Three months ago, my son Jake dropped out of college for a job at a coffee shop. My wife and I found this out from Louise, a pathetic and frail looking woman who delivers our paper. When she let it slip out between a comment on the weather and the twenty I pulled out for that month’s subscription, a blush rose to her cheeks that almost made her attractive, and she painstakingly counted out my change as a token of peace for defecating on my world.
When we confronted him with it, he neither confirmed nor denied it, preferring to lose himself in that neither-here-nor-there universe of his generation. His bony shoulders shrugged, his too-long hair swished and his eyes stayed glued on the table. My wife threw up her hands, while I sat in silence after concluding that demanding the identity of the force that had put my son up to this was too bloody cliché.
My wife and I retain an unshaken exterior in the face of this crisis. The hedges are still even, the rock garden hasn’t gone to shit, and I signed my snow removal contract in September. I can still see my reflection in the ancient, gargantuan dining room set inherited from my in-laws; the asparagus and broccoli continue to be steamed to that perfect crisp and shade of green, and Thanksgiving dinner last week was complete with mustard leaves showering the tablecloth in that highly calculated but seemingly haphazard fashion. We barely flinch when neighbours inquire after Jake, and smile generously as we’re regaled with stories of their children winning scholarships, jobs in skyscrapers with impressive conference rooms, or MacArthur Foundation fellowships. We still kiss each other goodnight as we climb under white sheets with ambiguous scents like mountain air or springtime, while never once buckling and admitting that adoption has crossed each of our minds.
I try and reassure myself that our refusal to visit Jake’s coffee shop isn’t out of neglect or an unhealthy denial. We’ve asked about the place, in both geographical terms and otherwise, usually over dinner. My son will glare at me while passing the asparagus, risotto, or pork chops, as though it’s not only our questions that irritate him, but our very existences. He’ll finally mumble something with an exhaustive tone that I use with my father when I drag him to doctor’s appointments:
“It’s right between the fruit store and the post office, but you guys better not ask me to start buying fruit for you, I swear.”
“It’s fine for now.”
“Don’t freak out, I am not going to do this my whole life.”
Today is different. Maybe the tragedy of the world has finally worn me down. Maybe I don’t want my son writing bitchy songs or books about me ten years down the road. My wife looks very bewildered when I list these reasons, but pauses long enough from her sewing to write up a list of fruits to buy on the back of an old Sears receipt. A certain confidence fills my belly. I have written permission to visit my son; a note to flash before his eyes should he want to shoot me for invading his space in which he’s trying to find himself.
I walk in to the coffee shop and immediately search for him. It’s two o’clock in the afternoon and the place is quiet. I walk toward the counter displaying all the goodies through the glass windows. I imagine my son gingerly fishing out muffins for the big, busy people of the world with their nice cars running outside.
Jake has his back to me when I get to the counter, but with the sense of customers that he has probably mastered in the last three months, he quickly turns to greet me. His wild hair is tied back in a ponytail and I find myself liking this job already.
“Hi, Dad … ” His voice trails off in confusion. He is waiting for me to give him the practical reason for my visit: a death in the family or his mother in the hospital.
“Hi, son.” I try the most laid-back voice I know. Christ, I could kick myself, but a young woman has started mopping the floor around me, and I need both feet to keep balance.
“What’s wrong?” Jake asks. “Is mom alright?”
“Yes, yes, your mother is fine.”
His mother used to cradle him in her arms until he was ten or eleven, and whisper how beautiful he was. The best I could do was take him fishing and awkwardly explain the purpose of the centerfold that hung in my father-in-law’s garage. From the look of relief on his face now, I know the cradling won out.
“She didn’t come with you?”
“She was busy.” I take a deep breath and smile. “I came to visit you alone.”
Jake shrugs, and I can see that this news is about as exciting as a lead balloon. He looks over at the girl who’s been washing the floor. She nods and Jake walks over to a small table by the door. I follow him and we sit down.
“I asked if I could take a break and she said yes.” He tells me this with a certain amount of pride, as though this silent language flowing between the lost souls that lurk behind glass counters of coffee shops should impress me. It actually does, in a weird kind of way, but I pretend otherwise. I resent that a girl wearing a t-shirt that says, “There’s no candy, just get in the car!” knows how to speak to my son better than I can.
I suddenly wish I had a muffin before me to gently break apart or that my fingers were slim enough to permit me to play with my wedding band without pulling the hairs on my knuckle. Jake has pulled the elastic from his hair and it’s now being pushed from hand to hand.
“Do you want something?” he finally asks. I nod, even though my stomach is still full from lunch.
“But something small,” I reply.
He comes back with an oatmeal cookie the size of a small planet, and eyes me carefully. I realize that this is a test, a privileged visit into his world. I proceed with caution, making sure the embedded raisins don’t fall on my lap. I take a bite. It’s dry, like uninhabitable land.
“How is it?” Jake asks. His eyebrows are narrowed with the concentration of his mother, and I can only pray that my lie will miss the radar.
“It’s good,” I say.
“It was my first batch,” he announces proudly.
“You made these?”
“I thought these places had everything frozen,” I say, swallowing a chunk with the most grace possible.
A look of disappointment crosses over his face. “That’s just the chains.” His tone of impatience is obvious. “I did my research.” I teeter between pride in him for being so thorough in his selection of a minimum wage job and the consuming desire to clobber him.
“This place is different. They have fair trade coffee, the stuff is healthy. These cookies don’t have half the butter that mom uses.”
I smile as another chunk makes its way down my oesophagus.
“So you like working here?” I ask carefully.
He shrugs. “For now.”
I nod avidly, as though this was the answer I was hoping for, as my hand cramps up under the cookie. I feel like a pointless competitor in shot put and pray that Jake doesn’t notice. He merely looks at me almost sympathetically.
“The best way to eat them is to break them apart in fours. That’s how all those bitchy rich people eat them.” He rolls his eyes and the girl with the offensive t-shirt begins giggling.
My grip on the cookie tightens. The oatmeal scent crawls into my nostrils and out to every finger and toe; my fingerprints mark its grooves; the protruding raisins dig into my skin and the sweat from my palms bleeds into the baking grease. I hang on like this for a moment, smiling at Jake, but he’s too busy looking out the window.
I see the cut before it happens. A diagonal zig zag erodes the dough from left to right, slicing through the cookie until the bigger half falls on the table in a heap of big crumbs. Before my son can notice, I pick out a loose raisin from the rubble and hold it between my fingers, its size manageable; its softness between my fingers soothing.