The Cafe

It wasn’t fiction, she insisted. “More decaf ?” he asked. The waiter reappeared at once. Right. I sat next to her, singing to the baby, cooing at it, tickling its toes. “Can I tell you something?”
“That depends,” said Ava. I’ve yet to see a lake that can beat that one in Switzerland for beauty.”
“I think I do remember that story,” said Ovelle. My father was lying prone at the bottom of the stairs, not moving, and my mother was watching TV in the living room. He wore the feet of a goose and the hands of a beautiful woman. I knew my function, and I performed it well. No, it had not been fair, that note. It was blasphemy what they had done, speaking the items out loud, without qualification, as if they were facts — the last facts! He was whipping the rope around as he spoke, and it was mesmerizing because the rope was not behaving like an object at all, but like something aspirational, something with muscle and heart. And if so, why, now, did I never want to get out of it? But I’ll still go, to make sure I’m right.”
“I should take a trip too,” said Ovelle. I ate the entire thing, even the core, even my childhood home, even my parents. “It is what a coin is like.”
Eve watched him, her interest waning. “Go for it.”
“I once took a trip to Japan. Only I will be changed.”
The three nodded gravely. The reductions were some sort of strategy cum building, where people were instructed in methods of dehumanizing nature, I think. And why did I also, into the envelope that contained the note, slip a small green gem that had been in my vagina? Eve huffed. I called down to him: What are you doing? “We spent the night together, not fucking. It meant that I might never die. “Yeah, like once I met a beggar on the streets of Valparaíso,” said Ovelle. But then I thought of travel and came back to life.” The women relaxed into the cushions. I need to take a trip.”
“But you’re already on a trip!” said Eve, winking. And that is still the case. I wasn’t there, but I wanted to be. “You are so right. I tried to take the baby from her, and she let me. It was all very obvious, I thought so even then, as my dreaming self. But it really depends, I should think, on the forecast,” said Ovelle. Nothing pressing? A spill seemed imminent, and the cafe didn’t help, being spirit-like, always responding to its wavy medium, so the cream sloshed out of the ceramic, and the women couldn’t stop it, not even with their minds. The waiter carefully examined the coin. The women, in anticipation, inched forward on their low cushions. Why else are we in a cafe?”
“I was in Egypt.  
¤
 
Three women sat together in an outdoor cafe. He was giving a lecture on the reductions of Paraguay. “I’m having a lovely time, yes. 19,  Romance
To receive the LARB Quarterly Journal, become a member  or purchase a copy at your local bookstore. You can see that there’s nobody else in here. Someone hung himself from it, and then his mother came out in the middle of the night and cut it down. “No. Pink played over its surface, then gold, then turquoise. That would ruin it, don’t you think?”
The women nodded. “When I woke up, it was clear to me that I had to leave Egypt at once. “Wait,” he said finally. “He’s already finished.” She flipped the coin into the air and did not catch it. I stopped at the top of the stairs. Not that I can recall. They passed the cup back and forth. He didn’t respond. How I had missed it! He seemed to be working up the courage to speak. This man, whom she’d met at a very different sort of cafe than the one we’re sitting in now, had revealed to her a few details about his itinerary, which was why she was in this particular hotel — she was following him. I think I assumed it was a suitor who would otherwise never materialize, and you know how I am, that was fine with me. You can’t stop us.”
The waiter was moving his lips around. Would they come, even there, to my private room, which I had paid for, to get it back? Poor thing — I had ruined him! And little people on skis. An eternal tree? It had become, in the space of an hour, the only possible outfit for me! She had lost this text, this prophecy, during the course of her travels. “But we can’t accept this.”
The women jumped. The thistle slipped out, and out of the gaping hole in me came a blinding light, a real cock-slam of a big golden ray. “Do you remember my Egypt story?” said Ava. They had to interpret it, which in that particular case, meant doing the opposite of what it said. “And one for me, too,” said Ovelle. The edges of the coin were smooth and tapered toward an impossible thinness. Had I been fair to him, I wondered, when I sent him that little note? On my way to the port, I told the driver to take me to the tree, the one that was dying, in a courtyard somewhere. “And to be honest, I judge them too.”
“But wasn’t there more?” said Ovelle. “I can’t stand to hear anyone debase experience.”
“Experience is neutral,” said Eve. “Now I remember what it was about Egypt.”
“Yeah?” said Ava. In my room. The rope was showing what it could do — kill him — but would not, because it loved this beggar, who was its master. What is love if it isn’t this? With their knees, they steadied themselves against the low white table. Why did he, the beggar, have the bad luck of being alive to witness the death of this tree that had seemed, for generations of people, to be eternal? The story of that dream.”
“Sounds familiar, but tell it again. I started to panic. But please don’t hurry — it’s no rush.”
“Here you go,” said Ava, tossing a single coin into the shell. Nice to talk to you too.”
She hung up the phone and turned excitedly to the other women. And then, just like that, I was back in the airport, the apple rushing toward me. She moved them in front of us in the hallway, painting a picture in the air that I could read. “We’re not tourists,” said Ava. “Even thinking about it,” said Ava. She was crying, her hands said, because she’d written a book that described a coming catastrophe. The women laughed. It was, or I was, flowering. I went to the bathroom, and when I came back the stick was gone. SEPTEMBER 2, 2018

This short story appears in the LARB Print Quarterly Journal: No. With an axe!”
“Virtuous,” said Eve. “Otherwise how could I claim to have lived these past three months?”
“You couldn’t,” said Eve. Yes. In the end it was worth it, but that doesn’t erase my bad behavior. The driver shook his head. “A riddle. A young boy visited me in the midst of my illness. They were the color of a multi-nodal sex organ, gilded. Even just anticipating, in extreme detail, the Romanian landscape I haven’t seen, even drawing it with my own thoughts, inside of my own brain, where there is no eraser, makes me feel like I’ve already been there. I don’t like apples. Lysistratic nonaction. I’d wanted to go for years and had worked and worked to afford it. He touched, discreetly, the secret defect of his outfit, which was the exposed and tooth-torn zipper of his fly. “There’s no point in killing him,” she said. Did you fall again? “But it is like a coin,” he said. The waiter rolled onto his side and spun the coin among the loose shards of what had previously been a table. “We are the buried tool of someone else’s afterlife,” exclaimed Ava. Eve locked the waiter in a strange embrace, twisting his body, so that Ovelle, with a kick to the back of his knees, was able to send him all the way down to the table, which was so far down, being so very low, that when he hit the surface, the result was spectacular. I was tossed all around, and my groin was grasping at the thistle, but it wasn’t strong enough. “Lying there, I determined that I was going to help them with their revolution. It wouldn’t have worked out. That tree died years ago. Neither side was marked. She pleaded with me in a language I didn’t understand. “However, the cafe is closed and has been for some time. Lots of it. “I promise. “He was deeply concerned for a tree that was growing, or really failing to grow, in the center of a courtyard there. She produced a limp cigarette. “The service here is unreal!”
A warm breeze lifted the walls of curtain — pink, turquoise, gold — and dragged the sheerness over the faces of the women. Anyway, back at the hotel after the reading, I stood on the balcony in a long violet nightgown. But I’m talking about the dream I had, in Egypt. That trip was pure meaning. “I’m feeling exactly like a prisoner. But this was wrong, I was their friend! Posturally, they had an ease, as if they had slept together, woken up together, walked to the cafe together, and would someday merge together, when it came time for that, into the triple-sided god they felt sure they would someday become. I ran my hand along the wall until I felt the banister. That’s the way things were back then. And on what he’s done to deserve it. The cream came to the table in a handmade ceramic, the bottom rounded so it wouldn’t sit flat. What had appeared so permanent — that broad white surface, flawless as a field of salt — turned out to be anything but. Those are the only things that experience can be.”
Ava cleared her throat. “I can always tell when a person doesn’t quite get travel,” she said, her thumb hovering, undecided, above the lighter’s little wheel. The book was the truth, she said, but the man was probably reading it right now as if it were a novel. We met only once, in the drab hallway, when I was on my way to the shared bathroom. I started to think of my young lover, the one who left me for someone exactly my age. Normally, this kind of accidental antagonism would have been completely inexcusable to me, but in this particular situation, I found it very easy to endure. Ava jumped onto his chest, Ovelle had his arm, Eve was on his feet. There’s really nothing urgent, is there? Had I unwittingly put on the vestment of revolution? I laughed the whole way through, but the youths didn’t seem to mind. “Where are you going to go?” “Romania, I imagine.”
“Do you know anyone in Romania?” asked Ovelle. “It doesn’t have to be vicious or dramatic,” she said. Good work, Ava, said one of them. They agreed to listen, but they would not relax their grip. She signaled to Ovelle. But now it’s dying? Then I walked the hallway slowly. Somewhere no one would ever guess I would want to go.Somewhere that would really destroy my personality,” said Ovelle. “God, I don’t know. But I did not want to go in there. She stopped crying and sat on the floor. Bored partway into their skulls so that their heads were living grottos, not empty. “Maybe I’ll go after you go.”
“I’ll leave no trace,” said Ovelle. The list pursued me. They sank into low cushions around a bright white slab of table, their knees buckled up close to their chins, and ordered with confidence from the waiter, who was always away, but never sufficiently gone, decaffeinated coffee with cream. “The men began to fight over the cup I was in. At last, the waiter arrived. How rude.”
“Check please!” shouted Ava. Not at all. She didn’t care about seeing Caucasia, or about recovering her scarf, even though her grandmother had given it to her. He delivered a plate of seedy crackers, and then flowed out through an opposite slit. Unknown senders — they positively proliferated. I might never…”
Ovelle slapped her hand over the waiter’s mouth. But they were not dead, or even dying. I said, and he started to cry. “It’s about a trip I once took.”
The women were curious. “I couldn’t!”
“Where are you thinking of going?” asked Ava. The women did not seem to watch him go, but they knew everything about how he went. They would never succeed by reciting that list. “I’m sorry, ladies,” he said. Remember him? I bit it hard, to defend myself against the impact. Each item in the list was chanted, emotionally, by a person who was so tall he looked sick. I just didn’t. I had no idea who had sent the gown. With all this on my mind, I have no idea how I fell asleep, but I did, eventually, still wearing the gown. He blinked, and the cafe flickered on and off. When I finally had the strength, I opened the apple, which was neatly hinged, and I saw that the inside was an exact replica of my childhood home. I seem to remember there was some other thing.”
“In Egypt? I’m not a total monster — I can reflect. But I was happy, in the dream. I took him to a cafe not at all like this one and bought him some bread, which he didn’t touch. When I arrived, it was all I could do to get off the plane. “I got into bed, pulled the covers up tight. The sun was out. There’s no such thing as a too-proud bloom. “That’s right. Neutral,” said Eve. On the contrary — they seemed to have too much of life. I had never wanted anything so badly as I wanted to keep that gown. It was dark. The coin was a shifting color. Something else happened in Egypt, didn’t it? “Why, yes,” said Ava. “I shouldn’t be allowed to live.”
He nodded and vanished through a shifting wall of curtain. And why did I then deliver the note, by hand, to his parents’ house, knowing how he felt about his parents? I had known it would stick in him forever, like a barb, just infecting him with doubt when all I’d really wanted was to decreate him for a single brilliant second with some custom-made attention (I always intended for him to recover). We told each other everything, all about our childhoods and our dreams. He never allowed them to make contact, but neither did he convince them that they should stop trying. Like one time I went to Caucasia in the dead of winter. “I start to feel free. “I’ll have another.”
“And me,” said Eve. Symbolic lights. “Whenever you’re ready,” he said. If she couldn’t find it and impress upon people that it was not just something she’d made up, thousands of people would die.”
“Did she ever find him?”
“That’s the thing: I don’t know.”
“See? The combination was rite-like. I almost apologized just now — just for having come!”
“Never apologize for visiting a place,” said Ovelle. As a being, my function was to embrace, to enclose, but also to bloom. I spent four nights on the floor of the arrivals terminal, unable to summon the energy to ask for help. All by herself. It was instinct. “Maybe South Korea,” said Ovelle, making the curtains back into walls. The hotel was empty except for one other woman with an infant. “And then remake it in someone else’s image.”
“But whose?”
The waiter returned. So why did I send the note? It was really very pleasant, but because it was one of those cafes that just make you want to transcend, dissolve, advance, et cetera, there were no other customers present, so the women could be, in their comportment, as they really were: quite free. I wanted to look old and he was incredibly superficial. I was picked up, or the cup was, by these men. It was all supposed to be very funny! “They’re more like symbols than people, and yet their fright makes them seem so alive!”
 
¤
 
Kristen Gleason’s  writing has appeared in Boston Review, BOMB, A Public Space, The White Review, and elsewhere. This is travel. I asked him if he’d like to shower back in my hotel room, and he said yes. You remind me of my most recent boss, he said. I’d spent all evening with youth organizers, revolutionaries, when something happened. The items had organized, somehow — against me. Was it the gown? I might never die. He looked straight ahead, his chin rough as a rock, his mouth singularly unenticing. “Okay,” said Ava. I looked around at all my objects — the seed crystal, the thunder egg, the giant quartz. Fact is, that coin is very sharp.” She drew a line across the waiter’s throat with her finger. The lean of his delivery was unnecessarily extreme. She was very cruel to me, to the last. “There were so many stories from your Egypt trip. It was supposed to be eternal? “So as I was saying: Should we take a trip?”
“We are overdue. What a fount travel is.”
“What a boon.”
“I pity anyone who’s never left home,” said Eve. It was very real but it read just like a novel. The walls of their semi-private cell were made of curtains, sheer ones — in turquoise, pink, and gold. Stay-at-home. They seemed to understand how I might feel, as someone who was not from there, about this kind of recitation, but I was being a real shithead, which I forgive myself for, because it was a lesson about me that I couldn’t have learned in any other way than by taking that trip and laughing at those kids, but I don’t have to tell that to any of you. It was contra-revolutionary! “All currency is accepted everywhere,” said Ava. She hoped to find him and get her book back. But once I’d started biting, I couldn’t stop. I’m at this wild cafe, it seems to be made entirely of air. Then she started to use her hands to communicate. I do know that. I said. “I was lying in the bottom of a cup. It was my clothing(I finally understood the word). And that’s when I had the dream. “But hearing it again, I feel I’ve learned something new. The next day, I traveled to Switzerland, where I saw a dog drown in the most beautiful lake I had ever seen. The reading, of a secret list, happened late that night, in someone’s underground home. “Do you feel,” said Ava, when he was gone, “like I feel? Instead my mother’s voice floated in from the living room. Wearing of symbols. They’d been trying to build up to something, something momentous and consequential, but then the build-up culminated prematurely in a single event instead: a dramatic reading. The list was of 198 methods of nonviolence. A cell phone rang, and Ava took it from her purse, crossed her legs, held it a few inches from her ear. Symbolic reclamations. He’s reflecting on his life, she said. It was a vision! I left that morning, so it was just an airport day for me.”
The waiter materialized in their cell. Remind me.”
“There were so many stories. So I tried very hard and soon I was. I might never die. Someone’s gnarled stick, not mine, leaned next to the door. When I had finished, I realized: I had forgotten to eat me. It had been stolen by a man who had also stolen her scarf — she showed me her neck, which was red from exposure. “Tell me.”
“You said you got very ill there, with some sort of fever only foreigners get.” “Oh,” said Ava. While he showered, I tried to lure a bird through the window with the bread I bought, and when he emerged from the shower and saw what I was doing he smacked the bread out of my hand. In the morning, I went out and bought him some rope, then left him alone for a few hours. He was not handsome, but he was exceedingly unpleasant, so their instinct was to treat him very well, by groveling. “Two men, in dull crowns, peered into the cup. “I’m getting that itch,” said Ava. Why could I not stop remembering the list, and why was I taking it so personally? His eyes closed and his thin nose held aloft, he presented an abalone shell containing the bill. There’s only such thing as a humble bloom, which stinks. His fingers lingered on the last saucer, pinching it suggestively. My boat was leaving in an hour, so I handed him the key to the room. It was just outside of my room, on the floor in the hallway, in a shallow box, when I got there — I just slipped it on. He stopped struggling and stared plaintively up at the sky. Thank you for saying that. His eyes were shocked, even hurt, and his mouth grimaced in pain. You do such good work. “To that story? It was all simply gorged with meaning. The table splintered, its particulate interior was revealed, and the waiter lay prone in the midst of the debris. The crowd kept reaching for the beggar’s feet. My throbbing groin subtended a thistle. I fully expected that he would hang himself, but when I got back to the room he was still there, sitting on the bed, surrounded by a small crowd of people, who were draped all over each other on the floor. I could see the outline of my father’s body at the bottom. “I’ve always wanted to go there,” said Eve. I would set them on the right course, I fully intended to — I was in a state — and I was about to get out of bed and, wearing the gown proudly, go back to that underground home to tell them exactly what they needed to do, but suddenly my mind began to drift. It was old, he said, nobody knew how old it was, it had always been there — so why was it dying now? He took it without looking at me and said, It’s the least you could do. She kept pointing to my left eye, which had begun to water uncontrollably at the idea that this woman might actually touch it. “I’m so clumsy this morning,” said Ava, as the waiter folded neatly at the waist and wiped the cream off the table. “We will go here and there. “Just the right amount of pressure should do it. There was snow in there. Total personal noncooperation. The tail end curled around his neck, caressed it, let it go. I mean, I’m on vacation. It was on the flight back home that it hit me, what that trip to Japan had meant. She cared only about the book, which would be misunderstood if she couldn’t accompany it wherever it went, if she couldn’t, as the author, provide the genre: nonfiction, prophetic. It’ll ruin the bloom. The country will be untouched, by me. “Delivering symbolic objects. On the flight over, I got very sick. He applied chapstick to my cracked lips, balanced a hollow apple on my stomach, then disappeared. It started to become very clear: The youths had got it all wrong. “Or it is virtuous. He’d been so right to leave me — I had no intention of taking care of my body or my skin. She walked the halls all night wailing with grief, the child screaming too. Like he doesn’t want us here, but only so he can act like he doesn’t want us here? This time, the waiter did not come right away. There was no ceiling. Out there, on the balcony late at night, with no underwear on, I felt mentally large, and I could remember many items from the list, but they didn’t seem so funny anymore. The gown was gone, and I was naked. Would someone try to take the gown from me? Don’t praise her, said the other. Maybe I can’t remember exactly, or I didn’t understand some of the Spanish because I wasn’t really listening. Knocked their crowns right off. “Travel is a boat,” he said then, tucking his tray beneath his arm, “that floats on the sea of heaven and never sinks.” Then he slipped through the curtains again. His skin was a totally different color than it had been before the shower. “You know that.”
“We will travel,” said Ovelle. Coyly, he kept moving them out of reach, then extending them again, then removing them, and so on. I fell onto the bed, but he wasn’t interested in sex. She died beneath me in bed. Symbolic sounds. Your guidebook must be old.