I didn't look up from my book. "Busy," I mumbled. Go away.
"That's too bad. You miss a lot when you keep your head down like that."
I pretended to be engrossed in the book. Truth is, I didn't even know its name. I'd bought it for a buck at a little used book store because a face buried in a book is a good way to say leave me alone without having to actually speak. Some people, though, are body language illiterate.
My eyes scanned the page without really bothering to do the work. Something about a murder. Some guy, maybe a butler. He was either the killer or the author's stand-in amateur sleuth who would solve the crime. Who gave a shit?
I sighed heavily. My unwanted companion was marvelously bad at missing the point.
It was funny, in a way. I'd spent years wanting attention. Then when everything fell apart, when I headed to a place where I could be anonymous, alone, nurse my grief and anger, I couldn't even drink a coffee and read a shitty murder mystery in peace. It was time to stake out my space, time to be rude.
"I'm really not interested in conversation," I said, lowering the book. "Now would you..."
Dark brown eyes full of mischief met my gaze. They smiled out of a round face.
"That's better," she said. "You've gotta put those books down sometimes, look at the world. See what there is."
Her eyes flicked down, went to my coffee cup. Her finger traced lazy circles around the top. I watched, momentarily mesmerized. Slowly, carefully, I traced back from her finger, down her forearm, to the elbow resting on the edge of the cafe table, up a toned, olive forearm, across a round shoulder, up her neck.
She was smiling at me, her mouth drawn wide, a welcoming array of white teeth and dimpled cheeks.
"You have nice eyes," she said, "Soft. Smart."
"Yeah, soft. Like the world can still reach you."
She obviously didn't know me. I'd given up and sealed off the world long ago. Still, I played along. I didn't know why, but I wanted to keep that smile, those dimples, and that pair of mischievous eyes around.
"I, uh, I try to keep an open mind," I shrugged, hoping it was a gesture of nonchalance.
"You should smile," she said. "I'll bet your eyes light up."
I snorted. "I doubt that. It's been a while."
"Huh?" I raised an eyebrow at her. "How can you know that?"
"Your face is sad," she told me. "I saw that when you came and sat down. That only happens when you forget how to smile."
"There's no much to smile about," I guess.
The last few months had been tough. There was no way around it. Letters from one school after another. I wasn't qualified for their program. I was qualified, but I was too late. Wait, you might be able to make the alternate list. Then the call. My contract wasn't to be renewed. Budgets, you know. Best of luck, let us know if you need a letter of recommendation. You did a wonderful job. We'll keep you on mind if things get better next year.
Then, at the lowest, the two worst words in the world. "I'm leaving." The bitch. She always knew how to kick me when I was down.
I hated her. I loved her.
I hated myself for loving her. I hated myself for missing her. I'd even taken her special ringtone off of my phone. Now every time someone called I allowed myself to hope that maybe it was her, calling to say she was sorry, calling to say she was wrong.
What the fuck was my problem?
"There's plenty to smile about." Her hand came off my coffee cup, brushed a stray wisp of her black hair over her ear. "You just need to know where to look."
The left corner of my mouth twitched ever so slightly upward. "Maybe you're right," I said.
"Maybe?" Her eyes flashed. "I am right."
"You're awfully sure of yourself."
"I know." She took my right hand in her left, produced a pen. "Call me, soft eyes," she said. The pen moved across my skin. Sophie. Ten digits.
"Don't you even want to know my name?" I asked.
"Call me, Jim. But don't wait too long."
And then she was gone.
I stared at my shitty murder mystery for five or ten minutes. Maybe it was a half-hour. Maybe it was forever.
The words blurred together. I got up, began walking. I'd left everything behind, come to this alien city where the sun burned bright against my skin. And yet I carried her with me wherever I went. The first thing that went in to my suitcase, I now realized, was the hurt, the loss, the shame. It's why I always went to one album when I grabbed my mp3 player and put on my headphones.
And if I told you
That I'm sorry
Would you tell me
You were wrong?
Would you hold me down forever
If I came to you for answers?
I remembered that first night. We'd sat and talked until the sun came up. It was like a scene out of a movie. I'd thought it was the one that came at the end, where after wading through all the shit of life the two people suddenly came together. It was an accident, y'know? She's walking in to her house, carrying a paper bag of groceries with two loaves of french bread sticking out of the top because that's the kind of grocery bag women carry in movies. He's walking down the street, head down, depressed, wearing a black pea coat and counting his steps.
They meet. By accident. French bread flies, oranges roll across the pavement, because beneath the french bread there are always oranges. He apologizes profusely, eyes still on the ground, seeking those runaway groceries. Finally he hands her an orange, looks at her for the first time.
Meg Ryan always played that role I think. Probably Julia Roberts, too. I haven't seen those movies in a long time. Who plays that role now? Anne Hathaway? Kirsten Dunst? Amy Adams? Do they still make movies like that?
She never dragged me to movies like that. Maybe it was a sign that something was horribly wrong. Guys always get dragged to those movies by their girlfriends, always complain about it, talk about how if they don't go they won't get any. Yet I think that there's something in those movies that guys want, too. We can't all be Bruce Willis or Daniel Craig saving the world and making wisecracks. But we can be Billy Crystal, Vince Vaughn, or Seth Rogan, fumbling our way endearingly towards something great.
At least, some days I like to think that's the way it works.
I remember that first night, that night we talked until the sun came up. I drove home listening to Matt Nathanson singing about how he wanted someone to tell him how pretty the world is. I knew then that I would always think of her when that album came on. I always thought it would have happy connotations.
Funny. I listened to his live CD for the first time not long after. I listened to him introduce a song that was on an EP. He told the audience that it was from a CD of songs that basically bashed one particular girl. All of the other songs were on that CD that I'd once thought was so happy. It took me a while to put it together, but one day it hit me.
Well I'm surrounded, you spill
All alive and brand new
And I forget about you long enough
To forget why I need to
I saw pictures in my head
And I swear I saw you opening up again
Cuz I would be heavenly
If baby you'd just rescue me now
My steps carried me back to my little rented room and I sat on my empty, rented bed.
Matt Nathanson told me all about it. He told me all about happy songs turned in to dirges, joy turned to loss.
She was broken when I met her. Truth was, I was, too. I thought I could rescue her, thought I could rescue myself if I did it right.
But there was no happiness to be found there.
Still, I loved her. I missed her. When I closed my eyes I could still see hers, so close, yet so very, very far.
I stared at the wall. I blinked, saw those eyes for a split second every time mine closed.
Once, just once, I saw a pair of mischievous, dark eyes framed in a round, olive face.
I sat in my little rented room by myself for three days before I finally picked up the phone and dialed those ten digits on my hand.