I’m looking at the swirl of the cream in the coffee. I’m in a deep trance like some shaman trying to study the omens in the entrails of a slain animal. Perhaps if I looked hard enough I could see the future. But at this point in time, it’s the past that is eluding me.

I look outside through the glass doors of the café. I see the face of the smiling yuppie nursing a single malt scotch on a billboard and I feel some solace. Maybe I’m not that far away from the world outside. The curvaceous blonde peddling lingerie on the billboard by the side reassures me even more. Then I look at the teeming mass of humanity and I’m lost again.

A stranger!

That is what I am now, a stranger in a land, which was once home, in a city, which I used to know inside out, in a time which by all means should already be the past. It is as if I went outside the bubble and time stopped inside. For me ages have passed, but inside time has stood still.

I left this place behind for things it could not give me, faster cars, sleeker cell phones and a better currency conversion rate. I never looked back in all those years. I tried my best to forget my life here and I had expected the same courtesy from this place.

Yet here I am. Sitting in a coffee shop that I think I have been to before. Everything has changed. Everything is still the same.

A part of me screams inside to run away. Go back to where things still make sense, where at least I’m still sane. I think I hear another voice. A child is whispering names, of places, of people. It is too much for my brain. It reacts the only way it can. I hear that terrible screeching sound of a vinyl record pressed to hard against the turntable and I develop temporary amnesia again.

The child sighs, but doesn’t give up.

The whispers begin again…the child is asking me to open my eyes.

I open my eyes and look at the woman sitting across me. I’m searching for her name. I think I know her. The child tells me he does. The man is back shouting in my ears to get up and walk away. He’s afraid, very afraid. I think we’ve been here before.

I look at her. The child comes forward and so do some of the memories.

I think I used to love this woman.

The child says I still do.

The man points out I have a family outside of this bubble.

I try to shut them both.

Suddenly there is silence in my mind. They are gone, at least for the moment.

I try to make small talk. I opt for the safest opening.

“So how have you been?” I hear myself say.

“Good, thanks for asking. How about you?” she responds.

“Oh! Can’t complain! Business is good. We are expanding our operations here. A few more years and this place’s going to be gold.”

“Uh-huh.”

I think she is not here for the discourse on business opportunities in third world countries.

“I saw your picture in that magazine the other day.” She says,” You looked good!”

And then there is that silence between us again. She is sipping her coffee and I am trying to stop the swirls of the creamer in the coffee with my mind.

I can’t take it anymore. I beg for the child to come back and he whispers in my ears. I repeat like a zombie.

“I missed you.”

She looks up at me. There it is in her eyes, a glimmer of hope and then she starts laughing. It is a forced laughter. The one I am all too familiar with. It is the kind of laughter that pretends that the other person just said something he or she did not mean at all. Denial is one of our best natural defenses.

I repeat my words.

“C’mon, S____, after all these years? After all that has happened?” Her voice is getting sterner.

I am silent. I think I have a vague idea what she is talking about. I can sense that she is upset.

I look at the swirls in the coffee cup again. Suddenly the world around me shrinks and time rewinds.
It is the same coffee shop but years ago. I see myself with the same woman. She is crying and I am not even trying to console her. I see myself get up and walk away. I am at the door, fighting the urge to look back. I can almost hear myself thinking. The words are blurred but I think I am beginning to remember.
I snap back to the present.

She is still upset, but she isn’t as angry as I would have liked her to be. The child is now full of hope. He makes my hand go up to hers and I see myself patting her hands. She doesn’t try to remove the hand.
She looks up at me, her eyes a sea of conflict.

“I’m married now. I have three kids.”

Her voice is pleading, but not with me.

I still haven’t removed my hand.

We sit there, a tableau fixed in time.

An eternity passes.

The child is overjoyed and I hear nothing else.

“Come away with me.” I hear him speak.

The trance ends.

She snaps her hand back and mutters something about this having been a big mistake. She picks up her purse and storms out of the café. I let her go. The child is sad and silent and I think the man is back as I hear his “I told you so” snicker.

I sit there for some time.

I get up and pay for the coffee. I feel the memories flooding back and this time I do not resist. I walk outside and look at the place I once called home. I feel the barbs in my heart with each flash.

I see us on the park bench. Chatting away, full of dreams of being together till time ends.

I see us walking, hand in hand.

I don’t try to fight back. The man is in utter pain and I think so is the child.

It all builds up to a cacophony of pain and suddenly I almost remember her name. I hear the sound of scratching records again and I fade to black.

#

I’m at the airport now, the edge of the bubble. I am handing my boarding pass to the smiling lady and am walking down the tunnel that shall lead my way to freedom.

Soon I’ll be home, back in the place I know.

I don’t know why I came back. I don’t remember why I was sad.

I hear humming in my mind. It is a man, happy to be in control again.

Suddenly I hear a faint sound and I look back.

Somewhere out there a child is sobbing.

And I think so am I.

THE END

This is a short story that was first published in Chick Flix eZine in 2006.