A man who could make so vile a pun would not scruple to pick a pocket.
John Dennis, editorial note in The Gentleman's Magazine, 1781
Sebastian paused in mid-smirk as he noticed Annie's evanescent attention floating lightly away again. He knew he was there to entertain and distract but he also know he was there as a mirror. Like a good dancer, he led by following, anticipating not simply what his partner expected but what the dance itself required for its perfection. Conversation was a talent of his, like the mambo or the Virginia reel, and he enjoyed it well, but the afternoon date, he knew, was in the service of friendship, and talking was only part of the style. It was time to twirl and listen.
"Where you gone, girl?" he inquired softly.
"Long, long ago," she said, "Far, far away, isn't that how it goes?"
He brushed this aside with a smile that cracked his dark features and showed again his stunningly white teeth. Annie noticed them and wondered (again) if he had them cleaned specially for the effect (surely he knew the effect) or if he was just lucky or if they really only looked that good from the contrast ... and then she noticed herself (again) gathering wool and avoiding something, she wasn't sure what. Sebastian sat calmly through this parade of thoughts wrapping themselves around feelings to hide them from public view like some deformity, a scar or birthmark or even the early signs of a pregnancy. The chorus of images took only a second or two to pass, but Annie was aware, as though she were very high, of each individual phrase of the melody, each measure, each note, each vibration, each ringing unvoiced descant. The momentary stillness of her silent audience seemed incredibly patient and warm, and forgiving and outgoing. She was near to tears and not sure why, but so much that was going on just then was out of her reach that it did not seem unusual, just safe and almost expected.
Go on, he didn't say.
"I don't know," she stumbled, "I was flashing on being twenty-two."
"Mmm-mph?" he prompted.
She chose to interpret this as, "Why were you thinking about that?" which was fair enough, since it could have been what he meant.
"I don't know," she repeated, as a verbal tick, almost a grace note, essentially shorthand for "I haven't yet decided what I am about to say." Not the most elegant choice of cliché, perhaps, but serviceable, and an acceptable, even proper, mannerism. Even the greatest of griots uses repetitive, essentially meaningless paradiddles, as an improvising musician rests both player and audience on fragments of tune from time to time; it is a technique as old as Homer, with his 'rosy-fingered dawn' and his 'wine-dark sea' (what was he drinking anyway? wasn't he blind? and is this proof?). Sebastian took concision to another level by elegantly expressing his patience in absolute silence and complete stillness. He waited even to drink until she was ready to continue.
"I was thinking of pick-ups and the Valley and then getting away."
"To college, right? Here?"
"Ye-ea-ah," she contradicted him slowly.
"You were here," he objected with barely an interrogative.
"Oh yeah," she agreed quickly, "But maybe that wasn't getting away. I mean it was, but." She drifted a little, as though the rope was pulling at the stakes. He took in some of the slack and tried to fasten it down again.
"It wasn't until my mom died that I sorta cut loose."
He leaned forward a little and touched her hand but kept quiet.
"That was the end of '69." She looked at him, so unusually serious and still, and remembered the way they usually bantered and gave a brittle giggle. "The year, honey, the year." He smiled slowly to acknowledge the pleasantry but no more, to keep her focused, and still he didn't reply. She looked a little nervous and then accepted that she wanted to talk, even if she didn't want to. Or some such superficial paradox. It didn't matter much.
"I was always doing what she wanted. Or what she didn't want. You know what I mean?"
"You were reacting," he offered.
"Yeah!" she agreed, "Yeah ... Yeah, that's right. It just always mattered what she thought, even though, well, it never seemed to me she was very good at thinking, if you know what I mean."
"You mean she was dumb."
"No, not exactly, she could see, she just couldn't, y'know..."
"What did you do when she died?"
"I went to India."
He laughed. Not a polite, encouraging simper; not a quasi-surreptitious giggle; a full-throated bellow that had heads turning and noses being buried in newspapers; an explosion born of surprise and delight that modulated like Aretha testifying into a joyous acceptance of life, one of those delightful moments when routine conversation, like ordinarily excellent singing, transcends itself into something purer and finer and far beyond apology or complaint.
She looked surprised, then relieved, then happy, and then at last she joined in.
The espresso machine steamed its enjoyment, and the two young men behind the counter began to tango. Glasses shattered as solitary drinkers jumped onto their table-tops to shimmy skillfully to the music in each other's heads. Chairs were pushed to the wall as anarchists in black melted into tie-dyed confusion and hurled each other between their knees and above their shoulders, spinning in free fall till the walls bent outward and the sun sent its rainbow bending through the window to paint over the wall.
Oh, why not?
Actually, they both looked slightly embarrassed, avoided looking at the audience and tried to shrink within a cone of silence, like compliant little customers.
"You went to India?" he prompted in a stage whisper.
"Well, not immediately," she countered, trying to set a natural volume and having a hard time now she was conscious of the question (yes, that one again, it's inescapable and unanswerable and the yuman condition in a nutshell) but succeeding eventually as she learned to forget (natch).
"There was a lot of stuff to take care of first."
"I don't know. It was the most exotic place we could think of, I guess."
"Yeah, me and Cedar," she smiled nostalgically.
"Cedar?" probed Sebastian gently. "you've never told me about him."
"It was a long time ago."
"That one of those sixties names?"
"Oh, yeah. He was a nice Jewish boy called Jacob Bernstein until he discovered peyote. His folks were both professors at Cornell, probably still are, actually. He's a shrink, now, in Manhattan. Nice Jewish wife and daughter, two daughters, haven't seen him in years."
"A shrink called Cedar?"
"Oh, god, no. Not in New York." They both giggled, but almost inaudibly. "He gave it up right after we got back, went off to med school."
"That's when you broke up, then? When you got back? Bum trip?"
"No, no, I mean, yeah, I mean ... It's complicated. It was a great trip, maybe the best ever, but we just, we went different ways after, you know. I've still got a soft spot for old Cedar. India was his idea really, I know what it was, he wanted to do the yogi bit, you know, find out about the Hindu and Buddhist masters and all that."
"And did he?"
"Well, we did do a meditation class in Benares but I don't know that we found what we expected, exactly. That's not how it went. It didn't matter."
On this note of existential profundity they sat for a moment, licking the foam from their glasses. Cappuccino side-benefit, texture on top of taste. Not to mention the rush, now settling down to leave them with a generalized and almost indefinable state of alertness.
Sebastian rolled his shoulders in a feline stretch, then his neck, casually casing the joint. It might have been a defensive mannerism it takes a peculiarly self-confident black guy to sit with his back to the door in a white environment, however liberal it may think it is or it might have been predatory cruising, or by now it might just have been habit. He couldn't have said what he saw, for nothing needed to catch his attention, and that was all he wanted to know. He wasn't a simpleton and he was affected as all get out, but uncluttered elegance was his style of choice, in mind as in more conspicuous matters, like clothes.
Annie barely noticed. She was staring off into the unfocused distance, both in time and space, not thinking, not remembering, not doing anything even as positive as clearing her skull, just sitting. Spacing out. With most companions this would be rude, she realized, coming back to the coffee-house with a start.
"I'm sorry," she said abruptly. "I'm not being very good company."
"Sweetheart, that's fine," he assured her. "You want another coffee?"
"No. Oh, sure, why not. Thanks."
"Live dangerously," he admonished her, gathering the glasses and nipping in to the briefly open counter quick like a bunny before another line formed.
Annie watched him flirting with the guys behind the counter. She was sure they were straight, and sure that he knew it, but everyone seemed to be enjoying the game. She kind of wanted to play. She felt as though she was rather dangerously high passive, vulnerable, somehow so secure that she was open for mischief from robbers and cops and people who pretended to be friends or enemies and none of it really ... counted.
Annie didn't think she was innocent anymore. She thought that might be what she was missing.
When innocence is lost, does it forever disappear? Marked down to vanishing point at the dawn of the terrible nineties, it was distressed, discounted and discarded, out of style and out of stock. You can't find it in the boutiques or the supermarkets or the retailing giants that buttress the malls of America. Garage sales, perhaps, or little gray-market operations. More likely, you will see it growing wild in the country, far from the cattle ranches and state parks, a hardy perennial that never quite gets ploughed all the way under and doesn't seem to do too well in the domesticated garden.
Annie was beginning to remember what it was like to see the world stretched before you in limitless beauty. She wanted to feel that way again, but she knew by instinct that imitation is no substitute. Action and reaction may be equal but they're never the same.
"There you go, dear," curtsied Sebastian, setting down the glasses without spilling a drop. "Will that be all?"
"Why don't you join me?" she smiled.
"Don't mind if I do," he said, sliding gracefully onto his chair.
They sat a moment, waiting for the coffee to cool. There are worse ways of spending an afternoon.
(They started simultaneously.)
"No, you" offered Annie but Sebastian waved her on and sat in Buddha-silence so she had little choice but to stumble on.
"I thought I wanted to talk about what was going on, but I just seem to be, you know, spacing out. Thinking about my youth, isn't that awful?"
"Maybe a youth is what you need," he leered.
"Oh shut up. Did you hear about the body bags?"
He blinked at this non-sequitur but let her go on.
"I heard at the Persian Gulf meeting the other night. The Pentagon's put in a rush order for, I don't know, 200,000 body bags."
"Yeah, really. They're shipping their whole stock to Saudi Arabia and they need to back-order ASAP."
Even Sebastian's cool was threatened by the implications. He shook his head and shivered as if to clear it.
"Two hundred thousand."
"Corpses. That's what they're planning on. Worst-case, sure, but that's only our lot. I mean, there's half a million Iraqis there right now. Waiting for the bombing to begin."
"They don't count, sweetheart, you know that, they're Eh-rabs." He pronounced the last world to rhyme with Ahab (like the old racist jingle), sneering in best cracker imitation.
"It's OK now," she countered, "We've got a black Joint Chief."
"A credit to his race."
"Chairman, I think they call him."
"I dunno," she laughed, "He always seems to be standing up in the pictures, you know, with that pointy stick."
"It's pointy but it's skinny," kvetched Sebastian as stage lecher.
"Get your mind out of the gutter," Annie objected as herself or someone very like.
"Right, straight into the morgue," he countered. "What's happening with that demo? You working on that?"
"Here," she said, rummaging into her purse and giving him a handbill.
"Pass it on, I was going to leave some here anyway."
"So you are working on it."
"Not much, really, I just showed up to a couple of meetings. I'm going, I'm off Thursday and Friday next week so why not. You want to come?"
"Not my trip, honey. Maybe I'll stop and visit ."
"Can I call you if I get busted?"
"Of course, any time." He paused. "But what about little Brennie?"
"He doesn't know too much about this. I'm pretty much certain I won't get arrested, I'm not planning on it, but, you know, I don't want to bother him."
Sebastian took it like a down pillow, mulled it around, and kept it in, softly reclaiming his original shape and never uttering a word, such as:
Oh right, Annie. Nice one. You won't even talk to him about it because you don't want to bother him. Typical. Are you saying his response would be, "Don't do it because it might put me out?" Uh-huh. You're saying you don't want to deal with an unpredictable situation; you don't want to be real with him. And if you don't want to be real with him, and you do want to be yourself, then where you at, baby?
He did stone-face well, and even kept a gentle layer on top, so her lies were absorbed and absolved without being analyzed or explained or ricocheted back to wound.
Annie knew what he was doing, of course she did, and allowed him and let it all stay down below her surface. She had come to talk, and she hadn't talked, and that was OK in some weird way. Her surface was rigid, locked into place, but somewhere deep down in the subconscious her self was beginning to stir. It was frightening, and avoidable, and going to happen. Somehow it was connected with this political stuff, she was coming to know even as she refused to admit or deal with or even think about it, and somehow it would work itself out, because she was going to let it.
Admit it or not, she was someone ferment was meant for.