I spot a table with a free armchair and head straight for it, tense until I get close enough to it that I know no one can get to it before me; I throw my bag on the floor beside the chair and put my latte on the table, take off my coat, roll it up and dump it beside my bag on the floor; then I sit down with a sigh of relaxation. I'm aware that people might be looking at me so I look out of the window for a moment with a studied expression of innocent unawareness; let them see me as self-sufficient, attentive to my environment but uncaring of how I am perceived. It's a tricky pose but I think that over the years I've learned to perfect it. The pose of no-pose. It's the opposite of real Zen, but only I know that. One day I wondered how to be truly genuine, and since that day I've been a fake and found no way out of the trap.
Condensation on the window blurs the movement of people in the neon-bright street one floor down. The man selling flashing Santa hats is moving from foot to foot, constantly in motion because of the cold, seeming frantic. In fact everyone seems frantic, walking faster, buying more, drinking more coffee. Starbucks is a riot of sound. Everyone's sitting down and their words are swarming, each one a little window into another world. The couple at the table behind me are talking about buying a present for her mother. She's a size 16 but the girl is wondering if she'll be insulted to get a size 16 gift. "I could get her a size 14 and she can pretend it will fit and then exchange it later without telling anyone." "That's stupid," the guy says, and the girl says "Of course it is." I can't see their faces but this makes me smile and I think I might like them. They have a sense of humour. I become aware of my own smile and wonder if anyone sees me smiling and wonders what I'm smiling about. Maybe it makes me seem mysterious to be smiling at my own thoughts. Maybe it makes me seem insane. What would I think if I saw someone sitting on their own smiling? I'm not smiling any more now because I'm thinking, and when I realize this, I start to smile again.
I shake my head. Sarah. I'm here to think about Sarah and I don't even know why. There's nothing wrong in our relationship. Is there? I'm happy in my job and we spend a lot of evenings together. We're serious about each other but we're not ready to move in together yet. She's a really interesting and sweet person and we've a lot in common. There's nothing wrong, so what is it that I think I need to think about?
There's a newspaper folded up on the windowsill and a headline fragment grabs my eye: "KILL HER". I open the paper to see the full headline is "I DIDN'T KILL HER". Sure you didn't, I think automatically before even reading the article underneath. A man is accused of murdering his wife by setting fire to their house one night. He has serious gambling debts and the house and his wife's life were insured. The man put an electric heater under the covers of their spare bed and it caught fire. They had no guests that night. The man said that he was heating it up because they'd had a fight and he was going to sleep in it. He'd heated the bed up that way a hundred times before, he said. He was in the garden having a cigarette and brooding when the fire started, he said. He didn't even notice anything was wrong until one of the neighbours came sprinting across the street. Too late to save his wife. He must have been in the garden for half an hour at least, said the police. In his underwear, with the temperature about 5 degrees above freezing. The case continues. I'm lost in trying to figure out what I think. Is the man guilty or not guilty? It seems from the article as if he might be guilty. But is there enough information to decide? It all comes down to whether it's plausible for him to have stayed outside for that long in his underwear. But maybe their fight was really bad and he wasn't acting rationally. I remember when my first serious girlfriend dumped me; I stalked her around the college campus. I didn't eat for a couple of days. People do strange things when they're emotionally upset. It occurs to me that many important legal cases must hinge on whether or not a jury believes a story like this. People assume a jury is objective, but no person can be objective. All you have by which to judge someone's actions is your own understanding of how life works. I might be inclined to believe that the guy's story might be true. Someone else who hadn't had the opportunity to observe themselves turn into a highly irrational being for a short period of time might think that his story was incredible. It's totally random. This thought horrifies me and I look up from the newspaper with a frown.
A pretty blonde girl wearing a cute bobble hat and a tweed coat sits down at a table halfway across the room; she's got a hot drink and a chocolate chip muffin, which she sets down on the table before taking off her coat. As she's taking the coat off she looks around and catches me looking at her, and I look away to one side quickly, pretending that I'm just looking around the room in general. I look back at the newspaper for a moment, pretending that I'm reading it, then glance back at her; she's sitting down now, picking off a piece of muffin to pop in her mouth. She has a cute mouth and a fine-boned Nordic face, but her eyes seem lifeless, and I look back at my newspaper, deciding that Sarah is prettier and telling myself that I'm not attracted to this girl. This makes me feel good about myself for a moment, because being attracted to other girls makes me feel guilty. I can't help it and I don't know what to do about it. It doesn't seem voluntary, and yet I could never admit it to Sarah because she would get upset and accuse me of wanting to sleep with other girls. I'm supposed to be a certain way that I can't be, so I have to pretend, and if I'm going to do it properly I have to pretend even to myself, but I find that hard. I glance at the blonde girl again. She's looking at me! She looks away quickly and pretends to be looking around the room in general. I look back at my newspaper feeling even better about myself. It's all right for other people to be attracted to me, after all. No need to feel guilty about that.
I realize after another moment that I'm still not reading the newspaper, and put it down on the table. Take a sip of coffee. Cradle the mug in my hands. A comforting feeling. I can feel the effects of the caffeine already, sharpening my attention and speeding up my thoughts slightly. I feel the intensity of it behind my eyes, like the throb of something trying to emerge. Quite a powerful drug, really, no wonder there are so many addicts out there. I remember Sarah. What was it I wanted to think about? I want to figure out if something's wrong. I don't know how to think about it. I picture her face as clearly as I can, trying to see if that brings up the feelings that I need to look at. She has a round, clear face and medium-length dark brown hair that frames it in an oval. I always thought she looked like my mother, and I have to concentrate to avoid their images becoming confused in my imagination. Surely something Freudian there. Could that be what's wrong - that she reminds me of my mother? I hope not because there's nothing she or I can do about that. I don't want us to break up, I just want to know what's wrong. I want to know why I feel like there's something wrong. Her eyes. She has intense, intelligent green-brown eyes with thin but well-defined eyebrows. When I saw her looking at me that first time in the pub I felt a little pulse in my head and I forgot to look away. I forgot to pretend that I wasn't looking at her, and we held each other's gaze for a long time. Everything was easy after that.
Thinking of her face isn't helping. I can't focus on it - it keeps shifting, being overlaid with other images, memories of her at a particular place and time. My memory is full of her, and so many other things. I sip my coffee again and glance over at the blonde girl. She's apparently engrossed in a book. I try to see the title but her fingers are covering it. The cover is black and it looks familiar. In another moment I recognize it as one of the new editions of the Lord of the Rings books. She's probably just seen the latest movie and decided she's going to read the books. It's the first one, and she's right at the beginning. This makes me smile, because I was 10 when I first read The Lord of the Rings. I wonder what it would be like to read it for the first time as an adult. Right at that moment she looks up, and directly at me, seeing me smiling. I look away, but not before I see a small smile on her face as she looks back at her book quickly. Shit. Connection. Now I have to feel bad. I feel gratified that she's looking at me, but what am I doing? Nothing can happen. I'm not interested. I'm just being a selfish egomaniac, playing the first stages of the flirting game so I can feel attractive. Or is there something else going on? Am I, subconsciously, doing this because I've already decided to break up with Sarah? Am I preparing myself for the time when these looks and smiles might be more than significant - for a time when I might get up from my table and ask the blonde girl if I can join her, start talking about The Lord of the Rings? If it's subconscious, am I to blame? Am I wrong or right? Am I a good or a bad person?
I find my fingers starting to flex. This always happens me when I find myself in a trap like this. I try to breathe calmly and stop torturing myself. No one's watching me. No one is assessing my actions every minute of every day except me.
Sarah. I shake my head again, slowly. Why is it so hard to concentrate on one thing? There's nothing to focus on, that's why. You can't think about a relationship in the abstract. There's nothing there to think about. There's no algorithm governing the interaction of two unpredictable humans. Three months ago we talked about "our relationship" because we'd been having some bad arguments. We decided it was a good relationship and we wanted to stay together, and we stopped arguing. It had been stupid stuff anyway - tidiness, punctuality, attitude to various small lifestyle issues. We decided not to try to change each other, and things have been better since then. Haven't they? I feel like there are icebergs moving slowly in my mind, grinding against each other, changing me, vast movements and currents I'm barely aware of. Through the whole conversation with Sarah about "our relationship" I felt like a fake. I felt that I didn't know what I was talking about, and she did. I didn't know what "our relationship" was and I still don't. I don't know what this feeling is. Why would I want to break up with her? There's nothing wrong with her. I love her. I mean, I really love her. It's something I've told myself and her so many times that it must be true. Even if we broke up now I would still tell everyone, and myself, that I still loved her, that I'd always loved her. It has to be true, or there's nothing true about me at all. That's what scares me the most.
There it was again - that thought, "if we broke up now". Why do I keep thinking that? There's no reason, no reason at all. What reason could I possibly give her? My fingers start flexing again, energy from other places in my body trying to express itself in the only way available. I never could control my hands. I look around to check no one is looking at me. The blonde is absorbed in her book. The couple behind me have gone silent. A group of 6 or 7 young Chinese girls are sitting around a single small table, all talking at once. Maybe it only seems to me that they're all talking at once because I don't understand what they're saying. I try to focus more closely on the sounds coming from their table and for some reason, maybe the caffeine, this action suddenly makes all the sounds in the entire cafe lose their distinction, and all I can hear is one sound, a single cacophony of dozens of voices overlapping with the clink of coffee mugs and the sound of gentle jazz music. It makes me feel detached, and I sit back in my chair.
I'm seven years old and my mother is telling me that one day I'll find the person I'm meant to spend the rest of my life with. I can even see what she's wearing - blue jeans, and a red poloneck sweater with a gold chain worn on the outside. I'd asked her about sex, and she started to talk to me about love. I tried so hard to understand, but she was confusing me. I wanted physical facts - what is it for? How does it work? Do you do it with dad? Is it nice? When can I do it? Because she was embarrassed and repressed she only felt able to give me information about an abstraction - love. One day I would meet a person I loved, and everything would happen naturally. I would know what to do, she said. I would meet a girl and I would just know (in my heart) that we were meant to be together. I had to take her word for it. Every time I saw a girl I tried to feel my heart, but it confused me. I didn't know what I was supposed to feel. She was sitting in front of me, her cheeks red, trying to talk about love. "There's a person out there for you," she said. "God will make it happen." I obsessed over this idea, especially when I reached puberty. What if the person I was meant to be with lived in a distant country and we never met? What if they died? Were they allowed to die before we met? People just die sometimes. Would I never be able to feel love if that happened? And what did all this have to do with sex? My mother told me you were only supposed to have sex with someone you loved, but everyone else was saying something different. My friends talked about it in a way I found exciting - forbidden, strange physical acts that felt - we were sure - amazing in a way no other thing could be. The Ultimate. And you didn't have to be in love. You could do it with ANYONE, the prettier the better. She sat in front of me with her red cheeks and her eyes that suddenly couldn't meet mine. I asked her questions she couldn't answer, the first time that had ever happened. I felt very alone then. In fact, it was probably the last time that I ever asked either of my parents about something I really needed to know. They were no longer infallible. I started to read books. From then on, though they didn't know it, I was alone in my own mind. She lost me and she never knew why.
Shake my head again. Feel strange, as if something is trying to cloud my mind. An evil old wizard from a fantasy novel, or a slow, dark movement of the unconscious mind, forces trying to manipulate me like a chess piece. If anyone knew I was thinking like this, would they think I was crazy? Why can't I figure out what's wrong with me? Why amn't I happy? That's really the problem, isn't it? It's nothing to do with Sarah. I'm not happy, and she's all I have to blame. But am I just grasping at this explanation so that I don't have to do anything? Am I just looking for a coward's way out? Why isn't there anyone I can ask who knows about these things? Parents, books, teachers, friends, no one knows anything except what they learned from their own life, and this is my life. What they know is no good to me. I can't visualize her face properly. I can't figure out how I feel about her. When I think of her I feel torn in half. Part of me wants things always to be the same and part of me wants everything to change right now, this instant. Creation and destruction. The blonde girl takes a bite of her muffin and her eyes rise up trying to find mine, but I'm not interested any more, my mind is paralyzed and my fingers are flexing again. Trapped energy, trapped thought, like acid in the veins and electricity in the sinews. The noise is continuous everywhere; everyone is always moving, going from one place to another, one activity to another, barely finished doing one thing before the next calls them like a pipe charming a snake. Movie's over? Let's make some cocoa and go to bed. Home from a hard day at work? Have some dinner, watch some TV. Spare hours stretching out in front of you? Fill them. With anything. What am I doing now? Drinking my coffee, thinking about my girlfriend, "our relationship", pretending not to be self-conscious. But self-consciousness is consuming me, a virus I can't shake, a black hole blindly sucking light and matter to itself, unable to stop. A black hole doesn't want to destroy the fabric of the universe. It has no choice. It's become a monster, created by the same laws that it breaks. All of this drama, this cosmology and urgency, and yet nothing's happening. I'm sitting in a chair, that's all. My fingers are flexing. Look at yourself. Look at yourself. People will think you're crazy.
Just go home, and do what comes naturally. You'll never figure it out. There's no punishment if you get it wrong. Do what you want to do. If you fuck up, you'll be wiser later. There's no one person for you. There's nothing. There's just this. No one knows anything. Don't ask how I know this, don't ask, there's no answer. You already know what to do. You know. I know.
I draw a circle on the window with a fingertip. Leonardo da Vinci could draw a perfect circle freehand. I always thought I'd be someone like that. Someone special. I thought I'd do something real, but instead everything I do is in my head. I'm the good wizard, the brave hero and the innocent child all in one. I walk through the myth of myself. I'm drinking overpriced coffee in a sinkhole for affluent wannabe intellectuals. I put the toilet seat down at home after I piss because my girlfriend can't stand to see it left up. Someone said to me that it won't be long before she asks me to sit down when I piss. "It happens," they said. "Girls like that work in stages." I don't know if that's true and I don't know how they would know. Maybe they got it from television and it's bullshit, but how can I be sure? I like it when we snuggle up together to watch a movie. I like it when we fuck. But when we try to talk about something important it's as if we're separated by interstellar distances. Lying on our backs in bed with eyes closed and the walls expand outwards until I'm just a speck, trying to find my way through an invisible labyrinth of words and meanings. She cries and I don't know why. I try to tell her how I feel and I don't know if she's understood. We don't see each other, and if we don't, what two people could?
I put eyes and a smiley mouth in the circle, and look around. The blonde girl is watching. I shrug and smile, and she smiles genuinely. But what is she smiling at? Does she think I'm crazy or interesting? Maybe she doesn't know what she thinks. Maybe none of us know anything at all. Which is a good thing. There are a million stories waiting for us like spiderwebs for flying things, and once you're caught the only way to get loose again is to remember that you were never that flying thing. You never were anything at all.
This is a work of original fiction. Not autobiography. Though I'm flattered if you think it was realistic enough to be real!