Pick the teacup up,
Count the leaves that are falling.
This cup is empty.
“We must read your face like a leaf or a fingerprint,” she said, or I thought she said. I touched my face. Unique.
With the tips of her fingers, she touched my cheekbones, my eyebrows, the line of my chin. She brushed the hair off of my forehead. She hummed a tuneless hum. She took out a charcoal pencil and made a line. Here, and here, and here. On my face, and then on her book.
“There,” she said, and put the pencil down, and the book. She picked up her tea, leaned back in her chair, and held the cup in her hand.
“Hold the teacup in your hand,” she pointed with her chin at my teacup. “Feel the steam rising from the cup. Take a sip. Swallow three times.” She stopped then and sipped her own tea. There was silence.
The tea was warm, not hot. Pleasant. Light smell, like rice, soft mouth, not bitter.
I drank the tea, swallowing as directed. I put the teacup down. Silence again. I listened carefully to the room, looking for the sound of a clock ticking, anything to mark the time. Finally, I looked at her again. Her eyes were open, her face was closed. I coughed, slightly, and she smiled.
“Would you tell me please, which way shall I go from here?” I asked her. I wanted to see the notebook. In my head I was reaching for it, but I held my hands still.
Picking up her notebook, she opened it again, and held it out to me. In my hands it felt warm, as if it had been sitting in the sun, as if we weren’t in this chilly room with its antiseptic walls and its blank white lightboards looking at me, empty alien eyes.
“Patient’s choice,” she said. Her voice was flat, neutral. “What you want to do is what we will do.”
Behind my eyes, I saw stars, tight sparkling little stars like I’d knocked my head against something. The stars became a single star. A star became a tear. A tear became a multitude of tears, whirling just out of reach. No decisions will be provided here. My choice, damn you. I left, as usual.
The place was not always a café. It had been how many things? A multitude, yes, definitely a multitude. A café, a pet store, a gift shop, a health clinic, a second hand book store, a dry cleaner. So many smells in the multiplicity of strip mall history, most of them to be covered in new paint. I imagined the smells would sneak out periodically as the temperature rises and falls. We imagined this café would last for decades, until we were old and our first customers’ grandchildren would be coming for pastries and strong black coffee and green tea steeped in rice water.
“This is a day to celebrate can openers.” I said and offered it to Mark, who was opening a can of paint. Trying to open a can of paint. Easier with a can opener than with a butter knife. Not practical, he never was practical. A café can last longer than a mystery, than a childhood, than a surprising or unexpected dream and then it was now. Where I am now is in that place, looking back at me the stranger, the younger me.
In the first house, after the first big scary loss, I went in a slow, light way down through the stillness of the house. Touching, with the tips of my fingers, the places that were not burned. Some of them still warm.
Name your tragedies. What will you call them? Loss, infidelity, collapse? Separate names would not have served – were, indeed, not necessary. There is only one tragedy, and that is time.
She, that younger me, so serious, that face. Make your choice, girl, it’s up to you.
Generally considered the ugliest fish of the sea, the monkfish is almost all head. Like me, the ugliest fish in this sea, almost all head, thinking and thinking and thinking til the eyes and the turning head are all that might be seen. I make a mark on my forehead – my eyebrows, my cheeks, the line of my chin. I want them all gone, all the lines of my tragedy, all the permanent confessions. I want to get as many of them as I can before they get me.
The teapot is at last empty. I’ve made up my mind.