Screaming into a Paper Cup
By DeMaris Gaunt
Cover art by CR Leyland “Time Standing Outdoor Cafe” 2014
Sometimes I wonder if you ever drove past my house when you were down here visiting Kathy at school. Were you curious to see if there was ever a second car in my driveway? There wasn’t. After you, there was never a car that delivered into my life the kind of love or sex or joy I had with you. After you, there was a great nothing. It was deep and wide and hollow. Eventually, like a hole in the earth made by a large branch violently detached from its tree in a storm, that emptiness filled with the rich soil of memory and time.
I find myself wanting to go on by saying, “after we were over…” but we were never over, were we? We just went on, separately. My heart kept beating, somehow. Somehow, I woke up every day. I made coffee, listened to the music we loved, took long walks in the woods, and worked in the studio making new art I knew you’d have a constructive opinion about. After a few years, I got used to it, your absence in my life. I accepted that what I’d done to your family was, however well-intended, a kind of betrayal that I would pay for ~ for the rest of my life.
But you know this, don’t you?
What you don’t know, is that a couple years ago, when Kathy was, what, mid-forties? I saw her sitting outside the Bluebird Café in Bloomington with her daughter, who must have been fifteen or sixteen. I knew it was Kathy because she looked just like you, just like an older version of herself from all the photos you showed me, spanning those wonderful years. There was no question the girl was your granddaughter, because she looked just like Kathy when she was a kid. Same thick brown waves, cut short, same square jawline, same dark eyes as you.
I was in the car, slowed by heavy Saturday morning traffic, when I was suddenly arrested by these two familiar-looking figures who were very seriously engaged in conversation under a blue umbrella blooming out of the bistro table.
Whatever I was doing that day, I don’t remember – suddenly didn’t matter. I had to find the nearest parking space and get to Kathy. I knew I wouldn’t speak to her, but I had to be near her. In her presence. I had to see her, watch her.
Believe me, over the past twenty-five years I’ve thought about looking for her, seeking her out, hoping so much to run into her just so I could behold her, observe her, pretend for a moment that if she looked up, she’d know me, greet me, hug me. But I never did. I never once saw her in person until that day in early September.
My heart was pounding as I circled the block looking for on-street parking close to the café, but the Farmers Market was nearby, and everyone was vying for a space. Another obstacle was the onslaught of college kids appearing at the crosswalks, carrying their crocheted produce bags stuffed with tomatoes and corn-on-the-cob back to their dorms. I parked, finally, four blocks away and quickly gathered my purse and sunglasses. At this point I was almost praying that Kathy would still be there, relaxing comfortably outside the Bluebird Café so I could finally get close to her, hear her voice. I wanted to hear her laugh the way she laughed in those videos you used to share with me. I wanted to overhear what kind of things she talked about with her daughter on an ordinary summer day. Would I be able to sense a lingering trauma in her demeanor ~ like a soldier’s limp? Would I be able to see in her face a pain that she endures, but can cover with a smile? Would she appear good-natured and friendly, like you, or more reserved, quiet, like her mother?
A little movie of hypotheticals played in my head as I strode up 4th Street. Veiled by my hat and sunglasses on, I’d comment that their drinks looked good, or that I liked a piece of jewelry one of them was wearing. I imagined the three of us striking up a conversation about the abundance of local produce or how nice it was that restaurants don’t use plastic anymore. I could imagine them asking me to sit down with them, since all the other tables were full. We would find ourselves laughing, bonding, sharing briefly the highlights of our lives. I would ask the girl about her hobbies, which would lead to Kathy telling me about her job, her husband, her love of cooking, and that would lead me to tell them about my garden and my art. I wouldn’t be able to tell her what I really wanted to tell her. That once, many years ago, I believed she and I would become very close. I wouldn’t be able to tell her that once, many years ago, I loved her.
Several people were already in the line, causing in me a surge of anxiety – a sharp fear that by the time I ordered a simple black coffee, Kathy and her daughter would be gone. As I stood inside the pleasantly air-conditioned café, I could see them outside through the large plate glass windows. I wondered if Kathy ever forgave you. If she ever forgave me.
I watched as your granddaughter, paper cup in hand, stood, leaned over and picked up Kathy’s cup, which I felt certain meant they were finished, and about to walk away from me forever. Instead, the young girl carried both cups through the door and got in line behind me. It’s funny how much effort it took to appear nonchalant to this human who had no idea who I was, or that I was standing in this line to satisfy a curiosity about her mother that had never waned.
I was sure I would stutter if I spoke, but I didn’t. In fact, I couldn’t believe how smooth and charming I assessed myself to be after I turned around and told this beautiful dark-eyed girl that for years I used to meet someone for coffee in Indianapolis who thought it was the funniest thing to put their emptied paper coffee cup over their mouth and pretend it was muffling their screaming demand for, “More coffee! I need more coffee!” There was a look of both surprise and amusement on her face when she heard me say this.
“My grandpa does that!” she said, letting out a soft, puzzled laugh.
I didn’t say, I know.
I asked her if she was a student here at Indiana University, knowing she wasn’t quite old enough to be ~ knowing she’d see me as a curious old woman just trying to be friendly. She offered that she was still in high school, but that she had plans to get as far away from Indiana as she could after graduation. She delivered this proclamation without seeming indignant, as if she merely wanted to see what else the world had to offer.
My turn came, and I ordered a small black coffee. From the speakers mounted above the counter whispered a woman’s voice accompanied by an acoustic guitar. I couldn’t make out the words, but the song felt remorseful, melancholic. It was the kind of song you would have wanted to track down, listen to again. You were always distracted by music, weren’t you? I thanked the barista, took my coffee, and contemplated my next move. There were no seats available inside, so I lingered long as I could before my presence would have become awkward.
One of the benefits of being an eccentric-looking, seventy-three-year-old-woman with long white hair, is that you can get away with resting your hand for a second on the forearm of a young girl you just spent an entire minute getting to know, and it will be received purely as an innocent and sincere gesture of humanity. And in that connected second before social correctness required me to walk on, I smiled into her brown eyes and made a request. “Make sure your grandpa gets all the coffee he demands, okay?” She smiled back, shyly, nodding.
I wanted to ask her why the urgency to get out of Indiana. Did she have any siblings? Were her parents married? Were her grandparents still together? I wanted to walk out of the café and sit down in her chair across from Kathy, whose arm I wanted to touch, too. I wanted to ask a thousand questions. But in that moment, it felt like enough that I had seen them, that they were in good health, that they were, by all appearances, close, happy. Happy enough.
I exited the café with my sunglasses perched on my head. Before I reached up to pull them down I looked over at Kathy. She was sitting with her arms crossed on the table, her posture answering at least one of my questions. She was looking toward me, toward the door, toward her daughter, who would be appearing any moment to deliver her second cup of coffee. I smiled at her. She smiled at me. I wanted there to be some recognition, some acknowledgement, some cosmic string pulling us together, but there wasn’t. To her, I was no one in particular. I was a meaningless and insignificant prop in the background of her day. I was a colorful, forgettable woman who never played any profound role in her understanding of love. I was one of a thousand people that would move through her life that day, not someone who altered forever the relationship she had with her beloved father. I was a just a common stranger whose name she would never know matched the name on a letter she received when she was twenty years old. A letter that would challenge and alter everything she believed to be true.
As I walked slowly away, I struggled with the desire to turn around, wait for an empty table. I could have casually walked up and down the street and claimed the next available. I could’ve. But I didn’t. What good would have come of it? The loss of you would not change or become less significant if I had forced an interaction with Kathy. No further purpose could possibly be served.
I wondered if your granddaughter would return to her mother with my story of a friend who would mock-scream into coffee cups? Would that become a question mark in Kathy’s day? Would she then recall the smile we exchanged and wonder if I, in possession of such a specific detail, was the one who ruined everything in her twentieth year?
All these years I’ve wondered what would be different if I hadn’t written her that letter filled with all the things you said you wanted to tell her, but couldn’t. I don’t think you ever understood how much I loved her. You made her part of us with photos, videos, daily updates, news about her boyfriends, heartbreaks, show choir performances, prom dress selections, spring break vacations with her friends. I knew her, understood her. You gave her to me. But you know that, don’t you?
I knew it was going to be hard for you to tell Kathy about our love, our secret life, but you kept postponing it. I had always accepted that you wanted her to graduate from high school before you explained your wish to divorce her mother, who, you assured me, agreed to the arrangement. But time after time, you committed to having the difficult conversation. Time after time you said you didn’t know how, but that you would. You would tell her. If I believed you didn’t love me, I could have walked away. But you did love me. If I have ever believed anything, it’s that. So I took matters into my own hands. I believed I could take from you the burden you felt. I believed I could tell your daughter our beautiful love story and she would cheer for our happily ever after. How wrong I was. How wrong.
After the letter, you were angry. You said you needed time to heal your relationship with Kathy, who was devastated by the revealed truth. You said you didn’t know how long it would take, but you said you would never give up on us.
But you know that, don’t you?
What you don’t know is that for twenty-five years I’ve expected you to show up at my door because we never had an ending. There was never a word from you that we were over, that our love could not recover from what I’d done. You held open a space for our future, and I have been waiting all this time to step into it. I wasn’t crazy to believe this. I believed everything you ever told me. And you told me your future would be with me.
My patience turned into years, and eventually my offense felt diluted by news of life elsewhere. Daily, there were reports of tragedy from around the globe. Wars, famine, poverty, disease, all manner of crimes. All I had done was love you, desperately. All I had done was tell the truth. I harmed and changed nothing in the world, except the way Kathy loved you. And that changed the way you loved me.
But you know that, don’t you?
What you don’t know, is that you have remained my companion all these years.
After you didn’t quite end us, after the emptiness filled in with memory and time, there was no one else. No replacement. No interest or curiosity in what it would be like to invest my love in someone else. For the two and a half decades since, I never once wanted to give to anyone what I had given to you. Before us, I had forty years to know myself, accept myself, love myself. I didn’t want or need anyone to complete me. But meeting you was like meeting the better version of myself. Your love never restricted or diminished me. Simply, your love expanded me. All these years, your love has traveled with me, walked with me, sat with me, slept with me, cooked with me, laughed with me, created with me, sang with me, cried with me.
And because my love for you still lives and breathes, it asked me to write this last letter to you and tell you that my promise to love you forever wasn’t just a meaningless series of words. I couldn’t stop. Because of our love, my forever has been full. Now, I’m at the end of it. It’s the cliché of clichés: cancer. Bone. It will collect me soon.
Before it does, I thought you should know that I considered many times how I might have fixed, amended, resolved the pain I caused. I considered so many times what it would mean to acknowledge the damage I had done. We might have had a wholly different life if I had asked for your forgiveness. If I had said I was sorry.
But I wasn’t.