He said he was going to the coffee shop to get some space. He said he was going to clear his head. To journal. To spend some much needed time alone. She let him go, but first she crossed her fingers, raised them to her mouth and asked, “And what time will you return?”
The truth is Gregory P. Fistula never went to the coffee shop for any of those reasons. He went to the coffee shop because they had those wooden stir sticks, the kind that you could rub your fingers over when you needed to be reminded that you are small and lonely and unsure about almost everything. The kind of sticks that you could break between your fingers when the mounting inconsistencies and fluctuations were trying to run their sharp tines through your graying hair, as if keeping your hair in place was the answer to it all.
Maybe it was as easy as that. Caught in rush hour traffic one late afternoon he watched the man in front of him in the silver BMW weave in and out of congestion, as if the sideways motion afforded any sort of forward gain. But he, the man with the totally white hair in the BMW, had to press the brake pedal just like all the rest of the common folk – those in their camrys and mini-vans and hand-me-down vehicles with manual window cranks.
Every time he pressed the brake pedal his hand, which held a brush, lifted to his head where he gave three quick sweeps to his mop and then he retired his arm again resuming the weaving of his car from left lane to right. It became comical to Gregory, like a marionette, the man’s arms was obviously rigged to rise every time the brake pedal was tapped, for he performed this action flawlessly time and time again. Gregory compared it to the soothing mechanism of thumb-sucking or blanket coddling or maybe to some nervous habit like fingernail chewing or scab picking. Adults aren’t above pacification techniques.
So here he was, Mr. Gregory P. Fistula, seated deeply in a well broken-in brown, leather chair, a small stack of wooden coffee stirrers sitting in a pile beside his cold coffee.
“When did it all get so complex?” He thought, feeling the satisfying snap of the wood in his strong grip. A similar sensation to that of crushing garlic beneath the flat side of a knife and feeling its surrendering give beneath the weight.
He had thought he had found her. The girl he’d been holding out for. His grandma, who had raised him, had always told him not to settle. That pretty girls were as plentiful as a beach full of broken seashells. “It’s the unbroken ones you want to look for,” she used to say. “Hold out for the flawless.”
So he had. He discarded shell after shell over his shoulder. Too self-conscious. Too weary. Too self-consumed. Too bubbly. And then he found her. Deep and mysterious. Dark and enchanting. Soft and strong. In the last year he’d been over every inch of her beveled edges and had found nothing of question. No blemish. No flaw. No crack. Just smooth perfection.
“Like grandma would have wanted,” he said picking up his third coffee stirrer of the night. “Problem is, grandma’s not here to enjoy her.” Snap. It splintered between his fingers and he felt his own bones shiver with envy. His bones that felt padded by all that excess skin. He cracked his knuckles, first on his right hand and then on his left, something his grandma had always hated. Each pop sounded another note in Ezekiel’s haunting chorus of “dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around.”
“You’ve been together for a year, living together for six months, so when are you and Sophie going to tie the knot?” A co-worker had asked him the question earlier that day. Strangely enough, at the mention of the word “knot,” an image lunged onto center stage, pulled there by some invisible cane from the far recesses of his brain. It was from his childhood, the twisted brown prayer knot of his favorite Orthodox Sunday School teacher’s necklace. How much he’d give to grab onto one of those knots right now and not let go. Not ever let go again.
He was not what most would call a religious man. Exploring for broken shells had been a fantastic sexual as well as intellectual encounter, and he supposed a church would surely crumble to the ground before letting him cross its threshold, but nonetheless, all he could think about was that dear sweet teacher and her ragged prayer knots.
“I don’t know, man,” he answered his co-worker, shaking his head so that the sunday school teacher and the prayers knots would exit stage left into a cloud of memory dust, “Still working out the timing of all that I guess.”
“Well we’re not getting any younger. I’m starting to think I’m going to nab the very next woman that will have me.” He puffed out his chest and threw his fist in front of his body with a downward and then upward swoop of pirate looking arrogance. “Why maybe I’ll even ask her to marry me on our first date. What a story that would be, huh?!” He gave Gregory a boy-like shove across the plastic office cafeteria table and then continued.
“All I’m saying is you have perfection sitting pretty in the palm of your hand and you’re not doing anything to claim it. Cash it in man.” He sat back in the cafeteria chair and licked orange cheeto crust off his fingertips like a wild lion. “Cash it in.”
Snap. Make that four coffee stirrers.
This time he held the broken stirrer up, examining the splintered edges. “What is so wrong with brokenness?”
He wrote the words across a blank page of his well-manicured journal, “What is so wrong with brokenness?”
“What I’ve gone and done is found a girl that reminds me I am human, because I’m pretty sure she’s not,” he thought. “I don’t very much like feeling human. Why just last night after we’d finished eating supper, she folded her napkin after she ate. She folded it into a perfect square and then she laid it directly in the center of her empty plate, and then she pointed to my face, and said with a shy smile, “Gregory, you have a bit of mustard on your lip.” And what’s more she drives her car with her hands directly at 10 and 2 completely oblivious to the fact that the Driver’s Ed teacher meant it as a suggestion, not a decree. And she wears a watch, a watch that knows to the second not only what time I said I would be home but also what time it actually is. She lays slippers out on her side of the bed at night. She has matching pajamas, for God’s sake.
He tried to think about the loving way she rubbed her hot pink painted fingernails on his neck. Or the shiver she sent down his spine when she whispered lover’s secrets into his ear. He tried to think about her laugh, like the mixture of the sound of humming bird wings and wind chimes on an early spring morning. But it was too late. It did no good to keep pedaling the bike when the chain had fallen off.
He inspected the pile of broken stirrers like he was inspecting a pile of broken shells. He was almost at his limit.
For years he had been coming here, religious in his ritual of snapping 4-5 coffee stirrers per visit just to assure his own life wouldn’t snap.
He leaned forward and stuffed his journal into his new black satchel, the one Sophie had bought him because it could go with almost anything, and she’d said, “I don’t suppose you’ve noticed Gregory, but my, you’re old one is looking pretty threadbare. I wouldn’t want it ripping on you.”
On his way out the door he leaned over the counter, “How much do you pay for a box of coffee stirrers?” He asked the pretty barista, the one who, like clockwork, was always there.
“I actually was just putting an order together a few minutes ago. It’s about $30 for a box of 5,000. Why do you ask?”
“Because I have a lot more breaking to do.”
With that he turned and walked out.
The barista exited from behind the counter. She emptied the leftover cold coffee down the sink and placed the mug in the bin of dirty dishes. She swept the pile of broken coffee stirrers into the trash just like she had been doing for years. She pulled the plastic bag out of the trash can, tying it shut. Then she walked to the back office, tossed the trash bag against the back door to take out later, and picked up a pencil.
She erased a number written in the row marked coffee stirrers on the hand-scribbled messy chart . Then she added a slightly higher number. “In my opinion, everyone has a right to feel human,” she said to herself.