Narrow Exits


Burnt curtains, Anabel thought, that’s it. The change came so quickly. Before she loved the toasted earthy scent that would over power her, prided herself on being able to distinguish types of roasts: French, Italian, Sumatra, Espresso; even the roasts done by the artisan shop at the ground floor of her pre-war brick building. Jason, the cashier who knew her morning order, would test her periodically. There was no science to it, just: closing your eyes, breathing in the proffered unlabeled tin. At first she was seldom correct. Slowly her olfactory receptors began to differentiate minute differences. Being right, that first time, was such a thrill. Now all of it, every single roast, smelt like burnt curtains.

Offensive as it was, she still huddled with a warm latte at a corner table. The sheen white porcelain of the cup felt familiar to her fingers gripping the outside walls. Her middle fingers just barely grazed each other, like always. In two years the cups had not changed. There was comfort in this consistency. Bitterness, too – because she didn’t have the option of staying the same, no one did.

Across from her was a younger couple. They were breaking up. It was evident immediately. The sad heavy act felt insouciant. What concerns did they have? Anabel bitterly mumbled into her coffee. None. None whatsoever, she answered. So damn young, she thought. Like babies.

Anabel found herself angry with the girl: angry at her unchecked glances to the exit sign, the darting eyes, the impatience signified by her tapping finger on the table. Before the hour was up that girl would walk out of the coffee shop, free, quick with a smile, open, just for a moment, to whatever adventure the next stranger offered. A wild notion overcame Anabel to grab the crumbling couple and shout like a preacher: You’re alive, damn-it! You’re free! Go, be free! Don’t wait, don’t waste another moment with this useless conversation.

The desire to be street preacher dissipated at the thought of embarrassment at the actualizing of such madness. Anyway, it didn’t matter. We’re only aware of what we have when it’s gone, she thought. Cheap platitude, sure, but so what? It’s true right? We take things for granted. The miracle of life. We are part of it and we just take take take.

Then there is nothing to take, and the bill comes due. How will you ever pay, she wondered. With everything, she thought. Her coffee, her apartment… Melancholy fell upon her, leading to nostalgia. Powerful urges: to softly walk out the cafe and up the hardwood spiral staircase to her thick heavy fire door marked 11 A; to step inside the warm and neat home, organized just so, with an architectural eye for space management; to languish like a lethargic cat in the late morning sun that crept, inch by inch, to the bookshelf that stood where most people would have a television; to finally re-read the book that sunlight illuminated, from 12:08 to 12:21. It was the children’s book: Love You Forever.

Her mother read that to her. She was so young then. Untouched by time. It was marvel: how much had she changed since then. It was as if time allowed her to give birth to herself. Sure, Anabel mused, we’re being born every day. Birth is kicking us right in the belly. A wry smile, like a twisted Mona Lisa, less mysterious, somehow bitter, painted itself on her.

It’s no use to be bitter, be better, she laughed. Mother always said that: Don’t be bitter, be better. She hated that ridiculous aphorism. Once Anabel had come home, in tears, because she had been called a circus freak and everyone laughed. Fuming she told Mother. Mother, burnt red faced, straight black hair, told her then for the first time: not bitter, better.

Repeated enough times it sounded true; easy. Well, mom, something stuck. Is that your reward, Mother? Every mother’s reward? Years later your daughter doesn’t find you ridiculous. I know I cost you, she thought. Those stretch marks on your belly, and the crow’s feet that looked like dried river beds, and how many hours of sleep?

Is this how it begins? She chewed her fingernails. I can’t do it alone, she said aloud. An older gentleman, reading the Wall Street Journal, heard her, and smiled politely. She nodded with a tight smile. She would have to tell Michael. But she could hardly tell herself. The little blue plus symbol had no problems whatsoever telling. No tact, no: sit down, breathe, ok, you’re pregnant. That stupid applicator was more akin to a swat team: door collapsing with no warning, splintered wood like hail through the air, guns pointed, shouting, looking for the perpetrator.

It’s a crime. A gift. A curse. A blessing. For life. Mine, no questions. But his? His too. After 3 months this was his anniversary present. Of course… there is that. Cut the floor from underneath. But could she? And him? Could he? It was her choice, right? But. He was so kind. He could be good. To her. And to … what would the name be? Graphic designer, that’s what he did. Sure he was a bit … mother would say: kooky. It was his quiet intelligent humor, that’s all. Perhaps a list, pros and cons. Could she reduce him to a list? Mere adjectives. Yes. Never before had such an urge taken her.

The door opened. It got stuck. Cold breezes came in. She shivered, looked at the time. 9:42. 3 minutes. Till what? I don’t know, she thought. I don’t know anything anymore. A single trimester is 3 months. To term is 9. Not a lot of time. A lifetime. 3 minutes seemed longer though. From outside she saw the hat first, noted his solid gait, his occupied stare that seemed to memorize his environment. Then, in no time, he was at the open door, blocking the cold chill. A few customers looked gratefully at him. He closed the door. Noted her. His inviting smile crushed her. He sat across from her, needing no invite, familiar and intimate.

“It’s cold,” he blustered, rubbing his palms together, so halcyon and radiant.

She had no answer, just a feeling of oppressive horror. The little telltale heart beating beneath the surface. A distraction, she thought. The coffee cup didn’t even make it to her lips, her hand couldn’t stop quivering. Something was spilt, there was a mess, there was efforts to clean it up, the two working together. She cried, just for a moment. No more than 10 seconds.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

What’s wrong he asks. As if life had easy solutions. As if life didn’t come around and just kick you, right in the belly every once in a while.

BIO: Mark Mizrahi is once a soup opera, a scientist, a poet, a cook, and a conversationalist. He knows about sharks, ecology, and can wield a metaphor on good days.




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