|A Coffee shop story
|by Charlie Brown
|To Aneeqa, who never gave up on me And to Shannen, our conversation made this possible
Ian North hated Mr. Spatter, the sweet irony being that Mr. Spatter was his English professor and Ian loved English. Short and vastly overweight, his English professor was rumored to have failed a student when she had rejected his advances; needless to say, the university English professor was not favored by the student body or his fellow colleagues. This general dislike was reinforced by Mr. Spatter’s inhuman love of belittling his students; he would call out tiny mistakes in assignments as if they were heinous crimes against humanity itself and ridicule those who could not answer his bloodthirsty questions. Normally this would have resulted in the class laughing at his current victims’ expense, a common reaction considering they were young adults who were on the cusp of maturity. But Mr. Spatter took some sort of twisted pleasure in harming others; it was clearly evident in the way he smiled. And Ian was his favorite target among the second year students.
Ian was a giant, towering above his fellow students at a sky scraping 2.5m. When he walked down the university hallways filled with students, it was like wading through a sea of hair and clothes and he always laughed at the people who would stare at him; mouths like gaping caverns. Sadly this also made it difficult for him to make friends. Most thought he was some sort of bully or criminal who preyed on those weaker than him which was everyone. Others thought he was strange because he read wherever he went; nose buried in books as he walked to class or because he loved classical music and disliked sports with a passion that bordered on hatred, despite that he was practically unbeatable in physical activities.
And they all knew he trudged everywhere, almost lost wherever he went. But to spend a moment in conversation with Ian North was to spend a moment with someone who understood and believed in you the way you always dreamed someone would. Thanks to his monstrous stature however, few ever did. If he was Superman then books were his fortress of solitude and after a few disastrous attempts at communication with some of his more open-minded peers; he was not eager to leave them.
Ian had not always been so tall; in grade school most girls in his class were taller. Years of bullying and abuse from his classmates would have left anyone sordid and cold, in his more vulnerable years his mother was his rock, his bastion. She had told him to always turn the other cheek, to always try and look past his anger. As a consequence as he got older, he tended to bottle up his negative emotions. He imagined it was a giant volcano in his stomach, whenever he got angry he would imagine his anger as lava subsiding and cooling off, hardening to close off the volcano. This calmed him down when under duress but the result was a dozen volcanoes filled to bursting at any given time.
Then his mother died.
He remembered that day, how his father had picked him up from school one afternoon, as pale as a sheet of paper. How the world seemed to go deaf when he first received the news, how helpless and alone he felt. His father had no words of comfort, a once strong, upright man, in the weeks following; descended into a sniveling husk of someone he once respected and loved. His once shimmering mirage of life dissipated into oblivion and soon the abuse came from school AND by the hand of someone that was once his father but since degenerated into something less than a man, something fueled by nothing but grief and alcohol. Still, he kept turning the other cheek. It the only option he had.
Then, in 7th grade, he had hit a growth spurt, in middle school; by the time he was a senior in high school he stood in colossal stature compared to his classmates. Again, something inside him changed. They had now resorted to middle school tactics of embarrassment i.e. rumors about his “manhood”, stupid nicknames etc. although none had the audacity to insult him directly. It wasn’t until he heard a particular rumor that he felt the volcanoes inside him erupt in a spectacular, blinding roar; unleashing a lifetimes worth of anger in a single fiery rampage that abandoned all reason. I cannot in good conscience tell you what happened, lest your opinion of Ian North be wretchedly skewed.
For the first time, Ian allowed himself to feel his hatred, he hated his old bullies, he hated his father, his school, his town, his world, and he hated himself. Only one person was exempt from his hatred and she had been dead for years.
Drip, drip, drip, drip. In most cases, the sound of dripping water would be quite unsettling but in this rare instance it was a Godsend. It soothed Ian’s nerves. Once again Mr. Spatter, in his infinite belligerence, passed out a new poem in class, then proceeded to question a single student about work they had never done before. Ian had a lifetime of dealing with people such as the half-midget and this was no different than his childhood beatings. Of course he had no clue as to answer Mr. Spatter’s questions but two words from his English professor’s mouth struck a chord in his memory, Carpe Diem. When Ian was still young and vulnerable, his father would always whisper Carpe diem to him whenever he was afraid, he had no idea what it meant at the time but for some reason those words always soothed him. Sadly, they were now the instrument of his torture at the hands of the half midget.
The winter chill had finally settled over the campus and with it, the students flooded the local coffee shops and cafe’s for fresh brewed hot beverages and stale pastries. Standing at the cafe counter, he counted the seconds until he began to calm down. He was up to 176 when the incessant dripping finally ceased, indicating the arrival of his piping hot caffeine pick-me-up. Barely contained anger and anticipation caused his hands to shake as he reached for his beverage, more so when he fumbled out the change to pay for it. He retreated, smiling politely, into the crowd of chattering 18 – 22 year old and back to his seat. Each table could only seat four chairs, he occupied one while the rest were turned with their occupants towards their companions in other tables. This created an ironic situation for the young man, in the middle of a congested cafe and with absolutely no one to converse with.
Meanwhile, inside the vast nebula of Ian’s conscience, two unrelenting forces waged guerrilla warfare in the secret confines of his mind. The instinct to remain in the sanctuary of social darkness, the other was the innocent desire to communicate, to be a part of something more. Previous occurrences instilled the almighty fear of rejection inside of him; his father had rejected him, his schoolmates, and his teachers. Unfortunately he had not suffered any better luck at university. Mr Spatter and his considerable girth did not help the matter; furthermore the conflicting need versus desire caused a constant unease in his belly so powerful it made him physically sick. Ian sighed loudly, nursed the warm drink and desperate to distract his mind from his previous encounter with the paedophilic professor, searched the cafe interior for the only person to bring him solace, perhaps the only person that understood what true loneliness felt like. She was the only other person on campus who turned to an intangible art for sanctuary. While he buried his nose in his books, she buried her ears in her music. There was almost a conceivable connection, for those few moments when they would share a glance in class or in the hallways as they passed each other, she would smile at him. Although she did not directly ignore him like most of the student body, he still had his doubts. Her smile could be nothing more than a polite gesture; like patting a dogs head. But she did smile at him.
She had not arrived yet and with nothing to entertain his wandering mind, his traitorous conscience began to delve into the vast labyrinth of his memories and the thousands of closed doors and secret rooms, all teeming with the kaleidoscopic moments of his life. He drifted back to earlier that afternoon, when Mr. Spatter had called him to stay a few moments after class. It was only a few seconds after the period bell rung, signalling the surging stampede of university students desperate to escape the English professor’s lair. The half midget ambled towards the much larger young man and in a voice that dripped disdain asked: “is there a problem, Mr North?’ Ian was silent for a moment, weighing his options. Seeing no other alternative, he decided to be completely blunt. “It seems you have a problem with me, sir.” he added the sir at the end, even though he did not hold him in high regard. The man, instead of being annoyed or insulted, flashed a rather unpleasant set of stained teeth and replied smugly: “Haven’t you been listening in class you oaf? Carpe Diem.” Ian brushed off the unnecessary insult with a curious look. “I do what I do because you remind me of every brainless buffoon who ever thought he was better than me. I do it because I can and there is nothing you can do to stop me.” He stepped closer until the young man could smell the stink of his breath. With a glare that bordered on pure malice he murmured in a low tone, as if to stop himself from screaming. “Now get out of my classroom you pathetic waste of space before I have you expelled.” He emphasized the last 3 words by poking Ian in the chest with his sausage finger, as if the gesture would intimidate him. At that moment, Ian could feel the old lava heat to a rolling boil but a lifetime of experience won out against his reasonable reaction. Mr. Spatter was just another self righteous, delusional man who thought the world owed him something. Ian was disgusted.
Ian sat, isolated from the rest of the world. He brooded on past events, on the people he had met and their masks of public decency, the more he brooded the darker his thoughts became. Soon the volcanoes began to churn and the lava simmered, breaking the veil of his public serenity. He loathed, loathed society and it’s so called civilized people, disgusted by the wolves in sheep’s clothing. He loathed his father, Mr. Spatter, his town, his university and all its denizens. He loathed humanity and its mask of civility. For a moment, among the herd of faceless mannequins, he loathed everything.
When his eyes found her, she seemed to wash away all the negative thoughts with her presence. She was perhaps the only hope he had left in humanity. And the thought scared him worse than any rejection. There was one good quality about the crowded cafe; he could watch her without fear of being caught. She sat as usual, in the same spot every day, a smaller table right under the air conditioner; it was never occupied by anyone else because it was always set to cool; even in the winter. Maybe she sat there to avoid other students. She was truly magnificent. She was short, with blazing red hair and an almost non-existent dimple that came out of camouflage when she smiled. As usual she pulled out her iPod and after a brief period of button pushing, she let her head sink down, allowing her fiery hair to cascade over her sapphire eyes as she swayed to the inaudible tones of whatever music she was currently enraptured in. He allowed himself the luxury of gazing at her for only a few moments before he fell into the routine of pondering how he could approach her.
The answer smashed headlong into him like a freight train, so simple, so innocent that it almost made him laugh out loud. Ian suppressed the giggles that would have been all too strange coming from a giant, and stood, careful not to shove anyone, a difficult task due to his enormous stature but he managed well. With one hand on his drink he moved cautiously through the interspersed groups of his peers, undeterred by the whispered voices and thinly veiled stares. He arrived at his destination without trouble and carefully took the seat beside her, also underneath the air conditioner. He barely felt the change in temperature, perhaps due to his own risen body heat. He sat and watched as she swayed loyally to her music, like some religious dance that praised whatever cosmic beings that governed the universe. Closer to her than anyone he had ever met, he gently tapped her shoulder to gain her attention. She went still then slowly removed the barriers of sound that separated them. Her face whip lashed to greet him; a subtle glare indicated that she had already prepared a swift retribution whoever interrupted her silent meditation. It died on her tongue as she beheld Ian, who had pulled his face in a ridiculous fashion in some semblance of a peace offering. It worked too well, sending the redhead into a fit of uncharacteristic giggles that drew more than a few stares to the unlikely duo. Finally managing to kill the unprecedented chortles, she offered him dimpled smile, in thanks? Or maybe she was apologizing for her former intention. He was not sure, but it was still pleasant. Surprisingly she made the first move by extending her hand and grasping his in a soft but firm grip. “I’m Shannon” she greeted, dimple still present. “Ian” the larger man responded, praying that the burning in his cheeks was not visible.
He walked towards her, desperately trying to formulate some sort of strategy. Every instinct told him to not approach her. She seemed to radiate a sort of awkward frigidness that had not been there the day before, something had happened; something had changed inside of her. Against his better judgement, he stubbornly pursued his quest to his secret Mona Lisa. Even though he was terrified, even though he knew it wasn’t a good idea. He had to know. The moment he touched her he realized his mistake. She turned to him and her haunted eyes stared into his. The haunted look turned into a cold fury that glared hotly into his being. The look offered no warmth and she offered no dimpled solace for his heart, instead her face twisted into a frozen red-eyed snarl that told the story of a girl whose past grotesquely pursued her into maturity. With a philophobic sneer she turned back to her music, he flinched at her gesture; it was as if she had dismissed his existence entirely. Somehow, in the space of a day, the world had broken her indomitable will and she, in turn, had broken him. He stood and grimly trudged out into the world, it was 6 degrees outside but he could barely feel it. His heart already healed but wrong, gnarled and twisted beyond repair.
The tiniest detail can cause the greatest effect, the smallest shift in tectonic plates can cause massive tsunamis and mountain rending earthquakes or the most insignificant organism can destroy millions of lives. Ian himself had always found the subject of biology fascinating; it was honestly his second favorite subject. How ironic would it be if, as he was approaching the girl in the corner, his secret Eve, his sight was drawn down to her hand by a mysterious glint. There, wrapped around her finger, was a tiny gold band. His face instantly lit up like a Christmas tree and his insides went cold. He had been fantasizing about a married woman! Secretly embarrassed and ashamed, he decided the appropriate course of action was to leave the cafe and never return…
Ian, although a sensitive and profound person, was not immune to random bursts of ignorance. A clear example being that he did not notice that the girl he watched every day was in-fact watching him. When he thought she noticed him he would abruptly turn his head in another direction and it would be her turn to stare at him. They were a glancing pendulum, forever taking turns gazing at the other. But unlike most pendulums, they were not a well oiled machine. They were humans, and all too often humans make mistakes. It was a single longing look on his part when their eyes finally met and to their own surprise, they were not so lonely anymore. He stared at her and she stared at him, both surrounded by people but infinitely alone except for the other. The two who sat mere meters away from each other, it may as well have been worlds apart, distance did not matter. His feet lead and he followed while she lead and her feet followed, traversing time and space, past murmuring students and steaming cups, through the seas of gawking young adults, they transcended above the trivial distractions. They met each other part way, in between the exit and the restrooms, they gazed at each other longingly, and no words were needed in this encounter. For the two, time slowed, they could no longer hear the idle chatter of their peers or the falling rain. It was as if this momentary tryst opened a wound in the world and reality bled away. All the impossibilities disappeared from existence and soon, they were old and grey. In the span of a blink of an eye, they had shared an entire lifetime together. They had gone on to date and get married, soon after they had two children who were now traveling the world and the elderly couple had moved close to the cafe where they first met. They were wonderfully tired; life had been a cacophony of adventures, both good and bad, that ultimately told the story of their lives. For a second, the two smiled, knowing that their tale was coming to an end. Then, as if it had never happened, they were young again, both at the beginning of their lives together, squeezed among the individual throngs of students They felt the claustrophobic presence of a thousand staring eyes and quickly retreated back to the sanctuary of her corner coffee shop, corner coffee shop table.
Sadly, no matter how sweet a dream is, we must all eventually wake. Reality belligerently pulled him back into. He searched with bleary eyes to find her still there, his crimson angel, across the room; head bobbing to her music. He sighed dramatically; she may as well have been on the other side of the cosmos. She was like the stars; so close you could almost touch them but infinitely farther away than you could reach. He sighed again; she seemed to relieve his loneliness but also reminded him of how lonely he was, she was his decadent paradox, oh how nature loved her sweet ironies. He was stopped in mid sigh when the epiphany rung the doorbell. Not a moment too soon as he spotted a wisp of red moving quickly through the herd of brunette and the occasional speck of blonde. He wanted to laugh at himself; he had watched his father sink into destruction, through the bottle and through his fear. And like the sins of the father, they had descended to the son. They were both hypocrites; dedicating their lives to an ideal, Carpe diem but never acting on its most basic principle. How had he become so much like his father, like a man he despised? He was out of his seat before his brain could register the change, passed the babbling people and the steaming cups of caffeine. He had to get to the door before her, he had to. He kept moving, not allowing his mind (and his fear) to catch up to him. This proved effective but also meant when he opened the door for her, he had nothing to say. It would not have mattered as a burst of cold wind sent her hair skyward. Any words he could articulate died on his tongue as he marveled at the dusk colored halo before she began smoothing them against her in a vain attempt at taming the rebellious strands. He didn’t succeed in hiding his stupid grin and she noticed as she looked up at him. He froze as she glared at him, both discerning and adorable at the same time. So caught in her ocean eyes, he barely noticed her dimple resurrecting itself…