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Cafe Oriental

29.April 2010

In a new feature, we collaborate with Daniel Le Ray. I’ll pick one of my photographs for the talented Mr. to be inspired by and to write on. 

It hadn’t been the pain that he liked, but the sympathy. Even as a child. Crawling beneath the splintered oak table in his parents’ kitchen and emitting a howl more befitting mortal injury than a scratched kneecap or stubbed toe. He was the boy who cried wolf, and his mother and father had come to realize this. In the end, even their sympathy had ebbed away.

As a teenager he had been told by a psychiatrist—a school psychiatrist (he corrected himself)—that he had masochistic tendencies. Lying when the man asked him if he knew what that meant, he had huddled under the very same table later that day reading over the definition of the word in a battered dictionary. He had still failed to understand the connection between this fine print and his present predicament.

But at right that second, none of this mattered. He was more distracted by the pain searing between his shoulder blades, a soft pulsing whip extending the length of his spine and into his neck muscles. He wouldn’t mention it when she arrived; he was, after all, on vacation. New career in a new town. He didn’t need Sandra’s sympathy, however freely it might be offered.

On the table in front of him, topped with a perfectly flat layer of foam, was an unbreached cappuccino. It seemed wrong to take a sip. When Sandra got here, she would notice the dent in the coffee’s armor, would know that he had started without her.

Just a couple of days before leaving the States, he had emailed her to tell her he was coming to Hamburg ‘on business’, to ask if she was free for a coffee or a beer. There was nothing in between the three lines of her reply. They were just words, and ordinary ones at that.

sure. how about café oriental, marktstrasse, on wednesday? see you there around 13.00?

Nearly four years had passed since he had last seen Sandra. She had upped sticks and settled in Hamburg, a town full of American émigrés. The edges of the café in which he found himself were sketched with lines of people that could, he thought, have been transported from a New York City bar.

“I just want to… get away from this American narrative, you know?” He had nearly burst out laughing when Sandra explained all this in her farewell speech. “Away from all these things I’m supposed to give myself over to: drugs, TV, big, shiny electronics…”

“Men?” he had ventured, half-smiling.

“Don’t act the jilted lover, Jonathan.”

Crying wolf, his tears had eventually turned real.

It was already ten after one, but the thick red drapes that covered the Café Oriental’s windows made the place into a den, lit only by a single candle on each table. He placed his hands around the coffee cup to warm them, and tried not to think about what he would say when Sandra arrived.

A month after she had left, he had taken a job at the local newspaper, selling advertising space to large, inanimate conglomerates selling smaller, equally inanimate products. He imagined millions of Sandras flipping pages, pausing, intrigued by the prescription narcotics and the addictive home electronics on brightly-colored two-page spreads. But after two moves away from his department—not promotions, just motions (he had joked to his colleagues)—he had had enough of the windowless desk spaces and hollow office building.

Finally, he lifted the perfectly-sculpted cappuccino from the table and took a sip, replacing it with one hand. A crescent of coffee was visible beneath the foam. Leaning back, a spasm ran up his back toward his neck and he cringed. Just forget it, he told himself. It was, more than anything, a physiognomic reaction to this bizarre turn of events. Exotic streets full of foreign speech and peculiar movements from one road to another, snaking out of his hotel and—sure to keep going lest he stop and begin to worry himself—trailing the German streets until he had found the café.

Though he and Sandra had frequented places much stranger than Café Oriental back in New York, he had felt twice removed from reality when he came to the place. This sunken café-bar, its quilted interior and low windows blocking much of the light, a kind of a velvet-draped harem, he thought.

He reached a hand around to his shoulders and dug fingers deep into the flesh. The pain increased and, like a white flash in front of his eyes, became total for just a moment. He bent double over the table, trying to massage away the knots and resting his forehead on the table top.

“Jonathan!”

He rushed upright. Sandra was making her way to his table. She was less changed than he had expected—her hair was shorter, was no longer colored platinum blonde, she was slimmer—but all the same the criss-cross of twinges on his back was forming a network of pain.

She said it was good to see him. Likewise, he assured her. She asked him how the business trip was going, and he told her.

“You quit your job?”

“I quit.” He nodded.

“Wow…” she paused and looked extra lost. No coffee, no words. The half-moon sip he had taken from his cappuccino had grown in size; the walls of foam had surrendered to the liquid beneath and sunk into the coffee cup. It was time, he thought, to crawl out from under the table.

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