On the evening of the first day of May, Soren visited Karim’s Cafe on the corner. Most of the seating was street-side, as the cafe itself could not fit more than two tables beside its small counter and kitchen. The black metal tables outside wobbled, and often required patrons to stuff ample packets of napkins under its legs. Among the tables were orchid-colored crape myrtles. The trees were not yet blooming, and when the winds rustled them, a few leaves fell. The cafe was the namesake of Mr Karim, a soft-spoken Iranian widower who smiled through his eyes. His hair and beard have long gone wholly grey, and as he liked to recount the harsher times of his life to his regular customers, they had lost their black sheen when he learned of his wife’s and children’s deaths during the Revolution. He walked as softly as he spoke, weaving from table to table, eventually stopping in front of Soren’s.
“My friend, it is good to see you again.”
Soren wished Mr Karim peace in reply, greeting him as an old friend. He caught a reflection of himself shaking Mr Karim’s hand in the cafe window behind the proprietor. He had hazel, glassy eyes and unkempt brown hair. He wore a pair of slip-on loafers, a diamond-pattern sage sweater, and jeans. Soren ran his hand through his hair to give it a part. He decided he didn’t like the part and re-ruffled his hair. He look tired in the reflection, he thought, and older than he was. In the end, he decided that he liked that.
“The usual today, sir?”
“Please, Mr Karim. One lahmacun and tea.”
“Very good, sir. How is your manuscript?”
“I am here to work on that exactly, Mr Karim. Don’t worry, I will let you read it when I finish, as promised.”
Mr Karim smiled, further wrinkling his permanent crow’s feet around his dark eyes, and walked back to the kitchen to relay the order.
Soren sloughed off his backpack, took out a stack of typewritten pages, and put them on the table. Under the weight imbalance, the table tilted visibly. A breeze passed through, almost taking away the top few pages of his manuscript. Soren produced a glass paperweight from his jacket and set it on top of the pile. The pages rustled under the breeze. This sound gave comfort to Soren, who felt that his words had tangible weight when inked on paper.
Today, he hoped he would be able to write a page. He would then read the entire manuscript again, including the newly-written addition for continuity and flow. Then, if all went well, he would be able to transcribe it on his typewriter tonight to be added to the growing stack currently on the table. Soren felt hopeful and self-assured of his plan. To Soren, it was a warm, settling feeling that originated in the lungs and slowly moved down to the stomach.
The manuscript was of his attachment to Miranda, a woman he had met half a year ago. She had initially spurned him, but also returned (and still returns) his affection from time to time while never committing. More rarely, they also exchanged mementos. She did this with enough regularity that Soren felt conflicted, and in his more intoxicated moments, tortured.
He started writing down his feelings in memoir form in March, when the leaves had just budded on these trees, one evening at Karim’s Cafe. What a wonderful feeling, he thought as he first wrote, this warm feeling that starts in the lungs and settles down in the stomach. He may have felt tortured, but giving words to his suffering made him feel innocent and validated. That evening, God might not have been in his Heaven, he convinced himself, but all still felt right with the world. Other evenings, he could convince himself of nothing.
More people had come to dine at Karim’s. Of the other regulars who recognized Soren, some greeted him with a smile.
“Working hard, Soren?” One patron asked as he patted the writer on the back as he scribbled.
“Hey there, I’m in the middle of a train of thought. You understand,” Soren looked up briefly, smiled briefly, and returned his gaze to his paper.
In another few minutes, the lahmacun and tea arrived. The simple joy of peasant food executed well, he thought with an appreciation more than hunger but less than relish. Tearing off pieces and eating at a deliberate pace, he finished the meat-on-bread and tea in no more than fifteen minutes. The sun was setting; he packed up his typewritten pages, his paperweight, and walked home.
Soren’s studio apartment was pitch black as he turned the key and pushed open the old wooden door that had expanded during the day due to heat. The studio had bare furnishings. Against one off-white wall there was a couch and bed, and against the other, a vhs player atop a three-year-old television.
Soren turned on the kitchen light and saw the remains of a night’s drinking on the coffee table. A half-empty bottle of zinfandel that Miranda had brought over and various bottles of hard liquors in various states of emptiness. Remembering last night caused him a physical, intestinal pain. It was a feeling of his organs being unseated and floating about inside his body.
Why was it already opened and half-empty when she brought it, Soren questioned about the wine. No doubt it was for a night with another boy.
Writing did not help Soren to assuage these sharp pains anchored in recent history. He felt that these pains were too fresh and cannot be given structure. He poured himself the rest of the wine, which soon addled his mind. He called his friend Nesrin. A college friend, Soren considered Nesrin his confidante and solace. He looked at them as brother and sister, intimate and unconditionally loving. Everytime he had contacted her on the brink of tears, she had listened and offered advice.
“Nesrin. It’s Soren. I am a little drunk.”
Even in his haze, Soren could picture Nesrin, with her hair tied back in a single ponytail and wearing grey flannel pants, shuffling back and forth from the kitchen and the dining room to listen to him and to tend to the stew. He was thankful that his friend was not married; Nesrin’s unattached state was a comfort he clung onto and feared would not continue for much longer.
“God, why do you keep doing this? Is this about Miranda?”
“She came over to see a movie and we had a few—we had a bunch to drink. I spent the entire night working up the courage to hold her, to wait for the right moment so doesn’t just brush me aside. I don’t know if I can do this anymore.” Soren stood up, turned off the lights, and returned to the couch. He supported his forehead with his free hand.
“Then don’t. You need to talk to her. We’ve been over this a hundred times. I don’t have anything left to say.”
“You know what she said to be in the beginning? When we first met? She told me I was her Roman Holiday. Believe me, that I was her Roman Holiday.” He had told Nesrin that story before, but the more he recounted the kinder moments, the more at ease he became. He did not mention Miranda’s numerous deflections of his attempts to talk about his feelings for her.
“You’re slurring. Yes, I know.”
“I was more confident back then, maybe. So much easier when you don’t think you have anything to lose.”
“I want to be here for you, and I will. But how long are you going to feel sorry for yourself?” Nesrin sighed.
Soren slumped off the couch. He fumbled to retrieve the glass paperweight from his jacket on the couch. Sprawled on the floor and palming the paperweight as one would a Chinese medicine ball, he repeated similar sentiments to Nesrin. After twenty minutes, she hung up.
Soren continued the ritual of going to Karim’s Cafe to write, to spend time with Miranda which left him with regrets, and to call Nesrin when he felt that even alcohol no longer numbed. Nesrin listened, and repeated that she had said all she was going to say. Throughout, Soren noticed Nesrin’s becoming resigned to being the receiver of his afflictions. He resolved to pepper his calls with more humorous anecdotes to correct this.
On the evening of the first day of August, after an early dinner that was not at Karim’s, Soren called Nesrin. He did not hear Nesrin’s voice from the receiver. Instead, a recording notified him that the number had been disconnected. He poured himself a glass of scotch and sat down on the carpet, with his back propped up against the couch. Mourning what he had lost and will lose, he wept.
On the evening of the second day of August, Soren visited Karim’s Cafe. He sat down outside, between the myrtle trees, and ordered his usual. As he waited, he put his manuscript on the table and his glass paperweight on top. The trees were in bloom now, and every so often the breeze would carry a few flowers on top of the lahmacun. He ate the meat-on-bread with the wayward petals as garnish. He was not sure if this was a good idea.
That evening, Soren left his manuscript and paperweight on the table, paid with a generous tip, and walked away. Mr Karim called after the receding figure with no effect. He set the manuscript aside and promised himself to read it, so that when Soren returns they will have much to talk about. He then picked up the glass paperweight and turned it over in his hand. The glass was plain, with no colors or patterns. To the bottom of the paperweight was glued a small note written in colored gel pen on construction paper. The note read to my roman holiday, of which Mr Karim thought was a curious thing to have on a paperweight.
Both manuscript and paperweight sat uncollected for several months, during which Mr Karim never found the time to read Soren’s opus. One evening, Mr Karim threw them away, nestled among other discarded things.