How To Be There

David Aloi


You are older now and move from apartment to apartment. You would cut the lawn but there is no lawn to cut. You would check beneath your bed for an intruder or monster of sorts but, unfortunately, you have yet to purchase a bed frame, the mattress has been on the floor for some time now. There are nights you lie in bed and stare at the blinking red light on the smoke detector, counting the seconds between each blink: eight, almost every time, but sometimes nine or ten. You know you can get this. Your college math instructor once told you that road construction is the only constant in life. But there must be something else. You count slowly and do your best to be sure at the same pace: five, six, seven, blink. And still, sometimes it blinks on eight and sometimes it doesn't.

Your friend looks like he's been working out, his shoulders closer to his jaw than you remember. His hair is doing this wavy thing.

Wave to him. He smiles. Smile back.

 Shout: "What up!" across the coffee shop. And then call him by a nickname, maybe made up a couple years ago that you will both laugh at, even if it's just "buddy" or "kiddo." Shout this loudly to assert the comfort you have with each other and to show you don't care if it's inappropriate, that when you are together, you are nobody but yourself. Meet him halfway, between the counter and your booth. Shake his hand and give him a hug, both firm and lasting as long as you deem appropriate-maybe gauge it by how long it's been since you last saw each other. It has been some time; it's difficult now, so many things going on, you both understand how it goes. Gauge it by this. 

 Lead him over to your seat. He unbuttons a green car coat, revealing a brightly striped wool sweater, alternating lines of white and grey. Recognize the coat and compliment it. Tell him when you were at J.Crew you almost bought the same coat and how funny it would be if you showed up, haven't seen each other in so long, wearing the same coat and how, actually, it wouldn't be that embarrassing. Be sure he knows it looks better on him anyways.

Have a seat.

Say: "For you." And push the mug towards him.

 "Ha!" he laughs and takes a sip. "Perfect."

Notice the features of his face and the way he sits. Do his hands look worn or weathered, more so than the rest of his body?  Is he sitting straight up, spine flush against the cushion of the seat? His eyes, are they looking up to the left, to the right, maybe down at the mug? Keep your gaze fixed. Mention the bullshit, it's important. Don't breeze through it as you might a magazine. The bullshit is the majority of life, where the problems hide.

Say: "So what's going on with you?" He is smiling, it might not be genuine.

 "Things are tough. But they are always tough. Nature of the beast," he says.

Think of how you found the right friend. Nod your head.

Ask: "What makes them tough?"

"My job, my relationship, my family," he says. "Everything."

Think of how if you had a notepad and were taking notes, this would be a definite note to take.

 Say: "I know what you mean. Everything lies in my bed at night with me and punches me in the stomach and slaps me across the face and pinches the underside of arm. And if I ever fall asleep, it sits on the floor beside my bed and watches me, waiting for the moment I wake up, just to hide in my shadow and in my pockets and in the lines of palms."

 "It does the same to me," he says. "But I just let it."

Your friend is unusually relaxed for having the world on his shoulders. Pry, be suspicious.

 Ask: "Why?"

"Because it's everything. What it's doing is what it's supposed to do, that's pretty much its job. Eventually it will get tired of slapping and pinching. It won't have enough energy to hide in your pockets and it will begin to show itself, little by little, and you will recognize it and step on a platform and scream to it, and tell it that you see it, and you know what it's up to and you're not going to let it do that anymore."

Another mental note.

You alternate between biting your lower lip and top lip. You need time to understand what he just said. You intertwine your fingers and place your elbows on the table. It looks like you are doing that thing where you put a blade of grass between your two thumbs and blow and it makes a sound like a whistle. You are not doing that but it looks so much like it. He crosses his arms at the wrists and then lets his hands cross into your space of the table. He does this for a moment, then leans back. The crowd in the coffee shop is thinning, more folks leaving than coming in. The couple at the booth has long since gone, leaving on their table only a muffin wrapper and the reflection of the spidery lights above.  Listen for the music. Let the piano and the drums and guitar talk for a change.

Your friend takes this opportunity to go on a tangent, lets things settle in. He is enjoying your company, you can tell. He raises his inflection.

 "Hey, remember that time we felt unstoppable, like the world spun for only us?"

Say: "Yes, that was a great point in my life."

"It was so great! And what about the spheres of light, remember how they floated all around us, how they began locked in our lungs and then lifted up our throats and into the air, how this happened all time, every time we exhaled?"

Say: "I do, I do remember."

This is going very well. This is exactly what your friend needed. Everything about him looks brighter. Tell him something that lets him know you will always be there no matter what, that you love spending time with him and there is nothing you wouldn't do to protect him. Think about telling him that you would take a bullet for him. But don't say that, it's cheesy and melodramatic, but say something so he knows.

Say: "You can call me whenever you want, like if you feel down or whatever."

"Thanks, man. Same to you," he says genuinely.

You suddenly have trouble with the thought of your friend leaving you in this coffee shop. You half-smile for a moment but then your lips level, the corners of your mouth bend more toward the maroon-tiled floor than to the ceiling

Ask: "Have you been feeling lonely lately?"

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