The Strangest Feeling
THURSDAY, OCTOBER SECOND. I remember sitting on the bus. This is a horrible place to start a story, but I suppose it’s as good a place as any other I can think of.
Boston, Massachusetts. One month ago. It’s my twenty-ninth birthday, and I’m sitting on the cold, orange plastic seat of bus #3031, probably the oldest bus that the MBTA owned. This thing seems to be running on time that had already run out. Every bump in the road causes every piece of it to shake violently. Some things shake when I’m certain they shouldn’t. I can feel parts of myself shaking that shouldn’t be. The floor seems to move independently from the rest of the bus, which certainly has to be a safety hazard. On the seat next to me is an old ragged newspaper. The date is smudged, but it appears to read ‘November 2, 1982.’ That can’t be right, can it? One of the banner ads above me has a picture of a Spine-Tailed Swift (Hirundapus caudacutus) on it, the second-fastest bird in the world. I think it’s an advertisement for an ink-jet printer, but I’m really not sure.
Professor Nickwelter and a few more of the teaching staff at Hawthorne University decided to throw an intimate birthday dinner for me, and after calling it an evening, I decided to treat myself to this spectacular bus ride. Happy birthday me.
There’s something about turning twenty-nine that seems to instantly make you feel older than thirty. I can’t explain it, but I can certainly feel it tonight.
I remember when I was a little girl, growing up in Ville Constance and dreaming of this day. Well, let me make it clear; not this day as it’s turned out to be, but this day as I thought it would be. An imaginary life. With the perfect husband and flowers beside my bed. It’s my personal opinion that until girls turn sixteen, they shouldn’t have even the slightest concept of marriage explained to them. It’s a dangerous idea to have in your head when you’re an eight-year-old girl. Like carrying around a loaded gun, not that I would have any idea what to do with it. So many dreams are forged at that age; dreams that seem realistically attainable, that it’s hard to face the inevitable and disappointing reality of it all.
So now I’m twenty-nine years old. I’m allergic to flowers and about as close to being married as I was twenty-one years ago. Actually, it seems as though I might have been closer back then, because that’s when I still had some hope. I guess you could call this my mid-life crisis, but feeling so near to the end as I do right now, my mid-life crisis must have happened around the time I was fifteen. Although, for the life of me, I can’t recall what that event must’ve been. I can only narrow it down to one disappointing day:
If I hadn’t been cut from the Doneau High basketball team.
Thinking about all of this, I start to zone out. My thoughts are somewhere else entirely, but my eyes are focused squarely on the metal pole before me. I’m paying specific attention to a tiny screw in the center, attaching the pole to the seat in front of me. One of those screws with the X-shaped hole in the middle. I know that buried somewhere deep within that empty black cross lies the answers to whatever it is I’m asking myself. I’m looking, but not seeing. The mind and the eyes are so closely related, that it’s impossible to imagine just how far apart mine were at this moment. Like they were two Snow Buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis) on opposing mountain peaks. Or like the American Rhea (Rhea americana) and the African Ostrich (Struthio camelus), who so obviously shared a common ancestor, but haven’t had contact with one another since before the continents divided. The entire world is flying by me just outside that window at a steady pace of fifteen miles-an-hour. But I remain completely unaware of it.
I almost seem to be getting somewhere when my senses come crashing back together. A hand grips the pole in front of me; a little dirty, but a perfectly flawless hand nonetheless. It covers up the screw and seemingly all of the answers buried within it, and it’s enough to bring me back down to Earth.
What force could have been responsible for this near-impossible task? At the time, I had no idea who he was. And yet, even as this man would bring my feet back to the ground at that moment, he would later try to take them right off again. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. What did happen on that bus at that moment?
He’s staring right at me, and a little too obviously for my liking. I cross my legs and adjust the top button of my blouse, so as not to give this creep a free show. I try my best to focus my thoughts back to the dinner party I had escaped from.
Okay. Concentrate. It’s Thursday night. I was just downtown at Café d’Averno with the four of them; there was Professor Nickwelter, former head of the ornithology department, now my assistant at Hawthorne University; Professor James, head of genetics; Professor Claus, our zoology expert; and Jerry Humphries, who runs the school’s bird sanctuary and laboratories. I don’t know whose idea it was to invite Humphries, as no one here seems to be able to stand the despicable man. Especially myself.
We would have an unscheduled long weekend due to a small fire this morning in the university’s south laboratory. A blown fuse box I was told, but more likely it was a student horsing around. Quite a dangerous place for a fire, but I was told no serious damage was inflicted. In order to make sure the rest of the school was safe, we were given Friday off.
Café d’Averno, as far as I know, is named after a famous lake in Southern Italy, Lake Avernus. The ancient Romans considered the lake to be a gateway to Hell, and that its volcanic fumes that filled the air were deadly enough to kill every bird that flew in its vicinity. The word for Hell, Averno, literally means “a place without birds,” and maybe I’m just biased, but I personally believe this to be a correct statement.
At the center of Averno’s, there was a fountain surrounded by eight Muscovy Ducks (Cairina moschata) meticulously carved into the marble base. The French crossbred Muscovy ducks and mallards for cooking to obtain Barbary ducks, which have a milder taste. A popular belief is that Muscovy ducks had gotten their name from the musky odor of their flesh.
There’s something about birds that I find extraordinarily soothing. Whenever I’m feeling uncomfortable, or if I simply need to calm myself down, I have a habit of looking around for birds wherever I am. They’re everywhere, whether real or not. You’d be surprised if you really focused on it. Anyway, the duck carvings on the fountain were just enough to put me at ease again. That is, until I turned back to the dinner party. Or more specifically, towards Professor Nickwelter.
Nickwelter and I had a history together of which everyone here knew about, and it only served to make the meal even more uncomfortable. For me, at least. But everybody had always done their best to try not to bring up any off-handed mention of our shaky past. It’s been two years since our relationship had ended, and I’m still awkward about the entire situation.
If I hadn’t slept with Professor Nickwelter.
After hors d’oeuvres, we ordered dinner. Nickwelter, James, and Humphries all had the roasted duck, which is quite remarkable coming from three grown men who have made the studying and caring for birds into their chosen career. Professor Claus (who is affectionately known as ‘Mrs. Claus’ by the faculty and students at Hawthorne) had the tofu spinach burger with cabbage. I ordered the spaghetti with meatballs, and was met with cheers from the surrounding company. They had actually made a bet earlier as to what I would order; three of them said spaghetti. Humphries guessed pork chops. Pork chops? I’ve always hated pork chops, not that he would know that. I’m almost certain that pork chops weren’t even on the menu, but apparently he had his reasons. The pretentious twit. Although, now that I think about it, I hadn’t noticed whether or not I’ve ever eaten such an exorbitant amount of spaghetti, with meatballs or otherwise, that people would take such an active notice either.
I tried to change the subject, to talk about something other than myself. But once dinner was served, the conversation had quickly been forced back towards me, and it was definitely the figurative arrow I did not want pointing my way. It went something like this:
PROFESSOR NICKWELTER: “You look magnificent tonight Isabelle. Is that a new wristwatch? Whatever happened to the last one?”
PROFESSOR JAMES: “I hope you don’t consider yourself old for being on the brink of thirty. You’re still a spring chicken, Donhelle! By the way, do you know the origins of the term ‘spring chicken?’ Remind me to tell you later. It’s really quite an amusing anecdote.”
MRS. CLAUS: “Isabelle, why don’t you come by my place after dinner for some non-fat organic birthday cake? I have a family recipe that’s to die for.”
JERRY HUMPHRIES: “You need a ride home tonight, Bella?”
And my answer was the same for all of them:
ME: “I think the spaghetti was bad. Excuse me while I go use the ladies room.”
We hadn’t been at the restaurant for any longer than an hour, and I had already made three trips to the ladies room. It seemed to be the only the place I could go to get some air. Engraved in many of the tiles on the bathroom wall were images of Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) standing one-legged in pools of water. When roosting, cranes will tuck one leg up under their feathers to keep it warm while standing on the other. In the Middle Ages, it was believed that a sentry crane held a stone within its hidden foot, and would drop it if he fell asleep or if its attention was diverted, thereby waking its companions. In heraldry, a crane is often shown holding a stone, as a reminder of alertness.
If only I had been paying attention that night.
To make this exhaustingly boring story just a bit shorter, I decided to simply leave Café d’Averno early. I honestly don’t know if spaghetti has the capability of going bad, but they let me go on my own without too much of a struggle, even though I had gotten a lift to the restaurant with Mrs. Claus. Humphries still had the ride home offer on the table, and I still declined. That smug little weasel. For some reason, the idea of riding public transit seemed to appeal to me much more tonight than it ever had before in my life.
If I hadn’t decided to take the bus home.
Had all the talk of me being another year older, another year closer to thirty, been getting to me? Maybe a little bit. The truth is, I’ve never dealt with change very well. I am from Ville Constance, after all. The Constant City. I know I’m getting older, we all are with every passing second, but I guess I’ve felt as though things never seem to change for me as much as I think they should. Do I avoid change because I’m really just itching to turn it around? Do I keep my life stagnant because I’m aching to do something completely unexpected? Was I staring so intensely into the void of that screw in front of me because I’m really just afraid to be a part of the changing world around me? Is the world changing without me?
I turn back to this man on the bus, his gaze still upon me. A part of me wonders if he’d ever taken his eyes off me at all, while another part of me wonders whether or not I actually wanted him to. He nods his head towards me, and I tighten up defensively once again. The level of discomfort I’m feeling at this precise moment is completely unexplainable. What’s this guy staring at me for anyway? And why me? Again, I adjust my blouse and turn my body away from him. In my head, I count down from ten before looking back up…
And there he is.
“Can I help you?” I ask abruptly, defiantly. As soon as the words leave my lips, I worry that maybe I shouldn’t have said anything at all. My mother always told me never to talk to strangers, but when exactly comes the point in one’s life that Mom’s advice can be disregarded? When can I make my own decisions without having to still hear her voice nattering away inside my head?
“Are you offering your help,” he begins calmly, and then blinks in what seems like slow motion, “or do I have to beg you for it?” He isn’t cracking a smile at all; he just says this matter-of-factly. As though the ambiguousness of his words can only be interpreted one way.
That’s it for me though. I pull the bus dinger as if it was a parachute’s ripcord and I I’m perilously close to hitting the ground. I get up from my seat and run across the shaky floor to the exit at the back of the bus. The driver slows to a stop and I jump off into the darkness of the city. I turn back to make sure the man didn’t follow me off the bus. He didn’t. Bus #3031 speeds off to where, just one minute ago, I thought I was going.
Taking a look around me, I discover a part of Boston that I don’t recognize. It’s dirty. It’s smelly. It’s making me uncomfortable. But I think that not knowing where I am is exactly where I want to be. Directly behind me, and nestled in between two of the vilest triple-x establishments I’ve ever seen is The Strangest Feeling, a little diner with yellow smoke-stained windows. Beneath the alternating green lights flashing from one pornography shop to the orange lights flashing from the other, The Strangest Feeling seems strangely welcoming.
So I go in.
If I hadn’t walked inside The Strangest Feeling.
Inside, it appears to be one of those retro eateries that make you feel as though you’re sitting right in the middle of the 1940’s. I sit up at the front counter on a stool with a flat plastic cushion, even worse than the seat on the bus.
I begin to take in everything behind the counter; malt vinegar bottles, pancake syrup, plastic bears filled with honey, jars and boxes stuffed with dozens of different types of tea bags and an old-fashioned pop bottle with a faded image of Marilyn Monroe on it.
The night waitress comes out from the kitchen. She pulls the menu out that’s wedged between the sugar dispenser and the ketchup bottle and she tosses it in front of me. But before I can open the oversized laminated menu she speaks up.
“What’ll it be sweetheart?” she asks me, instantly reminding me of my mother. She smacks her bubble gum as though she really doesn’t care what my answer will be.
I’m almost too overwhelmed by the sight of this girl to give an immediate response. Her nametag says ‘Kitty’ for one thing, and her lips are this sort of neon green color. The kind of color that should strictly be reserved for tacky electric signs on steak houses. Or maybe they were just reflecting the flashing green porno shop signs outside. Feeling pressured to make some kind of decision, I simply ask, “What’s your special?”
“Tonight’s special is pea soup with our homemade cheese bread.” She smacks her lips a couple more times before finishing her response. “I highly recommend it.”
I’m not really full from my earlier meal at Averno’s. Since my dinner guests had never stopped bombarding me with ridiculous questions, I didn’t get the chance to eat my meal while it was still hot. It’s really not fair that there were four mouths shooting off questions and only one mouth left to answer them. They all took turns talking and eating, while I was too polite to speak with my mouth full, so I opted to not even try.
“How bad could it be then?” I ask, mostly to myself.
She answers anyway. “No worse than tomorrow’s special, I suppose” she says with a smirk. “Is that all then?”
Behind the counter I spot a varied selection of tiny cereal boxes, three ceramic dancing Hawaiian hula girls with ukuleles, and a large coffee maker with five pots of coffee brewing. I don’t know if it’s because there are five full pots of coffee and I’m the only customer in here, but I think about having some. I’ve never had a cup of coffee in my life before; just the thought of it has never appealed to me. I think it’s partly because my father once told me that caffeine was a drug, and I’d be good to stay away from drugs. I take a moment to consider how much of a lame-o I must be, and then I ask Kitty for a cup of coffee.
“You sure about that?” she asks, as if seeing right through me.
“Maybe just a tea then,” I say, taking it back. But I the part of me that was looking for a change tonight is what stops Kitty before she can walk away. “No. Sorry,” I say, the words stumbling out of my mouth. “I think I will have that cup of coffee.” It’s subtle, but I know she’s rolling her eyes at me a little.
If I hadn’t asked for that one cup of coffee.
“Thanks,” I confirm.
“You got it.” She writes my order down in her head, and saunters back into the kitchen. I slide the menu back into its resting place and consider just how bad tomorrow’s special might be. I also wonder when neon green lipstick was ever in style.
I take notice of the large Jones Cola machine, a breadbox that may or may not contain bread, a coffee bean grinder and an old-fashioned metal fan with a wire grate covering the blade. An unplugged cord is loosely tied around the base. Above the order window to the kitchen are about a dozen black and white photographs, which appear to be both employees and patrons of The Strangest Feeling. On one of the walls there is a poorly painted mural of a sunrise; the colors are cracked and bubbled, showing years of neglect. On the ceiling are matching painted clouds.
But in this entire diner, I can’t seem to find a single image of a bird anywhere. It makes me feel a little uneasy; as though I’m way too far out of my element.
It really is the strangest feeling.
An early October Boston chill creeps inside the diner. I almost reach for the newspaper down the counter, but then I remember how tired I am of reading about bad news. And I worry that the paper could potentially have the same date as the one I saw on the bus earlier.
Kitty comes back out and pours some coffee from one of the pots into a generous-sized ceramic mug. She places the mug and a spoon onto a tiny plate in front of me. The spoon has a design on the end of it that I can’t make out. I imagine that if I held it at just the right angle under the diner’s dim lights, it might be charitable enough to resemble an African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus). Maybe I’m trying too hard to look for a comforting sign, but maybe the unknown is better right now. Maybe I need to feel out of my element tonight.
If I hadn’t been out of my element.
Kitty tosses some plastic cups of cream onto the table, smacking her gum all the while. I can smell that pink, sugary flavor with every bite. If smell could be described as pink, this was it.
I try my best to seem as though I belong in this caffeine-induced society. Tearing the lids off of two cups of cream (actually, it’s more like I was picking away at it until I could get a grip of the slippery paper seal with my teeth, then pulling slowly enough so as not to spill it all over myself), I pour it in with a dash of sugar. That’s right, a dash. It sounds like the correct amount. I think from a stranger’s perspective, I must appear pretty experienced for someone who’s never had a cup of coffee in her life.
I take a sip.
And it’s really not very good. I pour in what must be the equivalent of three or four packs of sugar into my cup.
Another tentative sip.
It’s tolerable now. Who knows, maybe it’ll grow on me by the end of the night?
Five minutes later, I’m hoping the pea soup and cheese bread might grow on me as well. I’m also hoping that there really are peas in here somewhere, because I can’t tell for sure. At least the bread is decent enough, though I can’t seem to decipher the crust from the actual bread. There are a few reasons running through my head as to why this diner is called The Strangest Feeling. Still, I feel more content here all by myself than I did at Café d’Averno earlier tonight with my incessant co-workers. And I certainly feel safer than I did on the bus.
That is, until ringing bells indicate the door to The Strangest Feeling has swung open. A lone man enters, and he sits right beside me at the counter, even though there are plenty of other empty seats in here.
“What can I get you, sugar?” Kitty asks him, smacking her bubble gum between those crayon-colored lips.
I catch his reflection in the mirrored mini fridge behind the counter. It’s the same guy from the bus; the one I specifically came in here to avoid. How the fudge did he follow me in here so quickly? I made sure he didn’t get off the bus when I did. I can see his reflection motion towards mine as he replies to the waitress, “I’ll have what she’s having.”
“And a coffee?” she asks.
In the reflection, I see him glance down into my coffee cup to check its contents. “Yep.”
Kitty walks off, and I continue to stare at him from the mini fridge. Before I can decide whether sitting here any longer is still a good idea, his eyes turn to mine in the glass. That same smile from the bus is still smeared across his face. “You recommend the pea soup and cheese bread?” he calmly asks my mirror image.
What do I say now? Panic mode has set in, and yet I feel as though it’s far too late to do anything rational. “Not really,” I say to him. “I just wanted to try something new tonight.”
If I hadn’t answered him.
Our reflections don’t turn away from each other, and I get a much better look at his features now. Beautiful brown eyes beneath a thick, messy head of hair. A strong jaw and that overly confident smile breaking through cracked lips. His skin has a certain hardness to it; well-tanned, but with just the faintest trace of dirt or soot on his face. Probably from the same source as the grime on his knuckles I captured earlier.
“You get that feeling often?” he asks, reaching into his coat to scratch his armpit. “That you want to try something new?”
“To tell the truth, I get that feeling all the time,” I say to him. “But tonight’s the first time that I’ve ever acted on it.”
He peers into the kitchen now, as though he’s already growing impatient for his meal. With his elbows, he pushes himself up to take a better look. He’s not paying attention to me, but still asks, “Is that a French accent?”
“Uh…yeah.” I say. “French-Canadian.”
With a quick motion, he reaches over the counter and grabs a spoon from behind the bar. I don’t know why he does it, but he sits right down again and turns back to face my reflection. “What’s that?” he asks, as if just realizing I had answered him.
“I said I’m French-Canadian.”
“Is there such a thing?”
I can’t tell if he’s joking or not. He’s not blinking. He simply stares through the mini-fridge, and into my eyes like he’s waiting for me to go on. He rattles the spoon between his teeth.
Before I can utter another word, Kitty makes her timely return. She sets down an empty cup, pours some coffee for him and then refills mine. She’s still smacking her gum as she tosses some more plastic cups of cream onto the countertop.
I pour some more cream and sugar into my coffee. From the mini-fridge I notice this man next to me doing the same. Mimicking exactly how I prepare my cup of coffee. How can he do that? Didn’t I conceive of these particular measurements myself just now? Do I not reserve the right to be offended by someone else’s identical coffee-preparing preferences? I turn to him, and I force the words out, “I can see what you’re doing.”
“Hmmm?” he replies innocently, without even a hint of innocence.
“You follow me in here, you sit right beside me and you order the same thing I do. And now you’re putting the exact same amount of cream and sugar in your coffee as me.”
“Strangest coincidence, isn’t it?”
I pick up my spoon, and stir the coffee around. He does the same. Our metal spoons clinking with the rims of our ceramic cups in perfect harmony. He places his spoon back down, just as I do.
Upon closer inspection, I notice the t-shirt he’s wearing underneath his buttoned-up weathered coat has an image ironed on the front. It appears to be the feathery cap a Brown-Headed Nuthatch (Sitta pusilla). At least, that’s what it looks like from this angle. It’s enough to make me smile a little, whether I mean to or not.
He holds out his hand. “My name’s Templeton Rate.”
I don’t move an inch. Templeton Rate, I think. Sounds made up to me.
“I know it sounds made up, but that’s really my name,” he says, as if taking the words right out of my head. Actually, the words were still in my head, so I guess it was more like he got in, made a xerox copy of my words, and then got back out again before saying it. Well, whatever. You get the idea. Either way, I wasn’t really sure just what to make of the situation I’d now found myself in. It was all very strange. Although I think I was finding the slightest bit of comfort from the head of the nuthatch peeking out from Templeton Rate’s coat.
I know he can smell my fear, and he presses on. “Are you going to get into the habit of trying new things?” he asks. “Because it’s really not such a bad habit to have, you know.”
Maybe he was right. Maybe this was going to be a new habit for me. Maybe it should be. That change in my life that I always seemed to avoid for fear of ending up somewhere I didn’t want to be? Maybe this was it. Who am I kidding? Of course this was it.
It was at that precise moment I made the mistake; the one mistake that led this story to end it the way it does. I could’ve gotten up right then and there, but like a fool I stayed.
If I hadn’t had that first cup of coffee; if I hadn’t entered The Strangest Feeling; if I hadn’t gotten on that bus; if I hadn’t lied to my co-workers about the spaghetti; if I hadn’t been cut from the Doneau High basketball team.
That’s right Mrs. Wyatt; this is all your fault.
Templeton repeats his last question, since it probably seems as though I didn’t hear him. “I said trying new things is really not such a bad habit to have, is it?”
“I don’t know,” I start. “The bread’s a little stale. And the soup is watery.”
That’s what I chose say to him. I just couldn’t leave well enough alone. Those were the words that sealed my fate, and the fate of the whole city. Maybe even the world. That’s not being too dramatic, is it?
“I’m not going to lie to you,” is what he says back to me. “I’m much better than stale bread and watery soup.”
And I believed him. Whoops. Sorry world.
If I hadn’t believed a word he said.
His hand is still held out in front of me, so I lift mine into his. It’s the warmest hand I think I’ve ever felt. In fact, it’s so warm that I have no problem telling him whatever it is he wants to know. “Isabelle,” I say to him.
“That’s a little bit better…” he replies, not letting go of my hand.
Whatever he wants at all. “Isabelle Donhelle.”
“Ah. Perfect.” He pauses for a moment, thinking about this. “You know, that name sounds more made up than mine. Are you sure you’re telling me the entire truth?”
“Of course I am,” I say defensively.
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
If I hadn’t told him the truth.
He stares back into my eyes, much deeper than I’m comfortable with. It feels like he knows I’m lying, even though I know I’m not. “That’s funny…” he starts, as he raises the cup to his mouth. He takes a loud slurp. It’s almost loud enough that one would assume he’s doing it intentionally, for whatever reason men do anything. But it’s just loud enough that I can tell he simply has no manners. Basically, he’s a pig. Although, the fool that I am, I chalk it up to poor parental guidance, since he seems to be trying his best to be a gentleman.
He swallows the coffee, but before he can finish what it was he had started to say, he squirms uncontrollably in his seat, as though he just had a sip of flat root beer. He turns back to me accusingly, “Fuck,” he says. “Do you really drink coffee with this much sugar in it?”
“Actually, that’s something new for me too. I guess I’m really spreading my wings today, aren’t I?”
“Of course you are.” He places his coffee cup back down in front of him, but he continues to feel the handle with his fingers. “But you’d better be careful when spreading your wings that you have a safe place to land.”
I look down to the floor, but I can’t tell if I’m looking for a safe place, or if I’m looking for the right thing to say instead.
It doesn’t matter though, as the moment is ruined anyway. Templeton’s hand tips his coffee cup over. Steaming, sugary coffee spills onto the countertop and drips down onto the checkerboard-tiled floor. I can’t tell for certain if this was intentional or not, since he doesn’t seem the least bit surprised or embarrassed. The waitress runs over to clean it up. I tell her “sorry,” since Templeton clearly isn’t going to. In fact, he doesn’t even acknowledge her. Again, I blame this on an unfortunate upbringing. She says it’s all right and asks Templeton if he wants a refill, but he continues to ignore her, keeping his attention focused entirely on me.
“So, are you new in town? I haven’t seen you around Boston before, Isabelle Donhelle.”
I try my best to forget about the coffee too. “It’s a big city, Templeton Rate.”
“Hey, I’m from Schenectady. I know big cities. This is nothing.”
Schenectady? I don’t know whether to laugh or just agree with him. He sure seems serious. Maybe I’m just thinking of another Schenectady. “And I’m always on the lookout for cute French girls in greasy diners, so I know you’re definitely new around here.”
“The truth is that I really don’t get out much.”
The waitress comes back with Templeton’s soup, bread and a fresh cup of coffee.
“So tell me something,” he says to me, and then waits for a response. Although I’m not quite sure what it is he’s looking for.
“Pardon me?” I ask.
He reaches for the salt and pepper, and shakes some into the hot pea soup as he clarifies. “I want to know something about you that I couldn’t have pieced together just by sitting here at this counter for the last ten minutes. Like what do you do for a living? Have you ever mixed your whites with your colors? When I say French impressionist, do you think painter or comedian? Do you have a jealous boyfriend? Have you ever seen the sun set from underwater?”
“I can answer the first one for you.”
“I’m a teacher. Well, professor actually.”
“And the rest?”
“I either have no idea what you’re talking about, or it’s simply none of your business.”
“Do you sleep naked?”
Again, I’m not sure whether he’s serious or joking, so I don’t answer.
He takes a package of saltine crackers, crushes it inside his palm, and sprinkles the contents into his soup. “I guess that falls under the ‘none of my business’ category, right?”
“Well, teacher is a good start,” he says, satisfied for now with the amount of information that I’ve awarded him with. “I’m a student. But I also work part-time as a doorman.”
“I see. What is it that you study exactly?”
He takes some more packages of saltines from the counter, and crushes them in his hand too. “I guess that depends on what it is you’re teaching.”
“It does, does it? I don’t think you’d ever find your way into my class Templeton. You kind of need to know something first.”
Pouring more cracker dust into his soup, he tries his best to impress me. “I know that the human heart creates enough pressure to shoot blood thirty feet. I know the circumference of the Earth would never be exactly the same, no matter how many times you measure it. I know why it is that vertical stripes look better on fat people than they do on skinny people. What makes you think I don’t have what it takes?” There’s a mountain of crumbled crackers on his soup now.
“It’s just that you seem like the type of guy that copies the answers from the person next to you is all.”
“I don’t copy answers. There’s no need to copy anything when there aren’t any right answers in the first place.”
“For nothing at all? What about your vertical stripe paradox?”
“Listen to me Isabella. The amount of things in this world that we don’t know so greatly outnumbers the things we do, that I don’t think any ‘answer’ can ever truly be one-hundred percent correct. Does that make any sense to you?”
“I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention, but my name’s Isabelle. Not Isabella.”
He ignores me completely, and takes a big bite out of the bread. Again, this is kind of bite that only a lack of proper parental supervision can be held responsible for. “There’s a difference between having the right answer and knowing the truth.” The Templeton Rate Guide to Etiquette obviously doesn’t say anything about talking with a mouth full of food.
“That’s profound. I don’t know how you could ever top that.” I don’t mean to sound like I’m challenging him, but that’s how it comes out.
He forces the bread down his throat without much gratification. “Fuck. This cheese bread really is terrible. I’ve got to take a shit.” Templeton gets up to use the bathroom, but turns back to me before exiting. “I want to buy you another cup of coffee though. What do you say?”
What should I say? For too long I’ve avoided situations just like this when maybe I should’ve taken the chance instead.
He leans in closer to me, almost closer than what I’m comfortable with. I can see a tiny piece of bread still lodged between his two front teeth. “Look at you. I can tell you’re wanting to break out,” he says, coming a little closer. I can smell the hint of cheese and coffee on his breath. “You’re itching to do something completely unexpected, aren’t you? You want to become someone you’ve never had the chance to be before. And you want me to help you get there, don’t you?” Even closer now. There’s a disregarded nose hair that’s grown longer than the rest, and I can see it fanning back and forth with his every breath. “What do you say Isabella?” His faults are just obvious enough that I can tell he’s the most realistic person I’ve ever met. And there’s the familiar little brown-headed nuthatch poking its head out from under Templeton’s coat. How can I possibly resist all of this tonight?
So I don’t. “Isabelle,” is what I say, correcting him once again.
He doesn’t say anything else; he just turns and walks towards the washrooms. As he exits, I replay the whole encounter in my mind. I still wonder how it is that he managed to follow me here, and I think that I’ll ask him as soon as he comes back.
What does Templeton Rate want from me? And what do I want from him? I’m not entirely sure, but I’m hoping to figure that out too when he returns.
Then a feeling comes over me, one that I haven’t felt for probably two years, since I accepted the teaching position at Hawthorne. It’s the feeling of anticipation. I finish off my meal, and discover that even the bread and soup are not so bad now. Why is that? Why is it that when you sense a particular feeling in your heart, all of your other senses take a temporary vacation?
If I hadn’t remained at that counter, waiting for him to return.
I hear the men’s room door as it swings open, but I don’t look. I wait for Templeton to sit back down beside me so I can ask him everything I need to right away. So I can get all of these thoughts out of my head that have been accumulating since he left. But it’s not Templeton who exits from the bathroom. Another man, a fat man who must have come into the diner when I was fumbling with my emotions, stumbles by me and breaks my train of thought. The stench of men’s room is all over him, and I pray that my pseudo-date’s smell is not so similar when he comes back.
If he comes back. It’s been ten minutes now, and the steam from our coffee has vanished. It’s cold, but I swallow the rest of mine with determination. I wonder if maybe I did put too much sugar in my cup. The soggy mess of crackers sinks slowly into Templeton’s untouched soup.
It’s after twenty minutes that I figure I’d better go and investigate his whereabouts. I rap my hand on the men’s room door, and call out to him. “Templeton?”
But there’s no answer.
I try again with the same result: no answer. So I creak the door open a little and take a peek inside, but I don’t see anything apart from a tiled wall in front of me. So I carefully take a step in. Around the corner are two urinals against the wall. I’ve heard the horror stories, and seen them in movies before, but I’ve honestly never seen a urinal in person until this moment. And trust me, if you’ve never seen one either, don’t go out of your way to fill that void. I won’t go into too much detail, but I’m sure you could stuff a pillow with all of the hairs in there. They were everywhere: on the wall, on the floor, stuck to the inside, floating in the puddle of water, and all over the little white puck-thing covering the drain. Black hairs. Brown hairs. Red hairs. Yellow hairs. All of them thick and curly. I know I wanted a change in my life, but right now this might be going a little too far outside of my comfort zone. I take a step back, and the urinal flushes automatically, which is the lone bright spot of my visit to the men’s room; I wouldn’t want to have to flush this thing manually either.
The two stalls behind me are closed. I give each one a tap with the back of my hand, even though I really should be leaving at this point. “Templeton? Are you in there?”
Still no reply.
I open the first door, and I almost fall back from the stink that wafts towards me. It smells an awful lot like that fat man who walked out of here ten minutes ago. And it’s also obvious that the toilets in this washroom aren’t self-flushing like the urinals. If I still felt any fear from the presence of Templeton Rate, it pales in comparison to my discoveries in here. Some foul graffiti is written and carved into the side of the stall. I see an etching of what seems to be a Canadian Goose (Branta canadensis) sodomizing some poor cartoon man, and it offends and confuses me even beyond the scientific implausibility of it all.
If this bathroom had been telling this story, it would be scratched inside the stall with accompanying pictures.
I reluctantly try the next stall over, and although Templeton is not in there either, I am relieved to find that it’s relatively clean.
I turn to face the mirror for a moment, before enough of my strength returns that I can get out of here. There’s a little white sticker on the bottom corner of the mirror that reads:
Our Restrooms Have Been Professionally Sanitized
By Sani-Squad For Your Health And Well-Being.
There’s a toll-free number in the corner for this Sani-Squad, and I almost feel like jotting it down so I can call to report a missing employee, since he obviously hasn’t been anywhere around these parts for some time now. However, getting out of this washroom as fast as I can and breathing in the air of that dirty diner is of much greater importance to me right now than logging a complaint to some poorly-run sanitation company.
I come back out hoping to find Templeton waiting for me at the counter. Maybe we somehow missed one another in the bathroom? Maybe he was using the women’s washroom? Maybe he went out to pee in the alley rather than use that filth-infested men’s room? I wouldn’t blame him one bit. But the only thing waiting for me is my bill. And his. And two complementary pieces of sugary pink gum.
I have no idea why I paid for Templeton’s meal as well as mine, and I have even less of a clue as to why I bothered taking the gum with me when I left The Strangest Feeling.