I used to work in a bar, I'd see the same faces as the days went by. Flies to the counter. They all had stories and were eager to share. One was a successful businessman who had lost more than half of everything he owned when his wife divorced him. He had to pay for her lawyer during the court battle and wound up paying for a good one. His knuckles would turn white grasping his whiskey soda and some days I thought the glass would surely break. Another was a sixty year old who had been in and out of the red brick for most of his adult life. He believed that aliens had abducted and probed him in his youth and was prone to episodes. The psychiatrists assumed it had been some kind of abuse that his young brain had tried to protect itself from. The several rounds of electro-convulsive therapy did little but slur words. After his father died he talked less of aliens and the doctors, like the rest of us, tried to put the connection out of our minds. Then there was the lady who'd drink Chardonnay steadily, a bag of colours and sketch pads for her son. He went through the art supplies fast, she'd talk of the future he had ahead. Gallery openings or maybe a job in graphic design, as long as he was happy. That seemed normal enough until my manager told me the boy had been a vegetable going on twenty years. Most days I would finish my shift and feel as if a great animal was looming overhead, waiting to descend. I had to leave the bar after three months. People talk a lot of energies and auras, echoes of emotions felt. I'm not sure if any of that is true but I am sure that had I stayed in that pub I would have become one of its regulars.
The café Isabella asked me to meet her at is modelled after a library. The green and red of classic spines are painted against the wall. The room is pleasant, spacious. It does not have any of the melancholy residue of the bar I once worked at. I order a coffee and sit next to the window wondering what I might leave behind. Outside a mild rain falls alongside oranged leaves. A white and red bus pulls to a stop, passengers get off, passengers get on. I hold my right hand over my red eye and watch the bus pull away, the lashes brush my palm. It hurts my eyelid. Soon there will be no leaves on the skinny, roadside trees but the buses will come, the buses will go and someone will sit here and someone will watch them.
-Hello, I say keeping my hand over my eye as I turned to her.
I remove my hand, she makes an E with her lips. The waiter put my coffee down and asked for Isabella's order. Grapefruit and pineapple tea.
-I was drinking a lot at the start, she said, I didn't know.
-You couldn't have, no point worrying.
We had used protection intermittently. She wasn't on the pill, or the implant. I can't remember the name of it. It looked like a hair tie and sent some hormones out. She would keep it inside until her period and then change it. It stopped her getting spots, it was not uncomfortable. It hadn't worked.
-But I am worrying. I'm very worried.
-What do you want to do?
She became sour for a moment.
-I don't want to do anything alone.
I shook my head.
-I didn't mean it like that. Do you still feel the same?
We had talked about this happening when we were together, if she got pregnant we would have the child. People often say it's the woman's choice and ultimately they are right but to imply that the man should not be heard is as sexist as anything else. A foetus is the potential for a human life, to me this seemed important. I liked the idea of something mystical, but I could not convince myself. Potential was real though, I could believe in potential. Sometimes I would argue internally about whether I valued a non-living life over my own. I suppose I did, willing for my life to take unexpected, possibly miserable, bends for the potential life.
-I don't know how I feel, now that it's happening.
She turned to me as if to apologize.
-Do you love me? I asked.
She took a sip of her tea.
-Not the way you love me.
I nodded and drank some coffee. I would leave something malignant in this café but I would not let Isabella know.
-You would let me see him wouldn't you?
She put her fingers around mine. I felt that great animal looming once again.
-You'd be a good father.
I slid my hand away and squeezed my forehead.
-This is fucked, I said.
-Worse things happen to people.
-In the Middle East they'd pelt rocks at you, I said and she laughed and then we were quite again.
-I just need some time to think it over.
I nodded and stirred the black water.
-Yeah, I said, maybe it'd be bad for him to have parents that weren't together.
-It mightn't be a him.
-I'd feel weird calling him 'it'.
-Like that horror movie, she said.
-Like that horror movie, I repeated.
-But we could be friends?
-We could be, I said, but that's hard for me right now. You understand?
-I do but you'll move on.
-I am, I said surprised at how definite it sounded, but there's teething still.
She nodded, finished her tea and stood up.
-I'm glad we could talk, I can call you again? I'll need things and I can't afford-
-I'm not working either, I cut her off, but as soon as I can get work I'll help you as best I can. I promise.
-I still don't know what I want.
-That's okay, I don't know either.
-Thank you James, she kissed my cheek and left. When I got to the counter she had forgotten to pay for her tea. I barely had the change. Outside there was young, hooded girl sitting beside an ATM with a small puppy in her arms. In front of her a crumpled coffee cup with less than two euros inside.
-Can you help me?
The puppy looked up, his tongue falling from one side of his jaw. He was black and brown and white. I smiled at the dog, he seemed to smile back, unaware of how broke myself and his master were.
-I really wish I could help you, and I looked at her as honestly as I could.
She smiled and said 'that's okay.'
-I really do, I said again and started walking away.