Some people take well to loneliness.
Jehan was one of those types. I’d see him around town, drinking alone, surrounded by the patient branches of smoke from his cigarette. Always with the drinking– tea, coffee, beer, shots, Red Bull, appletinis, didn’t seem to matter– and always with the cigarette, even in the winter, when he’d be the only one sitting outside, collar pulled up, brow furrowed, puffing away like a disgruntled pigeon. When I first saw him, he had a well-tended beard. I was at a point in my life where I’d discarded my utter distaste for beards, but I still couldn’t say I found them compelling in the least. A beard is a secretive hairstyle. It’s hard to get a good feel for someone’s face or disposition when they’re all covered with hair. It’s unsettling.
But I was immediately attracted to gingery, pale, hapless-looking Jehan, with his dark eyes and broad shoulders, even despite the beard. Not sexually attracted, mind you. Merely intrigued. It suited him, the beard. Made him look despondent, like a thwarted Russian intellectual who’d been strong-armed into a career of lumberjacking. I guess you could say he looked like a hipster, but I wouldn’t. He didn’t look like he had the energy for sustained irony. He always looked kind of dazed, actually. Too dazed to notice anyone more than five feet from his nose, anyway, let alone worry about how he presented himself to people. He’d give his attentions to the barista or bartender, settle at his usual table (at every establishment he and I both frequented, he had a usual table. I on the other hand could never settle comfortably anywhere, preferring to imbue my life with that small illusion of adventure. Where will I sit today?) and promptly lose himself in some intimidating looking volume of poetry or, God help him, the Bible. In Clemson, South Carolina, where we lived, it was not uncommon to see people sitting in coffee shops, pens and journals and laptops spread impressively over the tabletop like a banquet, poring over the good book like it contained all the secrets of life. Which, I guess, they thought it did. I consoled myself that when Jehan read his Bible he wasn’t haughty about it. He looked bored as ever.
Nevertheless I tried to ignore the Bible.
I tended to watch him, nervously of course, over the rim of my book or coffee cup, hoping to catch his eye. I’d gotten it into my head, you see, that we were kindred spirits. That’s the kind of thing I was always thinking when I saw someone alone. A coward, my instinct was always to hone in on the stragglers, and Jehan never seemed to belong to anyone. Just to himself and his books.
It was summer when I first saw him. I was hanging around, reading Love in the Time of Cholera on the front porch of my favorite coffee shop, All In. It was upwards of ninety degrees outside and sweltering, but I was on a rocking chair in the shade with an iced coffee, trying to medicate myself with fresh air. On the horizon, a black tide of storm clouds brooded behind the Tillman bell tower, sharp and ominous as if they’d been drawn in charcoal. From the distance, I could hear thunder grumbling moodily like someone’s upset stomach. I wondered if the storm would carry cool rain over to downtown, and determined that I would monitor its progress. I wanted the storm to come. I liked sitting out in the rain, sheltered under the porch roof. It was nice, and Clemson needed the rain. There was a drought at the time. The lake had been dry for ages, no longer even a sodden, muddy crater as it had been in the earlier days of the drought, but a sea of overgrown grasses stretched out under the boardwalk. I missed the water.
Anyway, that was when Jehan showed up.
I glanced up when I sensed his approach– I always glance up when I hear someone coming. I’m that nervous of a person. Usually I look right back down after I’ve determined that the one approaching isn’t likely an assailant or government agent or old acquaintance that I really don’t want to talk to. But if the person looks interesting enough, he might hold my attention for a little bit.
And I found Jehan striking. Despite the fact that we were in the depths of summer, he had the tragic look of a dying choleric orphan. Skin so pale he seemed to glow. Auburn hair, long enough to look pleasantly wind-tossed. And that intoxicatingly awful beard. How he could stand having what was effectively a sweater glued to his face in this weather, I could not understand. But Jehan was a trooper. He made no concession to the heat. He wore a long-sleeved t-shirt, dark jeans, and a flannel jacket, and walked with one hand thrust in his pocket, the other gripped around a book so thick and bursting with post-its and folded pages that he could barely clutch his fingers around the spine.
I watched him enter the shop. Handsome sort, I thought. Makes it all the more unfortunate about the beard. Then I shrugged and went back to my book.
It wasn’t holding my attention. I was having one of my headaches, and was in a state of mental agitation. The usual thoughts that plagued me when I read a good book. What am I doing with my life? Whose stupid idea was it to allow me to exist? I have no talent. I’ll die a failure. Etcetera. Even my worries about my own banality were banal. Alas. I fancied myself an author, but I the more I read of Love in the Time of Cholera that day, the more convinced I became that not only was I not any Marquez, but that I should let myself quietly expire in a gutter somewhere, eyes cast to the stars, hand clasped to my breast as my heart sputtered to blessed silence, for the crime of being such a deplorably mediocre writer.
Mediocre at best, I corrected myself.
At least I was no slouch when it came to melodrama. Maybe I could make a career in writing maudlin gay romances. There was big money in gay erotica, I consoled myself, and briefly imagined my illustrious career writing classy pornography. Yes. There was always that.
It was fucking hot. Sweat tickled my thighs and gathered at my hairline. I pressed the back of my hand to the damp of my forehead. The humidity buzzed in the air like a swarm of mosquitoes, and my iced coffee had gone warm. I watched the dark clouds trundling across the skyline and wished they would hurry. I closed my book. Considered opening my laptop and writing something, but the thought exhausted me. Too hot. And my head hurt.
The door jangled and I looked up. The bearded one, I thought. He has returned. Using my novel as a shield, probably not as subtly as I imagined myself, I watching him settle down at a table to my left, in the full torrent of the scalding white sun, and open his book. Certainly he was going to catch some sort of cancer, I mused, that wan redhead baking in the heat like an albino lobster. He was fearless. He had a mug full of steaming black coffee as well. It was almost one hundred degrees, the fool! I was astounded by his fortitude.
You see I lead a very boring life.
I turned my attentions back to Love in the Time of Cholera more determined than ever to make a go of it. I had a mind to impress the bearded young man much has he had impressed me. And so we sat for an hour or more, he the unknowing object of my ridiculous sidelong glances. I was lucky that Jehan was oblivious. I kept checking on the progress of the storm too. The sunlight became murky and somber, and a cool-tinged breeze rolled in, playing with the pages of my novel. I simmered in quiet triumph. When the rain came, the bearded kid would be compelled to relocate under the umbrage of the roof. Next to me. This was the sort of thing that could kindle some sort of conversation, I knew. Only I never actually conversed with strangers. For all the cafe-lurking I did as a writer, I never bonded with my fellow regulars. What are perfect strangers supposed to say to one another anyway? I had not a clue. There mere ghost of possibility for friendship, however, sustained me.
What was left of my coffee had melted into a swampy, watered-down mess. I slid back into All In to order an iced tea.
I opened the door to the watery laughter of bells, and the cool, conditioned air embraced me. I breathed in relief and headed to the counter. The barista, a doll-like blonde named Colette, smiled at me in greeting. She was slight and composed looking, with a neatly pretty face and her hair pulled back into a respectable ponytail, secured behind a black headband. A few feathery wisps of hair escaped the band and curled around her brown eyes, and this, along with her freckles, made her look more approachable than she would have otherwise. I could imagine her as a nun someday, but for now her flushed, cheery youth softened her natural severity.
“Hey-hey,” I said, and grinned. I hoped my smile didn’t seem forced. I was actually, truly happy to see Colette. She was a sweet-tempered, funny girl and I enjoyed talking to her. There’s just a gap between my feeling something and my ability to emote. Left to my natural inclinations, I’d be monotone and expressionless, despite my admittedly high sensitivity. So I’m put in the position of having to playact as myself. Not sure how convincing I am. Probably not very.
“Hi. Bernard, right?”
“Uh, yeah,” I laughed, and scratched behind my ear self-consciously. Man, I’d figured that by now Colette knew my name. What a life.
“I thought so. Sorry. Terrible with names.”
“No-no. No worries. I am too. Besides, I never talk. So. Well. Wouldn’t expect you to know.”
Colette laughed, “But you’re here all the time!”
“Yeah, well. It’s awesome here. Best coffee in Clemson by quite a measure.”
“That’s right. Gordon would be glad to hear that.” She glanced behind her shoulder, to the kitchen. Gordon was the owner.
“I do what I can.”
Awkward silence. Help me, I screamed into the void.
“You’re Dillan’s roommate, right?”
Brash, loud-mouthed Dillan was everyone’s best friend, so it made sense that I’d be known as that quiet dude who hung around him sometimes. “I do have that honor. Heh.” I grinned again and pulled at my hair.
“That must be a blast.”
“Oh, yeah. It is. A blast and a half, really.”
Colette beamed at me.
I bit my lip. “Errr…”
We both giggled. I scratched at one of my sideburns. I had a pimple growing under there. Good God, that was disgusting.
Colette looked off into the distance.
I wanted to keep talking to her, but I wasn’t sure if she still was keen on conversing with me. Maybe she wanted me to order. But I didn’t know how to transition from small-talk Bernard to customer Bernard. Small talk was horrible. I briefly wished I had stayed home and spent the day masturbating. I’d have been so much happier.
Colette took charge. “You wanna order something?” She struck a friendly, business-like tone. The consummate professional. I was impressed by her coolness.
“Oh, yeah. Yeah, uh. Can I have…”
And I ordered my iced tea blushingly, taking heart in the fact that Colette had not ceased smiling. She did not seem to begrudge me my awkwardness. After I’d paid, leaving a generous tip, she twirled her finger around one of the pale wisps of hair tickling her forehead, and then brushed it primly behind her ear. “You know we have Bible study on Wednesdays?”
“Yup.” I did. Oh man, where was this going.
“You’re welcome to come.”
If Dillan was there, I might have been tempted to formulate an obvious dirty joke (welcome to cum, you know, something mature like that) and smile at him slyly, but I was alone, and I’d been caught off-guard. I didn’t know how to respond.
So, Colette wanted me to go to Bible study. That was a revelation. I’d figured that the staff of All In realized that me and Dillan weren’t the Bible-types, since we’d often hold riotous, gigging conversation about man-ass, of all things, over endless cups of coffee. We were generally irreverent, even when we weren’t discussing sex, which wasn’t often honestly. That’s what Dillan and I had in common. Our favorite game was called “Does He Want to Do You– or Do Your Hair?” and basically consisted of us running a series of grueling tests on our respective gaydars. All In presented a unique challenge, because it was swarming with Christian boys, and, interestingly, it’s often very difficult to distinguish whether a guy is very religious or very gay. Or both. But basically, I’d thought it obvious that me and him weren’t well-suited to their mild Bible talks about finding your path, avoiding temptations and resisting worldliness, interpreting scripture, saving souls, and whatever else. But, no. My tastes for debauchery and chaos had gone undetected. I felt simultaneously proud of myself for seeming so goddamn respectable, and deflated. Colette had no idea about me.
Today was meant to challenge all of my preconceived notions, apparently.
Maybe Colette did know I wasn’t religious, though. She might want to save my soul. The thought should have offended me, I guess, but I’m easily flattered by attention. The idea of someone trying to rescue my eternal soul from hellfire could be romantic, in a certain light.
“Thanks,” I said. I yanked at my hair some more. A characteristic gesture. It was likely I would soon grow bald. “But I…”
How to explain?
Colette flourished her hand, as if dispelling a magical curse. “It’s an open invitation, if you ever happened to be interested.” Her smile was sweet and wholesome as fresh cream. I didn’t know how she managed it.
“Thank you,” I repeated. “Really.”
“And here’s your tea.”
“Thanks.” Again with the word. I said it so much it lost all sense.
“Going back outside?”
“It’s supposed to rain, you know.”
“I know. I could see the clouds over campus, out there. But I like watching the rain. Very cozy. Very peaceful.”
“But what if your book gets wet?”
“Meh. It should be fine. If it gets too bad I’ll come in. Besides, there’s a mysterious bearded man outside reading a mysterious book and I’m trying to gather intel.” I put my finger to my lips. “Always heartening to see someone in Clemson reading a book that’s not for class or, uh,” (I realized my mistake too late and finished the sentence in a lame whisper) “the Bible.” Then I laughed loudly to compensate and cocked my eyebrow.
Colette laughed too. “Mysterious bearded man?” she said. “You mean Jehan?”
And that was how I learned his name.