I Still Recall A Sad Cafe – Daily Story Project #7

I’ve kept a journal off and on for as long as I can remember. A diary, a therapist, a place to sort my thoughts in writing, an idea holder. I’ve saved some of them, and lost some of them; in my younger years I had some troubles keeping jobs, which led to having trouble paying bills, which led to troubles with landlords and roommates. I moved a few times, sometimes in the middle of the night, and having to take only what I could carry on me.

I often wonder if those journals ever got read. Did it provide any insight into me and why I acted that way? Or was it unceremoniously dumped in the trash, since it wasn’t able to be sold to pay the debt I’d skipped out on? Questions I ask myself. Questions I can’t really answer since the state of my mind at the time has been lost along with that journal. It all seemed like my best option, in the moment.

I’m better now. I’ve kept a stable job for a few years. Made some friends, reconnected with old friends. Patched things up when I could, avoided those I couldn’t face or satisfy. I’ve got a nice little place, in a great neighborhood, the bills are paid and I even have a little nest egg. And I still keep a journal, for all the same reasons. As I sit here and sip my whiskey rocks in the darkening living room of my nice little place, I can see my journal: a maroon cloth-bound book, undecorated, a bit more than an inch thick, worn on the corners, the spine a little broken for having had a pen tucked inside it for the couple of years I’ve owned it. A humble mass-produced object that’s nevertheless, through long use and wear and tear, been made undeniably mine.

And sitting next to it is a journal that once was identical to the other, but is now slightly different, and yet still mine in some subtle way I can’t put my finger on. I stare at it, afraid to touch it again, feeling a knot in my stomach at how similar and not it is from the one I’d just pulled from my shelves.

At work today I had received a text from Aileen, breaking the 7 or 8 month silence since we’d broken up. She hoped I was doing well and had something of mine she would like to return. I was cautious but curious, and when I replied positively I asked what it was. She ignored that and said she would meet me after work for a drink. For her, that meant coffee, which had been a point of tension between us, but since I didn’t want to fight, again, I suggested a coffee shop near her work. She surprised me again by saying that place was closed and counter-offered Heaven, a place we had frequented when we were together, and before we were together. I didn’t want to read between the lines any more than I already was, so I agreed.

Heaven, whose name was now ironic to me. I couldn’t believe I was here again. Two small wrought-iron tables on the sidewalk outside reminded me of nothing so much as the fight we’d had that had become the start of our breakup. Stepping in I caught the aroma of roasted coffee beans, the sound of chatter, 80s music, and the espresso steamer, and the sight of dark wood paneling, white oak tables and chairs, the stairway up to a small balcony on which couches Aileen and I had talked and dreamed and bonded. As below, so above.

She was seated, back to the wall, facing the door, with a large white mug holding an intricate piece of ephemeral steamed milk art. She warmed her hands, and leaned forward, and her hair, which was once pale blonde, had now been expertly dyed a warm auburn.

“Aren’t you going to get a drink?” she asked as I sat. Her face was serene, even relaxed, although one of her legs was shaking under the table just out of sight.

“I don’t really feel like it. Why here, Aileen? No bad memories?” I slung my bag off my shoulders and set it down.

“Why would I? We spent so much time here. The happy memories outweigh any bad.”

“OK. How are you? Is it OK if I tell you I like your new hair? I don’t know the rules. I want to ask if you’re happy, if you’re seeing someone, but I don’t want to be that guy.” I leaned forward. “I really do want you to be happy now.”

“That’s sweet. And thank you. You look… like you’re about to jump out of your skin. Is this so strange? But I don’t think that’s the conversation we should have. Not yet.” She reached down to one side and from the black backpack she used as a purse, pulled out the maroon journal.

“Jesus fucking Christ, Aileen! Have you had that this whole time?” My cheeks, instantly hot; my heart, immediately in high gear. I wanted to tear it out of her hands but I felt frozen in fear and anger.

“You recognize it, but of course you do. Don’t be like that, don’t be angry. I found it last week. It’s not like I’ve been keeping it since we broke up. I mean I guess I have but I didn’t know it. We were, I was moving the bedroom around and when, it was under the bed, I guess, mixed in with the storage and boxes. I didn’t know what it was, but when we flipped through it, I could see that it was yours, and I didn’t read any further. I knew it was private, and I respected you enough to keep that private.”

“I’m sorry for shouting. I assumed, and I should know better. Even when I would write in it, I know how curious you were to know what I was writing.”

“I resented it. It felt like you were keeping secrets. At the time. I know better now. Too late, too late.” And yet she still held on to it, with two hands, the coffee ignored. She continued, “But… before I could call you, before I could bring myself to even text you. I was, still, curious. I’m sure you understand.”

“Not fucking likely, Ai. Why don’t you give it to me so I can go? This is a strange kind of torture to inflict on an old boyfriend.”

She took a deep breath and her hazel eyes nearly glowed in the dark shop. “I need to show you something. I think I was meant to find this for you. We weren’t together that long but long enough for me to recognize the years this covers. Listen.” She cracked the book open toward the beginning. Paging through and pointing at my handwritten dates and words, she explained. “This is that time you were in a car accident, and totaled your friends’ car.” Flip. “This is when you and I first met. You said the sweetest things in here, though you were kind of a jerk to me in person. You were nervous, I guess?” Flip. “Here must be where you were struggling with your new boss.” Flip, flip. “These are just dreams you had.” Flip, flip.

She looked up at me, held my gaze. “And here’s where you broke up with me. December 16, last year.” She spun the book flat on the table so it faced me, and I could see for myself. My handwriting, undeniably. But my handwriting was telling a story that didn’t happen. That was months earlier. Aileen and I had had some fights around Christmas but we’d patched things up, had stayed together, moved in together in late January.

“It’s you, it’s your words. Keep reading, you need to see what happens after it gets left in my bedroom.”

I flipped forward a page or two but I was dizzy and could hardly see straight or move my fingers well. The next couple of entries were about being heartbroken but resigned. Then a gap of several weeks, and a new entry mentioning a new job and seeing a therapist. The sounds of the coffee shop were overshadowed by rushing in my ears.

“This is fuckery of the most sadistic kind, Ai. I can’t even begin to understand how you pulled this off.” I swept up the book, stood up, grabbed my bag and stormed for the door. But some part of my brain knew I was lying.

“Keep reading, Cal! It’s important! Keep reading! You’ll want to know!” She stood but did not follow me.

I made my way back home, stuffing the book in my bag. Once home, I poured a drink, and another, steeling myself to go look on the shelf for the journal I knew was still there. When the warmth of the whiskey had spread from my belly enough to help me breathe calmly, I dug the other journal out of my bag, and arranged the pair of them on the table in front of me.

I knew what was in the journal that had been resting on my shelf. But still I leafed through the pages to reassure myself. Yup, that was all as I remembered it.

But the new one – well, not new, it was apparently exactly the same age as the other – this one, it got to a certain point and then it diverged. And actually the drift started happening even before the breakup with Aileen. According to the me that wrote this, I missed a day of work that I had actually not; I’d seen a movie in the theater that I remembered catching on Netflix; my exercise routine was ever slightly different than I had documented for myself. Bit by bit, it added up over time.

Reading further than the breakup became almost physically impossible. As I approached that date in the journal, my arms grew heavy and my mind reeled. I had to force myself to continue. What happened next? I wanted to know. I wanted to forget all this.

I managed to skip ahead several pages. The me who wrote this book had become severely depressed. He’d fought with his co-workers. He’d begun using up all his sick time. He’d fallen apart. The therapy helped, a little. Friends had stepped up and tried to listen, but I, or he, or we? hadn’t listened. He wrote of being lost, of having gotten on the wrong track. His therapist had prescribed meds but we forgot to take them, and then rationalized it as for the better; we didn’t want to further cloud our mind.

I tried to trace back to when the feeling started and, re-reading the journal, I had realized it seemed to be centered on Aileen. But I knew that I couldn’t just show up like this. She’d think I was a madman. So I had texted her, and told her that I had found something of hers, that I wanted to give it back to her…

In my living room, the heat from the whiskey was instantly replaced by ice.

I read further. Not many pages left.

I offered to meet her at Heaven. She had agreed. Seeing her again, in that familiar shop, was indescribably, deliriously joyful. We recognized a connection, started making lunch dates, and dinner dates, and before long, we were dating again. I documented all this in my journal, in this journal, and in the final entry, with blank pages yet to be written, dated just a few short weeks ago, I was writing that Ai and I had agreed to move in together, since I had been spending so much time there.

The final words, in my hand writing, on the last filled in page, were: “But there’s still something off. Something’s not right. I have one last thing to fix.”

There’s a knock on my door.