The approaching man had unkempt hair, with scruffy edges on his shirt collar and pant cuffs. He looked as if his life had been fraying for a while. The sweat-lined clothes rested against indeterminate dark skin, which was made even darker by countless days out in the sun. Such days were perhaps not voluntary.
He leaned sideways a little to make eye contact. “Hey, man, little favor?”
I maintained a brisk pace, glazing my eyes over to try to appear that I looked past him. “Sorry, can’t help you.”
The man stopped and stiffened. He squared his shoulder, an initial wave of shock or indignation receding into habit. “Just wanted to know the time,” he mumbled, more to himself.
As he walked past, I wanted to convince him that I knew what had happened. To apologize and make it right. But my phone battery had died, and I stopped wearing a watch long ago, since I figured with technology and advancement I was past all of that.
“I like your shirt. You always have the coolest ones.”
The friend who had said that spoke from the edge of a larger gathering in the corner of a bar, but they were all paying attention. Most of them nodded in agreement; none sneered or otherwise openly disputed it.
The shirt(s) in question hadn’t been anything special. Quirky designs, frequently relating to a movie or game or genre of music. Images that were humorous without being a hacky punchline. Purchased from the corners of the internet where the wearers, people like me, hoped that interesting and cool people bought shirts. (But not because those other people were interesting and cool. If you catch my distinction.)
Five years later, I ran into that friend, randomly, at a coffee shop — in the same line for unnecessary drinks. We caught up, it had been too long, where you living now, and all that. After he left and I waited for my order, I realized I had just a plain black t shirt on. Boring and standard. Had it been a let down? Did it seem like I changed, when the stuffed dresser drawers back in my apartment assured me I had not?
Only then did I realize that maybe, just perhaps, the original comment had not been a sincere compliment. That it was an open jab, with the group’s silent affirmation being against me and not for. I spent the afternoon staring at a blank page and turning this over in my mind, pulling out as high a resolution memory of the moment as I could. In the end, nothing convinced me that my friend had meant any malice. Nothing conclusive, anyway. Once evening came, I focused on my current amazement at my past willingness to take the compliment without question. I longed for the time when I was that open to people saying something positive about me. I longed for when I assumed my friends thought I might be cool.
He yells at the screen every game,
imploring, demanding, lamenting
that they must run faster, jump higher,
throw further and try harder,
cover that last inch or two
to achieve, to win, if only
they would listen.
And the players always sigh
look at each other and tell him
“yeah, we’re doing what we can.”
It hangs down, suspended into the air. Circles upon circles, the top (technically bottom) has two rectangular holes that look like windows. You lie back on the ground and spend time thinking about what conversations could be happening in a hub like that, attached to a larger ship or space station, isolated, hanging out, vulnerable to the vacuum. The vistas. The puffy jumpsuits. The cool, detached computer voice giving updates and alerts. The mundane commute from the rest of the complex. Wonder eventually replaced with banality.
You picture this, staring up at the ceiling, action figures of your mind acting out tiny scenarios. You do not think about it, but it feels like a better way to spend your afternoon than merely changing the batteries.
The busboys wanted to look busy, so they roamed around the chairs to switch out the spotless utensils. The creased British bartender, leaned back against the well, twirling a rag in a pint glass, watching the same seven highlights loop on the TV above. He wished he cared about basketball, or that they had a better satellite package.
A rush of cold air swept around the hostess’ ankles. She turned to the open door, unsheathing the smile the owner had told her landed the job. A waiter, headed out a side door for another cigarette and text check, stopped, thinking his services may be needed.
“Can you tell me how to get back to the freeway from here? I’m totally lost, sorry!”
The hostess nodded and did her best, although she herself hadn’t learned the names of all the streets yet. Maybe she wouldn’t have to. The waiter caught the bartender’s eye; they traded non-verbal grunts. Turning back to the door, the waiter looked up at maximum occupancy sign as he tapped a smoke onto his palm.