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Text by D’arcy Blake
R scanned the room from left to right as he lowered himself onto that old couch, feeling the familiar cushions curl around him as he sank into the worn springs. The smell. Musty and sweaty, the smell of a thousand backs and asses and spilled cups of coffee and crumbs. How long had it been since R had been here? He felt like he was living out an old dream from eleven years ago, but one that he hadn’t been able to totally recall in the first place, when the dream was fresh.
It was all kind of familiar—the pictures on the wall, faded and splattered with years of dripped drinks, the chipped marble counter—as R had walked in five minutes before, he had even tripped over the same corner of the now threadbare rug that had led him to spill his share of the accumulation of coffee now saturating the couch.
R had put that part of his life behind him. He never even thought about it anymore. It had taken him almost ten years of therapy to be able to forgive himself for what had happened to J. But, of course, he would never really be able to forgive himself… more accurately, he had accepted it, made it part of him, and could now carry on without the constant, obsessive ruminating. Not that it seemed to matter, apparently, because R had come to the café, without really thinking about it, as if on autopilot.
After it happened, they all got together a few times, for holidays, and of course the anniversary of it, at least for a couple of years. At one Thanksgiving, though, R’s sister had made a comment in passing—one that, to her, seemed more or less innocent—but it touched a nerve with R, and the fight that ensued (that ended with the accidental but total destruction of the picture of them all together on the couch in the coffee shop, the one that they all kept on their mantles, the picture that still elicited tears among some of them that didn’t hold R so responsible for what happened to J, but that R had put away because the mere sight of it caused him to break down in catatonic suffering, and that his therapist had suggested, gently at first, and later firmly insisted that he ought to put away, to help him along with his required, but in the therapist’s opinion somewhat unnecessary, self-forgiveness) ended the get-togethers right there. R hadn’t seen any of them since. He even alienated his oldest friend, C, who had married R’s sister years before, because he was too proud, he told himself, to communicate with his sister, even by proxy, until she issued a complete and humble apology, which he knew would never happen. But he couldn’t kid himself either. The real reason he refused to talk to C was because of the bond C and J shared, that R also blamed himself for ripping away that night.
Sitting in the café now, though, eleven years after it had happened, and eight years after he had last seen any of his old friends, R felt calm—an almost unnatural, medicated calmness. He no longer suffered so acutely from grief and guilt (although R was never at fault, in the others’ opinion) and he had recently garnered some success, and he could even go so far to say mild fame, because of a book he had published the previous year on the geographical significance of a certain element abundant in the soil of a particular region of northern Europe during the Mesozoic. Basically, R was doing better than he ever had since the incident, and so he felt OK thinking about his old friends.
It was unusual for a group of friends to form such a complete unit, like each of them played a specific role, designed to complement the others. Perhaps that’s why the group fell apart in J’s absence. R wondered now, though, whether the sense of completeness he felt during those years was shared by the others. Maybe R was just projecting it, experiencing the profundity all by himself, and for the rest of them it was just an ‘ordinary’ friendship. What made R think this was all so special, all those eleven years ago?—R was now asking himself. There was the funny one, the quirky one, the dumb one, the neurotic one (that was R, he chuckled to himself), the sexy one, and of course his sister. And somehow it just worked.
But what if they didn’t think of it that way? Clearly these kinds of connections aren’t inherent in friendships. If they were, the group wouldn’t have dissolved after the incident. Then, R thought about his failed relationship with the sexy one. It was supposed to work out. Back then it had seemed as though it was preordained that the two of them wind up together: a unit, R & R. And it did work out for a while, but when it ended it wasn’t theatrical like everything had felt before. It wasn’t special. It was that R had projected onto her what he thought she was. R was, for him, a blank canvas—an archetype. But once they tried to settle down together, R’s nitpicky, neurotic obsessiveness drove R crazy, and likewise R’s blasé carelessness confounded R so much that eventually the two of them reached a mutual conclusion that the thing they both thought was the only possible thing might never actually existed in the first place, except for in their imagination. R had moved out of town before the incident even happened, and even though she came to visit once or twice afterwards, they just sort of lost touch.
The dissolution of the group, R now realized, sitting there wrapped in the comforting stink of the old sofa, was something he had made happen all on his own. With all of them. Even P, who R admittedly never cared for all that much in the first place. This confirmed, in R’s mind, that the group was all in his imagination. He looked at their faces, he spoke words to them, he made judgements about them, but those thoughts were his alone, and now he didn’t even know who any of them were—they were just images representing something to him, and what they represented changed at any given time along with R’s disposition. R left the café, letting the heavy wooden door with its cracked, peeling paint swing shut behind him, and walked slowly to the street corner. Looking up at the metal street sign, R came to a stop, and turned back to the café entrance. He was on the wrong street. It was a different café.