He sits down next to me at the bar of the sushi restaurant where I’m waiting for my take-out. With a sideways glance I realize he’s old enough to drink but just barely. So he’s younger than me by more years than I could count on two hands. As soon as he sits down I can tell he wants to talk—and maybe have sex? I’m not a virgin anymore but somehow I’m still a virginal bore so I seize up. I all but disappear like the new moon: you might be able to see me in the shadow of an eclipse but here at the bar I might as well be the bottle, or the stool, or the little plastic tub of limes.
But those red-rimmed eyes can see me. He tells me that his friend has died. He tosses back a Jack Daniels and calls for another: a newly minted sad-sack drinker.
I start to shut him out, turn to my book, place my elbow on the bar and rest my head in my hand so all he sees is hair. But maybe I could listen. This man has something to say that might not ever get said if he doesn’t say it now. And it’s safe to talk to strangers about grief. His friend, his stupid goddamn friend, has overdosed and died, and he hates him and loves him and wishes he’d never lived and wishes he would live forever.
I offer a smile. I even touch his shoulder once but pull my hand away in case he is looking for a lover, which I don’t want to be. I blunder my way through advice—I lost my father to drugs too, other people won’t understand what you’re going through—as though I can give him the answer, as though I could be a stranger who leaves an impression on him, but my words appear between us like a worm-eaten rose on a platter.
I should have let him talk longer. His anger had an engine, and he needed to run it out. Later I would wish I’d asked him what meal they’d last shared together. Tell me everything, I might have said. I want to know about the mayo on your lip, the coffee on your friend’s breath. And if he’d asked me—what was your last meal with your father, stranger?—I would have told him blueberry pancakes on the lake with some of the family there, syrup pooling like luck on our plates, luck that would get sopped up and swallowed. Bacon on the side, and sunshine, and the sky a blue ballroom for a few puffy white clouds. The water rippling as though it was running from itself. There’s a little love in every meal, I could say.
Instead I mutter, “Well, feel better.” Or maybe not even. Maybe when he says, “I’ll stop bothering you,” I turn back to my book, and when my take-out is ready I leave without a word, still worrying that he probably wants to have sex with me. I’ll feel badly later for making it all about me, but for now I go out into the rain-fed night, Newark a bright little lymph node clinging to the neck of New York, and I think, my father never knew I would end up living here. He never would have guessed.
Megan Cummins grew up in Michigan and now lives in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in A Public Space, One Teen Story, Guernica, Okey-Panky, and Ninth Letter. She is the managing editor of A Public Space.