By Mike Lee
The cafe bustled with the Saturday afternoon crowd, reading newspapers and drinking coffees and wines engaging in an endless din of conversation. Novels spoken, instead of composed on paper, stories never to be repeated.
I wondered about what those words were, just out of reach unheard, while I sat in a worn chair in the corner. The place had been around for nearly a century, a relic on the verge of financial collapse due to the effects of the pandemic. Recently, they opened up indoor dining, with restrictions. I was lucky. I was here first.
But words. Statements unheard. I remembered something from a long time ago, when I realized my partner was abusive, and our relationship on the verge of collapse. I was different then, and that transformation was due to an epiphany while riding the downtown train to work.
I sat in the crowded subway, thinking about the sadness of a conversation in which years are scrubbed clean with the distance of alienation. I thought, I do not hate her, though at times I wish I could.
I considered doing so would make the bitterness palatable. But no—I did not—not at that very moment.
Instead, I felt little more than a willingness to surrender my heart to the future, rather than continuing to for her. I certainly heard her anger leaving the house to work, the intensity of her frustration.
As the doors opened, and I traversed to the platform, it struck me. Honestly, there is nothing, I thought. Only a space separate and distant. I realized then I could go no further.
Those were the words in my café conversation, although known only to myself and silent, yet loudly true in my mind. But that was a long time ago; remembering is something I never quite learned to forget. Instead, I comfortably laid with the lie, and snuggled it close.
That was my epiphany, then. It took a long time to escape, but again, that was a long time ago.
I ordered another Moretti and tried to read. Working from home, coupled with the social isolation because of the pandemic made it more difficult to concentrate. All of my friends had left the city at various stages. Neighbors of long standing were moving away; daily, for months on my morning walk I would pass relatively new furniture piled on street corners. Mostly bedframes and mattresses. Small signs of an apocalypse unimagined in our time, unexpectedly upon on, suffocating tens of thousands hooked to ventilators, as medical staff risked their lives desperately tried to save them.
I stayed. I had no choice. I had nowhere to run to and was committed to stay at my job in the city where I live. I regret that now.
The social isolation made worse with conference calls with half the participants with their video turned off. I wondered what they did not want me to see. Their increasing haggardness? The homes not as tidy? One never knows, do one, to quote Fats Waller the jazz singer my mother loved to listen to, along with Ella and O’Day.
Yes, one never knows, do one?
I tried to keep attention to my book. It was Hotel Savoy by Joseph Roth, as tragic a figure in literary history as prodigious as his output. A product of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he later worked as a journalist in Berlin until Weimar fell to Hitler.
He fled to Paris and drank himself to death. Like Delmore Schwartz, the entire world flowed into his mouth like water to a drowning man.
Roth wrote a novel about Job, enough said. I understand him in every word I read of Hotel Savoy, a book notable for including the first literary reference to a rabble rouser named Adolf Hitler.
Suddenly the music in the café changed to Strauss. The Radetzky Waltz.
This was not a time to be reminded of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.
Or Joseph Roth, who wrote a novel by that title.
I later wrote in my journal. The painful realities of the present always inform the harsh choices in the future.
Meanwhile the multitudes outside my window gabbed muffled and discordant.
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Mike Lee is a writer, editor and photographer for a trade union in New York City. His work appears in Lunate, Ghost Parachute, trampset and many others.