A man died here two weeks ago. He ran into the coffee shop, looking for whatever passed as sanctuary. But his murderer didn’t care about the well-lit space, the well-populated tables, or even the well-focused cameras. So, well.
I heard they closed the shop for a few days to patch the walls, clean the tiles. And by the time I got there, the music wasn’t as loud, the chatter wasn’t as bright, and a security guard had been added to the door.
Loan, one of my students, insisted we continue with class when our office closed for the holiday. I found a table that would work and sorted the lesson in front of me. We would start with For and Since, move on to For About. If there was time, we could dip our toes into Until and As Soon As.
Across from me, a man in his mid-30s sat with a sleeping infant. He was alert. She had chosen to sleep through this mess until shit cooled down. Her lungs still burned, and her umbilicus still itched from a phantom cord. He rocked her, checked his phone, rocked her, etc. His beard was lined-up, his body fit. His clothing held impressive logos, as did the stroller and accessories. It was the kind of clothing that made me stare at my own in disappointment. He wore mostly black. The infant wore pink, from booties to the shirred headband. They looked like a magazine cover, Modern Dad & Baby, or rather an ad inside that magazine.
Loan sat down with her large iced coffee, and we began: Tom has studied since, Maria has lived here for. When we reached the first exercise, I sat still while she filled in the blanks. I couldn’t watch Loan as she worked. It felt wrong, like an invasion of privacy, or some ineffable affront: to watch someone struggle and purposely withhold help. So, as she toiled, my attentions returned to father and child.
A woman had joined his table. She was in her late 40s. She held a clipboard in the crook of her arm while she stacked folders on the table. Everything about her seemed rushed or neglected. Her clothing, her haircut didn’t quite fit, but both reached the requisites of professionalism. Even her demeanor seamed barely passable, speaking in a mishmash of tones that fluctuated from a frank focus to a treacly concern. Nothing truly fit in what she did. But she could only do so much, so what we saw was what we got. “It’s a delicate situation, and you’ve been great,” she said to the father, “But these check-ins are stressful for everyone involved. I’m sure you understand.”
She asked about the baby’s sleeping habits, if the formula was working, his workload at the office, as well as his wife’s. He answered quietly, his voice too careful for eavesdropping. Yes, everything seemed to be in order. Or maybe, this administrator had seen so many things—when dealing with things like this—that a ho-hum humanity was an oasis.
His wife joined them. She wore the form-fitted running gear often worn by the unrunning. The logos of her outfit and his created a matrimonial bond. She kissed her husband’s forehead, and doted upon the child.
– Ok, Loan said as she slid her workbook toward me.
I checked the answers – Ok, very good, very good. So let’s try it:
– I’ve lived in this city FOR
– I’ve studied English SINCE
– I’ve been married FOR
– I’ve been a mother SINCE
I slowly repeated my pop quiz, Loan wrote it all down. My attention went back to the other table, as I slid into an educational automaton: I’ve lived, I’ve studied, I’ve been. I’ve lived, I’ve studied, I’ve been, etc.
The wife whispered a few things, patted the admin on the shoulder, and asked, “Would you like anything? I just can’t be here and not get a green tea crème frap.” There was a no-thank-you, and an inaudible order from her husband, and then she was gone.
Shortly after the wife returned to the table, the mother arrived. The mother entered flanked by a hard-fought stoicism. Her gait was deliberate, implying a heaviness of foot that, surprisingly, wasn’t there. She walked with an unnerving silence. She held the hand of her son, a seven year-old who grew mute in the company of adults. The security guard kept an eye on her.
When she turned into the seating area, she found her sleeping baby. The need was palpable. Her presence made other tangibles less so. There was a mother and her child. There was nothing else of importance. But, yeah-no. Most importantly was the place, a busy coffee shop on a Sunday afternoon, with so many faces to subpoena if need be.
Swaddled in pink and new, expensive things, the infant was still sleeping it off. The mother stopped at the table, but didn’t sit. Her boy held a box of crayons in his hand. She was in need of a haircut, like her child. And like her child, she wore what she could find. She was as broad as a Botero. Her face held bits of discoloration, and pinched and puffed in unexpected ways. Her boy’s eyes did all the work his mouth refused to do. It seemed that everything in this place was a wonder and a fear.
In front of the husband, his wife, and our administrator, the mother made sure to stand firmly, an object immovable. She greeted the triumvirate with a mandatory appropriateness. The admin made the introductions. And the mother nodded her head. She was defeated, and these were the terms, the grand concessions, reiterated. A list followed by another that detailed all the transgressions committed and corrections necessary if she wanted to continue with the plan. She was in no position to argue, but she was determined to push through the public humiliations with whatever passed as dignity. They told her to sit, and she complied.
The boy sat askew, his face turned away from the supervised meeting and toward us. I pulled a few sheets of paper from my notebook. He opened his box of crayons.
Loan struggled with the past.
– So I have live-Duh.
– Ok, great.
– I have Study-Duh
– I have Study
(I waved my hand, wafting the sound as if the correct answer only needed a slight breeze to reach me.)
Ai-yah! Duh! Study-duh.
– Great! Loan, can you read the next part?
She leaned in as if her retention depended on the proximity of head to page. She read until we reached the next exercise.
I waited. I looked at the boy, whose tongue poked from the corner of his mouth as he drew what was, I wanted to say, a truck. Our admin sighed, “So that wraps up all of my questions.” She turned to the husband and wife, “Do you have any questions?” They were happy, but knew enough to feign sadness. The end result was a look of contempt. It was like, if not for the rules set by our admin, they would’ve gladly taken the other child as well. “These meetings, especially the first ones, can be very emotional for everyone involved. But you all did remarkably well.” Turning to the mother, “I almost forgot, we’ve been doing all this talking, do you have any questions for us?”
“Can,” she reconstituted, “Can I hold her?” No one outwardly protested. So under the bustle of customers and din of commerce, the mother cradled her daughter for the few minutes she was allowed.
Loan had finished her exercise. She made a few mistakes, but nothing egregious. When we finished reviewing, the baby was out of her mother’s arms and being stowed in that smart stroller. Our admin was packing up too. The mother and her son remained seated at the table. The husband and wife and baby and administrator left together. They reappeared through the windows walking abreast down the sidewalk, making small talk. And after a few seconds, they were out of sight.
As soon as they were assuredly gone, the mother began to weep. And she wept until she sobbed. She sobbed until her body couldn’t hold, and she collapsed across the table. Two folded arms hid her face from the crowd as the rest of her convulsed.
I looked away, pained and impotent, and in compliance. I envied Loan; her head was now millimeters from the lesson. She was lost in an English oblivion. I looked to the son, unable to distinguish any genuine concern from my grim curiosity. But he sat the same as before, unaffected by his mother’s grief. He was more concerned with the details of what was most definitely an ambulance. All of this—the agent, the fosters, the whirs and eructations of the machines, even his undone mother—it was all very normal to him. There was nothing we could do to help it, because this is how we helped.
© Don Malkemes
[This piece was selected by Valerie O’Riordan. Read Don’s interview]