As They Move
A short I wrote.
The girl, six-foot, dirty blonde, wearing a floral scarf, mellow-toned sweater and blouse, and black leggings, confident but bubbly, Adrianne squinted at me.
“Hi, I’m Adrianne!” she came to the chair in front of me and introduced herself. I did not look much older than her. She squinted at my movements, or maybe that was just how she made eye contact in a one-on-one. She was the first one to read the sign, take enough time to comprehend what it meant, walk into the cafe, and invite herself to the table.
“Is it odd that I feel this had been done a hundred times over in a different setting? I’m still enthused by the concept. Do you think you can really do it?”
“Well I’m in a Catch-22. I already got my friend who already allocated funds to support and advertise me. I already told the rest of my friends about it. If I left before the twenty-eighth, I’d be eternally shamed by all of them. My parents and my two sisters would probably be pretty disappointed in me, even more than they were when I told them about the whole thing. If I stay, I’m damned, and same if I leave. However, I guess it’s not really a Catch-22 - if I make it, I’ll probably gain a wind of fame. If I don’t, I’ll gain a wind of notoriety. I guess it’s a win-kind-of-win situation. I don’t have much money right now and with all the local news buzzing about this, I’m bound to garner donations. Interviews and news articles and blog posts and photographs exploding on the internet and everywhere else. That’s what I want. I’m curious.”
She gave a longer than usual squint at my facial features and smiled. Maybe squinting had been a habit that translated from trying to see things more clearly as a kid to trying to understand things more lucidly as an adult. Or maybe she just had horrible vision.
“I’m an art student, and I’d love to document this journey of yours. See? You already got what you’re going for on the first day. I guess most things start off that way. I know somewhere in you, you don’t want to get your hopes up for the rest of the month, but really, false encouragement never hurt, right?”
I couldn’t read any sarcasm from her lips. The line piled to the door as people fled in from the unexpected coldfront. Everybody wore thin jackets or t-shirts. Some had long pants.
“What do you do when you’re not sitting in a cafe, trying to pull off some avant-garde, but overdone stunt? Are you just bored? Do you long for attention? I know you mentioned media and interviews and articles, but is that really what you want to get out of this? I hadn’t heard of you before seeing the sign at this cafe - I walk by here every day. I looked up some of your older work and barely found anything. Do you consider yourself an artist? The only other considerable piece you did was that statue that melted. It didn’t even have a name? But you graduated from Yale five years ago? Where have you worked? What have you done since college?”
“I can’t answer all your questions because I don’t remember them. I’m not an artist, I just don’t know what I’m doing and like to be pretentious. I am young people. They don’t know what they’re doing and like to be pretentious in whatever they find themselves doing when they finally realize they’re doing something that society says is worthwhile. What are you doing in school right now? Are you trying to follow me this next month for some publication you’re working on or some supplemental art piece for a class? I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do after this, but I’m ecstatic just talking to you. Don’t you ever think that young people worry about how things should be and how things will be instead of how things are? I also realized just now that that baristas all stay behind the counter and don’t serve customers and I am at the table furthest from them and I will need to eventually get some food.”
“Let me order something for you,” she comforted. She bought me a spinach and chicken panini that I ate slowly as she questioned further.
“Doesn’t it irritate you when the only intelligent things a person says are from other people, and they talk excessively?”
The sandwich sounded better than it tasted. Too much spinach, which they smashed to a mush, slushed around the bitten off chicken in my mouth. It was almost sandy and all I had was coffee. I didn’t want to ask more of Adrianne. I knew the coffee would give me cotton mouth in a few. When I realized this, I swallowed and stopped eating. I was still hungry.
“But isn’t anything anybody ever says just derived from what they’ve heard or read from other people?”
“A few people have new thoughts. Those are the people I like.”
“How do you know they’re new? Do you search everything they say online and validate it by checking that there are no similar results between what they say and what’s in the matches? What if somebody thirty seconds ago across the street said the same thought, and although the person in front of you didn’t consciously hear it, their subconscious somehow processed it and regurgitated it back to the surface for you to hear? Do you have new thoughts? If you gave ten groups of early humans enough time, they’d all surely discover the wheel, no?”
“I mean new thoughts to them. Being derived is not the same as being simply regurgitated. Rhetoric and socratic questioning are the basis of new thought. It’s old news: you bounce new ideas off each other until you figure something out. Did you learn anything else from your liberal arts education?”
Sometimes you forget things on purpose, and sometimes you don’t.
“What’s the point of ‘new thoughts to them’? Isn’t the purpose of thought just to progress this society? We work to progress thoughts anyways. Even if people do just regurgitate thoughts, it’s like a game of telephone. Thoughts morph until they become something entirely new. Of course people regurgitate thoughts. But I don’t think you’ll ever know if everything they said was simply re-said or if they derived and brought something new to the conversation. In plus, aren’t most new thoughts that aren’t entirely objective that end up being revolutionary or passed down through generations or truly contributing to society initially heard as absurd or impossible or ‘unintelligent?’ What if all the dumb shit he’s saying is actually the beginning of a new discovery? Now, that’s a bit optimistic but who are you to judge how intelligent the things he’s saying are anyways?”
A man walked in with a Brioni coat that looked well-fitted but also gave him a certain braun and stature that you could feel in the eyes of people standing next to him. Were tall people just commonplace around here? We both glanced every few seconds discretely to the left side of the cafe where the line built up and where this man stood suspiciously. He stepped forward, paused, and looked at his Breitling. I couldn’t tell if I was magnifying his presence because of his apparent wealth or because of the sweaty suspicious expression on his face as he kept looking around and checking the time. He got to the front of the line and ordered. The barista looked at him, frozen. She maintained eye contact with him while she instinctively hit buttons on the touchscreen in front of her. How long did it take for her to achieve that level of instinct? The man walked out before his order came. The barista, Ashley, didn’t yell the name and order like she did for everybody else because she’d watched him walk out. A couple minutes later he rushed back in and grabbed the bag and drink and stormed out. I have good vision.
“Don’t you wonder what he does? I bet he studied somewhere like Yale and really took advantage of everything there. Now everybody in the room stops for him.” Adrianne looked at me unmoved by the possibility of me being slightly offended since I didn’t seem like I ‘really took advantage of all the resources there.’ Could it really be that I didn’t? Is a meaningful, respectable life just a matter of taking advantage of things? Is that a measure of how much people should admire you? She looked at me, waiting for a response.
“I don’t really care for the material things in life. I find that constantly expressing myself through drawing and writing is fulfillment enough. Having the best of everything could be overwhelming.”
It’s always difficult to figure out how to talk to people when the last thing they said was purely about themselves. I used to often try to make a comment on what they said. Like a “Oh wow, blank is interesting to me,” or “That blank sure does blank.” I was young people. A lifeless answer, I learned more recently, is a lot worse than no answer at all. Because you’re actually killing something. It’s like how killing somebody is a felony, but sitting on a bench and not doing anything is completely acceptable. It’s almost peaceful, in fact. The eye of the storm usually calls for some calm meditation that makes the rest of the night feel a lot safer and a lot more exciting.
I can’t remember how long Adrianne had been there by that time. She came down to talk to me probably half an hour after the cafe opened. Her steps pierced the floor, as her heels were high, and she did not know how to walk fluidly yet. Time flew by, but I could still feel the sound of the heels. She looked at me now with a blatant expression on her face.
“Well, I appreciate the talk. I thought you’d have more questions for me. Isn’t the point of this whole thing to get to know people?”
“I’m not sure, isn’t conversation more a matter of constant give and take? I don’t think a conversation needs questions. What do you think about all the people disappearing?”
Maybe she was right, but I hadn’t rehearsed any fantasies in my mind before doing this. I just went for it. Wasn’t life about going all in and seeing where it takes you? Adrianne would be back within the next couple days and maybe I’d ask her a few better questions then. Maybe I’d get to know her legitimately and not like how you might meet somebody in a cafe and laugh over some guy spilling coffee all over himself because he was trying to juggle his wallet, phone, and a tray of drinks. Yeah, Adrianne could turn out to be a lifelong friend or somebody I was proud of hooking up with in a few months after this stunt. Perhaps I did rehearse fantasies. I was young. I was cowardly and didn’t know what I was doing. I rehearsed things right before they vanished from my mind and my future.
There had been a series of mass disappearances or kidnappings in the past two weeks, and people naturally were forming conspiracies of hidden terrorism, or alien interference, or worse, a hoax. But it seemed all too real with infinite media coverage and interviews of troubled small children asking where their parents were and worn parents grieving over where their children might be. Could it really be a hoax?
“Do you think the earth is flat?”
“What the fuck? How are we going to shift from disappearances to planet shape?”
“I thought you wanted me to ask questions, so I am.”
“No, I don’t think the earth is flat. What type of shitty question is that?”
Her irritation infected me. My eyes twitched and gleamed darkly at her. She got up from her chair.
“Thanks for the chat.” Her heels stabbed the wooden floor once more as she proceeded to loop around the rails to get to the exit.
I followed her outside. She saw me and stopped. She squinted at me again. Her squinted eyes did not say “who are you?” anymore. They said, “who the fuck are you?”
Pedestrians lunged forward in pursuit of love, money, and fulfillment. They bumped into us as they reached the sidewalk where we stood. We were young, but how much time had passed since the last time we both watched a movie at a movie theatre on a date with a new person or had dinner with the family we grew up with?
I walked down E Avenue towards my abode and waited for the sound of sharp footsteps to stab my eardrums and tranquilize my shoulder.