Saturday, 28 May 2011

Third Prize Winner

Coffee with an Old Friend

By Natasha Mirzoian.

I had been thinking of you for a few days and as always when I think of you, you ring. So in a way I was expecting the call, but not your news.

The fear is a hand wrapped around my throat making my voice sound different as we speak. I know that if I take a deep breath then as I exhale the fingers will tighten, crushing harder. So since our conversation I carry on with my daily tasks taking only small shallow breaths that leave me slightly light-headed. I unload the dishwasher and then load it again with dirty plates, wipe down the kitchen surfaces with a rag and take the chicken out of the freezer. I notice that the plants on my windowsill are all dying. I over-water the parched earth, out of guilt. Water pouring down the sides of the clay pots like dirty tears, hoping that by over compensating I might bring them back to life.

I haven’t seen you in nearly a year. I thought you would look thin and pale and withered, yet you are rounder and your skin has colour. Before our meeting I worry. What should I say? What will you say? I want to hide, unable to cope with such adult themes.

But it is just like the old times. Except we have a new topic of conversation. Your voice is steady and fluid as you tell me about the horrors you had endured in the last five months. I’m aware that my eyes are large as I listen and I try to make them smaller. We discuss it all calmly, our voices soft, as we sip our steaming cappuccinos in Starbucks. I wonder briefly if you should be drinking coffee but I can’t bring myself to ask. I poke with my spoon at the marshmallows in my coffee, suddenly feeling like a child for choosing them, they have become brown ugly lumps bobbing in my drink. I notice that your lips are blistered and you blow on your coffee to cool it before you can take a sip.

As I listen my eyes wander to the family sitting a few tables away. They are American and excited to be on holiday. The mother manages to manoeuvre and conduct three noisy children and one tired-looking husband with the ease of someone who is used to juggling many things at once. She has a ruddy complexion and sun-parched blonde hair making her look like she spends all her days outdoors in the sun. I notice her eyes soften as she watches over her brood, who have settled down, momentarily pacified by brownies and hot chocolates. She catches my look and smiles. To her we appear ordinary. Two young women drinking overpriced coffee and casually discussing our jobs, but if she only looked closer she might notice how my hand shakes as I stir my coffee with a spoon while you talk or that your blunt brown fringe is slightly askew underneath your hat. Her mind is elsewhere as she wipes dribbling chocolate from chubby cheeks with one hand and smooths down a crumpled but carefully written-out list of places still left to visit with the other.

We talk for hours; even laughter finds it way through our conversation as you describe your stays in hospital. I laugh cautiously aware that it may change into something else if I don’t keep it in check; hilarity and hysteria can often blur into one. As I wait at the counter for our third round of coffees to be served I examine the pastries under a glass display distractedly. I feel a trembling throughout my body, like a buzzing travelling through my blood. I think that if I place my finger on the glass it might vibrate. I don’t look back at you as I wait for my order, not wanting you to catch me staring. Even though that’s exactly what I want to do, to examine you from a distance.

‘Would you like anything else with your coffee?’ The waiter asks. His smile reaches all the way to his brown eyes, his teeth white and healthy. ‘A Danish pastry, maybe?’

I look back at you, catching your eye, and point to the cake displays. You tilt your head and for a second I remember you from eleven years before, sitting cross-legged in our student kitchen in your pale pink pyjamas eating a cream horn with icing sugar on top, the cream spilling out from one end as you bit into the other. I remember watching in jealous awe as you devoured desserts without ever gaining a pound, while the rest of us stuck to coffee and cigarettes. The look of pure delight just before you bit into it, in anticipation of the taste, a look close to love. I point at the Danish, a swirl of icing and dough with a bright hopeful cherry on top. You smile and shake your head.

‘No, thank you.’

He is still watching me. ‘Maybe next time.’

As he places the change in my hand his fingers touch the flesh of my palm. He is young and sweet. I glance back at our table, you’re fiddling with your hat, pulling it lower over your forehead, pulling gently at the stiff hair strands that stick out from underneath it, re-adjusting things before I return. Then I look back to his easy smile that rolls off his tanned face like soft butter off a knife; he is somewhere else, on a different plain from where we are.

‘Maybe.’ It comes out sharper than I intended. I grab the tray, turning my back on him and return to you, crossing worlds as I walk towards our table and sit down.

While you talk I study you, your dark eyes glow with a fever of something. I can’t tell what it is, maybe just the drugs that you’re on. I can’t help but remember hearing about a ritual in one of my anthropology classes from years ago. I cannot recall where it happened, it may have been in a remote village in the Caucasus, or a rite of passage in Ancient Greece or it may have been a particular tribe in Africa. The time and place has left my memory, but the story remained.

At a certain time every year all the girls who had reached the age of maturity were gathered together and presented with a clay bowl filled with stones from which they each picked one. There were exactly the same amount of pebbles in the bowl as there were girls, half of the stones were a milky white and half were a polished black. As the girls each blindly picked a stone their future would be sealed. The girl who pulled out the white stone became instantly elevated in her position within the community, she would be sought after as a wife and would have her choice of suitors, a life guaranteed free of hard labour and forced marriage. The girls who chose the black stones were destined to be servants, their life would be of hard work and service, forced to do anything that was required of them. They accepted their new position in the community’s hierarchy without questioning. All girls were prepared for either paths before they pulled out the coloured stones. Sometimes friends were separated in this way, sometimes sisters were divided as one was forced to serve the other within their household. The interesting thing was that nobody argued with their fate. They believed that the stone’s colour had come to each of them for a reason. Feelings of unfairness or injustice did not plague the girls’ thoughts, the way they would ours. They lived with pure acceptance.

As I look into your eyes I wonder if that is what I am seeing in them. Is it acceptance of your fate that gives them that strange glow? I swallow hard, feeling my own pebble stick in my throat.

To my relief by the end of the evening our conversation does turn to jobs and boyfriends, topics that indicate we are still part of the everyday, the mundane. We are just as we were before. We discuss everything, except the prognosis. And even as we gather our things to leave you don’t offer this information so I do not demand it. It is yours to give. Yet when I hug you goodbye I hold you longer than usual, pressing you to my chest in an awkward way. I want you to feel my solidity, to know that I am here. Or maybe it is just my way of trying to overcompensate, to revive you after a period of neglect, like my plants.

‘I’ll see you soon,’ you say, generously.

As you rush off to catch you train it begins to drizzle and I realise that I left my umbrella in the coffee shop. I go back to our table alone. It hasn’t been cleared yet and the sight of our cups on the table stops me in my tracks. At first I think it is a different table, but then I spot my umbrella underneath it. It seems impossible that those cups belonged to us just a few moments ago, but the smudge of my lipstick on the white ceramic confirms this. I think of you catching your train and how my thoughts had turned to other things so quickly and yet our round cups are still here sitting in their saucers, frozen as time moves around them. Once again I feel like I have crossed plains. Hurriedly I grab the umbrella from under the table and step outside without looking back, just as the rain really starts to fall hard.

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