And here I am. I’ve created something entirely fictional in my head, writhed the words and tales until the person who’s sitting in front of me has become the distorted image of something left behind. He doesn’t speak, just gestures towards me, his hand signals mixed and distorted in their delivery. I nod though I do not understand. The tips of his fingers begin flaking, breaking into pixelated pieces, dissolving into the stale air that separates our hands from reaching one another. The heater hums above us.
Somewhere near the front of the cafe, I hear the unmistakable sound of someone clearing their throat. Perhaps I imagine it, yet it drags me back to the table, my limbs heavy, my body suddenly warm. I look at him, and as he opens his mouth as if to say something but the coffee machine cracks through the silence, interrupting him. His words turn into the churning of espresso beans, and his mouth forms an “O.” I imagine him breathing out the heat that comes off the brim of a fresh cup of coffee, just after the milk and sugar have been blended in, just before the barista decorates the foam with a floral pattern, just before it touches my lips.
He looks disappointed. From the way his brow furrows I can sense the shift in the space between us, palpable to the point where I reach in and grasp it in my palm. I wrap my fingers carefully around the biggest piece and squeeze until my hand is coated in something cold, and wait when it begins to burns hot white, then until I couldn’t feel anything at all.
“Sorry?” I say. I realize he’s asking something of me, but I cannot form thoughts beyond simple observations.
“Can you try to answer me, at least with some sense of urgency?” He asks. I look past him to a couple huddled together at the end of a leather couch across the room. The boy leans forward to whisper something in her ear, pulling and delicately twisting a lock of her hair in between fingers. She presses further into the throw pillow beside her. The girl looks up at me, her expression changing. I look away my cheeks warming.
“Promptly?” I clarify, after a beat.
He sighs and sits back in his chair. “Soon, yes.”
I bite my lip, suck in a breath, then release. There’s a lump there forming, taking bits of saliva and leftover food. I can feel it burrowing in the back of my throat. “I don’t know what you want me to say though.” The words feel strange as I string them together. They float and fall defeated in front of him.
“I thought you felt differently than this.”
Differently how? I search through old memories, like pulling old books off shelves and blowing the dust of their covers, but I find nothing. There are no titles here. Not even an epigraph or prologue. Nothing signed, nothing dated. I turn in circles, grabbing books off of old wooden cases hoping to find some semblance of a feeling. I rip through pages, tearing through them until they circulate and drift upwards, like embers chipping off of a dying flame. But I come up cold, coughing water that’s murky and blacker than any night I spent alone.
Open me up and you’ll find lungs stretched and full of tar from the endless cigarettes I smoked trying to forget about you, trying to forget what I had done to you, what you had done to me.
“Diff-erent-ly,” I whisper. I let the letters roll off my tongue like sludge. They taste wrong, littered with something bitter and coarse. “I do feel differently, don’t you?” I look up this time, shooting a glance that I can only manage to hold for a few moments before averting my gaze back down to the coffee in front of me. I touch the brim with my pinky and smile to myself. It feels forced, but I let it linger.
“I feel like I’m ripping myself apart to understand you.”
Your words will always be so acutely placed.
“You spend all your time hidden behind these fucking books, behind pretentious poems, yet you can’t string a single thought together,” he says, his grip on his mug tightening. I watch as his knuckles whiten. “You can’t even say how you feel. Not even for me?”
I’m staring at the floor now, pressing my toes into bottoms of my shoes. Sink. Let me sink.
“Do you still care?” There’s something sharp in the way his words reach me, the way he enunciates and cuts through the “c” so poignantly. I feel like I’m watching a show from the comfort of my couch, maybe shovelling popcorn into my mouth, and tossing the rest at the screen when the protagonist does something I can’t stand. Somewhere, perhaps somewhere warmer, I feel someone yelling. I feel kernels hitting my cheeks. This is deserved. “Do you still care?” he repeats. I wonder. The words don’t come to me anymore. My mind goes static, and the knob is broken – I can’t change the channel. He shifts back in his seat and the wooden legs skid against the floor unforgivingly. The sound burns a hole in the back of my head. He leans over to grab his coat and pauses to consider the scarf I bought him. It’s a deep green and compliments his eyes. Hesitating for a moment, his arms outstretched, he shakes his head, then steps back and begins to button the coat. He grabs his wallet off the table, and walks away. The door clicks open and the bell rings, leaving me with my coffee, barely touched, and a green scarf in the seat beside me.
Ask me again. I wanted to say. Ask me again. Ask me until you’re blue in the face, until your hands are cradling mine and you aren’t scared anymore of what I might or might not say. This back and forth, this knowing and not knowing, this game that you’ve thrown me into is exhausting but I want you to ask me again. Ask me to remember how you wrapped your arms around me, smelling of peppermint and cinnamon and pine, feeling like a crackling fire, your voice sweet and dripping with honey, tasting of wine. Ask me to remember you this way, warm in the summer heat beside me, your head resting lightly on my stomach, your fingers laced in mine. Ask me to remember those days when your words burned tenderly, when you sharpened your promises to tear like daggers through my skin. Ask me to remember your calls of guilt, spoken softly in the coolness of the middle of the night. Ask me to remember how I waited for you at the foot of the bed, wrapped in your blanket that smelled of another. Ask me again.
I look through the shelves, pushing aside old books to search for these memories. Perhaps they used to be vivid, shaded with clarity and easier to stumble across, but they are muted now, as if I’m watching them through silk sheets and muddied waters. They are littered with bursts of of smells and sounds, but as I pull them aside and flip through them I feel suddenly cold. They are soft to the touch, like ice against the ridges of my skin. I decide to paint them with roses and tuck them away.
I tap the brim of the mug, stained pink with my tinted lips, then turn it. I push it forward, still full of coffee with the pads of my forefinger, and slide it across the table. It balances on the edge. I nudge it one last time.
Please let me keep these memories. Just a few. Let them burn brightly enough so I do not forget you.