“A Meeting at an Old Café”
By T.M. Schultze
“You saved my life.” This was the only thing Joe could think to say to break the silence, yet the quiet resumed. Mary looked outside the black rusted gate of the café, across the quiet street, wishing she could be anyplace in the world but here.
Just as Joe opened his mouth to continue, Mary quickly interjected, “I get it! How many times are we going to have this same conversation?” Joe’s mouth was still open. This wasn’t going very well for him.
Joe had a way with words that inspired the worst in Mary. “Look, I’m sorry sweetie. I just want to go back to the way things…”
“I’m seeing someone. Okay?” Mary jumped right in, not yielding even a moment to Joe’s sentimentality. She was tired of the pet names. And so the uncomfortable meeting of two former lovers continued.
Joe wore a heavy, black leather jacket, even when they sat down. His long, dark-brown, curly hair was neatly combed, and his sideburns were neatly groomed. Mary was usually a sharp dresser, but she wore no make-up, her hair tied back in a pony-tail, and her blouse and skirt were surprisingly wrinkled. Joe couldn’t sense even the faintest scent of perfume on her. Still, he thought she was as beautiful as ever.
When they were a couple, they frequented this place often. They ate out a lot because Mary hated to cook. The café was not particularly fancy. The inside was way too dark, with ugly, green booths like they were from an old Denny’s, but it had a small patio outside with a few tables and chairs. Luckily for Mary, they sat outside by themselves. She didn’t need Joe embarrassing her by talking endlessly about his problems to everyone in earshot.
Joe ordered a cheeseburger, a huge mound of fries, and a side salad. The larger the meal, the longer he could keep her here. Mary just ordered an iced tea. She didn’t want to give him the impression she was having a good time or would stay very long. She would have ordered a stiffer drink though, but Mary thought Joe still had no idea she drank.
“Just eat your lunch Joe, I’m fine.” Mary dated him long enough to know when he was going to try to be polite, to offer to get her something to eat. Joe returned to his plate. She let him dig in and devour his meal while her mind wandered looking up at the storm clouds.
The storm was breaking up but the sun was still struggling to peek through. A single ray of light shined down on their umbrella, and Mary thought of her mom. Just as things with Joe were starting to go south, her mom got sick. It was a full-time job taking care of two dying loved ones. Yet, it was the ungrateful drug addict boyfriend that survived, and it was her mom that succumbed to cancer.
The night her mom closed her eyes for the last time was the first night she smoked the pot Joe stashed in his sock drawer. She loaded up the bong like she saw him do dozens of times. She wasn’t sure when to pull the stem, coughing horrifically when the rush was too much for her to handle. She had that cough for days. Mary wondered at the time why people went through so much trouble for a few painless moments.
Their relationship began well enough but it was not long before she was managing Joe’s childish living. There was his uncontrollable spending, gambling, and a lot of drugs. This was particularly shocking for a woman who spent her childhood attending church on Sundays, going to private school, and spending Friday nights playing Scrabble with her mom. Their relationship was still in its infancy when she began living with his handsome man, who had an edge to him that enticed her. He was tall and well-built, muscular, with a well-cut chin, and she believed that she could tame his rowdiness. But, she soon found Joe difficult to live with.
As Mary sat there at the café, she thought of the good times too. When he was courting her, he often bought her flowers for no reason. He innocently hung out at the coffeehouse waiting for her to come in during lunchtime. He came up with every excuse in the world to bump into her, to say hello, or strike up a conversation. Mary thought it was cute. Her friends at the office found Joe to be very cute. They envied her.
After he had muscled up the nerve to ask her out, he bought her chocolates, dark varieties like Godiva, not the cheap milk chocolate you find on every store shelf. He was always gentlemanly, opening doors for her like it was a sense of duty, letting her order dinner first, and always making sure he stood to the side of traffic when they were walking somewhere. But those moments seem so ridiculous now.
Joe had a sweet smile without a steady job. Mary could afford to float him for a while, and in the beginning she thought it was worth it. She was established at the office, working for the C.E.O. and doing very well for herself. Joe’s problems though began to surface. He could fix her car, do the plumbing, help with the cleaning, but couldn’t get to work on time. She pushed and pushed him, trying to get him to take classes, to work on his resume, and to get him paying at least part of the bills, but he languished on the couch most afternoons with a bottle in his hand.
She put up with it for too long. She often sat at home in sweat pants watching television, while Joe disappeared into the night. Late nights home were first met with apologies, and later he blamed them on poker nights with the pals. He always needed more money, because he bought a new expensive stereo, or lost some bets at the track. As time passed, he would just sneak in drunk or stoned, just a few hours before her alarm clock would go off. Finally, came the nights where he simply never came home at all.
The clouds over the café were gaining back their strength. They were gray and black, and bulging like they would burst any second. The day seemed to grow colder by the second. Mary couldn’t help but shiver. She thought of the night she got the call that Joe was in the hospital. The incident included heroin, a room at the Motel-6 on the edge of town, and a hooker he spent Mary’s hard-earned money on. The paramedics responded to a 911 call from the prostitute, who fled the scene leaving the phone off the hook. When they arrived, they found an unconscious young man in convulsions, his tongue nearly bit in half hanging out of his mouth, with his pants pulled open and his dick hanging out of his boxers.
One week later, Mary’s mother occupied one wing of the hospital and Joe occupied another. Both eventually left the hospital, but only one needed to be put into the ground. Only one of them was present at the funeral too, so when Mary stood there after the completion of the graveside service, shielding her eyes as the sun’s reflection off her mom’s black casket hurt her eyes, she went home alone, ignoring the consolations from friends and distant family.
Mary thought Joe would be with her through those hard times. They both grew up in single-parent households, so both of them were extremely protective of their mothers. Joe liked Mary’s mom, who was quiet and mild-mannered, and Joe never said much about his own mother, except that he hadn’t spoken to her in years.
Just a year after his first night in the hospital, Joe was wolfing down his food in the old café. Every couple moments, his eyes darted up to see what Mary was doing. He shifted nervously in his seat, not sure what to do or say. He wondered what she was looking at, why she looked so unhappy, why she didn’t look her best today. He wished to convey to her just how far he had come from those dark days of his life.
Joe thought about his overdose. That afternoon, one year ago, he wanted to die. He remembered the girl tapping hard on his foot, trying to find a receptive vein because his arms could no longer support his habit. He told her to shoot him twice before she unzipped him and did her thing. He thought this was a great way to leave this world, with a woman going down on him for money he didn’t work for, while his eyes rolled into the back of his head as the sense of euphoria reached his brain.
Waking up in the hospital, nearly dead, he remembered seeing Mary by his side. He swore at that moment that he would get his life in order. He would love her for the rest of his life. This woman had been with him even in his worst moment. He had taken advantage of her love for him. Mary was there, stroking his hair, softly humming a favorite hymn.
He wondered what would have happened if he had come to and found nobody in his room. He probably would have gone back to the same routine and on some other day he would have never woken up. She saved his life.
Mary gave Joe no choice but to get himself straight. He pled no contest to possession and was lucky to get off with probation and community service. Joe, who to that point never held a job for more than a month at a time, was diligently spending hour after hour speaking at N.A., helping out at teen centers, and most of all evangelizing what he saw was his success story. Joe was so embarrassed by his situation that he stayed away in shame from the funeral and moved out of Mary’s apartment. He thought of the call to his mother, who he hadn’t spoken to in several years, begging her over a pay phone to take him back and help him.
Even when he finished his community service, he kept reporting to several of the various shelters and groups. He met many other users who were struggling to stay sober. He often would have them all meet at his mother’s house for soda, which was as daring a drink as he would get.
He got a job, working for a repair shop. He did extremely well too. His boss promised to help him get his A.S.E. certification so he could work on all of the cars and make a lot more money. He was already making enough to live comfortably and help his mother with the bills. The same sweet smile that knocked Mary off her feet was perfect for the shop’s customers. He was one of the most efficient and tireless mechanics in the entire place.
Joe had been sober, volunteering, and working for a year straight.
“Work is going well,” he muttered, with half his bite of French fries still in his mouth. Several silent seconds passed. He wondered if she even heard him.
Mary finally turned her head and looked straight at him. “Joe, that is great. I am really proud of you.” She was still skeptical though.
“Then what’s wrong?” he continued.
Mary sighed softly, but it was loud enough that he could hear her. “I’ve moved on.”
“You saved my life, Mary.”
She was much more patient this time. “Joe, I have never been so scared and so angry with somebody as I was that night.”
“I know. I will never live that down,” he said pensively.
Mary was exasperated and let out an even more obvious sigh. Just then, the waiter mercilessly delivered the check. Just as she put her credit card on the tray, a hand touched hers. There was Joe, with his hand on hers, his index finger stroking it. He was staring intently at her, with a single tear in his eye. He pressed his lips together, and his eyebrows pushed down, like this strong man was trying his best to not look so weak.
“I would like to pay for this, Mary,” he said as she slowly pulled her hand away, “and I’d like another chance.”
Mary knew this was going to happen. Enough was enough. He had ruined her. Even if he was living straight, he seemed to give no consideration for what he had done to her. Curiosity brought her to the lunch table with him, but she wondered why she even consented to this meeting.
“Joe, I’ve moved on. I’m sorry, but it hurts too much.” Mary got up quickly, smoothed out her skirt, and politely smiled at him. “Goodbye Joe.” She turned and walked right into the restaurant, vanishing into the dark of the poorly-lit café. Joe’s eyes never even moved, but he finally gave up, letting all the sadness of losing her come out.
Joe tried to compose himself as the waiter returned with his change. He asked for another soda. A light sprinkle fell on the umbrella, and the raindrops increased every few minutes. Joe couldn’t blame Mary for leaving him but he was devastated she wouldn’t take him back. He was glad to see her. She looked great, even in her messy clothes. He guessed she would be a Vice-President at work in a few years.
As the rains came down harder, Joe didn’t mind. He was a proud man who spent a night near death and was spending the rest of his life happy to be alive, but he could only blame himself for losing her. Mary deserved better. He really wished he could have been there for her mom’s funeral. She took it very hard. He should have been there for her. He prayed that they could give their relationship another chance. The tears in Joe’s eyes were as large as the violent raindrops which now were pouring onto the patio, weighing down the umbrella over him, and collecting at his feet.
A half hour later, Mary opened up the door to her apartment, out of the storm, as sad as she was the night her mother died. It was small, just a one-bedroom, with a couch, a dining room table, a small nineteen-inch T.V. and only a couple pictures on the wall. It was simple, but it suited a career woman nicely.
However, she didn’t have much of a career anymore since she was fired a few weeks ago. Lunch made her realize not so much that she missed Joe, but she really missed her mom. She always associated Joe’s hospitalization with her mom’s death since they happened so close to each other. That was Joseph Hairston’s biggest mistake.
She thought she could change him. Now, she wasn’t sure what to think. She had lied to him. She wasn’t seeing anybody. At this point, she preferred to be alone rather than rekindle the things that made her life so difficult to cope with.
She had a nice picture of her mom in the dining room and she walked up to it, pressing her finger to the glass, saying out loud, “Mom, I miss you.” Mary slowly walked into the kitchen barely able to control her emotions. She opened up her purse. She pulled something out wrapped in aluminum foil and a sandwich bag. She went to the cupboard above and pulled out some baking soda. Mary mixed it with the goods from her sack and a solution of water. She opened up one of the drawers to grab a metal spoon. Mary searched for a new one but they were all burnt black on the bottom. She put an oven mitt on her right hand and turned on the stove, heating the spoon just right.
Mary still needed to work on precisely tapping the needle, above the solution, to get the air bubbles out. But standing over the stove, she was already a pro at this part, a master chef. The finished product bubbled right to the top. That day, she stood there in her kitchen, freebasing, wondering what Joe would think, what her mom would think. She cried harder and harder. Yet, despite all the tears and regret in her eyes, her hands held steady. She never spilled even the slightest drop.