Ruben entered the café. He sighed as he straightened the wrinkles of his tan jacket. Against his now-ex’s advice, he had refused to throw the thing out. Bob Dylan gave Ruben a pat on the shoulder, and the two continued.
They walked by the maitre d', who only glanced up and nodded as they passed. Ruben and Dylan made their way to the far back corner of the smoky café. Susan sat there, and when she saw the two approaching, she handed her half-smoked cigarette off to Lady Gaga. Gaga took it, inhaled, and gave a single wave to Dylan. Dylan nodded back.
Ruben took a seat across from Susan, and slid down the back of his chair until only his head poked up above the table.
Susan leaned forward over the table to compensate, settling for nothing less than direct eye contact. “Malcolm wants me to remind you that you have to send him the sketches before he can color them.”
“Yeah, well, tell him I’m moving to France,” Ruben responded.
“You speak French?”
“You speak any other French?”
“So Katie dumped you?”
Ruben paused. “There another French word for yes?” he asked, and slouched onto the ground. When he came back up, the waiter took his order.
“Beautiful day,” the waiter mentioned, writing down Ruben’s usual request for black coffee.
“I’ll take your word for it,” Ruben said, and reached into his left jacket pocket. Then he remembered that the left pocket still had a hole in it, and he reached into his right. As soon as he’d freed his cigarettes and a lighter, Ruben slouched back down. “But I am moving to France.”
“It’ll be alright Ruben. She wasn’t—”
“Careful. Careful with your next words, Susan.”
Susan stirred her coffee, which had gone lukewarm waiting for Ruben. He waited patiently enough for her response, but he was curious: what response could she even give? Katie wasn’t right for him? Susan would know better; Katie was entirely perfect for him. There are other fish in the sea? Susan would know better than to say that too.
Susan sighed. “Can you keep a secret?”
“Ooh, see I like those!” Ruben said with a smile. He sat back upright, and folded his arms on top of the table.
Now her turn to lean back, Susan sighed again. “I might leave Malcolm for the same reason Katie left you. Ruben, you artists are insufferable.”
Ruben snorted, and a sharp smile smacked itself across his face. “That’s no secret Susan. Everybody knows that.”
Ruben handed her a worn folder. No Filler, No Filter Studios was stenciled at the center. Below it, Ruben had jotted Chemosynthetic, Issue 12.
Susan took the folder and stood to leave. Ruben asked her, “Are you really going to leave Malcolm?”
“Are you really moving to France?”
Ruben glanced at the waiter, who set the coffee on the table. When he looked back to Susan, she and Gaga were already walking away. He called after them.
“Tell him he can move Malcolm Sanchez above Ruben Craig on the front cover, just this once. My treat.”
Susan didn’t look back, but Ruben knew—just knew—that she was rolling her eyes at him. And smiling. Ruben knew she would be doing both.
Ruben and Dylan sat at that table long after the untouched coffee went cold. There was a window to their left. It would only take a glance for Ruben to see the beautiful day the waiter had promised. But Ruben didn’t look through the window. He didn’t look at the others as they came and went from the tables around him. He barely even looked down at his paper as he sketched.
A small home. What was on the inside didn’t even matter, just as long as it was the only place for miles. And that’s what he sketched: miles of trees, fields, and open blue skies from left to right across the page, all leading to a small home tucked safely to one side. Ruben sketched a man leaning over the railing, looking out over his handiwork. He started to draw Katie next to him. He erased her when he remembered better.
You artists are insufferable.
He erased every last line of her, only to find she had left an empty spot where she’d stood. Of course. Of course that’s how it would be.
Ruben lifted the cup of coffee, slid the paper underneath, and set the cup back down on top. On his way back to his apartment, Ruben practiced French under his breath. Dylan sang It Ain’t Me. It seemed fitting.
The streets of Manhattan were packed that day. Maybe not by local standards. But by the standards of a born, raised, and escaped Wisconsinite, Ruben knew the truth: Manhattan was packed 24/7. He also knew it was only a matter of time before everyone else realized it.
Quelle heure est-il?
Je vis dans la prairie. Très bon.
Ruben and Dylan rode the elevator to the fifth floor of the apartment building. As was custom, Dylan waited outside while Ruben went in. But before closing the door, Ruben held it open just a crack, waiting for Dylan’s last few chords.
You artists are insufferable.
© Ray Underscore Thompson, November 2015