I met her in a cafe. I always wanted to meet a woman in a place like that. Intelligent people frequent cafes. White people, with a few extra dollars and an excess amount of time.
She had straight gold hair, sitting by herself in the corner with a straight back, black rimmed glasses, and a small black and red book I later discovered to be E.E. Cummings. Before I walked up to her she and I never made eye contact (she hardly looked up from her book) and I got no signs or signals that it was okay to approach her. What she waiting for a friend? A boyfriend? What schedule does she keep to allow an extended visit to a cafe in the early afternoon? Does she use a straightener?
This story isn’t about me. It’s not about her, either. It’s about us, in this cafe. I can tell you that we began and ended our relationship in the cafe. We had many days in between, but it seemed to me that our lives revolved around the conversations had by the large windows, cuddles on the antique blue couch next to the fireplace, and the art we created—poems, stories, drawings, kisses—at the corner table where I first walked up to her.
“I’ll pay for mine,” she said.
It would be another 14 months until we were broken up, for good this time.
“You sure?” I asked.
“Yes, I want a cookie.”
I wanted a cookie, too. I didn’t tell her that. I didn’t tell her I was getting 12 ounce Americanos so I could afford her lattes. I didn’t tell her about the entry fees for writing competitions I too frequently submitted and never heard back from. I didn’t tell her I was down to two pairs of socks that had zero holes in them. I didn’t tell her that I had not looked for health insurance, or that my right knee hadn’t stopped hurting for a month.
She split the cookie with me, oatmeal cranberry, and sketched a fallen tree interrupting a meadow in blossom. Harsh Winter, she titled it. The cafe hung it on the eastern wall. When the sun set, the light through the window highlighted her picture. It was bought within the week, for 75 dollars, by an old man in an eight panel hat.
I envied her talents. Moreso, I blamed the lack of my talent on my inability to write with my left hand. She created better art, and I always concluded that it was because of the angle at which her pencil touched the paper. She had a different perspective than most of the world.
Early in this millenia, I truly attributed her success to her being a woman. No one wanted to hear from an entitled, privileged, mid-20s, white guy. I didn’t have a story to tell; my life had been easy. What art could I create with no hardship? It was six months after I told her this that we broke up, for good this time.
She broke up with me the first time. I had stopped pleasing her, is what she told me, in the bedroom. It was really due to my selfishness and lack of communication. But this breakup didn’t happen in the cafe (technically, it was on the walk home) so you won’t hear about it anymore.
You shouldn’t be surprised to hear that I broke up with her the next time, or that I hadn’t learned my lesson about being selfish and not communicating.
“What time did you end up getting home?” I asked.
“Eleven-thirty or so,” she said.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t go. I was so wiped. Had first graders yesterday.”
“It’s okay, honey. Two of my portraits sold, and I met an artist from Canada. He really liked my nature scenes, gave me a few pointers.”
“Darn. I’m sorry I wasn’t there.”
“I already said it was okay.”
Imagine how the rest of the conversation went. I wanted her to ask something about teaching first graders, or how the edits were going on my book, or even ask how I was feeling. She, instead, spoke more about the Canadian artist, Alex, and all the praise her gave her. I didn’t accuse her of cheating. But she left her latte half empty, still wisping with heat. I drank it, wrote a stupid poem, and found our apartment devoid of art and bras when I returned.
We met up two weeks later. She told me that she wanted her desk back. I learned that the Canadian had bought three more of her portraits, then bought her a glass of wine, and pulled his dick out at a red light on the way back to his apartment. She walked the two and a half miles to her mom’s house, said it gave her time to think. I read her my stupid poem, and apologized.
I got an email from a local publisher, two months before we broke up, for good this time. They liked the chapters I sent in and wanted more. I hadn’t finished editing, they said no problem. Their editor was willing to help. I gave them the whole transcript, but said I didn’t like my title or ending. They said it was perfect. There were only a few line edits before it was ready for publishing. I told them I didn’t have any money for printing. They paid for it, and gave me 50 copies to do with what I wanted. They began scheduling me to attend readings. I said I had zero public speaking experience. They had me meet a speech coach, and later a public relations guy. They paid for my coffee.
She held my hand as we sat on the antique blue couch in front of the fire, 33 months before we broke up, for good this time.
“Tell me what you want in life,” she said.
“Yes, truly. What do you want to accomplish before you die and turn to dust and memory?”
“Where is this coming from?”
“Okay. Well. I want people to remember me. I hope they do. So I’ll make sure they do. And not just family. Everyone. They’ll remember me for my art. I want my stories to be discussed in college courses. I want murals painted with quotes from my books. I want people to know my name and face, so when I walk into a cafe some kid comes up to me asking for a selfie or to have me sign a copy of one of my books they just happen to have. I want people to become enamored with my writing. I want my writing to cause a cultural shift. I want to die writing, an old man in my chair with a pen in my hand and a story unfinished on my desk, leaving my audience always wanting more.”