Neurotica

Martin Boyd

So here you are, sloughing off the cold in the warmth of this sidewalk cafe where great bar radiators blaze like fires from on high, in each upper corner, the heat raging, insane, flushing the stiff flesh of your face red, and your fingers, too stiff to clasp onto anything, as if millions of years of evolution have been undone, and here you are, Neanderthal Man, or something earlier, some creature without opposable thumbs, without the ability to grasp, prodding awkwardly at the coins in the palm of your hand…

… counting out the necessary amount, fifty, seventy-five, eighty-five, and in your prehistoric clumsiness one of your great ape fingers tips a loonie out of your hand so that it clatters on the floor like thunder, and all eyes are upon you, as you stoop, hunching like the primeval being that you are, scurrying after your little scrap of metal. And as you raise yourself up, evolving back into homo erectus – “That’s the way! Evolve! Evolve!” cries your insolent brain, mocking you like those eyes… two, four, six you’ve counted. Four belong to the two people ahead of you in the queue, all cold and accusing, charging you with the failure to evolve as they have. But the other two eyes are dark and inscrutable, but maybe, possibly, sympathetic. They belong to the young woman behind the counter, two large eyes set in a small round face, and it strikes you that this is a new girl, you haven’t seen her before. You’d remember her, you comment to yourself suggestively, as you examine her from this safe distance, confident in the knowledge that she has looked away from you now, and is attending to the desires of customer number one, a tall skinny man wearing a pair of those little round glasses that John Lennon made popular, a full foot taller than her, and she cranes her neck to meet his eyes, a long, smooth neck descending into her t-shirt, which is white, pure white, like the clouds on a day in summer, her breasts rising beneath it like the curved shapes of cumulus in the sky, and you’re lying in a park, looking up, playing that game of picking patterns out of the clouds, naming them, that one’s a boat, and that one’s a woman’s face, and hey, look, there are two breasts floating in the sky above you, and Freud scribbles all this down in his notebook, drawing absurd conclusions about your mother. But his voice can’t be heard over hers, which is light, sing-song, “Do you want that heated up?” she says, and customer number one makes some comment you can’t hear, he looks a bit like Freud, you reflect, more like Freud than John Lennon, and she laughs, not at your amusing little comparison but at whatever Freud has said, and her smile is perfect, pink lips and straight white teeth, so white, so much white. “Do you take sugar?” It sounds like a song, or some sweet invitation on that day in summer in the park with the great white clouds passing overhead and then it’s like a dance when she takes the change from Freud’s hand and pops open the register, which sings out in submission to her touch, and she drops the coins in their respective places with the most delicate motion of long slender fingers, tens here, twenties there, thank you very much. And then she lifts her eyes to customer number two. You’re one person away from her, and what are you going to say to her? A good impression, that’s what is called for, but your brain keeps calling you back to the park to look at the clouds, and then she frowns, just for a moment, and you feel she is rebuking you – “get out of my park!” she is telling you, but really she is just having difficulty understanding customer number two, an elderly woman with a strong Irish accent, and the little knitted brow is quickly erased, and the first signs of a smile begin to give way on her face again. But what will you say to her? How about “one cafe latte, please”? This is a joke, your brain is mocking you again and she turns around and walks away from the counter to fetch a bottle of orange juice from the back, and her movements are exquisite, like a dance, like a ballet, you think surely she is a dancer, hoping to break the big time with the National Ballet, working in this cafe to keep herself going in the meantime, and it’s not easy, she came here from the country, and she doesn’t know anyone, and she’s so lonely… But what do you know of ballet? What do you know of grace and poise, Neanderthal Man? Ahh, but you have wit and charm, you have a way with words, you will be able to impress, and here it is, she’s back, she’s dealt with the little Irish woman, sent her off with a smile, and it’s your turn, that smile is directed at you, like a gift, like a gun, like something you could be beaten with, like something very, very welcoming. “Hi, what would you like?” she says, the voice of a song, a familiar song you can’t quite recall. But you must answer at once, before those two little lines like crossed swords appear on her brow, you must prevent them from coming, so you answer at once. “A cafe latte, please.” And she turns away from you as if you’ve offended her, straight to the espresso machine, but from where you stand now you can see her, the full shape of her body, you can see where the white T-shirt bunches up a little at the small of her back, tucked into her black jeans, which fit with the closeness of a wet-suit, “painted on jeans” they used to call them, like a painting, she could be a painting, as she stands in a reflective pose, holding the jug of frothing milk, one foot is slightly raised, the knee slightly bent, and one hand placed on the hip, she is a painting, “Woman Making Coffee”, by Rubens, or Botticelli, or one of those Renaissance painters whose names sound like the names of cafes. But she has turned from you, and it’s her back to you now, and you imagine her walking away. “I’ve had enough of you,” she says, “You see me as a painting, as a cloud. I’m not a person to you.” And what is your defence? She’s leaving you, after all you’ve been through together, all the games in the park, and the fine art, and you believed in her, you always supported her aspirations to join the National Ballet, you said she had talent, she was more than just a pretty face. But she doesn’t believe you. “You used me,” she says, and she is gone, pounding the buttons of the cash register in fury at your betrayal. You cannot be forgiven. It’s over, and perhaps it was never meant to be. She returns with your coffee, and a smile for you, a parting gesture, an offering of thanks for a fading love. “Will that be all?” she asks. You take the paper cup from her hands, brushing her long fingers with your cold primeval stubs. “Yes,” you reply, and your voice is a wheezy lament. “That’s everything.”

1 thought on “Neurotica

  1. Loved this piece Martinez which intrigued me so that I read it three times to absorb all its nuances.

    Such intriguing ambiguity in the story – I really enjoyed it.

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