Bob Bartholomew

Coffee

The week fol­low­ing his 60th birth­day, John Santo board­ed a train at Stuttgart, Germany. He was trav­el­ing alone. It was evening—the cold slapped the win­dow that pressed his cheek. The train jerked along and the side of his head light­ly bobbed against the glass; the com­fort­ing rhythm made him feel child­ish, as if on a school bus, bound for the empti­ness of school. In his head the haze of child­hood, images indis­tinct, and then distinct—images of a time when wax on green leaves was glass: he was shoot­ing pel­lets at bal­loons sus­pend­ed between the branch­es of a mag­no­lia tree, his dad sit­ting beside him urg­ing him to slow down, aim; then he was shoot­ing stor­age shed win­dows, want­i­ng to see what would hap­pen know­ing what would hap­pen.

A young woman sat fac­ing him. He looked at her reflec­tion in the glass; the large ever­green trees slid across her fore­head and the high, tight moun­tains framed her and her black hair was coal spilling down the moun­tain­sides. John looked at her direct­ly now; her pol­ished fore­head had two ear­ly wrin­kles.

Traveling alone?” he said in German.

To see my Dad in Munich. But I rec­og­nize a cousin of mine on the next car—so no. We don’t know each oth­er but I’ve seen her in fam­i­ly pho­tos.”

John put his head against the glass and looked at her like­ness. She was more mytho­log­i­cal this way, more real.

Minutes passed and they were in a field. The young woman put her feet on the seat next to him, her jeans tucked into her black suede boots.

You have a sense of the end as a dis­tant thing,” John said still look­ing in the glass. “Time stretch­es out and you’re think­ing how you’ll occu­py it. Do you know what’s real?”

Your wife dead?”

Yes, but that’s not why I’m talk­ing this way.”

You look like a guy whose wife was killed in a crash. Plane or car, take your pick.” She brought her bent knees togeth­er then let them drift apart. “You’re pissed because I’m young and my life’s clean. So clean.” She brushed imag­i­nary sand from her palms, smirked.

You’re very charm­ing. She died of can­cer five years ago. I’m devastated—can you tell?” He spoke in a lazy, off­hand way, por­trayed care­less­ness. He felt like Oscar Wilde sprawled across a divan.

I should tem­per what I said: you look pro­fes­so­r­i­al.”

Accountant, but well read.” Their reflec­tions over­lapped. Her reflect­ed head snapped from side to side, try­ing to see his face, his actu­al face, and the world beyond their faces was dis­tant trees, a black pool, a qui­et, red house.

I don’t buy it,” she said.

If I was going to lie, I’d say rock­et sci­en­tist, or astro­naut.”

I need you to be dev­as­tat­ed.”

John wasn’t usu­al­ly open but her bold­ness low­ered the stakes. He leaned away from the win­dow and rest­ed his head on his fist. He was look­ing at a per­son now. She had great skin, very pale, creamy, and he won­dered if she ate organ­ic.

I remem­ber the sense of free­dom. Not the free­dom of a 21-year-old. But sud­den­ly my days were emp­ty and I could take cof­fee at 9 a.m., or noon. Which I could have done before, but I’d have to account for the change.”

Twenty-six. But I get what you’re say­ing. Freedom is not being observed.” She rest­ed her wrists on her kneecaps; her hands drooped for­ward like flow­ers.

Now we’re get­ting some­where,” he said. “Next thing, you’ll be ask­ing for my num­ber. Hardest thing about this free­dom is fend­ing off the col­lege girls.” Maybe they could be friends for the ride. John sat up straight, smiled an emp­ty smile. His eyes felt dead.

Twenty-six. I saw you watch­ing me in the glass ear­li­er. I think it’s the oth­er way around.” She smiled and moved her purse from the seat to her lap, reached in with both hands, dug toward the bot­tom, like a squir­rel dig­ging in dirt. Her knees opened and closed rhyth­mi­cal­ly, back and forth, as if moved by wind.

It wouldn’t go any­where, John thought. He slouched against the win­dow and watched her reflec­tion. She pulled a cell phone from the purse, held it in both hands, texted with both thumbs.

There were a mil­lion sto­ries about old­er men and younger women—their weird con­nec­tion couldn’t grow because there was prece­dent for it to grow.

John Santo,” he said turn­ing from the dis­tant moun­tains.

Gabriele. Gabby.” She put her feet on the floor but remained engaged with her phone.

You were alright until you pulled that phone out. I was think­ing you were dif­fer­ent, an old soul, until you start­ed updat­ing your Facebook sta­tus. ‘This guy’s got mad skills,’ you’re writ­ing.”

Her thumbs stopped mov­ing and she looked at him as if for the first time.

The prob­lem with your set,” he said, “is that you can only be wit­ty in short bursts—50 word max. Too much tex­ting.”

If you’re keep­ing score, I’d say I was up a few points. Check your log. Oops, more points for me.” She went back to tex­ting.

We’ll be there in an hour,” he said. “Got plans? This is your reward.” A bounce shot.

Traveling alone?” Her sud­den break from tex­ting gave her an air of eager­ness.

It’s bet­ter this way—nobody to nego­ti­ate with, don’t have to do touristy stuff. But I can make an excep­tion now my trip’s half over. We’ll have to dis­cuss the tex­ting of course.” She was annoy­ing, but attrac­tive and witty—and John was lone­ly. It would be nice to make a friend in this unex­pect­ed way. Plus, he could look at pho­tos of the two of them, tell oth­ers. Sure, the pos­si­bil­i­ty of sex hung in the air, but he real­ly just want­ed some­thing to think about in the third per­son.

No to all. But enjoy your vaca­tion.” She smiled a fake, toothy smile.

I’m usu­al­ly more cau­tious than this. All your fault,” he said, look­ing down.

*

An hour lat­er the train arrived in Munich. Gabby jumped up and pulled a duf­fle bag from under her seat. She care­ful­ly put the shoul­der strap over her right shoul­der so as not to wrin­kle her jack­et, smooth­ing with her hand the area around it.

My car’s at the sta­tion,” she said. “Need a ride?”

If you could take me to the heart of things, where the shops, cafes, and quaint hotels are. I just need to get where I can access every­thing on foot.”

It’s only a few blocks away. Come on.”

John gripped his car­ry-on by the han­dle, not using the shoul­der strap. He didn’t want to be twins.

He fol­lowed Gabby to the park­ing lot. She walked fast as if she want­ed to get this over with.

Look, you offered,” he said and stut­ter-stepped to close the gap. The cold air was painful, his speech shook.

She turned around abrupt­ly and he almost walked into her. “I don’t want the guilt. I’d spend the next few days wor­ry­ing about the old guy from the train, how you maybe got mugged or twist­ed an ankle and had to sup­port your­self against an alley wall, winc­ing in pain, your shriv­eled head shriv­eled and small in your trench coat.”

Am I such a sad case?”

You were total­ly mack­ing on me on the train.”

That was before I knew you were a jerk.”

She con­tin­ued to her car and he fol­lowed her because it seemed the nat­ur­al thing to do. Theirs was a weird dynam­ic, but it was a dynam­ic.

She opened the passenger’s side door, motioned him in with a quick jerk of her hand. “Watch your trench coat.” He got in and she slammed the door. He felt like a kid pun­ished for throw­ing a scene in the mall: Mom’s tak­ing me home, he thought.

I don’t wan­na take a tub­by,” he said when she got in.

She didn’t start the car right away like he thought she would. Instead, she just sat there with her hands hang­ing from the low­er part of the steer­ing wheel. He sat with his bag on his lap, his hands under his thighs for warmth.

It’s quick­er with the engine run­ning,” he said. “Just aim the car where you want to go.” With his hand karate-chop style, John did a fish­tail ges­ture in front of his nose.

Gabby leaned for­ward and ran a fin­ger across the wind­shield. She’d formed a few let­ters before he real­ized she was writ­ing in the con­den­sa­tion. JERK, the glass said.

WEIRD, he wrote on his side.

I real­ly think we’re build­ing some­thing here,” he said in a flat tone. “I’m pre­pared for amaz­ing things to hap­pen. Want to talk about it?”

She leaned for­ward and put her head in her hands. He couldn’t see her face. Was she cry­ing?

Lifetime Network, a moment of truth movie,” he said in a voice-over voice.

Her back hunched and she looked like a wound­ed ani­mal. He felt bad, like he’d slugged the weak­est kid at school. So he tried humor, recit­ed a line from a cheesy roman­tic com­e­dy: “ ‘You make me feel good about myself.’ ” His voice was hope­ful, expec­tant.

Being sad is a good thing,” she said. She put her hands in her lap and turned her body toward him, her right leg bent across the seat, foot sus­pend­ed above the floor. “It would be sad to have nobody to be sad about. Being sad is a priv­i­lege.”

You’ll lose some­body even­tu­al­ly.” He smiled and tapped her knee. “Don’t wor­ry.”

How much longer’s your trip?” she said offi­cious­ly, eye­brows raised.

*

The ride to the-cen­ter-of-things was awk­ward, silent.

A half hour lat­er they turned down a busy street. Cars were mov­ing slow, stalk­ing emp­ty spaces.

There’s a café ahead,” she said. “You’ll feel at the cen­ter of things there. Amazing things will hap­pen, and there’ll be pun­gent smells, charm­ing wood floors, city peo­ple in slick clothes. And I’ll go home and fight with dad, then to my room to watch music videos on YouTube: ‘Life in a Northern Town’ by Dream Academy, over and over again.”

He smiled, not know­ing if this was the right way to read her rev­e­la­tion.

Ahead, a car pulled away from the curb and Gabby took the emp­ty space.

I’m going to tell you some­thing,” she said. “It’s low stakes, right? I’ll nev­er see you again; I’ll only think of you many years from now when I’m on a plane and the per­son next to me tries to make con­ver­sa­tion. That’s not what I have to tell you; it’s this: I have HIV and my dad’s pissed. Can you believe? Pissed. Too much infor­ma­tion? I thought so.” She let her hands drop into her lap; they lay palms up, fin­ger­tips touch­ing. She looked like a bird with bro­ken legs.

They were silent a few min­utes. She low­ered the win­dow; the car cooled, as if some­one had flicked a switch.

Did you just find this out?” He squint­ed at her. He sud­den­ly cared about this cold, des­per­ate girl, this loose can­non. Hers was a pristine­ly beau­ti­ful fragility–he want­ed to feel her life throb under his fin­ger­tips. And he could tell peo­ple about this, about his “bro­ken bird.”

Two weeks ago. That Dream Academy song’s real­ly sad when he says, ‘…and the train rolled out of sight.’ ”

I’m a great cook,” John offered. “I could cook for the two of you. It would help the dust set­tle to have a third par­ty there.”

I don’t want you cooking—it gives up too much con­trol. I want to select from a menu.”

Pungent smells and city peo­ple, right here,” he said and tapped the win­dow.

*

I look at YouTube, too,” he said, the cof­fee steam between them.

You’ll have to do bet­ter than that—every­body uses YouTube.” She took a bite of her lemon pound cake. He was dis­ap­point­ed she’d ordered pound cake–that’s what he got at Starbuck’s back home.

I can do that: I look at trail­ers of a French film: La Grande Bouffe. I’ve seen the film–several years ago. It was a hap­py time. I’d just got­ten word from the der­ma­tol­o­gist the mole they’d biop­sied was benign. I’d been real­ly wor­ried, call­ing their office dai­ly ask­ing if the results were in. At one point the der­ma­tol­o­gist got on the phone and said, ‘I real­ly wouldn’t wor­ry about this. I prob­a­bly shouldn’t have removed it.’ It’s a long, bor­ing movie, but watch­ing it reminds me of the good news.”

This is the part where I tell you my sit­u­a­tion is worse. There is no good news. Dad thinks I’m a whore.”

And he will, for quite awhile. But par­ents always for­give their kids. Did you ever see that inter­view with Jeffrey Dahmer’s par­ents?”

You’re not help­ing,” she laughed. A small piece of cake fell from her mouth. She didn’t notice.

It’s on YouTube!” he shout­ed.

Down, Mr. Santa!” she shout­ed and, with the palm of her hand, made a pump­ing motion toward the floor.

She inclined her head toward him, sud­den­ly seri­ous. “You prob­a­bly think I’m des­per­ate, that my options are lim­it­ed now. I bet lots of guys would tap my ass.”

I wouldn’t doubt it. There’s com­pe­ti­tion for every­thing these days. I actu­al­ly won’t get test­ed for HIV, and I’ve had two part­ners with­in the last few years. I’m afraid of doing what I did to the der­ma­tol­o­gist.”

That’s exact­ly how I was. I was plan­ning to wait until an old boyfriend called me to tell me he had the dis­ease. Then I’d get checked. That way, I wouldn’t have to sit around wring­ing my hands.”

I did get test­ed in the 80s, after an affair. Marcy want­ed me to do it. I wasn’t real­ly wor­ried, but after they drew the blood, I thought, ‘I could have it. They could call me and say it’s pos­i­tive. Suddenly, the impos­si­ble seemed pos­si­ble.’ ”

She looked down, seemed to nod her head, only slight­ly, almost imper­cep­ti­bly. He want­ed to touch her nose, quick­ly, light­ly.

John looked to his left, out the win­dow. The room was in the glass, very clear­ly: the wait­ers, cus­tomers, thin, black tables, can­vas cof­fee bags against a wall.

Why’d you decide to get test­ed?” he said, turn­ing back to her. She was look­ing at him.

I final­ly went to the OBGYN for the first time. It’s includ­ed in a vari­ety of blood work. I tried to con­vince them not to run the test, but they talked me into it. I could feel my heart sink with fear and sud­den­ly I heard myself say, ‘Yes.’ I knew I’d made a mis­take.”

Look at the bright side: It could always be worse.”

She looked down at the table, rubbed her chin, then looked up. “That’s the most pes­simistic thing I’ve ever heard.” She was half-smil­ing, a smirk.

He looked to his right, scanned the small, wood-pan­eled room, care­ful to avoid her eyes. She was a blur in his periph­er­al vision.

People are hard to fig­ure,” she said, sighed. “I always answer the phone with a slight ques­tion in my voice, even when I know who it is.”

His face felt flushed, the skin dry and cracked. He was slight­ly sad, a cool gray sad­ness. A sense of some­thing at bay, but com­ing clos­er.

John looked at his hands fold­ed on the table, then at her left hand, tight­ly clutch­ing her mug han­dle, knuck­les white, almost jaun­diced. Without look­ing up he tapped one of her knuck­les, quick­ly, and let his hand fall next to hers, let it rest on the table. He didn’t look up, just kept look­ing at the small shaft of wood between their hands. He was embar­rassed but felt he’d had to touch her in some way, that the touch­ing was an answer to a ques­tion she hadn’t asked.

Very slow­ly he raised his fin­ger, and let it rest on her knuck­le.

~

Bob Bartholomew lives in Mobile, AL, where he works as an adjunct instruc­tor. Before begin­ning a career as an aca­d­e­mi­cian, he held such jobs as radio disc jock­ey, news writer, news­pa­per cor­re­spon­dent, high school English teacher and pur­chas­ing agent.