It’s the first time in over a week that I’ve ventured out into a world with people. I’ve been avoiding the world in general, mostly because I can’t handle the prospect of witty repartee or sympathetic questions. Email. Texts. Facebook messages. Phone calls. They require so much effort, and I don’t have the wherewithal for effort. I find myself actively avoiding being around my phone and haven’t worn my watch in days. I barely have the wherewithal to change out of pajamas and brush my teeth. But I need to pick up the mail at the post office and doors lock in ten minutes, so I muddle through dressing and make my way to the garage where my Jeep stands forlornly in the dark. I manage to make it to the post office just minutes before she locks the door. Viva the small victories. Mail in hand, I’m once again with neither plan nor focus. I feel as though I should continue to venture about; after all, I am actually out of the house. Viva the small victories.
At first I drive aimlessly, but I’m starting to sense hunger and eventually my jeep finds its way downtown, through the masses of people and weekend errands. Why I’ve even come through town is beyond me; classes are back in session and downtown is teeming with life as town and gown dances to reestablish a balanced coexistence. The new breakfast place down here is mobbed, of course, and I drive past. Too much effort to find parking; too many people to fight through. I drive through town and out the other side to my usual go-to breakfast place, but it’s the same story at this end of town — too many people, and I’m sure to know more than a few of them. Again I continue on. I pass rolling fields and picturesque farmlands and head towards a small cafe on the edge of another town. I seldom come out here because it’s a bit of a drive, but this time that feels like a blessing. I scan the parking situation as I approach, but it’s grim as well. Perhaps this extended outing is doomed to failure. I’ve already gotten the mail, so I consider calling it a day and retreating to the safety of home. As if the universe could feel my intention falter, a single car pulls out of a parking space right at the front door. I take it as an invitation and pull in behind the exiting vehicle. A few clusters of people randomly stand outside the entrance, waiting in the warm sunshine for their turn to be seated. I step inside and stand still for a moment as my eyes adjust, then thread my way to the back of the cafe to the empty two seater counter, under the irritated glare of a woman who waits impatiently with her party of three. I see her irritation and vaguely want to care about this, but I don’t. It seems my giveadamn’s busted.
I think I’ve landed here because there’s safety in anonymity. There are times in my life where I ache for it. Here they don’t realize I’m usually the gregarious one in the room so they don’t come around to joke, or gently rib me or, even worse, give me kind eyes and ask me how I’m doing. Here I don’t stand out. Here I can be quiet, reserved, and alone with my thoughts. They leave me blissfully to my freshly poured coffee and a menu. I stare at it, thinking I should find something new to try, but I know this is only a halfhearted attempt at best, because I will inevitably slide into the comforting familiarity of the Hot Mess. I do it every time I visit. She takes my order and disappears into the back.
I nurse my coffee and am comforted by the bustle around me. This counter is home to a gleaming espresso machine that commands respect with its sheer size and daunting blue glowing buttons and mysterious protruding metal tubes. The barista goes about her business as she efficiently fills the specialty coffee orders, and I lose myself in the noises. The grinding of fresh beans. The tapping of the portafilter to empty the used grounds. The hiss of steaming milk. The low level music playing vaguely in the background, and snippets of conversations between diners and waitstaff as they fill orders and clear tables. “How’s section one?” “Can I get two lemonades?” “I’m here to pickup a takeout order.” “Coming back!” “Coming in!” “Here’s your latte.” “Hey! Thanks a latte!”
I actually smile at the joke, grateful for the waiter’s sense of humor.
My phone buzzes with more texts that go unanswered, and I let a call go to voice mail. I know people are trying to help; I just don’t know how they can. My sister is worried about me. She tells me I’ve lost my spark, and I think that’s an accurate assessment. I’ve spent a lot of time with ghosts and empty memories this past week. Of whys and what ifs. Questions without answers. Self-doubt and denial. Heartlessness and heartache. I’m grateful that people are concerned, but I can’t seem to talk about this emotional free fall. It’s still too raw, and my tears still betray me. Instead I turn back to writing, trying to sort out my world. I think it helps. Well, that and drinking. The coffee is wreaking havoc with my sleep. Or maybe that’s just loss.
They roll silverware next to me, in an effort to stay ahead of the crowd whenever there’s a lull. It’s slightly mesmerizing, the rhythm of their hands as they roll the silverware into a napkin tomb and wrap the sticky wrapper around the bundle to complete the process while they watch the door for incoming customers. knife-fork-roll-wrap-knife-fork-roll-wrap It makes me wish I had something for my hands to do, and I realize I have my knitting with me. I pull it out and start knitting, but I notice my hands are shaking just enough that I have to focus with effort on my stitches. How odd. I get through a couple rows of lace, but I’m relieved when breakfast comes.
The Hot Mess. It’s comfort on a plate, although I must confess it’s not a dish typical in my upbringing. Grits and shrimp smothered in sausage gravy with eggs and a magical spherical croissant that melts in your mouth. But it’s the grits that trigger the desire. I can’t locate the origins of this memory, but the grits are somehow important. Some faceless person introduced me to them when I was very small; someone I trusted. Since then, I can’t resist ordering them when I find them on a menu. It’s like a secret search that I’m only just now realizing I’m on. Sometimes I’m disappointed; after all, it’s not a Yankee dish. But occasionally, I find grits that are right on their mark, and it’s a glorious thing. For some unfathomable reason, grits represent comfort. They represent safety. They represent warmth, love, and happiness. By that description alone I’d think it was my grandmother, but I can’t be sure. Then again, who really knows what the years have rewritten in my memories.
I savor each bite, and finish my meal reluctantly. The memory is tantalizingly close, but it dances out of reach and like the grits, it’s soon gone, faded into the past yet again. I consider ordering more grits, but I’m afraid to jinx the fleeting perfection of the meal. In the midst of this free fall existence I’m in, it is the highlight of my day; probably, of my week. Instead, I get a refill on the Sumatra and sit comfortably alone, lost in thought. I tune in to the ambient noise once more. The rush of diners has let up, and you can feel the cafe gradually adjust to the more reasonable tempo of the day. I really do love this little place, but I’m glad it’s just far enough away to be out of reach of the everyday. Small escapes are in short supply in my world, and I’m almost desperate to protect this one for times when I really need to exist without demands.
Guiltily, I realize I’ve been here almost two hours. I finish my coffee and leave a twenty for the bill and a ridiculous tip. Fortified by breakfast and a strange half memory from a misspent youth, I reach for the door and step back out into the sunshine. I only wish I could feel the warmth.
Hot mess, indeed.