Short Fiction by Nicholas Scott
The café is in the midst of its Monday morning buzz; a barrage of people in and out, some staying over cups of espresso and deep conversation.
Milk steams and froths a few feet away from him and he watches as the barista pours a steady stream of silky foam onto the surface of a large latte. A flower, he’s guessing, or one of those hearts. The barista is young; in his early twenties. And the girl he is trying to impress must have a good ten years on him. Atta boy, he thinks, followed quickly by, good luck!
Aldo Bonetti grips his cane as he adjusts his posture; the bones in his rear end balancing uncomfortably on the thin wooden seat. A large mug of dark-roast coffee — black — stares up at him from the table. He takes a moment to register the ambient music, barely audible over the murmur of voices. He remembers a time when the cafe played the likes of Sinatra, Crosby, Martin and others. Today, he can’t tell you the artist emanating from the speaker that hangs only five feet above his head of grey hair. Nor can he place the song. Time has passed and he is continually reminded of this fact — how out of touch he has become.
He wonders if his friend feels the same; if the passage of time is as apparent to Stuart as it is to him. He supposes everyone his age feels similar but the thought is almost immediately replaced by the fact that he has referred to Stuart as a ‘friend’ — however silently in his mind. They had been at one point in time, true. But it’s been over forty years.
Aldo’s hand reaches for the coffee. His frail fingers grip the handle and he brings the cup to his lips. Still too hot. He sets it down with a quiver and some of the coffee spills down the side, obscuring the faded “Sunshine Café” logo and splashing onto the beige wood of the table. He focuses on his hand — something he has studied quite often as of late. His skin is like a thin plastic bag wrapped tight around five long twigs. It’s filled with an array of colour; brown, purple, green, blue. He can see every vein. These hands that played piano, wrote pages and pages of prose, loved and consoled; these hands that now struggle to hold a simple cup of coffee.
What does Stuart look like now?
He tries to imagine what his hands had looked like when he and Stuart first met but he isn’t sure if what he sees in his mind is an accurate photographic recollection or merely his imagination. Memory has a funny way of fooling a person. His eyes close and he sees his friend; twelve-years-old, riding his bike ahead of him, curly red hair blowing in the wind as they catch speed on a downward hill.
“Stu, wait!” he hears himself say. His voice is fresh, not yet cracked, smooth and youthful. He can almost feel the sun on his face and the wind flapping against his cheeks. He hasn’t thought of this memory in years.
Aldo’s eyes open to the realization that quite a few minutes have passed. A pop-hit is playing on the stereo — someone with a fake name, attention-grabbing outfits, and a larger than life persona, he assumes.
“How ya doin’ today, Aldo?”
It’s the barista, finding himself in a lull between customers. He’s wiping down the espresso machine adjacent to Aldo’s seat.
“Oh, hangin’ in, Frankie.”
“You’re here early.”
“I am,” Aldo smiles, “Meeting a friend.”
Frankie flings a towel over his shoulder with a swagger and confidence Aldo himself once exuded.
“Good old-fashioned coffee date. Nice. Romantic friend?”
Frankie knows very little about Aldo’s personal life. If he did he would know that the timing of this question is horribly misjudged. But Aldo accepts the boy’s youthful ignorance.
“Not quite but thanks for assuming I’ve still got it. This is a friend I haven’t seen in over forty years.”
“Forty years…” Frankie leans against the counter and Aldo wonders if the youngster could possibly have a concept of what forty years is actually like, “That’s a long time, brother. You guys just lose touch?”
A customer enters; the door hitting a small bell attached to the ceiling. Aldo’s eyes dart in that direction. A woman talks on her cellphone as she approaches the counter and Frankie winks at Aldo; a gesture that usually means, gotta go! Aldo is glad. He likes Frankie well enough to hold lengthy conversations with him on the daily, but he isn’t sure how to talk about Stuart. Not with Frankie. Not with anyone. He’s never spoken about their falling out other than to his first wife and they have been divorced for some time now.
The thought of his first wife makes him ponder the question of relationships; how one can be so close to another person and completely lose what they first saw in them. From lovers to strangers; best friends to aged drifters in a midtown cafe.
At his age, Aldo has experienced nearly every kind of loss. He married Carol when they were in their twenties; perhaps exactly Frankie’s age. They had a daughter together; Alexandra. What began as a passionate romance built on an intense (and fun) physical attraction and not much else was no match for the day-to-day challenges faced by any married couple. They thought they were in love — and they very well may have been for a small period in time. But draining bank accounts, large bills, and a child who, although so deeply lovable, was a handful during her teen years (to say the least), turned their love sour. They divorced when Alex was seventeen. Lines were drawn. Sides were chosen. Aldo has only recently accepted that he sees his daughter ‘every-now-and-then.’ Not quite estranged, but one step removed. Another loss.
In retrospect, Stuart had never cared much for Carol and perhaps that was where their rift began. Stuart had, it seemed, seen everything in Carol that Aldo came to learn of himself. She wasn’t a dreadful person (although in Stuart’s eyes, she most certainly was). She was ‘complicated’. That’s the word Aldo uses most often. Complicated. A wonderful mother. A complicated partner. Come to think of it, she never cared for Stuart either. He was a complicated friend.
He watches Frankie serve a woman in her mid-thirties and envies both of them. They both feel on top of the world; sure of everything, wise beyond their years and perhaps they are — but they are yet to share in the wisdom Aldo has; the wisdom that can only be acquired with time, a bit of grey hair, and plenty of pain — both physical and mental.
A swivel of his mug produces tiny bubbles that appear and disappear from the black abyss of his drink. What went wrong with Stuart? All these years later it still manages to puzzle him. The end of a marriage has a cause and effect; an anchor to which you can explain where things fell apart. He and Carol had sat through enough counselling sessions to understand that. A friendship break-up, on the other hand, seems all the more confounding. It lingers with pages unwritten and closure not fully realized; a break-up through and through, but less common and rarely spoken about by the thinkers and writers of society. Stuart had a big ego, yes. So did Aldo. Perhaps that was the anchor. Stuart was often jealous of Aldo’s drive which he sorely lacked. Aldo was working towards success. Stuart was working towards a measly paycheck. He was aimless in his ambition; a disappointment to his parents and, most likely, to himself. Never settling on any one dream, he worked a series of odd jobs that took a further toll on his motivation. When Aldo had a short career as a touring musician, Stuart busied himself with girls and partying. Not once did he attend one of Aldo’s shows. Did Aldo carry some form of resentment? He supposes that anyone would be perfectly reasonable to do so. But why end a friendship over resentment and jealousy. Then again, why not?
He suddenly finds himself yearning for the missing years with his childhood friend. He wants Stuart to know Alex as a grown woman; how smart she is. Successful, too. They may not speak often, but social media — the bare minimum that Aldo uses — has allowed him to keep tabs on his daughter’s milestones. He wishes Stuart had known Elizabeth, a love that came many years after Carol. A true love. He would have adored her — everyone did. If ever there was a soul-mate in Aldo’s life, it was her. And now she’s gone; ripped from him, it seems. A diagnosis and death-sentence of three months that, in reality, turned out to be two. Yet, it is her very passing that has reconnected him with his long lost friend; a simple phone-call following the publication of a rather eloquent obituary (crafted by Aldo himself).
“I’m sorry to hear of your loss,” the slurred voice on the other line had said.
“Thank you,” was all Aldo could muster. And now here he is, a few weeks later, ready to come face to face with Stuart Hanley.
At one time, they had spent their teenage Friday nights cruising the main drag in a rusting Buick belonging to Stuart’s father; chipped blue paint, a roaring muffler, and the radio blasting a mix of The Beach Boys and Buddy Holly. Sitting on the hood of the car, over-looking the valley, beers in hand, they spoke of the future — a place where Aldo now resides.
“I consider you my very best friend,” young Stu had said.
A clink of their bottles was their blood oath.
In no time at all, they were adults. Stuart had met someone; a wonderful woman named Catherine. They fell in love. Aldo met Carol in College; an under-graduate in social studies. They fell in lust and moved through the motions rather quickly. In a matter of months, Aldo and Carol had gotten an apartment and were engaged. “You could do better, Al. She isn’t the one. She walks all over you.” Stuart had made many an impassioned argument over not marrying Carol. Aldo didn’t listen. He was infatuated. He married her and despite how Stuart felt, Aldo had him stand beside him as his best man. A year later, Aldo returned the favor and watched as Stuart and Catherine exchanged their vows with a romance and care that had made him stop and wonder.
The years tear through Aldo’s mind like a flip-book of flashing images. They were a few years into their thirties. Neighbors with a shared lawn, which Stuart regularly maintained as a habit of his freelance landscaping business. Stuart had a child as did Aldo and Carol. Despite their close proximity, they had grown naturally distant. Careers (or the hustle in Stuart’s case) had taken over. They socialized sparingly. Occasionally, they had dinners parties, alternating as hosts and allowing their toddlers to play, blissfully unaware of trouble on the horizon.
In their forties, Aldo had watched as Stuart and Catherine went through a messy divorce — something he and Carol would experience only a few years later. There were rumors among The Nosy Neighborhood Watch that Stuart had, as Rhoda From Down The Street put it, been “screwing around, the bastard!” Had Stuart felt judged by Aldo? It was possible. In a way, Aldo had judged him. He remembered how Stuart and Catherine stared at each other while saying their vows — he never stopped thinking about it. And his friend was willing to sacrifice that for a quick thrill? That did make him a bit of a bastard. Regardless of whether or not he sensed judgment, Stuart had made no effort to reach out or confide in him. Aldo made no effort to speak to Stuart either. A crumbling relationship at home held his attention in a vice grip.
When Stuart emerged with a new partner in tow, the silence between him and Aldo grew to be deafening. It was as though Stuart blamed Aldo for the divorce, or envied the fact that he and Carol still seemed to be together. That facade was an impressively strong one; a couple who seemed well-adjusted with a sexual attraction that had long since evaporated — and not for lack of trying.
Aldo soon found himself staring past his neighbor on the sidewalk; wordlessly passing like strangers on the subway. There was little to no rationality behind it. The natural distance hadn’t pained him but this seemingly deliberate choice did. At night he would break, conjuring memories that felt far away. He would picture the two of them on the hood of the Buick; two kindred spirits who understood, cared for, and supported each other in the deepest way. Many a night he pondered if a soul-mate could be platonic and if, over time, you could lose someone so deeply ingrained in who you are. He was experiencing loss with no closure and only time would give him the wisdom of acceptance.
Aldo looks up from his coffee and places himself in the present. He brings the mug to his lips. It’s lukewarm. He’s spent the better part of an hour trying to make sense of a relationship that has ceased to be for almost five decades. No matter how hard he tries there is no sense to be made. He looks towards the door. Frankie is in the corner, flirting with a patron who is deep in her studies and clearly uninterested. Walk away, Pal. Just walk away.
Looking past, his attention is drawn to the shadow of a frail, almost skeletal figure as it enters the cafe. The man limps with every step and Aldo takes note of the motorized cart parked just out front. His eyes scan up the legs and torso of the figure as he comes into view. His appearance has indeed changed, but Aldo sees, without question, the eyes of his one-time friend — as though it was the twelve-year-old version of Stuart and not a man of almost ninety. The eyes never change.
Placing his hands on the table to steady himself, Aldo stands. His back aches as he rises and his legs tremble ever so slightly — both from age and nerves. He reaches for his cane and braces his stance like a Renaissance sculpture. He moves from the table and takes a step towards the man who locks eyes with him, stopping with a short, hesitant stumble.
The memory comes rushing back. Fists thrown, insults lashed and laced with cursing. They were on Stuart’s front yard. Carol had recently fled, taking Alexandra with her, and Aldo had been drinking — a vice that would take years to kick. Stuart, after months of silence, had rung his doorbell to deliver an onslaught of grief over an out-of-control weed infringing on his yard. The weed, he alleged, came from Aldo’s ‘pathetic excuse for a’ garden.
“Mind your own business!” Aldo slurred. Minutes later, they were pulling each other to the ground, both aiming for a knock-out. It was the final straw; a seemingly innocuous annoyance charged with years of pent up rage and resentment, most of it not even aimed at the other person. Yet, it would be the last time they spoke.
They had always been different; the Italian immigrant and the boy with red hair. Like separate suns orbiting the same solar system. Their differences had come to a head, as all differences eventually do, with new paths laid out for both to travel. After Aldo sold the house that he and Carol had built, he moved into a small bachelor on the edge of town. Stuart never called. Aldo never visited. They never saw each other again.
Aldo sees the same uncertainty in Stuart’s eyes; both men unsure if one loathes the other. Both men unsure of their role in the split. And then, a pained smile on the frail man’s face. Subtle, at first; strained from the brutality of what looks like a stroke. Aldo receives it, a wave of relief washing over him. Stuart limps forward but he raises his hand. I’ll come to you. And he does. He sets his cane against the counter and extends his arms. Stuart’s eyes are wet with tears as he falls into his embrace. Aldo’s hands press against the bones in Stuart’s back; a gentle pat of reassurance as the years of feuding fade into nothing.
The morning wanes and the café continues with its parade of customer as two old men, with years of wisdom and experience in their glossy eyes and silver hair, hug and kiss on the cheek.
“Hello old friend,” one of them says.
“It’s been too long.”