For the third time today Paul thought of Clara. Absentmindedly, he had poured two cups of coffee and was poised to spoon sugar into one when he remembered that she wasn’t there. The second cup would have sat, growing cold; waiting for lips to sip that would never arrive. He stared at his bedeviled hand, puzzling over why it had acted without his control. It had betrayed him so subtly, at a moment so fraught with normalcy that he had no longer felt the need to guard it.
He put the spoon down and braced himself against the counter’s edge. The crippling grief no longer came, tears had long ago dried up and been replaced by a nausea that started in his head and drained downward. His imagination caught fire when the memories were sparked and, as it burned the back of his throat; he squeezed his eyes shut to extinguish her last moments.
An hour later the kitchen was devoid of any doppelgangers. One glass, one plate, one cup, one knife, fork and spoon. There’d be no second place set for dinner tonight, though there was rarely any place set on any night. His hand may try to be treacherous but would find no weapon to wield against him.
The incident though had changed his routine. In a rush, he tossed on a gray t-shirt, logo free, and loose jeans. He paused a moment in the bathroom mirror for a cursory appraisal. His black hair was in need of a cut, curling slightly over his blue eyes and still rumpled from a fitful nights sleep. He rubbed the stubble along his chin but a shave would have to wait. Clara often described him as boyishly rugged and at 26 he still got carded more often than not but now he just looked worn down with shadows under his eyes and sunken cheeks.
Hurriedly he packed his worn leather messenger bag with his laptop, dog-eared notebook, camera, flask and other necessities for maintaining his daily existence. He was already late and, as he dragged the garbage bag weighted down with those useless, other-person’s things, he cursed under his breath.
He stepped out of the darkness into the mid-morning sun and almost fell over a small, yippy dog. The dog barked and nipped at him, offended by Paul’s desire to come out at the same time that it needed to raise its leg on his stoop. He stepped over it and around the woman at the end of the leash who apologized for its lack of manners.
Paul thought about her apology as he waited for the light to change amid blowing car horns. The absurdity of apologizing for a pet when so much offensive behavior by the human inhabitants of this city went on unapologetically made him shake his head. No one jostling him at the curb said anything to him, the subway did not offer its regrets when the train sped off without him, a cabbie would continue on after splashing his legs. No one ever apologized for Clara.
He moved with the others across the street but he moved alone. Within this city gridded with streets, cross streets and blocks he stayed within a small world. Within his world he had carved an alee to ride life’s squall out. He kept himself anchored with a tight knot on a couple of posts. Otherwise he never ventured out into the rough seas of towering buildings and circling sharks.
One knot was anchored to Lulu and the Sherpa Coffee & Tea House. It was an attempt at being a funky hangout that failed by it obviousness but succeeded by Sherpa’s lack of concern. There were paper lanterns, beaded curtains and, perhaps, incense but Hendrix or Nirvana would throb low, with no hint of sitar or flute to counterfeit a mood. Books were here and there only because Lulu, Sherpa or a customer had left them, dog-eared and coffee-stained. No yoga decks or pocket tarots or crystal charms crowded the counter but Tibetan prayer flags and New York City maps were there. There were five types of teas and coffee was whatever was available and was never identified by country, region or vintage. The feel was like walking into someone’s living room, real and unprocessed.
Paul had been a daily visitor since before he had met Clara. Coffee had been a vital ingredient in the fuel that propelled him through those late night, early morning student days and now it played an even more significant role in keeping him moving through each day.
It was also a wireless hotspot within which he could sit and do his work without any fuss and bother or disapproving stares. Unplanned, it had become his office though he tried to be as unobtrusive as possible. A sturdy table by the window was where he could spread out papers but surfing was done on the battered sofa in the back. Behind the counter he had a mug, one of five reserved for regulars. Clara’s was still there, too.
Paul waited at the counter for his coffee, not having become as presumptuous as to step around and get his own and surveyed the three others there. A young woman sat at the other table in the window, sipping her tea and watching the street parade. A salesman was hunched over his laptop scowling at the screen while typing furiously with one finger. An elderly man in a suit that was probably last pressed when it was new poured over a newspaper that he held aloft as thought he might be reading aloud a proclamation from the king.
Sherpa slid Paul’s mug toward him, smiling and nodding in the direction of the girl. “I suggested she sit there, in the sun next to your table,” Sherpa confessed proudly.
“Thanks but no paperwork today,” Paul smiled awkwardly.
Sherpa looked hurt at the rejection. “Sofa’s busted, broken springs,” he jerked his head back in the direction of the couch while frowning at Paul. “You gotta sit there today.”
Paul sipped cautiously at his hot mug while eying the worn sofa. “Looks like it always does, Sherp, bruised and beaten.”
Sherpa leaned in close and whispered, “do you know how many men I’ve had to carry to the top of the world?”
Sherpa was not a big man in stature but he carried a strength around him. He had a broad, open smile and his dark eyes would sparkle mischievously. Mention the mountain, however, and an emotional mix would blow across his face. Happiness, regret, peace and something darker than misery would swirl. The wind would pass, though, and he’d run is thick fingers through his black hair trying to brush the memories out.
“Actually, I do know and the mountain seems to grow taller with every telling.”
He carried his coffee over to the window and took his assigned seat. A quick glance at Sherpa and he thought he could see Lulu peeking out from the backroom. Sherpa continued grinning even as Paul surreptitiously gave him the finger.
He tugged out his Apple laptop and notebook and waited for their eyes to give up. He and Clara had been coming to Lulu’s for a couple of years and were known for Sunday mornings and snide remarks about the weekend crowds. They had become as regular as any customers and their habits duly noted in some mental ledger with which Sherpa charted their business activities and Lulu their personal ones. Thus, when Paul showed up on September 13, 2001 without Clara they knew the terrible, unfairness of the horror that had been visited on the world had found a mark in their small circle.
It was only in the last few months that a conspiracy seemed to have been brewed. Sherpa usually, in perhaps some paean to male bonding, had been assigned the task of directing Paul’s mind towards whatever female might be a possibility. Lulu, however, counseled that what he really needed was a good fuck and she knew several girls that she felt needed the same thing. Paul thought it all some kind of strange, reverse psychology plan mixed-up with too much Howard Stern. He played along a little and sidestepped a lot and they found a balance that let life continue while the wounds still healed.