Monday, November 29, 2010

Love in a Coffee Shop (2/4)


I couldn’t believe I said that. Shit. Did I say that? It was a contraction of Cool! and Great!  I wanted to crawl in a hole and die. I awkwardly corrected it.  “Great!” Her face taking on a whimsical look, we parted: she to her car, and me, well, to sulk in an espresso.

Let me fast-forward five days later. She came up to me! “Can you believe it?” she said excitedly. “He upgraded my paper to a B+. I wanted an A of course, but I’ll take what I can get.”


She looked at my empty cup. “You want a refill? I’ll get you one, on me. It’s the least I can do.”

“Uh, sure, okay. Thanks.”  Hmm.  What’s this about?  Don’t look at her. Could she possibly like you, or is this simply a gesture, a obligation to return a favor? I said not to look at her!  Calm down, dude.  She returned.

“So what do you do, if you don’t mind me asking?” She handed me the coffee.

“Thank you, and no, not at all.  I’m an illustrator.” She sat down in the chair.  To her credit as a conversationalist, she at least pretended to be interested in what I had to say.

“Like a book illustrator or something?”

“Sort of. I do illustrations for political news magazines.”

“Wow, that’s fascinating. So you’re an artist.”

“Well, no. I do freelance work but have a regular gig with a local weekly, Spotlight. Have you heard of it?”

“Oh, yes, of course.”

“It certainly doesn’t pay very well.” I didn’t have to reveal this detail, but so be it. “But I like what I do,” I added.

“And you’re an artist,” she insisted. “My dad was a studio musician back in the eighties. He played bass guitar on albums, or CDs, by…let’s see…Olivia Newton John and Peter Cetera.”

“Really? You can’t be old enough to have a dad playing in 80s bands.”

“O brother. How old do you think I am?” Danger alert! Another make-or-break question like ‘What are your strengths and weaknesses?’

“No older than 26, why?” I mustered the most serious tone I could for my answer. The subjoined why was merely an attempt to disguise the flattery.

“No, I’m thirty-one.”

Bingo! I got it right, more or less.  You see, I was operating under the Subtract-Five Rule. Why five, I’m not sure. Dan, a self-styled expert on women who hasn’t had a serious relationship in ten years, said that when you guess a woman's agesomething not highly recommended in the first placeyou can’t go too far off the mark with the charm and flattery, for you will only expose the feigned genuineness of your response.

For a woman in her 20s and early 30s, you'd need to subtract five in your ballpark estimation of her age. Once a woman gets about 35, he asserts, you'd shift to a Subtract-Six Rule, and increase by one year every five years hence. So, with this calculus in mind, if you told a woman who looks about 45 years what you thought her age was, you would say 38. Building a system on such guess work, in largely unlikely scenarios, and on the advice of a loser, is risky business to be sure.  Let's just say I don't base my life on Dan's teachings.

My answer elicited a slight grin at best. “Do you have any examples of your work?” she asked.

I flipped open to page 39 in Straight from the Wire, probably my best work, which I always keep in my laptop carry case. “See, this illustration has a bus labeled UN,” I explained, trying self-consciously to temper a nerdy exuberance that can get out of hand, I’m told, when I describe my sketches.

“Inside it you see the president and some other world leaders, and it’s about to go off a cliff. On the other side of the,” I pointed and she moved in close to me, “is Africa, with Congo, Sudan and piles of bones. The article is about the perilous struggle for world order and humanitarian affairs in the Third World. The editor gave some basic parameters, but this is what I came up with.”

“That’s awful.” She leaned back in her chair. The proximity had caused my heart to beat like a rhesus monkey on steroids.

“Sorry you didn’t like it.”

“No, no. I love it. I just mean the situation is terrible.  Are you a Republican?”

“No.  Why do you ask?”

“Oh, sorry.  I don't mean to put you on the spot.”

“You didn't.”

“It's just that I associate foreign policy with Republican-types, for whatever reason.”

“Well, I assure you, I'm not a Republican.  I don't really like politics too much...”

“Really?  I mean, I'm not a political person either.  But do work for political magazines....”

“Yes, but what I mean is that I'm not really partisan, you know?  People in power (and I don't mean to sound fatalistic) are going to do what they're going to do, regardless of constituencies on the left or right.”

“Yep.  I agree.  I'm not partisan.  That's what I mean when I say I'm not a political person.”

I opted to change the subject at this point. “You said that you work for a non-profit organization. What exactly?”

“Well, nothing having to do with world affairs. I work for the Green Polis Project, basically an environmental protection agency, but it’s grass-roots, which I like….Oh, Kim, you’re here. Good.”

Kate turned her head upward, and my eyes followed the direction, as a woman in her mid thirties (I’m guessing cold without the Subtract rule) and with sandy blonde hair walked up to the table.  She had a pleasant demeanor, yet she seemed taken aback by my presence. Who is this guy?

“Kim, this is _______, an illustrator.”

Kim made a favorable face. “Oh? Neat! Nice to meet you.” She extended her hand, friendly but business-like. I guess my formal introduction to Kate, the one that Dan made so much fun of, wasn’t so peculiar after all.

“Kim’s my housemate and came to pick me up today,” Kate explained. “My car’s in the shop.  A gasket or something fell off, my dad says.”

Kim noticed my Pamuk novel on the table and tapped it. “Is this good? I saw it in the bookstore the other day. Looked interesting.”

I appreciated her attempt at small talk. We exchanged a few pleasantries. “Well, I should be going too,” I said. I had nowhere to go, but I didn’t want to look like the Nowheresville loser that I am. I’m currently rooming with Dan and his goofy sister Janis, and it’s not a pleasant situation. For the record, this is a temporary deal, until I can get a condo in West Palisades.

When I got to Dan’s place that evening I of course wanted to talk about my third real meeting with Kate. Dan and I have what I call high-silence-tolerance levels. We can be sitting at his kitchen table sometimes in complete silence for minutes on end. It drives his sister crazy. We have stuff to say, but feel no compunction to get it out quickly. But my interest in Kate insured a lively discussion, and such talk about females inevitably led Dan to lament his own loveless plight.

“Why can’t I find a woman?”


“No, seriously. Tell me.”

“No idea, Dan. Look, maybe you need to shave a little or something, and, I dunno, diversify your interests a bit?”

“Excuse me. I didn’t realize this is first-century Palestine that you would crucify me so!  Geez.”

I shrugged, rolled my eyes, and pondered a third body language of disapproval but the moment came and went. Don’t be an idiot, Dan.

“It’s not just about sex for me, okay? I want that emotional connection; at least that’s what I crave from afar. The problem is once you get to know them, spend time with them, they get annoying, what with their gossiping, wanting to talk about stuff, and demanding constant attention. You won’t get me to watch a chick flick, not in public at a theater, you won’t!”

“Dude, that is so sexist, you have no idea.”

“Wha-at?” Dan elongated the word and made it two syllables. His tone suggested he knew he was being an ass.

“Please don’t. You’re quite the romantic,” I remarked sarcastically.  “Let’s leave it at that.”

“Maybe I should start hanging out at Hazel’s if that’s where all the hotties are congregating, huh?”

I ignored the comment. I realized at that moment, if not years ago, that I’ve been looking for an interlocutor who is, let us say, more ethereal and sophisticated than Dan. I might have been presumptuous at this point, but I already thought I had found one in Kate, and perhaps more besides. Why I hang with Dan is beyond me.  Of course I feel an obligation to shoot the breeze with him lately, since I'm staying at his house.

For a time I had developed a friendship, an acquaintance really, with Roger Zobeck, one of the contributing writers of Spotlight. I’m not completely an ignoramus, but I was a bit out of my league when he would talk about U.S. foreign diplomacy.  We also went to a rock concert and hockey game. That was fun, but then he met his future wife, his Yoko Ono, and that was that.

Dan and I have had lots of conversations, but they usually revolve around bodily functions, sexual innuendos, or the latest horror flick. Like the old lady at Costco holding out salami-cheese balls on toothpicks, I’ll give you another sampling.

“No, I mean it. Maybe I can get hooked up. Does she have a friend?”

“Her housemate’s kinda hot, I guess,” I volunteered.  Dan grinned like a fiend. “But you can forget it.” Dan frowned like a clown. “I’m not looking for a date, okay? This isn’t about hanging out with some chicks.”

“I know that.” Our high silence-tolerant level kicked in for almost a minute before Dan followed up with, “What’s it about then?”

“I just want a sense of wholeness?” That was a statement with a question tone. “I don’t need much, but something’s missing.”

“That’s your problem, my man. You gotta stop drawing cartoons and reading novels and see the world.” Why, yes, by all means, I should listen to an overweight 36-year-old man who works in the basement for a hole-in-the-wall software firm, still has his mother cut the crust off when preparing his peanut butter sandwiches, and drinks Mountain Dew as if his life depended on it. And what’s with the ‘my man’ stuff. Are you in the hood chillin’ with ya homies back at the crib? Needless to say, I didn’t voice these thoughts. Dan’s quite sensitive, on the receiving, not the giving, end at any rate.

“Don’t let your meatloaf, bro,” he had to add.

“Dan, come on!”


“That’s getting old, and it’s not original.”

“But it’s what I do.”

“It’s what you do, is it?” I mocked.

“To guys I say, Don’t let your meat loaf. To the ladies I say, Don’t get your panties in a wad.”

“You say that to women? You do not!”

“Well, no, but I’ve thought about it.”

“I don’t doubt that.”

“They’d think it’s funny. Who uses that one anymore?”

“Just don’t.” Dan’s infectious stupidity was rubbing off on me yet again; when around him, I’m like a dog who regularly returns to his vomit. “But I wonder if you could combine them.”

“What do you mean?” he asked, getting excited.  Dan and _____ back in business!

“Don’t let your panties loaf. No. Makes no sense. Hmm. How about, Don’t get your meat in a wad?”

“Hey, that actually works!” Dan laughed ghoulishly. “It’s an unpleasant image, but it works, my friend.”

So much for Dan and our riveting discussion. I’d love to tell you about the conversation between Kate and Kim regarding me, but that would require an omniscient narrator. If you think I can afford one, you must be joking! However, I’ll make a stab at it. As they left Hazel’s and got in the car, it probably went something like this:

Kim: What a looker, Kate! He’s a keeper, and if you don’t want him, send him my way.

Kate: Nope. He’s mine. I’m just waiting for him to make his move and I’m all his. He’s so smart and has a certain je ne sais quoi.

Kim: If by that you mean he’s a dreamy hunkster, I’m with you.

Kate: I can’t figure out what I love most about him: his wit, his sensual masculinity, his Roman nose, his keen mind.

Kim: It’s all good.

Kate: Yeah, I suppose you’re right. No, you are right.

I concede that I’ve taken some liberties in my effort as omniscient narrator to piece together their dialogue, which happens to work highly in my favor. I suspect their chat went more along these lines.

Kim: That guy’s kind of freaky. He makes illustrations? Does he have a real job?

Kate: He helped me with my test, but I hope he doesn’t think I like him.

Kim: Be careful, Kate.

Kate: Yeah, though I must admit he’s a mountain of manhood and has quite a unit on him.

Kim: I’ll grant you that, girlfriend.

I couldn’t resist at the end.  Sorry.  Of course it is quite possible that they didn’t discuss me at all, but I shan’t entertain that possibility.

Once Thanksgiving was over, theythe ubiquitous and ominous theystarted playing Christmas music ad nauseum.  Yes, in November it seemd that the world was careening out of control and humanity was running amok. Work had been stressful. Thanks to my mocha café, and Kate too, I opted not to kill myself in light of such realities.

I swear to you I’m not a stalker, but by happenstance we bumped into each other; she was coming out of Manuela’s Mexican Restaurant with some work colleagues and I was making a beeline from my car toward Best Buy intent on getting my brother a headset for his new iPod system. She spotted me first. I tried to say something witty but was caught off guard.

“Hey, you!  We should get together at Hazel’s.  Been a while.”

“What time,” I said, as nonchalantly as possible.  I’ll fit you in if I can, but it doesn’t matter to me.

“Thursday, okay?”

“Yeah, sure, whatever works.” The powers of hell will not prevail against it, I thought to myself.

When I got back to work, the pressure of deadlines and a rattled editorial manager on my case sent me into a funk. I had to deliver a presentation to the board on Monday regarding Spotlight’s February issue.  They commissioned me to design the cover of the magazine. I’ve just illustrated articles and whatnot, never the cover. It was a great opportunity, and it would certainly look good on my resume.

On the downside, I don’t have any artistic freedom whatsoever. There are so many specifications for this piece. The issue will be thematic and feature articles and essays related to consensus-building in the community. Lame, if you ask me. One article will deal with gang-banging and poverty on the south side. Another is about the new community pool center. Anyway, they wanted me to depict significant members of the community—the mayor, the police chief, news anchorman—cartoon-like, smiling and holding hands. I would prefer to sketch out something more symbolic.

I turn 33 in December. Aren’t I supposed to usher in world peace or something? Raise the dead? Heal the sick? Something? Where is my life going? As I get older, I find myself becoming more and more existential. I need to carve out meaning for my life. Next Thursday was the only positive thing in my life.  On a late November evening, the one after I met Kate and her friends by chance in the parking lot, I decided to leave work early. Usually I'd go to the coffee shop to do my thinking and sketching, only to end up absorbed in a novel. This time I felt like driving...driving somewhere.  Well, not really, it's about the ride and not the destination.

Honestly, I’ve been virtually living in my car for about a week now. Dan and Janis got into a spat and it’s been ugly. It erupted when Dan had locked Genevieve, Janis’s cat, outside all day in the rain. When Janis got home she had a shit fit. I don’t know what Dan has against Genevieve; we’ve always gotten along well.

Was Thursday a setback or advancement in my “relationship” with Kate? I’ll let you decide. It started out well. We talked for about an hour. She learned some things about me; I learned some things about her. Where was this going? I guess it doesn’t matter. Does it have to go somewhere? I mean, I’m having a good time being in her company. Does she like me? Again, it’s of no consequence. It’s not about liking or not liking someone, it’s about…filling in the existential void and giving the illusion that we have purpose. At any rate, that’s what Genevieve told me one day when I was scratching her belly.

So what did we talk about exactly? Appropriately enough, we had a rather banal discussion about coffee in a coffee shop, and yet it seemed like something else was going on a deeper level.

“So have you always liked coffee?” she asked.

Just answer the question and don’t overcompensate nervousness with stupidity. “Pretty much. I’ve been a coffee-fiend since the womb.” I pantomimed a fetus sipping from a coffee mug. Quickly gloss over infantile comment with a serious response. “Actually, I didn’t really start drinking coffee until college. It came in handy when pulling those all-nighters for the term paper.”

“I had many of those too,” she responded.  “Still do!”

“Tell me about it!”

“I guess Procrastinator is my middle name.”

“Procrastinatrix, yeah.” I shot her an exaggerated pedantic face.


“Sorry, just being stupid again.”

“No, I mean, I know you’re joking, but what does it mean?”

“It’s the female version in Latin, I think. You know, like dominatrix.”

“Oh, right. Interesting. Where do you get this stuff?”

“I took Latin in college.”

“Why? Was that your major before you went into illustration and graphic design?” Jose Feliciano was wishing us a merry Christmas on the speaker over our table.

“Oh gosh, no. And I think the job market’s tough now!  What do you have to offer our software firm, Joe the Applicant? Well, I can tell people to fuck off in Latin. But seriously, I suppose I wanted some cultural depth to my life.  I dunno. Really, I wanted to impress guests at a kaffeeklatsch with such erudite references.”

“Mission accomplished!”  Kate's face lit up and melted my soul in the process.

“Here’s to pretentious no-name illustrators living a life of anomie in suburban America!”

“Don’t sell yourself short,” she said as she knocked her coffee cup against mine. I appreciated the sentiment.

“Tell me, smarty pants.” She looked at her cup. “Where does coffee come from? Kim says it came from the Dutch. Not that they invented it, but they brought it to America.”

“Well, not exactly.  A guy named....Guido was selling it at a stand and, lo and behold, a Dutch merchant vessel happens by.”

She rolled her eyes and humored me, “Where’s this Guido?”

“He’s on…uh…Frappuchino Island. Somewhere on the other side of the globe, I’m told.”

“Frappuchino Island, huh?  Sounds delicious.  Yum!”

“Well now, you say ‘yum,’ but be informed that they behead people there…”

“Do their necks ooze that delicious blend of steamed milk and mocha?”

“Nice!” I knew beyond a doubt at that moment what I already had known for weeks: I found a partner in crime.  A partner in crime much better looking than Dan.  Wait.  That didn’t come out right.  I’m not gay.

“So why doesn’t Kim ever come here?” I asked.