It is not easy to keep in mind all that seems essential to us. Conversely, it is difficult to elude every passing whim that would impinge upon our thoughts. The greater portion of life is spent on a quivering wavelength, more or less absent from, more or less present in our central function. So it is with the sense of what we know about ourselves. Even the most worldly and socially involved can’t always answer for themselves. The relationship between a man’s accumulative propositions does not always make sense. The path of personality is not linear, not inevitable. It’s future cannot be determined by its past, but neither can a personality be transcendent. We are grounded by data. Wishing and wanting are never free of circumstances… physical, chemical, cultural. These are the vast realms in which each singular consciousness is contained. Our situation, in our confusion, appears nebulous but is actually concrete. It is real, always real, despite what we dream of. We can only imagine through the limitation of metaphor that there is a world that precedes us, a phantasm of metaphrands and metaphiers into which we manipulate ourselves and make real… or blunder through until realizing that we’ve imagined something impossible and hit a wall. What is difficult to come to terms with is that even in failure we have changed everything.
The heat rose steadily. Only two of the tables had umbrellas. The sun was getting too high to elongate their shadows much beyond the perimeter of the tables they shaded. Alain sat with his paper and sipped on his refreshed coffee, trying to fit again into everything around him. It all now seemed strange to him.
The girl with the balloon was still there, typing something into her laptop which sat surrounded by papers weighted down by various objects… an ashtray, a glass of water, a cell phone. The balloon waved above and behind her.
He squirmed in his chair, suddenly self-conscious. Staring upwards, the sun shone through a bright, high vapor. A dull light, but burning hot, then… a chill when the sun passed behind a cloud.
Sometimes, in dreams, we can breath underwater. Or, we find ourselves in a city we don’t recognize, though it is the city we have always lived in. That disconnect between perception and cognition is like breathing underwater. Alain began to experience something like this. The heat rose and he swam through thoughts that were a continuation of his environment. He swam towards the white balloon, tried to grasp its thin cord as he floated higher, out of reach. No one called after him, but he recognized their faces far below on the patio… subtly altered versions of real people.
What was it he had been thinking? Oh yes, the man inside, behind the counter. He reminded Alain of a certain actor. He was smaller, but perhaps the actor was smaller too.
He had been leaning against the café counter, facing the large front window, diverting his attention from the server’s face. The two images in his mind, those of the server and the actor, were joining, becoming one. Vaguely disturbed by this, Alain stole another glance as he paid for his refill. He hoped to find not a movie star but an ordinary man serving beverages in a café. Straight on he looked even more like the actor, and when he suddenly smiled at something said across the room he found the two indistinguishable. In fact, there was nothing to distinguish at all, except the reason for his being in the same room as him. It was difficult for him to thank him for the coffee, for he didn’t exist, per se. Only if he chose to enter the scene could he do or say anything.
Alain decided that the girl behind him in line was in love with the man, or more accurately, in love with the actor, and not the role he was playing. Then again, Alain knew she could love the server as well, if the script required it. She could pretend to, anyway. After all, she was a pretend person and did not exist except in relation to the other pretend people sitting around the café. This make-believe adoration would never be accurate though, for in her swoon of love the girl would steal looks and knowing smiles with him and betray his true identity.
Contrarily, this upset Alain, for he knew then that it was the sort of affair that makes it difficult to pretend at all. Lovers always want to be reminded that they are in love, which is irritating. Her endless winking would get in the way of any serious emotion. One can’t commit to such insecurity.
Alain’s peculiar reverie abruptly ended on that note. His prognosis of the girl’s unwitting insecurity occurred apropos of nothing, it seemed. He picked up a paper from the door rack and went out, ready to completely forget his fantasies.
A man approached. Weighed down by a large bag, he leaned to the side, unsmiling. Their eyes met for a moment, and they each caught themselves, recognizing. The bag was shuffled off a shoulder and the man raised and lowered his chin in silent greeting.
“What brings you here? Some sort of work…” Alain was surprised he said this. The man’s head tilted to the side and back. His eyebrows lifted.
“Yes, just some studying.”
“And what is it? Everybody comes here with something to do, except me.” Alain was trying to be light, but the man only looked at him. He pulled out a large textbook and showed it to Renard: Physical Examination. “Ah… looks serious. You’re to be a doctor then?”
Alain tried to bring forth a name, but all he could recall was that they had seen each other numerous times in a bar on the other side of the city. He couldn’t even be certain that they had spoken before. There was no answer to the question of being a doctor, just a question in reply. “What are you doing?”
What a way to put it! It was immediately clear to Alain that this person had no interest in knowing what he was doing. There was an impertinent look about his face that betrayed doubts that Alain did anything at all. Isn’t it the middle of the day in the middle of the week, after all? What’s that scrawny folder on your table? How is it that you can spend an entire day here, doing nothing?
“I was supposed to meet someone, but they never showed.” It sounded like a lie. It was a lie, of course, but Alain suddenly thought perhaps that had been his intention all along, to meet somewhere at the café. Having to explain himself made him nervous. It seemed like a form of oppression.
“Good day for it, though.” Again, that knowing tone. “He’s duplicitous,” thought Alain. “Placating me.”
More books came out of the bag. Before sitting, the man turned back and said, “I’ve got to get busy, but nice to see you. What’s your name again?”
They shook hands and Alain never thought to ask the man his name in return.
After a few moments Alain went back inside to go to the bathroom. As he passed the counter he happened to look up and see the time. 11:40. For just a second he hesitated, wondering. “I really should at least take a walk up the street and back. If I don’t I will regret it later.”
The truth was that he found it difficult to care. His was not the healthy nervousness of a man being heedful of his position and eager to “get on with things”, but that of a man who does not know what his position is and lacks the impulse to find out.
Of course he was worried; it couldn’t be helped, but he knew too well how to push everyday nagging concerns to the side and allow his mind to roam more freely than perhaps it should. Aware and constantly reminded of this inclination as well, he still found it difficult to care. To those who knew him, this persistent attitude bordered on a condition.
As it happens an equally careless young woman and acquaintance of Alain walked through the door of the café just as he entered the bathroom. When he came out she was at the counter, ordering. Alain’s earlier misgivings about running into someone such as this had all but vanished and he decided he would approach her. Under the pretense of getting some napkins he went to the side counter where the cream, cinnamon, and stirring sticks were kept. He kept half an eye on June and turned around just as she was approaching.
“Alain! What are you doing here?”
“That seems to be the question of the day. How are you?”
“Oh, you know. Aren’t you working?”
“Laid off. The company went under. Just like that.”
“Welcome to the land of the unemployed. Enjoy it while you can.”
“So, what are you up to?”
“I have to go to class at one. Thought I’d get some coffee in me. Care to join? Where are you sitting?”
June followed Alain outside, grabbed the chair he had lent to the Italians, who had left in the meantime, and sat down. She asked about the manila folder and laughed at him when he told he what was in it.
“You haven’t got very far, have you?”
He assured her that it was early yet, and that he fully intended to get on with it, eventually. Besides, it was only Wednesday. He had Thursday, Friday, and probably Saturday too. And all of next week, and the week after. Not to mention that he would soon be receiving unemployment compensation . Perhaps things were not so dire after all. Certainly a man can enjoy a few hours out of the day, without running himself ragged on the treadmill.
“Absolutely. You have nothing to worry about. I’m half-tempted to skip class myself. But, how can you just sit here, with nothing to read, or..?”
“Yes, that is a problem, I’ve discovered.”
“Last time I saw you here you were writing something.”
“Oh.” Alain did not like this line of questioning. He shrugged.
“You’ve got all the time in the world right now. Do something with it. I would… I mean, if I had anything to do. You seem like you’re full of ideas all the time. You don’t know how lucky you are. I can’t even choose a major. Do you know how stupid I feel all the time? Come with me to the store and buy a notebook. I have some pens here… uh…” She dug in her bag. “Here. Have a pen. Let’s get you some paper and you come back here and start writing. I insist.”
There was something humorous in this sudden emphatic tirade. Alain agreed to go with June to the store and purchase a notebook. He was doing it for her, because, for some reason, it would please her. “And I really should at least have the option to write down some things, if I choose. That would be better than just sitting here all day, without even a book to read.”
June went into the store with Alain and helped him pick out a notebook. She almost bought him the most expensive full-sized, hardbound and ruled book they had, but he insisted that it wasn’t necessary. He had countless notebooks at home already.
They left the store and paused at the corner. “I’ve got to go,” said June. “It’s almost one.”
“Really, already? I thought…”
“Daylight Savings Time, silly.”
Alain simply looked off, and said nothing for a moment. For whatever reason, this little fact affected him deeply.
He returned to the café. Alain’s table had been cleared off and occupied by a rather large woman and her dog. He got a fresh cup of coffee and took a seat closer to the wall of the little garden. He placed the manila folder, legal pad and pen one on top of the other. He studied them for a long time, completely at a loss for thought. Lighting another cigarette, he left the table to stand on the sidewalk so as not to bother anyone. Alain decided he would write. That much was certain. Then, almost as if he had been struck by a tremendous idea – one that he could not begin to put his finger on, but which nevertheless impelled him back to the legal pad and pen – he quickly threw down his cigarette and returned to the table.
His cup was empty. He would first have to go back inside.
“Calm down,” he said to himself. “Take it slowly. Be careful here. You know too well this feeling. A tremendous thought pushing its way through… a tremendous bubble, taking up all this space in your head, yet it is full of nothing but air. Damn… I just had it.” He was shaking, excited and nervous. Maybe it was all the coffee, or maybe it was his nerves suddenly charging up which became more susceptible to its effects.
“A bubble, surface tension… reflective, scenes in the round… a round bubble, the expanding universe… surface tension… tense. A dog popping bubbles on its wet nose. Full of nothing but air, taking up space… empty space being taken up by more empty space… the surface, the tense surface of things… some kind of thin barrier which can be popped on a dog’s nose.” Alain was back outside, staring at June’s pen and rummaging through these thoughts. He turned to the woman with the dog and asked her for the time.
“12:33,” she replied, after much fussing. Alain blinked at her, thanked her, but said nothing further. There was no reason to correct the woman.
He picked up the pen, held it loosely in his hand and dropped its point onto the pad several times.