When I saw her, and saw that it was her, I looked at the menu hanging up above the counter, and saw that they still had the bagel with peanut butter, although it now sold for $3.49, which I thought was too high, but for the sake of nostalgia, I bought it.
Back in the early 2000s, it was $1.99 for a bagel covered with peanut butter, and it seemed like a bargain. Of course, that was just the illusion from being in a restaurant. In 2002, right before the war, six bagels could cost 2 dollars and a jar of peanut butter 4 dollars, and someone could (like me), eat bagels every day for a week. But between classes, a perfectly toasted bagel dripping with peanut butter gave me the energy to attend classes, and given the high cost of school even then, it seemed like a bargain. So putting aside my dislike at spending so much for a peanut butter bagel, I paid the whole three dollars and forty nine cents, and headed over to her table.
She looked the same, mostly, two decades later. Black hair, streaked with grey, pulled into a bun. Sweater and jeans, worn look on her face, eyes pointing down at some type of ledger covered with numbers, tea and banana (ick!) by her side. I cleared my throat, and looked at her, acting as I had just seen her, as if this was a surprise. And for the first minute or so, while we were (pretending to be) recalling each other, we talked in the high pitched, excited voice of people who had spent the past 15 years thinking about each other. Only, of course, I knew that she had thought of me. Maybe not consciously, but she knew on some level that the last time we were here, is when her life had started to disappear.
I talked to her, just asking general questions "What have you been up to", as if all the struggles of the past two decades were like a weekend of movies and hiking. And I reciprocated, giving a hint or two about my own life. But at some point, I could see the polite chirpiness was exhausted, and I suddenly changed gears. I looked into her eyes, brown with tints of hazel, and asked:
"You know why it happened, right?"
"What," and she blinked, I couldn't tell if this was avoiding or if she wasn't quite ready for this shift in gears.
"Why your life has been so disappointing and empty. It is because of what happened here, last time. Why what you did backfired."
She sat back, the look of puzzlement in her eyes replaced by one of scorn, mixed with desperate curiosity. Was this the reason?
I cleared my throat. "It is usually a pretty simple thing. Two people meet. They exchange value. Well, "exchange" doesn't really work here, because only one person gains. One person loses. Its a zero sum game. I was probably not more than a brief snack that day, someone from your class who was clearly weak, someone who could be briefly denigrated, and it would give you a little boost for a while. I know how this works. But what you didn't think of was I wasn't just a low value person. I wasn't even a no-value person. I was a negative value person. You started feeding, but you absorbed only my negative value. And its been there ever since."
And this is where she could have come clean, started to reconcile. But instead, she huffed "Excuse me?"
"Oh, and technical note: your program is probably set to stop draining when you reach a certain level of small value. Let the herd replenish itself. But since I was already at a negative value, you never hit that trigger. You just kept on imbibing my utter worthlessness. And its been with you ever since. The world has been disappointing since then, and nothing you can do can reverse that."
And I saw acknowledgement in her eyes. She knew.
But all she said was "I think it is time for you to leave. I will call security if you don't leave."
I took a big bite of my bagel and chewed it leisurely. I could see in her eyes two things: a need to get out of the negative value state she had absorbed from me, and a need to protect the game, to believe that zero sum games were just the innocent toys that all people lived through. In the end, inertia won. She got up nervously and found a nearby security guard. My bagel was almost gone, and my mouth was messy. I dabbed at it with a napkin. The security guard came over "What seems to be the problem?". I looked at them. Now, if you were to describe a place where people go when they want to participate in the zero sum game of devaluing others to get a boost for themselves, security guard would be one of them. The security guard looked at me and I looked at them, looked at the flash in their eyes, where they expected to have a little satiation. But then they looked in my eyes, and they saw what my old classmate was too slow to realize: that if they fed from me, they would be taking in only negative value, more than they could handle, and that they would have decades of greyness and exhaustion ahead of them. "Well I don't think we need to make a big deal of this..." they weakly said, their voice trailing off as I finished my bagel and walked outside, leaving the memory of me being there to recede, as they both went forward in a life of disappointments.