One Afternoon at Zahra Café
Joyce sips from her dry, double cappuccino and whispers “Yes,” before setting the cup back on its saucer. Zahra Café is one of few places in town where she’s found an espresso made the way an espresso is supposed to be made. It is sadly becoming a lost art. She is a coffee snob — and openly admits it.
She comes here for the espresso and the ambience. The owner of the café is a Palestinian from Jerusalem. She’s seen him, but not spoken to him. He’s often there — a gruff, friendly-looking middle-aged man, either engaged in spirited conversation with several young politically canny types, or playing chess with one of his friends. The walls are covered with embroideries and photographs taken by teens living in the Gaza Strip. In one photo a man stands on his only leg and leans on a crutch. With his free he hand holds up a boot that matches the one on his remaining foot. In the boot, someone has placed a single rose.
The man sitting across the room from her is the son of a famous American author and the father of a boy who went to the same small elementary school that her younger son attended. She read something of this man’s work several years ago published in an iconic magazine widely read by urban intelligentsia. She doesn’t remember anything specific about the piece other than its being not memorable. To be honest, she was not a great fan of his father’s writing either — or lately, even the iconic, widely read magazine that she once adored.
The son of the famous American author is reading from a typed manuscript. He frowns, begins writing on the page, and continues to frown as he does. She feels sorry for him — his having to read something that appears to be less than enjoyable reading. Then again, he’s always had that expression. She remembers that some parents at the school said something about his being “odd.” She doesn’t remember which of the boys at the school was his son, but either remembers or misremembers that he, too, was “odd,” or “troubled.” Many of the children at this school were troubled — progeny of hyper-vigilant, over-achieving, self-consciously liberal liberals, parents with whom she seldom exchanged more than superficial conversation on the playground. She preferred instead to engage with the bright young things on the swings, playing in the field, or chasing flocks of indifferent pigeons. On the few occasions when she chaperoned on overnight trips, she was shocked at seeing all the bags of medications that had to be administered morning and night: benzodiazepines, mood stabilizers, anti-depressants, anti-seizure medications, amphetamines. Dispensing these drugs left her so emotionally drained that she was almost tempted to pop a few random pills herself. What have we done to our children that they need all these pharmaceuticals to get through the day? After this experience, she would remain forever thankful that her two boys were able to suffer through all the relatively insignificant first-world stressors of American middle- to upper-middle class adolescence unmedicated.
She also knows this man sitting across the café from her because he plays tennis on the same dilapidated courts where she plays once a week with her older son. Twenty years ago, their neighborhood was considered a “high crime” area. Her boys, on more than one occasion, would bring her empty shell casings they’d found in the park across the street from where they lived. Now the neighborhood has become considerably gentrified, though small vestiges of its forgotten past, like these courts, still remain. The famous author’s son plays tennis with three other men from the neighborhood, all of them middle-aged, one of them overweight, but each of them much better players than she and her son. Theirs is a modified game of tennis — they’ve dispensed with the standard scoring system and simply play to twenty-one. Laughter and absurd jokes are not uncommon. Nor are random wild shots over the high cyclone fence surrounding the courts and into adjoining back yards and parking lots.
As the man continues making marginal comments on the manuscript, a young couple walk up to the table and begin talking to him. She can’t hear all of what’s discussed, but one or two phrases pierce the muddle: “I didn’t know you were…” “Only community college…. part-time… not a professor.” She appreciates his honesty and his humility. During their exchange, she notices that he doesn’t return their smiles, his face remaining the implacable mask of someone stunned by life. It’s obvious the young couple revere him to some degree. Though it could simply be an instance of youth in awe of someone who’s managed to survive his own youth and adulthood and still communicate somewhat sensibly. The couple say goodbye to him and leave the café. Before he returns to his work, he looks up and they exchange a superficial glance. No smiles or nods of recognition. Just two blank stares meeting briefly then looking away. She wonders if he recognizes her. Though they have spoken on occasion, she has no idea of any impression she may have made on him.
He reads a few more minutes, turns the essay over, and writes something on the back. He places the paper in a folder then slips the folder into a worn leather bag — a bag, she imagines, he’s inherited from his father. As he leaves the café, she feels a sense of remorse that they weren’t more familiar, at least familiar enough to warrant an acknowledging smile. To be fair, she didn’t smile or acknowledge him either. This was a two-way street on which they were avoiding each other, after all. In her case, the reticence was due, in part, to his uninviting demeanor. In his case, she naturally assumed he was avoidant due to his being the son of a famous American author.
Once the man has left the café, she covets the table where he sat near a window looking out on periwinkle morning glories entwined in a latticework fence. She picks up her half-drunk double cappuccino and her bag and moves to the man’s table. She sits, immediately noting — then just as immediately trying to ignore — the fact that the seat is still warm from contact with the famous American author’s son’s bottom.
She takes another sip of her cappuccino and sets the cup in its saucer. This act seems to trigger the arrival of someone else: a woman approximately her age who takes the chair she just vacated. Is it still warm, she wonders? This game of chairs conjures an image of the world as a chess board and humans as pieces that occupy one square, then another, and another, until the game is won, or ends in a stalemate and everyone returns to their original position in the evening. This woman seems familiar. But not so familiar as the author’s son. This has been happening more and more frequently as she’s aged in this medium-sized village. Her past is always right in front of her, but the problem is that more often than not she can’t remember what part any one person may have played in her past. Was this woman also a parent of someone in her sons’ school? A co-worker? Someone who, like her, had engaged in some local cause or other? She finds being trapped in this fog of memory oddly comforting, as though she were buried in a bed of fluffed cotton — just oblivious enough to her surroundings to create a sense of ease. And yet, having to grope for formerly known trivia has become a nagging obsession. She’s lost nearly an hour of sleep trying to remember the name of the actress who played alongside Leonardo Di Caprio in The Titanic. Even when she’s slogged through barely used neural pathways and found the answer, she will forget again within a day or two and have to start all over.
She reaches into her bag and pulls out a college ruled composition notebook. The other woman and she exchange glances, and because they have no reason to be guarded, they smile. This reassures her that if they knew each other, they’d likely been on friendly terms. She believes, to the best of her knowledge, that she’s made no enemies. No one she’d have to go out of her way to avoid — and presumably none who would avoid her. As she returns to her own orbit of awareness, she notes that her mood has become elevated ever-so-slightly, as though the smiling event left a fading imprint on her pre-frontal cortex.
She opens the notebook and takes out a card she’s just purchased, a blank card with the image of a Mexican sunflower on the front. The card is for her former mother-in-law whose husband — naturally, her former father-in-law — died a few days ago. Or, more accurately, was unplugged, then died. Her ex-father-in-law was not an easy man to like: self-absorbed, dismissive of others, prone to irrational violent outbursts. She’s heard that her mother-in-law showed obvious signs of relief once the plug had been pulled and was now at home relaxing in peace and quiet.
Choosing the right card was not easy. She was not the card-sending type, not the sort who observed holidays or remembered birthdays. She spent nearly an hour fingering through the spinning displays of disorganized greeting cards at the used bookstore/curio shop in her neighborhood. She eventually narrowed her search to three cards: 1) A small notecard with an image of a Tiffany stained glass window; 2) A Monet painting of poppies; 3) The scarlet Mexican sunflower. The Tiffany stained glass would have been her first choice if only the card were the standard greeting card size. She looked at the small envelope and imagined it hidden unsent somewhere between her home and her mother-in-law’s apartment in New York City. The Monet she rejected because it was too cliché. Her mother-in-law was herself an artist, an uncommonly intelligent and discriminating woman whom she imagined would look at the card and think to herself: “Yes, Monet’s poppies. How safe.” At least this Mexican sunflower — soft-focused, unlike the standard helianthus and more like a radiant red daisy — was a one-of-a-kind as greeting cards go.
Given her mother-in-law’s unabashed lack of bereavement at her husband’s death, she calibrated what she would say in the card to reflect a soupçon of solemnity without pretending any sense of shared grief. She takes a pen from her notebook and writes: Dear Elizabeth, My sincerest condolences. May you be well. Please feel free to contact me if you’re ever in New England. Love, Joyce.
Joyce looks at her inscription on the card. She is thankful that she managed to write the note without errors or incomprehensible squiggles. Her handwriting was always unpredictable, often a jumble of script and non-script, all caps interspersed with non-caps. She blames her kindergarten teacher and her parents for this. She was born left-handed and had been mercilessly converted to right-handedness at the age of five. This left her not ambidextrous but ambisinister, maladroit, unable to write legibly, draw, sew, knit, dance, or even walk gracefully. The upside to this was that she managed to develop a healthy sense of self-amusement.
When she is done addressing the envelope, she seals it, and places it inside her notebook. She looks up and locks eyes with the other woman again. Again, they exchange smiles and she recognizes that the woman is definitely a mother of one of her older son’s schoolmates. She can’t place the boy’s face or remember the mother’s name, but she’s almost certain this is how she knows her. A not unexpected result given that most of the people she knew in town were somehow associated with her boys’ lives in one way or another. And yet — she could always be wrong.
Now, of course, the issue was what to do with this information. Let it go? Reach out to the other woman? Wait and see if the other woman makes the first move? This would constitute the real life equivalent of the mid-game in chess. No pieces have been exchanged, but pressure begins to build. Joyce decides to make the first move. To justify making this move, she takes her empty cappuccino cup, stands, and on her way to the café counter, walks toward her quondam table, as it were. She stops, smiles broadly at the other woman, and says, “Hi?” with just enough emphasis on the interrogatory to indicate her lack of surety regarding the woman’s identity. The woman returns her “Hi” with more surety, suggesting that she’s more aware of their history. They find themselves reaching their palms out and shaking hands.
“Joyce?” The other woman says.
“Yes,” Joyce says, “and….” She nods, hoping that the other woman will quickly save both of them from this embarrassing imbalance of remembered acquaintanceship.
“Alice,” the other woman says. “Mother of Jason. Your son and mine were in second grade together.”
Joyce stands at the table, her mouth drooping, eyes roving ceilingward as she places name with boy. “Yes!” she says, remembering a brown-haired moppet with a rat’s tail haircut who was painfully shy. “Yes! Jason.”
She’s afraid to ask the next question because it includes the assumption that the boy has managed to live and grow into a healthy young man.
“How is he?”
Joyce thinks: Oh god, please let him not be dead.
“He’s OK.” Alice says with a shrug.
Joyce indicates her empty coffee mug, “I’m getting a refill. Can I join you?”
“Yes!” Alice leans away from the table and presents it as an offering with her palms upraised. “Please do.”
“Can I get you anything?”
Alice checks her teapot. “No.” she says, “I’m fine.”
Joyce smiles and says, “OK,” noting with some degree of self-loathing that she has just performed the human equivalent of the Yorkshire Terrier head tilt. “I’ll be right back.”
She turns, heads toward the counter, and immediately questions why she’s just done what she’s done. It seems the natural thing to do in these situations: to reach out, to be convivial, to invite conversation. But she doesn’t consider herself to be the sort who does things naturally. The spontaneity of the gesture leaves her feeling woozy, as if she were slipping on a sheet of ice.
When Joyce arrives at the counter there’s no one there. As she waits for someone to appear, she turns and takes in the atmosphere of the café. The front room is large, airy, with hardwood floors and a non-functioning fireplace, which, despite its lack of functionality, is surrounded by embroidered chairs and a coffee table strewn with newspapers. It is quiet now; later it will be filled with young, mostly eastern Mediterranean students.
Joyce watches Alice as she sips her tea and notes how she holds the cup delicately in her hands as if she were performing a Japanese tea ceremony. Alice seems both unaware and aware that she’s being watched.
A young woman appears behind the counter. Joyce smiles and eyes the pastry case. She looks up again. “Nice cappuccino, by the way.” The young woman thanks her. “May I have another cappuccino and the almond croissant, please? And a knife. We’re going to share. “She thinks to herself: Look at me: sharing a pastry with someone. Someone I barely know, a relative stranger.
She gathers her cappuccino-cum-saucer and the croissant-cum-plate-and-knife and attempts the precarious juggling act of carrying these assembled items back to the table. Halfway to the table the knife slides off the plate and lands on the floor. In her attempt to not let the knife fall she’s managed to slosh a considerable amount of her cappuccino into the saucer.
“Oh, damn!” She places the items on the table, returns to the knife, picks it up, and exchanges it for a clean one.
Back at the table she sits and leans toward Alice. “I. Am. A. Klutz! Please help me with this.” She slices the croissant, takes one half and places it on an unfolded napkin and offers the plate to Alice. “I love this place, don’t you?”
Alice looks around. “Yes. It’s very… un-American.”
“That’s it exactly,” Joyce says. It’s old world Casablancaesque. The only thing missing is a piano player and…” She covers her face with her hand. “Oh, god… Don’t tell me...”
Joyce’s face reappears. “Yes! Thank you.”
She peels a layer of the croissant from her half, dips it into her saucer to soak up the spilled cappuccino, and then sucks on it. “So,” she raises an eyebrow, “do you come here often?”
Alice shakes her head. “No, not too often. I mean… just once in a while.” She shrugs and stares into her teacup.
As Joyce watches, Alice’s face becomes more familiar, features begin to assemble themselves into the person she used to encounter in passing nearly every school day decades ago. The cheekbones, the blue eyes, the point of her chin.
“I try to get out at least once a week and actively do nothing,” Joyce says. “And this is the best place to do that.”
Alice smiles. “Yes….” She pecks at her half of the croissant. “Thank you — for this.” Alice raises a bit of her pastry as if making an offering to Joyce. Joyce nods and smiles.
In the quiet that follows Joyce begins to feel responsible for keeping the conversation going. What should she say next? Where should she guide the discourse? Current events? The bizarre political upheavals at home and abroad?
Alice breaks the silence. “Your son,” she says, “Malcom?”
“Yes,” Joyce says.
“How is he?”
Joyce shrugs, tries not to appear overly fond. Which, of course, she is. “He’s fine. He runs a small media company all by himself. He’s happy.” She wonders for a second if she should ask, then makes the leap: “And Jason, how is he doing?”
Alice looks at her tea cup, picks it up, rotates it, and then takes a swig. She puts the cup down and folds her arms on the table. “He’s all right.”
“Is he working?” Joyce doesn’t know why she asked this; why she didn’t assume that Jason was working. Or, for that matter, why she was saying anything. At this point she is painfully aware that her mouth is operating wholly extemporaneously.
“Not at the moment,” Alice says. “He’s living at home.”
“It’s very common these days,” Joyce says. “Times are rough.”
Alice toys with what’s left of her croissant. “Immediately after college Jason joined the Air Force.” She pauses, runs a finger through the croissant crumbs on her plate as if looking for the words. “You know how when the kids were young they were so into those video games?”
“Yes,” Joyce says, “Malcolm was for a while. But he gave it up once his life began to provide as much challenge as virtually hijacking cars in Los Angles.”
Alice smiles at this. “Well,” she says, “Jason was an avid gamer, even in college. I guess it was a way to relieve tension — or more likely avoid tension.”
“Yes…” Joyce says.
“Anyway… Air Force recruiters came to Jason’s campus one day. They put on this big video game expo. Jason and some of his friends went to see what it was all about. He started playing some war game or other as one of the recruiters watched.” Alice pauses, appears to be trying to undo something that was already history, then continues: “So, anyway, the recruiter must have liked what he saw because he invited Jason to enlist in the unmanned drone program.”
Joyce is initially relieved to hear that Jason wasn’t in direct combat. On the other hand, she is familiar enough with the drone program to know that it is essentially long-distance assassination — and always included innocent collateral. The image of crosshairs trailing a vehicle or a small crowd of people comes to mind, followed by a billowing cloud of dust and smoke.
“This was ten years ago.” Alice says. “He left school and headed off to Nevada. Bill and I were not particularly thrilled about this. But, you know… whatever makes them happy.”
“Yes,” Joyce says, “I used to tell our boys that when they grew up I would continue to love and support them as long as they avoided becoming lawyers or fundamentalist Christians.” She smiled. “I eventually softened on the first rule when our youngest demonstrated a marked talent for argument.”
“Funny,” Alice says. “Is he a lawyer now?”
“No,” Joyce says, hand upon heart in mock solemnity. “He’s a comedian.”
They both laugh at this and return to staring at their beverages. Joyce senses that Alice’s story doesn’t end well, but is unsure whether to ask for more details. She has never been good at prying people out of their shells.
Alice continues: “At first, Jason was OK with the whole thing. Here he was getting paid to do what came naturally to him. He immersed himself in the program. Learned to fly the drone, land it…” She pauses. “And shoot at virtual targets.” She stops, covers her face with her hands, and rubs it as though trying to wake up. “If you think about it,” she says, “it’s not hard to imagine what happens next. We assume these things fly themselves. They look like robots. I mean, it’s not like taking a gun and shooting someone standing front of you.” She leans forward over the table and speaks softly. “The fact is, each one of those missiles will only hit the target if someone clicks the button. I suppose at first you’re so caught up in the technology you don’t stop to think. You don’t see the faces. You don’t know who these people are. They’re just pixels on a screen and they’re thousands of miles away.” She shrugs, toys with her napkin.
Joyce resists the temptation to reach out and touch Alice’s hand.
Alice looks away, then smiles. “I can’t believe I’m just remembering this!”
“Remembering what?” Joyce asks.
“I was a chaperone on one of the school trips to the beach when the boys were in Thalia’s second grade class. Malcolm and Jason were sitting together eating lunch and Malcolm was watching Jason eat. Malcolm was vegetarian at the time, right?”
Joyce nods, “Yes, at the time.”
“Is he still?”
Joyce smiles and rolls her eyes. “He’s been everything at one time or another. Currently his core diet is veggies and fruit, but he’ll eat meat when it’s convenient. Particularly if someone else is paying for it. I think this is called flexitarianism.”
They both laugh. Alice continues: “So, Malcolm is watching Jason eat and he asks: ‘Are you eating chicken?’ Jason says ‘Yah.’ And Malcolm chews his peanut butter sandwich then says: ‘You’re eating something that used to breathe and walk around.’ ‘So,’ Jason says. And Malcolm says, ‘That makes you a murderer.’”
Joyce begins to laugh, then stops herself, cupping her hand over her mouth. “Oh, god! I’m so sorry!”
Alice shakes her head. “It’s OK. That’s the way kids are. They have no restraint. I tried to explain that by definition a murderer is the one who does the killing, not the one who consumes the food.” She smiles at Joyce. “I’m not sure if Malcolm wholly accepted my theory.”
Joyce rolls her eyes and shakes her head. “That’s him, I’m afraid.”
Alice dismisses it. “It’s just a funny memory.”
At this point, both women simultaneously determine there should be a change of scene. They gather their cups and plates and put them in the bus tray. On the way out the door of the café, they both thank the young woman behind the counter.
Outside, they are met with the fruity aroma of blueberry pie. One of the young men sitting in the shade of the café awning looks up from his book, takes the hookah stem from his mouth, nods, and smiles.
Joyce and Alice are heading in the same general direction: Alice to the drug store, Joyce toward the post office. As they walk, Joyce opens her arms, tilts her head skywards. “I don’t remember New England springs being so luxurious,” she says. “It’s like California.”
“Yes,” Alice says. “One of the uneasy benefits of climate change.”
Joyce nods. “Yes…”
They walk under the tree-lined path next to the Episcopal Church. Benches along the path are randomly populated by couples in conversation or people sitting alone gazing into their cell phones.
Alice takes a deep breath and sighs audibly: “He’s come to consider himself a murderer.”
“What!?” Joyce says. “Who?”
“Jason,” Alice says. “He actually knows how many people he’s killed. They tell them.”
Try as she might, Joyce can’t lift the mood that accompanies this last statement. Like a telegram — or more appropriately, a tweet — Alice’s words have brought incontrovertible evidence from the dusty, blood-soaked roads of Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan.
Joyce leads them to a bench and they sit.
“But — ” Joyce says, “he was just following orders. Right? I mean, he must know that his feelings of remorse absolve him.”
Joyce studies Alice’s face, expecting to see tears. There are none. She’s obviously beyond that stage.
“That sort of reasoning works in small ways throughout the day. When he’s busy or distracted he’s all right, I guess. But at night, when he’s asleep, when his guard is down . . . well…. ”
“Yes.” Joyce nods. “The devil’s hour.”
They sit quietly watching the traffic heading into the square. A man a few benches away who appears to have slept in his clothes more than a night or two splays his arms across the back of the bench and yells at someone who’s not there. A male pigeon coos after a female; she will having nothing of it.
“Well — ” Alice says.
“Yes — ” Joyce says.
They stand and walk the last block to the intersection where Alice is turning right, Joyce to the left. They pause, Joyce holds her arms out. They hug.
“Take care,” she says.
“I will,” Alice says. “Thank you.”
Both dispense with the pretense of offering to “get together again.” They simply smile, wave, and head in opposite directions.
As Joyce walks to the post office, she notes that her arms are folded across her chest as though there were a chill in the air. Having noticed this, she rests in the comfort the posture brings her. She finds herself wondering about the lethality of words. Their power to effect change in others’ lives. Should we not be more careful when we speak to one another? Even one word, casually blurted out, not necessarily intended to cause harm, can do just that.
She stops at the mailbox in front of the post office, reaches into her bag and fingers through her notebook. She finds the card to her mother-in-law and pulls it out. She studies the address once more to make sure she’s got it right. Everything seems to be correct. She holds the card in the slot of the mailbox for a few seconds before letting go. Once she does, she imagines that she hears the click of a handgun.