(a short story)
Leo went down to the street. It was 8pm. He walked passed by the shoe storefront and the bakery and turned the corner towards the grocery store. His steps echoed steadily on the pavement. Fresh air of the evening did him good. He smiled to his own thoughts and worded one of the ideas that was rounding in his head since he started reading the new book this morning. Wording came easily this time and he felt happy with the result.
“May be happiness does not exist, but I feel truly happy right now,” he thought. “I love the beauty of the people around me. The streets. The quietness of the tall apartment buildings. The kids on the playgrounds. Old people having their coffee outside. All of them sharing their small problems. Talking. The moon. I do like the moon over here. I notice it every night from the balcony. These people do not know how silently beautiful this place is.”
“… and you know, I have her on my mind. Every day. It’s just not going away. What a rotten…”, he did not hear the rest of the sentence. Two men sitting at the coffee table outside were talking. One was sharing his worries with the other. Complaining. Leo stopped and made a puzzled face and looked at them for a second. Just two Spaniards. You see them everywhere. He kept on walking. The grocery store was on the next block.
“Spanish people are always complaining,” he said to himself. Leo has lived in Spain long enough to know all about complaining. He used to complain before too. Then he stopped. He believed complaining never gets you anywhere. And he had a strong enough willpower to change his habits. And he was proud of it. Leo never said it out loud, not even to Lisa, his wife. But he was very proud of himself. Then he was busy too. When you are busy and the things are going well you do not complain. You have enough great things to talk about and not to complain.
But now, overhearing this bit of the conversation filled him with emptiness. Emptiness as heavy as steel. He remembered his old college friend Noah. When was the last time he talked to him? Two years ago. May be less. No. More. More than two years ago. A thin needle stitching years in his chest. He slowed down. The pain washed away with a deep breath leaving three thousand unpronounced words stacked in his throat. Then he clearly felt what he wanted: to be sitting with Noah in some cafe and telling him all the same words he just heard. These and others he never pronounced in front of anybody. Can you really say you pronounce something, if you only tell it to yourself in the darkness of the empty streets? No. Leo did not think so. It makes no sense to lie to oneself.
He looked at his cell phone and found Noah’s number. “Should I call him? I can fly there tomorrow morning and spend a weekend with Noah.” He felt the warm sweetness under his tongue. This is how a well made freshly grounded coffee felt. This is how he thought talking to Noah would feel. He could tell him everything. He could tell him everything and be himself. And not be judged. Be understood. And like the last time they saw each other Noah would tell him “…and whatever you decide to do in your life, I will think that you are right.”. Yes. He will call Noah tonight and get on the first plane tomorrow. It was just an hour flight. He was sure Lisa and the kids would be fine without him for couple of days. At the end, he always spent all his free time with them. And Lisa herself always told him to spend some days with Noah away from home. He was very happy about his sudden decision. He felt some sort of kind impulse towards these two Spaniards at the cafe. He almost turned back, wanting to find their table and tell them something nice and smile. But then he knew this would be awkward. So he kept walking down the street feeling a warm cloud dwelling inside his chest. Something he last time felt when he was close to her. Last time. Maybe it was years ago.
Leo entered the grocery store. What was that Lisa asked to buy? Yes, a chocolate bar, apples, cucumbers and sparkling water. August was always hot in Barcelona. They were drinking tons of sparkling water. He made his way through the aisles. He stood for a while in front of the chocolate bars, not knowing which one to get. He forgot which one she asked for this time. He called Lisa. He took three of the ones she wanted. “Enough for the weekend,” he thought. Then he also picked one of his favorites. Dark chocolate with orange pieces. He looked at it for a while. Put it in his basket. Then took it out, looked at it again and ended placing it carefully back on the shelf. “I should keep myself in shape. I must look good,” he thought to himself. Some other thoughts were crawling in his mind too, but he stopped himself and instead remembered that on the phone he promised Lisa to tell her something exciting once he gets back home. And the childish happiness of the decision invaded him again, this time with a more powerful grip. Happy he went to the wine aisle and read through the Italian labels. He was looking for that sweet sparkling wine they had in Rome last month. It was a red wine, so mild that it never got you drunk; Fresh and young it woke you up and made you instantly open to the next layer of sensitiveness.
When Leo got out of the grocery store he was empty and salient. The decision was still there and the enthusiasm of seeing Noah has not diminished. But the cloud of cool and calm air pressured him and his silence. The rim of the cold night breeze touched his eyes making him blind and lonely for a split of a second. And he thought about the book. Not the business one he was reading now, but the one he got at the Oslo airport last April. When the runway was icy, and the white strings of cold snow and ice seemed to scratch the dim air and it was scary and fascinating to look at. His flight was delayed and he got this book, “Eleven Kinds of Loneliness” by Richard Yates. He sat at the airport cafe, in front of a young woman in a black wool sweater. He read the book and looked at her. From time to time. She mildly reminded him of someone else. Of someone he loved. And he looked at her and wished she would never leave. He wished her flight would be delayed too and they both would just sit on the opposite ends of this small cafe in the snowy airport and read their books. At the end may be they were not that different. May be they could talk and have a glass of wine together. She might agree if he invited her. He looked outside of the window. It was dark and the freshly fallen snow gleamed under the bright airport lights. There were footprints outside of the window. A couple of people must have passed by in the last hour. Still distinguishable, but without their pristine neatness, footprints looked almost intangible. He wanted to think that while he was reading there was a wedding outside and the footprints were that of the bride and the groom. They just got married and walked to the first airplane they saw and flew somewhere. Without guests, food or music. A perfect wedding. Perfect like the freshly fallen snow. Perfect like something that never happens.
The woman in the black wool sweater was gone. Leo stared at the empty chair where she was sitting before. Then he slowly moved his head down, his eyes catching the end of the story he was reading and his fists clenching so hard that his nails left its marks on the book cover, right on the man in a light brown suit.
“I am fine,” Leo said in a low voice. He was walking back home carrying grocery bags in his left hand. He thought about his life. “Amazing life,” as he used to refer to it himself. His lips smiled as he whispered “amazing” in the night air. An old habit of his, the word “amazing” always made him smile. It will be fine to see Noah, and talk to him and tell him everything. Everything he only shares with himself at nights, when he lays in their bed and suddenly feels miles away from everybody. No human soul except himself. And a rye field beneath him and he is flowing in the air, right over it. And he can feel the whisper of the rye, and the light touch of the sun on his skin. And no weight in his body. And he can think about absolutely anything then. About her, him and about the rest of the world in terms of intact silence, blue sky and immense lightness.
Leo thought of calling Noah from the street before he gets home. He hesitated in front of the door and finally entered the building. “I must talk to Lisa first,” he told himself. The marble floors and polished mirrors in the hall echoed his rightness.
He left the groceries in the kitchen. Poured two glasses of red sparkling wine, for Lisa and himself. Left one glass on the coffee table and silently proceeded to the balcony to call Noah. On the balcony he looked at the moon, drunk half a glass in one sip and started dialing Noah’s number. Then he put the cellphone back into his pocket and leaned on the rail. He clenched his fists, and hardened the muscles on his face, as if he was undergoing some impossible hardship. Leo stood like this for a while not thinking anything.
It was close to midnight when he went inside, kissed the kids and instead of calling Noah, wrote an email to his old acquaintance in California. Leo wrote that the work was keeping him busy, things were going great, the kids were growing and that he has renewed his swimming lessons as he planned to swim a route among different Greek islands next summer.
Barcelona, August 3rd 2012