeks, before heading to Sarasota, back home with my parents. I had my grandfather's car, and nothing but free time. My allergies were giving me hell, and as the only really serious coffee drinker in the family, I headed one morning to the local big box bookstore, as it is, sadly, the only coffee shop in Gastonia. I walked in and found a few graphic novels to read and ordered my embarrassingly sweet little drink. The cafe section of the store was lightly populated, so finding an empty table was no problem, but one customer caught my eye. He was wiry, more so than myself, with chunky, spiked black hair and a faded denim jacket, he sat reading Utne. I stopped dead in my tracks to regard him, caught off guard. He looked up at me with a blank expression, before his features twitched into something that could only be both smile and frown. How he managed that, even I don't know. "Well, Hi." I said after a beat, surprised to be speaking first. He echoed my greeting as though it was a question, and I joined him at his table.
"Do you still read this?" he asked, holding up his magazine. The immediate launch into small talk, as though the meeting were perfectly natural, made it clear he was exactly as I'd remembered. "No, not at all, actually" I said.
"figures" he replied, screwing up his face into a grimace. "What are you reading?" he asked, with an emphasis that might have conveyed contempt. I made a note of it as he grabbed my stack of books. "Jesus, comics?" he asked, laughing. "Well, cool, I guess. I mean, why not, huh?"
"I read other stuff..." I offered meekly. He made another face as he tossed them on the floor beside his chair, before leaning in on the table. "No, I mean I don't want to be a dick or anything about it, you know, a snob or anything."
"But you're offended." I offered, leaning back, reminding myself he should NOT make me nervous. "Disappointed." He countered, grinning. I squinted at him, and said, "Good thing I know you're going to get more charming." He appreciated this, his body opening up as he leaned back, laughing. For the moment, our postures matched as we regarded each other. "Starting right into all that, are you? Well, why not." he was silent a moment, his gaze out the window. "So. What was the last song you heard, before coming in here?"
"It was actually Josh Ritter's new album." I told him, grinning slightly. It's hard to fully convey how much we were both enjoying this little game.
"Aw, You're kidding! I thought for sure it'd be some crazy new band you could turn me on to, get me ahead of the curve..."
"Now you're just being cute again. This is kind of a rare opportunity, and you want to take it to just amuse yourself? I mean, I guess I'm amused too, to be fair..."
He got that look I recognized, the one when he feels a slap is deserved, but not worth the effort. "Now who's being cute?" he mumbled. That's right, I thought. That look is usually followed by petulance. "So. Amy?" he asked finally. My heart kind of fluttered. "No.", I answered simply.
"Figures. Recent? While back? How is she?" he asked, with his typical, transparently feigned nonchalance. I cleared my throat and leaned forward, taking a deep breath. "It's been a few years, actually. It's been over a year since I heard from her at all. She...well, she kind of hates me." He was silent for a long moment, his gaze seemingly locked on something out the window. "Well," he said finally. "so much for loving her to see us like this." He cleared his throat a few times. Not surprisingly, if one of us didn't know what to say, the other didn't, either. Still, I couldn't help but think I had a responsibility to keep the conversation moving when he could not. I decided to get creative before he asked more questions. "I live in New York, now, with Tony." I volunteered, which is mostly true. He seemed to brighten at this. "You're not serious! Well, that's good news, at least." he ran a hand up into his hair and brushed furiously at it, his neck bent and one eye closed. When he looked up, his eyes looked like he was about to cry. "Just...just out with it, man. Tell me." he folded his hands on the table before him like in prayer.
"I travel with the renaissance fair; I'm actually a Tortuga Twin. I don't really live in New York, because I don't really 'live' anywhere; I travel all the time. It's really amazing. I didn't finish college; I didn't even go to Angola like I'd planned. Before working for the festival, I worked for a few years as an actor. Like, honest-to-god paying bills by acting. It was great. I wrecked the Volvo a few years ago, that was terrible, it caught on fire and I almost died. I volunteered for a month in New Orleans, after the hurricane. It was...almost miserable, but wonderful at the same time. It went a long way to making me the way I am now, it was like a crucible. When I was in college...well, things just got real heavy. My brain kind of got out of control, and I pretty much fell apart. it was scary. But I moved home, had a few jobs, a few apartments. Oh, I was an assistant manager for the Gap, that was funny." I stopped myself, and a silence fell. "Go on." he said tersely. Of course. I thought. He's found something he doesn't approve of. "You know," I said, "I'm pretty sure I've already said more than you wanted to know."
He scoffed, "You know damn well that's not true."
"Well, more than I should say. But at the same time, you're possibly thinking the same thing I am about all this."
"I doubt I'll even remember any of it." he said solemnly.
"Right. About the time I left the Gap job, Mimi died. She was sick for a long time, Alzheimer's, basically, and it was really, really rough. For everyone. I didn't realize it at the time, but I'm pretty sure that's what lead me to try and join the Navy. They wouldn't take me, though, because of the Asthma. But, in some ways I guess that's the beginning of the road that led to the job I have now, so the whole Navy thing worked out pretty well..." I trailed off as T-Bone Burnette's 'After All These Years' played on the loudspeaker. Jesus, I thought.
"You didn't mention a girl." it was practically an accusation.
"Well, no," I said, "The travel makes that kind of hard..."
"I don't think I'd want to know anyway." he said, again, kind of petulantly.
"Much as even I hate to admit it, that's not the important part. A little advice- try not to worry about relationships so much. Just worry about you."
He bristled at this, saying, "Damn it, advice? You're not really giving me advice, are you? Screw that."
"You wanted to know about that kind of thing, and I don't really want to talk about it. How many details should I give you?"
At this he stood abruptly, and folded his arms over his chest.
"You know, I think I'm good."
"That's it?" I asked, a bit shocked at his sudden departure.
"You blew up the car. You quit school. You're alone. Glad you've put all those years to good use."
"Really, you're gonna call me names now? Seriously?"
"OK, look, I'm not alone, you ass- you sentimental ass, at that- and technically, I don't think you should give me hell about college. And the car was just a mistake. I fell asleep."
"Alright. Lesson learned, man. Roll the credits, play a cute song, I get it." He said, throwing up his hands.
"OK, A-you're being trite, and B- I'm not some damn example of what not to be, ass wipe. I have an amazing job, great friends..." I stopped, and laughed. "And don't have to defend myself. You're being a prick,not surprisingly, and from where I'm standing, the lesson is for me because I can't tell if I'm any better or worse on the whole 'snot nosed punk' thing. So, thanks. You taught me a lot."
We both just stood, staring at each other, my face reading faint amusement, his defiance. I'm not sure which of us crumbled first, falling into laughter.
"Well, we're just silly little bastards, aren't we?" he asked. "traveling, huh? performing...damn. So much for being a professor. New York...well, that just seems cliche, but what the hell, I guess."
I laughed again, louder than before. "What the hell, indeed. You have no idea the sheer amount of "What The Hell' there was."
"You're not telling me everything." It wasn't a question.
"Just enough heavy shit to throw me off the trail."
"Guess trying to fool you wasn't really very well thought out. All the same, I'm pretty sure I'm doing you a favor."
"And I guess I should trust you. So do we hug?" He asked, squinting at me.
"You're not actually suggesting that. You just want to make fun of me when I say we should." We both grinned.
"No Investment advice?" He asked expectantly.
"Don't be a dick. I didn't have that advantage."
"Well, technically, you could..."
"The answers no." I told him, laughing again.
"You wouldn't even know what to suggest, would you?" he smirked at me, with his hands in his pockets. I didn't respond, and he seemed pleased. "Even better! That stupid button-up shirt had me worried from the minute I saw you." He sighed, and looked at me for a long moment. I shrugged, and finished my coffee. Finally, he said "Well, look. If you want, you can take the car and drive it around for a while. Like, half an hour or so...it's perfect sunroof weather." I felt my eyes start to water, and smiled. "What's in the CD player?" I asked, feeling almost shy.
"Jump, Little Children. 'Buzz'."
I shook my head, and whistled low.
"God that made you seem old." He said, sounding almost awe-struck.
"Shut up, and take better care of your CD's. You'll end up with none. Look, I should just go. So, thanks, but no. Just...promise me you'll really, really enjoy your ride home. Here," I said, reaching into my wallet. "Here's a few bucks for gas- take a long drive. Through the country, or something." He took the money silently, and I thought, he's thinking this is like some kind of sacrament. And, sure enough, he then pulled one of the shiny beaded bracelets from his wrist, handing it to me. "I'll just lose it anyway, right? This feels kind of...fruity, but what the hell. Just take it." I smiled at the gaudy little thing, remembering. I put it on, and we each gave an identical little half wave salute and separated. He walked out the door as I threw out my empty cup. A quick exit, no goodbye. I should have told him to knock that off. I maybe should have warned him about getting arrested, too, but he'd probably just begrudge the loss of a good story.
I stood in front of the store long enough to watch myself drive by in my old car, young, hapless, and charmingly oblivious.