by Sarena Ulibarri
Sarena Ulibarri has published fiction and poetry in Scribendi, Conceptions Southwest and With Painted Words. She won the 2005 Western Regional Honors Council Award for Poetry and received Honorable Mention in the Alibi’s 2007 Appallingly Short Fiction Contest. She graduated from the University of New Mexico in 2007 and is on her way to the MFA program at University of Colorado Boulder this fall.
I was at the coffee house again. Watered by mocha lattes and black coffee with nutmeg, I was there so often I had almost taken root in the corner sofa. I planted myself there the day after my boyfriend left me, convinced that sitting near other people and drinking coffee was different from sitting at home and drinking alcohol.
A girl bumped into the table, sloshing my coffee over the rim in a tiny wave, and a book slipped out of her bag, thumping to the carpeted floor. I leaned over to pick it up, expecting to hand it straight over to her with a small “thanks” and quick nod. But she was gone, vanished, by the time I lifted the book off the floor. I placed it beside me on the sofa, used some napkins to mop up my coffee, and waited for her to come back. I recognized her by the bulky backpack covered in political stickers. She was a regular at the coffee house, just part of the usual background, along with the big chalkboard menu and the photographs of old movie stars that lined the walls.
Half an hour later she still hadn’t returned to claim the book. Curious, I picked it up and turned it over. The hard cover was black, smooth and unmarked. I flipped open to a random page just long enough to recognize it was a journal, then snapped it shut, feeling scandalized for even that glimpse. How mortified would I be if some stranger read my journal! God, all that whining about not being loved, about losing my friends during the breakup, all those detailed analyses of Cosmo quizzes. Resolutely I set the book back on the sofa, and it sat quietly in its black binding.
When I was ready to leave, I walked up to the counter with the book. The barista looked at me with superficial recognition.
“Another mocha latte?” he asked.
“No, I’m about to go to work,” I said, then wished I hadn’t. I didn’t come here to make friends. “Hey, do you know the girl with the bumper stickers on her backpack?”
“Do I know her? No, I assume she’s a student here.”
Everyone who came here, besides me, was probably a student, and it was one of the reasons I chose it: no one would have any reason to know me.
“Sometimes I get you two confused, though,” he continued, “You look a lot alike.”
I frowned. If she looked like me, I’d never noticed. I tried to bring her face to mind, but couldn’t conjure any specifics, just that ratty old backpack with the bumper stickers safety-pinned to it.
“She left something here,” I said, tapping the book nervously against my palm, then changed my mind about leaving it with the barista. “I’ll just give it back next time I see her. Thanks.”
“Sure,” he said as I turned away, “See you tomorrow!”
I worked the closing shift at a customer service hotline, and my co-workers, who I didn’t get along with anyway, were always gone by ten. We stayed open late for the benefit of customers in far-away time zones, but my shift was usually quiet, and that night the phone didn’t ring at all. As midnight approached, even the Internet bored me. I looked around the desk, at the plastic mail trays and oversized calendar covered in food stains, searching for something else to do.
The black book peeked out of my purse. Maybe I could find a name or a phone number, I thought. So I plucked the book from the snug matrix of my purse and held it. The black cover was smooth and solid, and felt surprisingly warm to the touch. It smelled faintly of coffee and nail polish. I opened the cover.
No name, no phone number. Of course there wasn’t. It’s not like I ever signed my name to my journal passages or listed demographic information in a notebook that was never meant to be seen by other eyes.
I didn’t mean to read, but my eyes could not resist the words. More than anything, it was her handwriting that drew me in. Each page, margin to margin, was a work of art. The lush curve of her “C,” the unique connection of her “th,” the way her “g” swept so wide it circled the word beneath it. So different from my tight, messy scratches. My handwriting always looked rushed, and hers looked luxurious and slow, as if she’d taken a whole minute to navigate the dramatic curves and loops of a cursive S.
“It rained all day today,” the journal said, “and it was glorious. Clouds wisped over the hilltops and lay there like white sheets. The silver storm sat heavy over the city all day, its humid mass billowing like a giant quilt. I got soaked on my way to class, and as I sat through the lecture I could feel the raindrops drip off my hair and tickle down my back.”
I laughed out loud at the passage, and the sound seemed to echo through the empty office. It had never occurred to me to look at rain as anything other than an inconvenience, and I smiled at her romantic description. She must be in love, I thought enviously.
But I found nothing about a lover. A few lines about the Anthropology professor she found attractive, but those were spare and whimsical. Her journal switched between poetic descriptions of everyday events and impassioned rants about political candidates or social issues, things I rarely gave a thought to. Her stories refreshed me; they were so different from mine. I read on, replacing my own blank life with her words.
The phone rang, like an alarm, and I sheepishly dropped the book. I broke company policy and let the phone ring three times so I could collect myself. Into the mouthpiece I spoke the standard greeting, the one I’d repeated so often I occasionally answered my cell phone that way.
“Could I please have your account number?” I ended.
“My parents weren’t affectionate,” said a female voice through the phone, “and I guess that’s why I always felt like I had to be touching him. Just an arm, a hand, at least, preferably more. I wanted people to know we were together, to know we were in love wherever we went. He always thought it was inappropriate, and he’d pry my fingers off his arm and tell me not to act like such a clingy little kid.”
I listened to the words – my words, from my journal – with silent horror, and then slammed the phone down and pushed my chair away from the desk. I looked at the black book, hovering on the edge of the desk, and the smooth black binding gazed back at me like Nietzsche’s abyss.
My cell phone rang. I inched toward my purse and tentatively pulled it out. The screen said “Restricted Number,” and I flipped it open without a word.
“I found one of his socks in the laundry today, and I’m going to keep it in my bedside drawer—”
I flipped the phone shut and jammed my thumb against the power button to turn it off. Goosebumps crept across my skin. I suspiciously surveyed the vacant office. The clock ticked noisily, marching toward one a.m. I picked up the book, careful not to let it fall open again, and tucked it back into my purse. I shut down the computer, clocked out early and locked up with shaking hands.
I rushed into my spartan apartment and tossed my purse, the book still tucked inside, on the kitchen counter. I ruffled through my bedside table drawer, tossing around sleeping pills, tattered Cosmo magazines, that damn sock. My journal, a flimsy white thing with yellow flowers on the front, was gone.
I ripped the sheets off the bed, opened drawers, crawled on the floor, looked in the refrigerator. When I’d exhausted all my options, I slumped down on the kitchen floor. No one else had keys to my apartment, and nothing else was gone. I pressed my palms into my eyes and wrapped my fingers around my hair.
Nothing was missing other than what was always missing. When my boyfriend left, he took things that weren’t his, and now I had nothing on my walls, nothing on my bookshelf, nothing on my kitchen counter. Rather than reassemble my apartment, I let the lack be a reminder of all the things I didn’t deserve, all the things I’d driven away by being too needy, too opinionated, too emotional.
I looked up and saw the black book had fallen out of my purse on the kitchen counter, exposing that luxurious handwriting once again. I shut my eyes and decided I had to put an end to this weirdness. The only way I could think to do it was to take the book back to the coffee house.
I drove the dark city streets, and the book sat on the passenger seat. I eyed it peripherally, as if it were a shady hitchhiker.
The coffee house was dark, as I knew it would be, the chairs on the patio chained together around their tables. Light slid down from the streetlight and I gripped the book tightly in both hands, walking toward the door with ceremonial slowness.
I turned around when I saw her in the reflection of the coffee house windows. She stood on the sidewalk, a white book clutched in her hand, her eyes wide. She did look like me, I thought, like I might look if I dressed in baggy clothes and vintage rock t-shirts, if I wore a darker shade of makeup and covered my head in a knit hat.
I held the black book to my chest. She looked at it and looked sheepishly away.
“You called me,” she said, not looking at me.
“What?” I said, “No, you called me.”
We didn’t say anything else. We each took a couple steps forward and wordlessly exchanged the books. She gave an awkward wave and hurried away.
I looked down at my own journal, the white notebook with yellow flowers. I opened it and saw the tight scratchy handwriting inside. I read a passage, then flipped to another, then flipped again. The words drained me; they were all the same. They were meaningless. I grabbed the fragile paper with angry fingertips, tore the pages out and crumpled them. Then I threw the whole mess, white flower-decorated cover and all, into the trashcan by the coffee house door.
Through the coffee house windows, I could see the corner sofa, sitting empty in the dark room. The fabric seemed faded, the cushions more sunken than I realized, and I felt my roots beginning to lose their hold. I breathed on the window so the corner sofa was framed in fog. With one finger I slowly, luxuriantly, wrote the word “Goodbye” across its cushions, with sweeping cursive letters that decorated the window like poetry.