The Coffee Date – A Short Story by Margaret McManus

564

Kat looked different. She did not look older, although she had carefully curated the trappings of maturity: red lipstick and a sleek black blouse, accentuated by delicate silver jewelry. The jewelry looked like it was from JCrew.

“But, you know, he’s really great.” This was the conclusion to a long story in which he didn’t sound “really great.”

I nodded, and took a sip of my mocha. Was it worth the effort to question this guy’s greatness? I experienced an involuntary flashback to her not-so-great college boyfriend. Probably not.

Her hair had been purple then. Her ripped jeans covered in paint splatters. Was that really only two years ago?

“So, anything else new for you?” she asked, after it became clear that I was not going to speculate on the topic of Alex’s psyche.

“Oh, everything’s the same.” This wasn’t true of course. Nothing was exactly the same, but there was nothing I could point to as a turning point of change. No fork in the road. The changes at home were gradual and sudden – like fall fading into winter. My parents were getting older; so were hers. A few more couples from high school had gotten engaged. I wasn’t among them. More and more people were getting laid off. There had been a noticeable increase in calls at work. I twisted the red plastic ring on my finger.

“Well, the economy hasn’t really bounced back. Lots of long days at work.”

Kat nodded solemnly.

“You should move here. It’s so much fun.”

“I don’t know if it’s for me –“

“Well you can’t stay home forever. I mean, you need to do something –“

“Do you still paint?” I asked without premeditation. True, I didn’t want to defend my small life in our small hometown. But Kat hadn’t talked about her art in months. It was always about work (selling other artists’ work) or Alex.

Her bright hazel eyes looked at me quizzically: where did that question come from?

“I don’t have time for it anymore. I’m just focused on my career right now.”

“Don’t you miss it?” I pressed.

“Of course. But I just don’t have time.”

We stared each other down, silent judgments passing between us. We both thought we knew what was best for each other. She is meant to be an artist, one way or another. I am certain of that, but I can’t pretend to know exactly what was going through her mind. What did she think I needed “to do” that I couldn’t do at home?  She was the adventurer, the rule-breaker. My crazy friend, with the ever-changing unnaturally colored hair and ripped jeans, who had convinced me to cut school: to smoke, sneak into movies, drive aimlessly just to drive, pose nude for her paintings. Kat, who no longer painted and wore sensible clothes. Had she grown into a sensible person? I could hardly believe it, but there she was in front of me, looking and sounding very sensible, if you excluded the rationalizations about Alex.

I glanced at my phone. It was already 4:05 pm and I had a train to catch.

“Yeah, I know how busy you are. It was so good to see you.”

“Of course! You’ll have to come back soon. I really want you to meet Alex. He’s great; you have to meet him.”

“Yeah, I definitely want to meet him.” I couldn’t bring myself to say anything perfunctorily polite about Alex.

We hugged and said goodbye.

___

“But, you know, he’s really great.” That sounded lame even to me. But Alex is great; he’s just under a lot of stress right now.

Mel simply nodded and sipped her coffee. Her inscrutable brown eyes always watching the world, now honed in on me. I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to know what she was thinking. She was quiet until she wasn’t – and she had some choice words about my last boyfriend. But Alex was different.  For starters, he had a job. Besides, she wouldn’t get it. She had been with Matt…forever. It seemed like every few months some couple back home was getting engaged. Why weren’t they? Instead of asking that question, I just asked:

“So, anything else new for you?”

“Oh, everything’s the same.” Fascinating. It sounded about right though. Nothing ever happened in that God-forsaken town except lay-offs. I had a brief flashback to us in high school – speeding down the highway, as if that would speed up our graduation date. Sometimes I’m shocked I actually graduated high school. I pulled myself together in college. 

I watched her twist her red plastic ring. A ring she’d had since eighth grade. I know that because I stole it from Amy one day after gym. Amy had evolved into a “good person” — according to Facebook. She volunteers for some no-kill shelter for cats, and is endlessly posting pictures of cats, along with statuses designed to make you feel guilty for not rescuing one of the disease-ridden fleabags. But eleven years ago, before her maturation into a super cat-crusader, she was a super-bitch to Mel and she thought my art sucked. 

Mel added, unnecessarily, “Well, the economy hasn’t really bounced back. Lots of long days at work.”

She likes her job at the crisis hotline, although you could hardly call it a career – what a saint. I could never deal with that kind of emotional stress. But she has always been the rock – there is something grounded in her that keeps her calm, even in the middle of catastrophe. It’s as if she’s meant for it: being there for people in the midst of their personal catastrophes. Still, I can’t help but feel that she deserves more than being there for strangers on the other end of a phone.

“You should move here. It’s so much fun.”

“I don’t know if it’s for me –“

“Well you can’t stay home forever. I mean, you need to do something –“ I regretted these words, even as I was speaking. She’s happy at home, I reminded myself.

“Do you still paint?” she bluntly interrupted. Where did that question come from? I paused. And then I heard myself say something very trite, but very true.

“I don’t have time for it anymore. I’m just focused on my career right now.” Mel assessed my answer, and refused to accept it.

“Don’t you miss it?”

“Of course. But I just don’t have time.”

She didn’t say anything. But I knew she was thinking that I could find the time if I really wanted to. At least I think that’s what she was thinking. Didn’t she know by now that I couldn’t do anything half-assed?  She probably wants more for me, just like I want more for her.

We didn’t have time to talk about our judgments or our hopes. She needed to catch the train. We were only meeting up for coffee because she had been in Connecticut for the funeral of a friend of a friend she had known tangentially in college (it was a car-crash, not an overdose), and she had to come through the city on her way home.

Mel glanced down at her phone and said, “Yeah, I know how busy you are. It was so good to see you.”

So instead of saying all the things it took longer than thirty seconds to say, I just said, “Of course! You’ll have to come back soon. I really want you to meet Alex. He’s great; you have to meet him.”

We hugged and said goodbye.

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