After that first night not sleeping, they went for breakfast sandwiches at the cramped bagel joint overlooking Main Street. The two of them ordered at the counter, but Clyde waited for the tray of food to be prepared.
He took the tray and approached the empty stool next to her hoisted bottom and dangling legs.
“You never tell me I’m pretty anymore,” she said. She was either ironic or insane. Her nose turned up at the open face of the lox and cream cheese bagel he placed on the bar. “And what are those?” she said, pointing at the plate. “Turds?”
“Capers,” he said, internalizing an eye roll.
“Mysterious,” she hummed. “They look to me to be the second-coming of peas.”
He starred out the steamy window at the far sidewalk, wondering who this person was and why he was sitting next to her.
“I’ll be right back,” she said, getting up from her stool and returning within half a moment with a full ketchup bottle. The one she’d been squeezing sputtered pimples on her plate and swiped one off the table behind them. She filled a corner of her plate with a rippling blob of red. “Okay, serious question: what’s your middle initial?”
He bite-licked at a glob of cream cheese that fell beyond the circumference of his sandwich and onto a knuckle. “Just the initial? Not all the letters that follow?”
“There is no game if you flat out tell me,” she said.
“I wasn’t aware we were playing a game,” he said.
“Then you are more oblivious than you put on. This is all a game. Come on. You’ve been around,” she said, locking aim on his flighty eyes. “You and I, two people who only first met a handful of days ago and are now sitting here on a Friday morning after what happened to happen last night? You are going to tell me you don’t think it’s all a game?”
He didn’t disagree, but he was tired enough that these logical jumps were more annoying than witty. They’d come down here together from his rented room on Bleam Street in an effort to break the fast that had been an unexpectedly tangled night. She suggested he order something with plenty of protein considering he’d depleted his stockpile. Downtime consisted of words floating over his pillow case. Multiple levels of getting to know you mashed together in an all-nighter. Multiple types of all-nighters exist for the college student, Clyde was learning.
“All of these,” she said, washing the back of her hand over the occupants of tiny couches that served as seating, “are participants in their own little games. Socialization is a test. What kind of marks do you make?”
He set the sandwich down, realizing she hadn’t yet lifted hers. Okay, he thought. I’ll play. “I get exceptional marks,” he said, mocking confidence.
“I bet you do. I bet everyone just loves you, right? Teacher’s pet?” she nodded at her words, validating their speculation with her own body language.
“Yeah sure. I’m the teacher’s pet right up until I drop out,” he said.
She didn’t respond at this, but picked up her sandwich, oozing a lava river of cheddar, egg juice, and ketchup, and took a massive bite. He thought that her jaw might have come dislodged, but kept mum while she chewed.
“At least you’re self-aware. Do you like that about yourself? Does it make you happy?”
He looked across the street. There was a little boy tugging at the hand of a woman who seemed too young to be his mother. The boy wanted to go into a store that had yellow toy ducks hanging in the storefront window. He was too young to realize the façade. The store sold homemade soap. The toys strung up on fishing line in the window served the worst purpose in the history of purposes, when it comes to little boys: they were just there for decoration.
He looked back to Katie. She was watching what he was watching, allowing silence for the first time since she first opened her mouth the night before. “That,” she said, lifting the index finger and jabbing it and her half-devoured breakfast in the direction of the boy’s impending tantrum, “that was you at some point.”
She spoke as if she knew his whole past and didn’t aim to manipulate any bit of his present. Her comments were clinical. When she spoke—what she spoke—gave him meaning, even when he knew she was just spouting bullshit. She must think he’s a composite of every other guy she’s known or loved or failed to understand. “You used to walk past women, seeing the potential, the fun, the sheer activity of shopping and knocking to see if anyone’s still in. Throw a tantrum. Listen to emo records. Think about dismantling your safety razor when you shave in the morning. So finally the sign flips from closed to open and you’re let in to the realization it’s all a bunch of soap and perfume and girly shit. You aren’t happy on the sidewalk and you’re even worse off in the store.”
He looked at her then. Scant personal information had been divulged to her during their overnight entanglement. No more than a nod to having once been in love and a few more times believing he had. Who was she to draw such conclusions? Who was she to be so right? He turned his face from hers. A forceful sigh formed a splash of fog on the window in front of them.
“You asked if my being self-aware makes me happy,” he finally returned to the conversation.
“I did ask you that,” she said, not skipping a beat. “You going to answer?”
He took up the paper coffee cup and dumped a swallow into his mouth. It was thresholding the temperature where it went from pleasant to drink to having cooled off to much. He pointed out the window. The woman had convinced the boy to forget the ducks and come with her. Probably tempted him with the promise of something sweet.
“I have learned that happiness is a paradox. When I am happy, it is not because I have fostered it, but it is because I have been able to forget my sadness long enough to let some other force impose itself upon me. Am I happy because I am self-aware? Contrary. Happy forms at the twilight of awareness. It’s a realm where I cannot remain for long.”
“No one can,” she says, being agreeable for the first time all morning. “What if you could stay at the edge of awareness with me? Would you want to go looking?”
He ignored the dangerous proposition. Viscerally, he wanted nothing more than that. Still, he deflected. “Back to the game. My middle initial is P.”
“No ‘back to the game,’ mister,” she huffed. “We never stop playing.”