Friday 31 March 2023

Bohemian Twist by Bobbi Bowden,double cappuccino

 As she entered the unfamiliar café, Kate glanced at the understated sign in orange, retro-style letters—The Bohemian. She wondered why Maggie suggested this, of all places. But who was she kidding? Not having seen or spoken to Maggie in two decades, she couldn’t pretend to have any idea who her old friend would have become or the types of places she might now frequent.

Kate felt exposed in a way that brought to mind that recurring dream where she would find herself in a public place, only to look down and see not a stitch of clothing. She was tempted to look down now just to make sure. Instead, she pulled her cashmere scarf tighter around her neck. Spotting an open table in the far back corner, she thought, here goes nothing. She sat down quickly, not removing her coat. Were people staring at her? She crossed, then un-crossed her legs. Abruptly, she began to yank at her scarf to loosen it. For a second, she imagined making a break for the door.

The place gave her vibes of one of those hipster joints where one might be subjected to some tatted-up outcast with more metal than sense in her head, dramatically croaking out bad poetry in the name of ‘art.’ Or worse, one of those angsty ‘singer/songwriter’ guys who show up, pull out a guitar and suddenly become Don Juan—the girls he seduces unaware that he resides in his parents’ basement, masturbates to comic books, and lacks essential hygiene. As if on cue, Kate noticed a man in a leather jacket, guitar case in hand, beginning to set up on a makeshift stage. ‘Oh, you’ve got to be fu—’

‘Kate?’

Standing in front of her was an attractive 30-something woman sporting an ankle-length dress, which Kate felt confident had served as a feed sack in its former life. The slow realization dawned on her. Maggie

Maggie pulled off a puke-green knit cap, out of which flowed the same long, dark locks of her youth, only having taken on some natural wave, likely due to the intermittent silver strands woven throughout.

Doesn’t color her hair. No makeup. Same eyes, only the skin around them older, wiser. What did I expect, for her to still be 17 and dressed in her cheer-leading uniform? Perhaps… What is her style, anyway? Granola? Bohemian? Bohemian with a twist of… what—farmhand chic?

With a wry grin, Maggie said, ‘so do you have me pretty well sized up now?’ When Kate neither responded, nor stood to greet her, Maggie said, ‘may I sit?’

Kate lifted her hands in mock surrender. ‘Be my guest.’

Maggie cleared her throat and took a chair. They each held the other’s gaze for a moment.

‘Why are you here?’ Kate said, finally.

‘Just passing through. I try to make it to Chicago a couple times a y—’

‘Why are you here… in this…’ she fluttered her hands around and continued, ‘this weird place… with me? After twenty years, Maggie. With not a word from you in all that time. I thought you were dead!’

‘Of course, I’m not dead.’ Maggie briefly scanned the room, noticing that a few patrons nearby were now looking in their direction.

‘Well, yes. I can see that now.’ Kate wrapped the scarf even tighter, then yanked it off, crumpling it onto the table. She immediately stood and began fumbling with the buttons of her coat. Muttering under her breath, she proceeded to yank at the coat as if meaning to rip it apart.

‘Are you okay?’ Maggie said.

‘Do I look okay? Feels like a freaking oven in here.’ Kate closed her eyes, drawing in a deep breath and pushing out an exasperated gush of air. She then looked down, deliberately pushing each button through its respective hole, and finally slid the coat over her shoulders, neatly draping it over the back of the chair. She once again sat, smoothed back the sides of her hair, and cleared her throat.

Maggie, amused at the display, but not daring to give herself away, waited for Kate to compose herself. ‘Shall we order coffee?’

No response from Kate.

Maggie waved over a waiter. ‘Two cappuccinos?’ She looked to Kate, who stared back impassively. ‘Ahem, two cappuccinos, please. That’s it.’

Turning her attention back to Kate, Maggie said, ‘I enjoyed your book, by the way.’

Kate was stunned, as she’d self-published the novel under a pen name, and judging by the volume sold, she’d assumed her parents had bought the lot of them. But she didn’t respond. She needed more information.

‘It’s okay,’ Maggie said. ‘I wasn’t angry about the book, and I won’t ask for royalties.’ Kate found the slightest hint of a grin on Maggie’s face. ‘And I approve of the name, Skye. Perhaps it suits me better than Margaret. However, I do find it interesting that it was presented as fiction. Seemed a bit… semi-autobiographical to me.’ She paused, waiting for Kate to look at her. She did not. So, Maggie continued. ‘I do have one question though. Nearly the entire thing consisted of letters you’d written to me. Did you really write all those letters, or was that just a literary device?’

Kate had imagined this moment so many times—of sitting across from Maggie and unleashing all of her bottled up rage—forcing Maggie to understand that her selfish actions didn’t ruin Kate’s life. She wanted to tell her that even though Maggie had tried to destroy her, Kate was somehow able to overcome the betrayal and eventually pull herself out of despair to become a strong, successful, functioning member of society, who never really needed Maggie after all, thank you very much… But in that moment, sitting across from Maggie, Kate was transformed once again into that confused, 17-year-old girl, lonely and insecure, and on the brink of so much worse.

Attempting to keep her voice even, Kate began, ‘I probably wrote you a hundred letters, Maggie. They were my way of keeping you real and of making sense of your abandonment of me. What I chose for that shitty book, which was actually more of a therapeutic exercise, was a conglomeration of all of them. After you left, you—or the idea of you—consumed me. No, devoured me. You’d become my sounding board for everything happening to me, for everything that had ever happened to me. You began to fill every void. Some people talk to themselves. Well, I talked to you, Maggie.

Just then, a rail-thin man in too-skinny, skinny jeans the color of a goat’s ass, materialized out of nowhere and plopped two cappuccinos in front of them, before flitting away. Kate rolled her eyes, then continued.

‘Some days, you were my best friend. Some days you were the cause of everything that had ever gone wrong in my life. You were my imaginary friend, since you no longer existed.’

‘I existed,’ Maggie interrupted.

Kate could feel the flame rising up from somewhere in her chest, engulfing her neck and head. She spat the words, ‘Not to me! I didn’t even know if you were alive. Sometimes you felt like a damned ghost, haunting me. Hell, I began to wonder if I’d only imagined you all along. One thing is for certain, Maggie, it seems you were always my muse, for better or worse.

Maggie cradled the mug of steaming coffee, eyes downcast, absorbing the reprimand, without reciprocating. She worked her mouth into a sad, but knowing smile, as if expecting the verbal onslaught.

Softening just a bit, Kate continued, ‘On the phone, you said you got my number from my mom. When did you have contact with my mom?’

After a pause, ‘Kate, I never stopped having contact with your mom.’

‘What do you…’ Kate’s voice trailed off.

‘Your parents were the closest thing I had to parents. They helped me out of Sandusky. When I turned 18, they were instrumental in relocating me and settling me into a new life.’

‘I’m sorry. What?’ Kate could hear leather jacket guitar guy now crooning in the background, grating on her nerves.

‘I assumed your mom eventually told you where I was living.’

‘Maggie. Oh wait, I’m sorry. Margaret, Of course I didn’t know where you were. Don’t you think I would’ve come found you, had I known where you were?’

Maggie’s face dropped as she could see that Kate finally understood.

‘Oh, I see. Of course. You knew I would come to you, which is why I couldn’t know.’

‘Kate, listen, your parents were looking out for you, doing what they felt was in your best interest, both our best interests. They understood that I had to get away from my parents, my loser boyfriend, my reputation. If I’d stayed, I would’ve just drug you down with me. They wanted more for you. I wanted more for you. Believe me, we did you a favor.’

‘A favor? I didn’t know how to live without you!’ Kate said.

‘Exactly. You just said it all. I was a baby with a baby on the way, abusive parents, no money, no future. Yet I was solely responsible for your happiness. Do you have any idea what kind of pressure that was for me? Kate, listen, you needed your college experience, to branch out, find yourself, all those things that people of privilege have the luxury to explore.’ Maggie took a moment to collect herself. ‘Sorry. I just mean that I knew you had the support system and the means to come out of everything okay. I didn’t know that to be true of myself.’

Maggie shifted in her chair. After pausing a beat to allow the dust to settle, she tried to lighten the energy and said, ‘Are you going to drink that or what?’

Kate looked down as though she wasn’t sure what Maggie was talking about. ‘No. I fucking hate coffee.’

‘Huh.’ Maggie smiled and shook her head. ‘Kate, our worlds had just become too different. We really had nothing in common anymore.’

‘We had history. History’s not nothing, Maggie,’ Kate said, as Maggie’s name caught in her throat.

‘No, history is not nothing. But it also can’t make up for what’s lacking in the present. You just couldn’t handle what happened with…’ Maggie trailed off, and for the first time, appeared to Kate insecure.

‘What, the pregnancy?’ Kate said.

‘Well, the pregnancy and how you judged me for my choice to… end it. But also—’

‘I didn’t judge y—’

Maggie put up a hand to stop her.

‘What? Kate demanded.

Eyes now downcast, Maggie took in a long, deliberate swig, seeming to study the chemical components as she swallowed. Then, something unexpected. Kate followed a single tear as it slid down Maggie’s cheek. Maggie sniffed and used an index finger to quickly wipe it away.

‘Kate. It took too long to get here, I know. And maybe it’s too little, too late. But I need to tell you something.’

‘What have either of us got to lose at this point?’ Kate said.

Maggie drew in a long breath, then articulated the words, ‘I wasn’t just knocked-up by my loser high school boyfriend. As if that wouldn’t have been bad enough, it was actually something much worse.’

Kate simply stared at Maggie, wondering what other possible option existed.

‘It was… Lou’s,’ Maggie said, not making eye contact with Kate.

Kate stared intently at Maggie, eyebrows scrunched, not seeming to comprehend.

‘Wait,’ Kate said. ‘Lou-cifer?’

‘Yes. He wasn’t just my mom’s mean, alcoholic boyfriend, Kate. He was a really, really bad guy. Evil. You have no idea how much so, because I never allowed you to know. I’m only telling you this because I need for you to understand that I didn’t run away from you. You were… collateral damage.’

Kate was thinking back to all those dozens of nights Maggie spent at her house over the years, more than Maggie had spent at her own. Kate had known Lou was abusive to Maggie’s mother. Hell, everyone knew that. And maybe she even knew that he had pushed Maggie around at times, but what Maggie was telling her now was unfathomable. All she could bring herself to verbalize was, ‘I’m so sorry.’

‘I know,’ Maggie said.

‘I would’ve helped you.’

‘You couldn’t have saved me,’ Maggie said, eyes pleading for Kate to understand. ‘Now, you see that I had to leave, don’t you?’

They looked into one another’s eyes, both imploring to be heard by the other. All the memories, all the love they ever held for each other, the heartbreak, the injustice of it all, whittled down to a collection of blurry snapshots—like something slippery they could feel, but couldn’t quite keep hold of.

Maggie stood, puke-green cap in hand, and pulled her wrap firmly around her trembling body, which now appeared to Kate much smaller and more fragile than she’d remembered. Maggie smiled, but not at all with her eyes. Then she turned to go. She took a few steps toward the door before Kate jumped out of her chair, nearly toppling it. She grabbed Maggie, spun her around, and embraced her friend for what they both knew would be the last time. They held tight to one another for several beats.

Maggie was the first to pull away. ‘Hey, we have history and history’s not nothing.’ Maggie turned, hesitated for a few weighted seconds, then walked out of The Bohemian and back into the frosty world.

Kate scrutinized the odd place, all those eyes on her. She considered how strange life is, how one event or choice will alter every one that comes after, how holding onto one thing that may not even be real or true, can dictate your entire life if you let it. She felt more enlightened, yet more confused, than ever.

Kate desired more than anything in that moment, to still have her mom. She longed now for the chance to tell her mom, Thank you. Thank you for loving me enough to do the hard things to protect me, knowing the pain it would cause. Thank you for taking care of sweet Maggie, who wasn’t even your child—for giving her a chance at life, knowing it could come back on you. Thank you for holding all of those secrets for us, because you knew that’s what was best for everyone. I hope that before you left this world, something I did made you proud of me, too.

Leather-jacket guitar guy was now belting out, ‘Here Comes the Sun.’ A little on-the nose, Kate thought. Just then, he glanced over, catching her eye, flashing a smile. She turned to look behind her. Nobody. She looked back to him. He winked. She blushed as she picked up the mug of lukewarm coffee, studying it, then took a reluctant sip.

‘Hmm…’ She examined the remaining liquid and allowed herself another swig, then swallowed the rest in a few long gulps.

‘It’s good. It’s really good,’ she said to no one in particular. She found herself laughing out loud, then covered her mouth, aware of the concerned looks. Then came the tears—hot, sloppy tears. She gave in and let them come. After all, she didn’t know these people, and she wouldn’t be back here. Or maybe she would…  

Too-skinny, skinny jean guy spotted her emotional outburst, and the speed at which he came to be standing in front of her was truly confounding.

‘Are you okay, Ma’am?’ His concern seemed genuine.

‘I’m okay. I’d just really like another one of these, please. Make it a double.’

About the author  

 Bobbi is a graduate of Indiana University Bloomington, where she resides with her partner, two teen daughters, and two neurotic dogs. She can often be found walking, reading, journaling, or connecting with her small, trusted circle. Her work has appeared in Shorts Magazine & Bright Flash Literary Review

 

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