Friday, July 29, 2005

The Price

It was past closing time. The coffee shop was almost empty. One man sat on a corner table, trying to gulp his coffee down too fast, burning his tongue in the process. The lights had been dimmed. The boy in the apron who'd served them was clearing up now, turning the chairs upside down and placing them carefully on the tables, legs turned up to the sky like some grotesque dead animal. Somebody had turned the door sign over, so that seen from inside it now said (in bold orange letters) 'Open' - which meant, of course, that it was closed.

One door closes, the other opens, he thought. But what if it's the same door, just seen from opposite sides? Was it really that easy? Could you just flip your heart over and shut the world out? Could you reverse time so it would read the way you wanted it to?

They were sitting across from each other, clutching their seperate coffee cups as though they were regrets. Hers was a tall latte with too much sugar as usual; his was small and bitter - an espresso. He started to take another sip, then realised there was nothing left. That's right, he thought, I have drained the cup to the bottom. I wonder why I'm still holding on.

The girl at the counter was looking at them anxiously now. Hoping they would leave soon. Why were they still here anyway? There was nothing left to say. Was it just that the lateness of the hour had made of the table some sort of rite, obscene but necessary? Was this part of the dance then - a spotlight, a fire that they warmed their hands against before vanishing forever into the darkness? Between them now the silence was a sugar bowl, filled with white sachets of accusation that they fingered absently, but would never open, never need. It was just as well.

It was only when she got up to go that he realised how much he loved her, how much he could hate her. There was anger there, but also a sense of relief. After all, someone had to leave first, he thought, better her than me. He watched her take out her purse, count out her share of the tab, leave it pinned under the saucer. He waited with impatience for the last thing she would say. When she finally raised her eyes to his, though, he realised that this too was unnecessary, and he nodded and let her go; the words she had opened her mouth to say were left unsaid. She nodded back, then turned away. He watched her leave, experiencing again that feeling of barriers, transparent yet unbreakable, between them - that sense of observing each other from two equal but alien worlds.

She did not look back. When she had disappeared around the corner, it occured to him that they would probably never meet again. The idea seemed impossible somehow, yet also very real, like a photograph of himself from a place he couldn't remember visiting. The waitress was hovering behind him now, he could feel her impatience like the beat of wings coming closer. He should go. Get some sleep (if sleep still existed in the world, if there were still beds and pillows and nightlights; he wasn't sure). He was catching the early flight.

On an impulse, he picked up the cash she had left, sat staring at the note for a minute. Then, very carefully, he tore it exactly into half. Then he put the two halves together and tore them into two more halves - again with the same careful precision. Then he put the four pieces together and tore them...

Someone had told him once that there was a physical limit to how far you could take this. Eight tears, he had said, and then the whole thing becomes too thick, it's true, it doesn't matter what paper you take. Or was it that you couldn't fold a piece of paper more than eight times? He couldn't remember. He wondered how many times you could fold a man, how small you could make him? He looked at the pieces of the note in his hand - nothing but scraps of worthless paper now - and let them trickle into the ashtray.

The waitress was watching him nervously. She thinks I'm going to be trouble, he thought. She thinks I'm not leaving because I don't want to pay. How ironic. The truth is I'm not paying because I have nowhere to go. She's coming over now. She's going to say something. Better to pay now and get out.

Yes, I will pay. I will pay all of it, every last cent. And she will never know.


m. said...

i liked this very much. you write very well.

Anonymous said...

That's a great story. Waiting for more. »