after she left

Some of us only stayed to avoid the pervading cold wet outside.  Jackson stayed for love.  I was working on a chapter revision for a novel I was not sure I would ever complete, but I was never sure I would complete any given task, especially those for which I was only self-accountable, when he interrupted with a loud sigh.  I lifted a brow at him while keeping my eyes locked on the awkward sentence I was trying to repair.  He took the cue.
“So…” he inhaled broadly and paused for a second, looking past me to the slick, grey streets beyond, “that girl in the far corner, with her back to us,” I looked up from my screen to the place he indicated and nodded at him, “that girl dumped me in our first year at college for a druggie.”
I stared at Jackson for about a minute, trying to decipher the significance of this.  I knew that he had a rough time at love during his early adulthood, but it only came up when Jackson was particularly pensive.  We had known each other for a decade strong, and so I understood that one factor in his lady luck was his own obsessiveness.  When Jackson met a new woman it was an occasion for a parade, and when he lost one it was an occasion for a procession.

“Yeah?”  I finally coughed out.  He was back to staring at her, his lip pinned in by his front teeth.

“Yeah.”  His voice was deflated.

I was skeptical that the story ended there, but I needed further evidence if I was going to push it, so I looked back down at my screen, offering him a glance now and then to suggest I was still listening.  He got up from the worn couch and shuffled away to the bathroom.  The residual winter salt and sand ground under his feet as he disappeared down the stairs.  I sat bemused, looking at his vacant seat with a question on my face.  The indents he left in the sparkling gold vinyl were a few hours deep.  I wondered how long he had been sitting there stewing in this memory before I joined him.

The sharp hiss of the espresso machine’s steamer pulled me from wonder.  I looked at my little white mug, then at my shaking fingers, then at the barrista.  What the hell. I thought.  I already had the shakes, may as well get a top-off and keep warm.  I coaxed my atrophied body up and over to the counter.  The sole employee of the quaint indie coffee house saw me coming and asked, “Refill?”.

“Dark please.”  I replied flatly.  I handed him my mug and looked back towards my booth, eyeing my laptop, Jackson’s lingering vinyl dimples looked like an ass mold from across the room.  As I waited for my warm up I thought briefly about my surroundings.  Uptown, Minneapolis was a weird place to be genuine.  Excitement was unfashionable, for example.  Years ago you could be a young pre-hipster coffee enthusiast and show your excitement or act friendly towards the employees of the indie shops, but not anymore.  Appearing to enjoy the act of purchasing coffee, consuming it, or any other aspect of patronage was punishable with death by shooting daggers.  The exception to this was, of course, weekend evenings when all the cool kids were getting drunk and high instead of jittery.

I heard a knocking and startled myself back to reality.  The barista was looking at me with a near tisk tisk on his face.  “Fifty cents,” he slid the mug a few inches toward my resting hand and popped the register drawer open with a loud clang.  Antique cash registers had found a second life in Uptown.  There was no raw sugar or honey on the counter, forcing me to settle for half-and-half.  I took my beige drink back to my seat, my shaking hand now dripping slightly with stinging hot coffee.  I set the mug down, wiped my fingers on the front of the small couch, and read the last line I had written: That he ignored her dismissal made him more attractive to her vodka soaked id.  I highlighted the whole line and snuffed it.  I hated writing.

Jackson appeared again from the basement, but from the looks of him he had aged five years and won or lost a welter-weight boxing match.  I watched cautiously as he looked away from me and towards her, nose in book, pony tail pointing like a windmill east to his west.  I grew tense seeing him stand there with frozen impulses.  In a panic I wondered if I should rush over and stand between them, preventing her from catching the creepy leer on his face.  I hadn’t seen his gentle face contort into such vexation before, I was embarrassed for him then, and had just set my laptop on the brown cushion next to me when the most dreadful eruption occurred.  If I had been holding my mug I may have dropped it, as Jackson had begun to scream across the four or five feet between he and the girl.  “PORTLAND GET TOO BORING, SARAH?!”  She looked up in terror, mouth hanging dumb.  He had more than the girl’s attention at this point.  One of the nearby patrons quickly stood to intervene, told Jackson to calm down and go take a seat.  Jackson wound up in a trembling rage, threatening to strike, but he backed off as he looked around the shop and saw the concern trained on him.  I was involved before I fully knew it, and began trying to usher Jackson back to our corner to collect our things and avoid getting eighty-sixed, or, I hated to think, arrested.  We bumped into the closely spaced tables and chairs as I gave the barista a look asking if we leave now we’re cool?  I slid my laptop into it’s case still powered on, which I had vowed not to do after the incident last winter where, to my horror, a small wisp of smoke snuck out like a genie granting me the need for a new computer.  Worth the risk this once.  I thought, and slid the strap of the case over my shoulder.  I grabbed Jackson’s power cord, yanked it from the wall and wound it for him while he shoved his papers together, a drip of sweat or sorrow staining every other page.

Once we were outside and a good distance from the tumult, I had to press it.  “What the hell just happened, man?”  I looked sideways at him as we crossed Aldrich Avenue.  He looked away, wiping his nose, pretending to check for cars.  His voice shook and cracked as he attempted to explain.

“Sarah and I were engaged.”  He told me, his cheeks went splotchy red and white and he looked away again.  This frustrated me.  Being in public frustrated me.  I wanted to to stop him right there and just hug it out, but the impulse hit several social behavior filters and I second guessed the idea.  We walked one more block to Bryant, and was about to hop over the pile of slushy snow between myself and the street when he stopped.  I ignored the freezing cold November drizzle, waiting for an emotional path to become clear.  It felt so clumsy, and the whole time I spoke half of me ached to stop, but my words had already crested the top of the hill and now I was struggling just to keep on the rails.  I was taking gasping breaths in all the wrong places and sounded like a confused child.

“Jackson, you and I both know…” I searched the skin about his jaw for signs of clenching, found none, “that you have a pretty fucked up sense of romantic love and… not and, but look, I mean… in over ten years I have not seen you look so… homicidal, and yet… you have never mentioned this person to me?”  My sputtering seemed to calm him a few degrees, so I placed my hand on his shoulder and looked him straight-faced, passers-by be damned, “So what if you were engaged?”, I demanded, “that shit happens all the time.”  A defensive furrow began to form over his eyes and nose, but I was ready, “So, it seems to me that there is something REALLY particularly painful that happened between you two, and if you can’t talk about it, I understand, but if you need to, you should, and I promise whatever it is…”

At this he released an encouragingly deep sigh.  I knew that now he was holding that singular painful memory just at the inside of his forehead, and that from there I could guide it out.



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