He sits in the local dog park with a bag of treats and a tennis ball. He doesn’t own a dog, but these little excursions serve as a quick fix for the lonely drinker. On a sunny spring afternoon, the park is ripe with all kinds of dogs: big, small, nervous and kind. The only judgement they project onto him is pure enthusiasm and adoration; the guy with the treats and ball. He listens to natural ambience – trees blowing in the wind, a gentle stream – on his iPod, conscious of his breath. As of late, sad music has only caused him to spiral, while joyful tunes only serve to thunder obnoxiously through his ears. If a concerned dog owner ever approaches him, he shyly apologizes and retreats back to his local cafe where he writes intentionally terrible poetry.
Dogs have ears.
Cats have ears.
I wish I was dead.
Hundreds of nonsensical poems about his misery fill the pages of his camouflage-patterned moleskin. He’ll drink half a dozen Americanos to ward off his hangovers, then by late afternoon wonder why he appears to be having a panic attack. The electricity running through his skin serves as a convenient excuse to avoid engaging with Carley, the cute barista he has loosely gotten to know his the last year in the neighbourhood. She is tall and pale, thin and elegant. One of her green eyes (her right one) has a brown splotch on it, and she wears a ring with a pentagram on it. Her big smile greets him every time he walks into the cafe.
“Hey there,” she’ll pleasantly address him before getting started on his order.
In truth, he lives a privileged and successful existence. His job keeps him affluent while being challenging and fulfilling, and he has a number of close friends in whom he could always confide; though he chooses not to. It feels as though he wears a mask, a big smile and an overtly polite demeanor despite his constant unrest. Remember the first time your parents dropped you off at camp, and flashes of home constantly berated your ability to be present? Or the first night in a dingy hostel abroad where you lie awake and wonder if you’ve made a huge mistake? It is this feeling that he carries with him through every moment – a constant homesickness.
“Hey Doran, what’re you up to tonight?” she asked from behind the oak wood coffee bar. He’d never cared much for his name – eccentric and easily misinterpreted – but the way she said it always made his heart skip.
“Nothing in particular, might do some reading. Nothing exciting,” he boasted even though he’d been carrying around the same copy of The Goldfinch for the last six months.
“Look at you fancy guy, reading a book,” she teased.
“Realistically, I’ll end up playing stupid games on my iPad and passing out with the screen covered in drool under my face.” Honesty is always the best policy, he told himself.
“Forget that and take me out to see my friend’s band tonight,” she said. He had only ever seen this kind of confidence in movies. Taken aback, he awkwardly laughed. “You can’t tell me we haven’t been eye-flirting several times a week for the last half of the year!”
“Wow, yeah. Of course, I’d like to take you out.”
“Here’s my number.” She quickly jots down her number on a post-it note. “Text me, I’m off work at 4.”
“Awesome, I’ll shout ya then!” Almost involuntarily, he turned around quickly and sped out the door. Shout ya? Who says shout ya? He was going to think and rethink about his choice of words until she texted him back after work.
They made plans to meet for drinks an hour before the show. An hour before this, he started drinking. Who could love the real you? He asked himself before he poured himself a vodka soda with dinner, a stiff drink to steel the nerves. He poured himself another before picking out an outfit, another before fixing his hair, and another before brushing his teeth. Each one stronger than the last. Punk music blared throughout his apartment and he pumped himself up by jumping up and down and screaming along to the music. He stood at the streetcar stop listening to a shuffle of recently added music on his phone, surprised at his own struggle to hold himself upright. The streetcar arrived halfway through his cigarette, he reluctantly tossed it before painstakingly hiking up the steps into the car. While mouthing the words and bobbing his head to the music he periodically puffed on his vaporizer. Though he assumed he was being subtle, his fellow passengers glared with disapproval.
The swirl of music, liquor and nicotine made the ride as pleasant as could be, until a particular song shuffled into his ears. The gravel-voiced singer crooned through ambient synths and a melodramatic guitar progression. He sang of love and addiction, of bitterness and loneliness. As he listened, he resolved that he was not simply interpreting the singer’s poetry, rather that this song was written specifically about him, and before he knew it, the heavy claws of depression had sunk deep into his heart, pulling it directly into the earth beneath him. Immobilized by his sudden lucidity, he let the song play through to the end. Envious of those familiar with the release afforded to those capable of crying, he wallowed in self-pity as the next song played, an upbeat indie rock tune with disco undertones.
As he rode closer and closer to his stop, he stared out the window inventing stories about all the happy people busily walking down College Street. Stories of emotional stability and comfortable predictability. Clandestine love stories that blossomed into beachfront weddings. Friends and family crying with pride and joy as they watch these tattooed pedestrians declare love that defied all odds. The tall woman with beautiful hips and a confident stride who… it was his date, Carley. Overwhelmed, his heart sank another notch deeper. The streetcar stopped across the bar where they had planned to meet. Not a thought went through his head as he stared ahead in shock, and as the car continued on past his destination. He could hop off and walk from the next stop, or he could just make himself a regular at another cafe.
But he liked the coffee at this particular cafe and the private little nook in which he could sit and violently scribble prose. The grilled cheese served with an artisan pickle was out of this world and the fact that it was walking distance from his favourite park was hard to beat. He wouldn’t let his cowardice exile him from his aromatic refuge. He would suffer the throes of an evening with a beautiful woman if it meant securing his place at her shop. He would confront his social anxiety in order to enable his reclusive tendencies. And he would do everything he could not to fall for her to ensure that he could casually sit alone at this cafe without imagining how underwhelmed with him she will inevitably become.