A man returns home, confronting what it was that caused him to leave in the first place.
It is cold and bitter on the day I come back. It’s strange- not cathartic, not depressing, and not shocking- but merely strange. I never thought I would return. I left five years ago on a whim, having become as disillusioned as one can without feeling the need to either seek out one’s life or destroy it. I had choosen the harder of the two paths, choosing to leave and pursue the clichéd path of ‘finding’ myself, whatever the hell that meant. All I know, was that I felt, in one way or another, that to stay would mean defeat, and that I had to leave.
It’s October. My favorite month. It’s funny, that, in one way or another, all of my best memories can in some way be rooted back to this month. Typically cold, as is the case today, it’s known for changing seasons and the precursor to winter. But to me it always held some mysterious force, causing a happiness in me that was as unpredictable as it was welcome. It was June, when I left. The height of summer- the height of happiness. I left alone, on a bus headed to Illinois, with no one to see me off. And today is cold- freezing actually. I didn’t plan to return in October, as though somehow my most revered season would in some way bring full circle the circumstances around my return, but it had merely worked out that way. I had been away for a long time. I felt it was time to come back.
My hands in the pocket of a worn blazer, I’m now walking down Loeing street, a main street here in Fulton. A few consignment shops line the street, but I know that there closed now. It’s after 5 pm on a Friday night. And just as I know that the shops are closed, I know without seeing it that the corner where the four lights meet will be busy, with a McDonalds on one side and the exit to the local college on the other. And I know that half way there, on the right, is where I will first stop, to get a cup of coffee at Singapore’s, a café that has coffee that rivals that of most of the other places I’ve been in the last few years. I figure that will be an easy way to slip back into town, by frequenting a place I’ve loved for years. Unless it’s closed, of course, which would just suck.
It’s not closed, however, and wave of relief washes over me. It’s pathetic, I think. In the world right now, there’s violence everyday and terrorism and DEATH, and what causes me concern and relief is whether a trendy coffee shop will in fact be open or closed. But it’s not pathetic, I know. It’s just the way I am. It’s part of what I like about myself, and a lot of the reason that I left, is that I seem to be utterly incapable of caring about things that a lot of people seem to care about. People seem to think that I don’t care about anything, but it’s not true. I know. I care about this place, which is why I came back. And I care about seeing what has taken place since I’ve been gone.
Joe, the owner of the shop, has aged. I walk in surreptitiously through a side door and approach the counter. He doesn’t recognize me. I’m not surprised. In all the years in which I had frequented Singapore’s, I had learned not to engage the man in conversation. Which is just as well. I like the idea of going out and not being hassled- just place your order, sit down and enjoy it and don’t worry about small talk. Not all people like to talk, not all people are polite. A common thing one should understand and something I’ve come to respect. People are different- enough said. So I order my coffee- the coffee of the day is Ethiopian Yirgacheffe- pay the man and sit down in one of the chairs, spying an art magazine laying nearby. I’m not interested in art, not really, but then I’ve never bothered to look through an art magazine, so how do I know? I pick it up and leaf through it. I was right- I don’t really find it intriguing, but oh well I tried.
A girl approaches. A girl I think I know. She’s peering at me peculiarly. Does she recognize me? It’s possible but doubtful. I’ve put on some weight and have a beard now. My hair was long and now it is short. But apparently it doesn’t matter. She does recognize me and her soft “Tom” lands soft on my ears. It has been a while since someone has called my name. She looks about the same- about 5’2 with medium length black hair. She’s plump but not fat, smiling but not quite happy. The last time we had spoke I had left shortly thereafter, not at all because of anything she had done but because of her, which may not make any sense at all now but made perfect sense to me at the time.
Her name is Taryn, and we had worked in an office together. An office job is, well, an office job, and be that as it may, I liked Taryn simply because it seemed not to affect her. She liked art, I knew, and even now can see her eyeing the book I’m reading, as I’m sure she actually knows the artist on the previous page that I flipped when she came over. She was intelligent, and liked a lot of the same things I liked. We were out one night, when some bumbling fool was trying to pick her up, and of course as was the case when alcohol was involved I became overprotective- not because I was tough but because I thought it was funny. The kid picks up on this, attempting to casually pull me into a friendly conversation. What was my name? Where was I from? My name’s John I say. I’m from New York City, visiting my parents. Both lies. Taryn knew the first one was but not the second. “I didn’t know you were from New York City?” “I’m not,” I say. To this she just gives me a playful look: “Oh. I thought you were cultured.”
Taryn was 24 when she first glimpsed tragedy, though she took it as a person who isn’t afraid to live and feel takes such things. Her friend died. Her friend, who was roughly the same age as her died one night, in a hospital bed of an illness that isn’t important enough to mention, except to say it’s not something most people aged merely a quarter of their lives give much thought. He died late one Monday night and she was at work the next morning. She was at work but shouldn’t have been. I knew something was wrong but not sure what- I found out through gossip, arguably the worst way to find out such a thing. Two girls were trying to comfort here. “They’re making it worse- he friend died, but they’re making it worse,” a co-worker of mine said. Absolutely in earshot. And this is where it transpired. Everyone wondered the obvious. How did her friend die? What happened? The unspoken questions, and then the walking on eggshells around her. I felt bad but didn’t know what to say, although I was more appalled at the gossip around her. She was sad. I didn’t know a terrible amount about her, but knew that she obviously was experiencing a normal reaction to such a terrible but real event. The event was real- the gossip was not. Why wouldn’t people just leave her alone? If you wanted to know what was wrong, or wanted to show concern, why not just ask her? My overprotective nature took charge again. But then I realized shamefully that what I was upset about was that any part of Taryn’s life- which was both caring, purposeful and sweet- had become part of the office gossip. It made me sick. It probably bothered me more than it bothered her. And this was part of the reason why I left; why I had to leave. I needed to get away from it all, had to leave and search for a world in which situations like this weren’t possible and a world in which awful things that I couldn’t comprehend wouldn’t plague me anymore. Staring at her now, I realized that nothing had changed. Of course that world didn’t exist- it never did and it never would. I know that now and I don’t even care.
“What are you doing here?” She asks. She doesn’t look perplexed but surprised. It’s the same way I imagine that I look, the way people tend to look when you haven’t seen someone for a while, especially someone that you enjoy.
“I came back,” I hear myself say, feeling the period at the end of the statement. And then I suddenly knew why I came into this coffee shop, and why I was glad to see her and to make that statement. Because it made it real. “I just got back last night.”
“You came back to Fulton,” she said, laughing. “In October? It’s almost Halloween, and you hate the winter. But you came back, and that’s good. I’m glad to see you.”
I laugh. I don’t hate the winter, it’s just one of those things that happens to me- when I complain about things in a semi-serious or even joking manner, people think I hate them. “I don’t hate the winter,” I say. “I just like to complain sometimes Taryn. It’s quite nice, being back here in the fall. I’m looking forward to it.”
“I’ll bet. Nothing’s really changed Tom, except you of course. You grew a beard. How professor-ly. So what have you been doing over the last couple of years?”
Nothing, I assure her. And also everything. What can I say. I touch on the key points, that I lived in Chicago for a few years. I worked in a restaurant for about a year and I wrote a little. She asks what else I did and I tell her I saw five different states, making it a point to stop in the big cities whenever I could. But Chicago was my favorite, I tell her, because of the buildings. I’m fascinated with architecture and she knows it, although I’d never want to be an architect. And now I’m here. Of course more events and more emotions were present in those years than I could speak of now, in a five minute catch up period with an old friend. But I know there’ll be time later. That’s the thing about this place that I like. The ability to see someone you haven’t seen for years and slip back into a comfortable routine. I finish my coffee and get ready to leave, but not before promising to meet up with her later in the week for drinks. It’s now seven-thirty when I leave.
...to be continued