photo: Miguel Gorham

The Alchemy on Alcatraz

By Samuel Stone

Slow moving morning but it moved nonetheless. As always, there was work to do, so I went out and walked to the café—The Alchemy—on my street—Alcatraz Avenue.
        The clouds flew fast overhead, causing the sunlight to heave on and off in great, ponderous flashes, while I looked at the ground and tried to organize my thoughts.
        The last time I was at The Alchemy, the barista asked if I wanted room for cream in my iced coffee and I refused because I wanted as much coffee as possible.
        Sadie and I had parsed this out.
        The previous summer, we’d been getting a lot of coffee together and the baristas were shortchanging us, leaving too much room for cream. So we made it a rule to never, under any circumstances, accept room for cream, because if we wanted room we could just suck some of it down and make the room ourselves, and get both room in our coffee as well as a full cup of coffee. We’d habituated brusquely rejecting room for cream and it became an inside joke.
        “Do you want room for cream?”
        “Dear lord, no!”
        “Leave room for cream?”
        “Sweet mother of pearl, what do you take me for?”
        “Want some room?”
        “Look at me…. No, no, don’t look away, don’t you dare look away you son of a bitch. Look into my eyes and tell me what you see…. Do you see a person who wants room? Do you?!
        And later, when the weather cooled and we were far from each other, in different parts of the country, we each learned independently by trial and error that this tactic does not work with hot coffee. We ordered hot coffee and rejected room for cream out of sheer habit, then had either to leave without cream, or burn our mouths making room for it. We were still together then, in theory, at least, if not in practice, and we shared our stories enthusiastically over the phone.
        We laughed, loud and hard.
        Thinking of all this as I walked down Alcatraz, I smiled very genuinely to myself in a way that I could not control, and felt truly happy and not lonely at all, and in that moment there was nothing else.
        Until I remembered what had happened between us… and though I felt the loneliness creeping in, I thought, My memories of you keep me company.
        When I got to The Alchemy and ordered a hot coffee, the barista left room for cream without asking my opinion on the matter.

There were a few empty seats at the counter looking out the window onto the interstitial motion of Alcatraz in the morning quiet. Multifarious artwork-for-sale hung on the walls; abstract, explosive images, variegated Picasso-esque faces of many sizes, angular and distorted, staring perpetual dissatisfaction in all directions at once. I chose a seat next to a girl who seemed like she might be attractive.
        I set up my materials and didn’t acknowledge her in any way. I put on my headphones and activated a white noise generator. I attempted discipline.
        But—very, very quickly—images of Sadie grew sharp and clear. And as they did, the desire to talk to this girl both waxed and waned.
        Waxed because I wanted to get over Sadie—it’d been a year, after all—and waned because I wasn’t over her. This tension overwhelmed me, and the impetus to talk to This Girl intensified, rang out like the pure tone of a flatlining EKG, but I just felt lonelier because I knew I never would. So I sat there and the loneliness sank in and in, exploding in each of my cells like an endless series of depth charges that descended with calm grace into the quiet darkness, then burst.
        She leaned down to plug in her laptop charger and I moved my leg to give her room.
        She smiled.
        She was pretty, it turned out, in a modest, quiet way, so I smiled back, though I was definitely forcing my smile, which made me wonder if she was doing the same, but I quickly dismissed this possibility because I knew that there was no way that other people were as lonely and closed off as I was, that my loneliness and closedness were of a special, extreme, unique variety.
        I thought I perceived her stealing glances at me over the course of the next hour, and so responded in kind by stealing my own casual, quick, intermittent glances at her, but didn’t say anything.
        Say something. Anything. Just words.
        In my notebook I wrote, No one understands your solitude, the fact of which is both a cause and a function of that solitude, a cycle tirelessly rewinding and compounding, a snake devouring its own tail until you don’t even want anyone to understand, until you actually prefer to be misunderstood, and you are futile, wasted, without the motivation to even bother trying. As you write this, you sit beside another, ignoring her. She’s so close she could see what you’re writing if she looked. You attempt to shut out her thoughts. You believe that if you wanted to, without much effort at all, you could hear her thinking about you. As long as you think and behave like this, you will remain a futile, wasted creature: alone. And the only way to not be wasted is to not be alone. Wrapped up in work, you fall apart. Devoted seemingly to a purpose, your purpose vanishes. The will to write fades because you realize that writing is a poor substitute for real human contact, and that you’ve only begun writing here because you can’t bring yourself to talk to this girl. Writing is a hindrance to your actual life and the mitigation of your real loneliness. You can write words to no one or you can open your mouth and speak words to someone. Just words. As long as they’re words, you’ll be fine.

I walked back down Alcatraz towards my house, caught all the way up in my loneliness, closed off to everything I saw because I’d become resigned to this particular brand of prideful, arrogant, egotistical solitude. The white noise was gone, but I heard it static and rushing all the same, the volume of the world turned way down and the language of my thoughts center stage in a roaring torrent.
        Then this girl caught up with me, approached me tentatively on the sidewalk, and shook me partly from my stupor, but only partly, for I remained resigned to my solitude and believed in advance of any attempted human contact in the inevitable failure of any attempted human contact and the utter futility of sincerity. So even though she addressed me with an apprehensive “Hey,” she was still barely even real to me, and I remained behind my futile, lonely wall, which I’d erected for myself and had been fortifying for years (though I wished to tear it down, and every time I tried to tear it down I found that the bricks I’d removed I’d been unwittingly stacking in a different section of the ramparts).
        But she said, “Hey,” so I said, “Hey,” and wondered what good could possibly come of this.
        “What were you writing in there?” she asked.
        “I was just journaling.” I didn’t bother putting any energy into seeming affable.
        “That’s cool. I think journaling is important.”
        “I don’t know.”
        “I’m Julia,” she said, so I said my name, because that’s what you do.
        She paced herself to stay beside me, for my gait was listless and indifferent, and though I moved in a straight line, I was in no rush to get anywhere as there was nowhere I particularly wanted to be.
        “I wanted to talk to you,” she said, “but you seemed engrossed and I didn’t want to interrupt.”
        “I wouldn’t have minded, though of course you couldn’t have known that, so thanks.”
        “Sure, and I figured I’d try to disrupt some gender norms and talk to you first, rather than wait for you to talk to me.”
        “I’m glad you did that,” I told her, “I wish more women would do that.”
        She blushed, presumably at having been called a woman, because then she became sort of girlish and flustered. She looked at me and smiled and I smiled back and this time it felt sincere for almost a whole second before not feeling that way again.
        “Do you live around here?” I asked, sensing that it was my turn to make an effort and express interest.
        “Yeah,” she said.
        “I live right up here, on Alcatraz.”
        “Nice to meet you, neighbor,” she said, and turned again to look at me and smile.
        When she did this I noticed, now that I was seeing her full face in broad daylight, that she had a sort of lazy eye, or, not a lazy eye, but rather, a lazy eyelid, I guess, because both her eyes were focused directly on me, but her left one seemed partially closed in a way that I perceived she couldn’t control, and I’m sure my smile weakened because the lazy eyelid surprised and distracted me, but I worked hard to bring it back up to standard before looking again at the hacked up sidewalk, because in the same instant that my smile weakened and I felt that she might have perceived it weakening, I also imagined that she must have been unpleasantly familiar with this sort of phenomenon and had spent her whole life getting used to it, or trying to, and was annoyed or bothered by people who reacted to her really-altogether-still-quite-pretty face in this halted expression of realization, betrayed by the unconscious movement of their own faces, and if she was not yet accustomed to such reactions in strangers, and particularly those of the opposite sex to whom she might sense in herself a burgeoning sexual attraction, if she hadn’t yet learned to steel herself against such reactions because she was just waiting for that one guy who’s not shallow and superficial, and who will look past this very, very slight, totally-out-of-her-control facial deviation, then the brief lapse in my smile would have probably hurt all the worse.
        I was not this guy, but I would pretend to be.
        Overhead and way, way up the clouds tore recklessly across the sky.
        “So do you hang out at The Alchemy a lot?” she asked me.
        “I used to go more often.”
        We walked on looking ahead, listening to the sound of cars going by on Alcatraz or honking off in the distance, and each of us waited for the other to say the next thing, but we arrived at my house before either of us did.
        “Well, this is me,” I said—that stupid-sounding thing that everyone says under such circumstances.
        “Oh,” she said, “okay.”
        “It was nice sharing a space with you.”
        “Yeah,” she replied, “See you next time then?”
        “For sure.” I turned and walked up the driveway.
        She stood there while I climbed the steps to the front door, and she’d begun to walk away when I abruptly called back to her, “Or we could get a drink tonight.”
        “Sure!” she beamed, almost hopping, “I’d like that.”
        “How about The Wheel?”
        “I’ve never heard of it.”
        “It’s a bar.”
        “Okay. What time?”
        “Eight o’clock work for you?”
        “Totally,” she said, “Want my number?”
        “Nah, I’ll see you tonight at eight. I won’t stand you up, I promise. And if we still like each other after tonight, then I’ll take your number.”
        “Sounds good,” she said, smiling, “The Wheel. Tonight. Eight o’clock.”

It was 2 p.m. Upstairs in my attic room, the undecorated plaster walls jeered at me. I considered masturbating to the fantasy of fucking this girl, as it seemed totally plausible and realistic that I may very well be doing just that later tonight, but I knew that if I did masturbate, I’d lose any modicum of desire I had to see her and would probably end up making excuses to myself and contriving many reasons not to go, but to stand her up like I’d just promised I wouldn’t, and I was sure I’d just feel guilty and ashamed, and it would just be another sad night alone, and in my sadness and loneliness and rapidly decreasing sense of self worth, it’d be way easier to justify going to the corner store and buying loads of junk food which I could then shamefully binge alone in my bed while watching TV on my computer until I felt like complete garbage and hated myself even more, only to most likely masturbate a few more times to the girl who in reality would be waiting for me optimistically at the bar, not to mention she knew where I lived and god forbid she showed up to my house to confront me after realizing that I did, in fact, break my promise to her and I was, in fact, standing her up. And what would I do then in that situation? Hide? Confront her in all of my shameful, gluttonous, disgusting, post-masturbatory squalor and try to justify to her my actions or lack thereof? No, that would not do. Plus I would have to stop going to The Alchemy altogether and it was the only coffee shop in walking distance of my house.
        So I didn’t masturbate.

        But I could have. This girl was not as attractive as any sort of girl that I’d actively seek to fuck but she was attractive enough, and maybe getting laid after such a long dry spell would help me gain the confidence necessary to go out and pull one of those sorts of girls that I would actively seek to fuck.
        It had been a while—no one since Sadie a year ago. And maybe she was just looking for a fuck, too. In any case, I decided the best thing to do would be to just treat her like a person, and this conclusion was something that I had to rationally deduce and arrive at.

When I got there she was sitting at the lacquered mahogany bar set before gleaming silver taps and beer lists handwritten in chalk up on the wall. Unfinished wooden chairs and tables were arranged on the floor amidst low light that seeped indolently into the room from dim lamps hanging or white bulbs festooned along the upper molding. She’d changed into torn jeans and a top with a few buttons at the chest, only one of which was buttoned, and showed some cleavage, which was really quite sexy, and I had to remind myself again to treat her like a person.
        “Sorry I’m late,” I said.
        “No you’re alright. Not late at all. I just wanted to get here a bit early. Sorry.”
        “No worries,” I said, not sure why she was apologizing…
        …but fairly confident that I was going to fuck her later tonight if I played it cool and light and didn’t let on in any way that I was fairly confident I’d be fucking her later tonight. I had to make her think that it was her idea, and this would involve treating her as nothing other than a person, though this would be difficult for me because she was cute and shy and I’d had this problem for years now where I couldn’t take seriously anyone who showed any interest in me, and if they did show interest I’d immediately want them to go away, but if they didn’t show interest I’d desperately wish they would.
        It was a paradox that I felt would never unravel, and I’d never move past it or grow more mature, but only older, and would never again meet anyone who I could take seriously, and would therefore be alone forever.
        But at the very least I could still get laid because all my fantasies just depressed me and porn wasn’t really doing it for me anymore either. Just treat her like a person, I thought, and talk, and try to make her laugh when the opportunities present themselves, and don’t bring up Sadie. Whatever you do, don’t mention Sadie and all of this will go according to plan.
        We ordered beers and I asked, “Ever been here before?” forgetting that she’d already told me she’s never heard of it.
        “No, I never even knew this place existed. Weird, since it’s so close. There’s this really great sense of community. I don’t know how, but you can just tell.”
        “Yeah it feels like everyone here knows each other.”
        “It’s pretty cool, right?”
        “Super cool,” I said.
        “Like, I’m not a part of it, but I kind of want to be. It’d be cool to have something like that in my life, but until then it’s sort of nice to just see it and know that it’s here.”
        “Maybe we could be a part of it together.”
        “Or maybe we could do our own thing, and be a part of our own community and thing.”
        “I’ll drink to that,” I said.
        Apparently I couldn’t stop saying stupid, vacuous shit.
        She ordered another round for us even though I still had half a beer left. I downed it and belched because I was trying to treat her like a person and thought this is how people are—they belch unapologetically when they have to and don’t care what others think.
        She laughed and said, “Good one!” and belched loudly herself, which I did not expect, and I laughed loud and hard in a way that I could not control at all. I attributed it to the alcohol, which I’d begun to feel, and smiled at her. I started to think, You don’t even have to try to treat this one like a person, it’s just coming naturally—but quickly attributed that to the alcohol as well, unable to shut off that removed part of myself that was analyzing all of this from a distance; because even when I felt good and genuine, those moments were fleeting and a part of me always reminded the rest of me about how alcohol makes you feel good in an artificial way and so does the attention of girls, but you will wake up tomorrow all the same and know, unequivocally, just like always, that you will be alone no matter what you do.
        We drank a few more and the surrounding space receded from my immediate experience until it was merely incidental. I grew sad—inexorable thoughts of Sadie weighed in—but I managed to converse the whole time without ever really saying anything and she touched my arm many times.
        “I have some wine at my place,” she offered, “if you wanna…”
        “Yes,” I said, though by this point, I really, really didn’t.

We glided back to her house across the flickering surface of a superficial nighttime city populated by indigents, transients, and youthful strident madcap carousers. In a former life of mine this would’ve felt like previously inaccessible doors opening—so romantic and meaningful.
        Upstairs in her room we sat on opposite ends of her bed passing a bottle of wine back and forth over a distance that I wondered how to close.
        Everything I’d previously wanted was going to happen, but I didn’t want it anymore. I was so sad and lonely, especially lonely now in the company of this girl, a loneliness exacerbated by the fact that she had let me into her house and cute, personalized bedroom—an intimate expression of and window into her authentic, private self, with which I had no desire to become even remotely acquainted—and kept this distance with me here in the colorful glow until we were both drunk enough to not feel weird about any of it anymore.
        I wanted to go home and cry myself to sleep.
        “Bet you didn’t think you’d end up in my bed tonight,” she said.
        “No,” I said, forcing laughter, “This was certainly not on my agenda for the day.”
        “Me neither, but I’m glad you’re here.”
        “Me too.”
        “We should talk about something real now.”
        “Like what?” she asked.
        “I don’t know. It was your idea.”
        “No, I came up with the category so you have to come up with the topic.”
        I waited and said, “I can’t think of anything.”
        “Okay fine, I’ll choose.”
        “Have you ever been in love?”
        Now she was treating me like a person, which caught me off guard, but I said, “Yes. Many times.”
        “Yes. Though less and less each time.”
        “I don’t think that’s how it works.”
        “I’m not sure I know how it works. If you know, please tell me.”
        “I don’t know either. I’ve never been in love.”
        “As far as I’m concerned it doesn’t work.”
        “What do you mean?”
        “You fall in love and it flashes bright and you think you’re partners and it’s going to last. Then one day it just flickers and dies. You wake up and realize you have no fucking clue who this person is, or that you’re too scared to ever really let her know who you are, and then all you have are frail wisps of smoke trailing up to the ceiling.”
        You’re going off book. This was not part of the Plan.
        “I don’t think what you’re talking about is love.”
        “If you’ve never been in love, how would you know?”
        “Maybe you’ve never been in love either.”
        This stumped me.
        “Sorry,” she conceded, “We don’t have to talk about it.”
        “You don’t know me at all.” This wasn’t the time to restructure my entire worldview.
        “No, you’re right.”
        “You have no clue what I’ve been through.”
        “I know, I’m sorry. We don’t have to talk about it.”
        “Sorry,” I offered, “I didn’t mean to sound harsh. It’s just… you’re…”
        “Onto something?”
        “I don’t know. I’d have to do some serious reevaluating.”
        “Why? You felt what you felt and you know how it felt. There’s much more left to feel.” She placed the empty bottle on the floor and touched my leg.
        I appreciated the transition but didn’t feel a damn thing.
        “You’re an unqualified romantic,” she said, which could have meant many things that I didn’t bother trying to parse out in the moment.
        I was in, but the good part of me, the smallest part, the part that I’d tried to give up on cultivating but could never let go all the way, didn’t want to be in. I didn’t want to fuck this girl and end up feeling dead and hollow and leave her with any love or affection she might have for me leaking through her fingers and onto the floor.
        But I leaned in and kissed her. It was one kiss but it lasted a long time, and when I opened my eyes in the middle of it, hers were closed. Silly. It all felt so fucking stupid, so I tried to be in no place at all while it happened.
        She pulled me on top of her and we were kissing more now with open mouths and I started to feel her body greedily with my hands and pull up her shirt.
        “Wait,” she said.
        “What is it?”
        “Nothing…. I want this. I want to make love with you tonight.”
        “But I’m scared.”
        “I’ve never made love before.”
        “Apparently neither of us has.”
        “No, I mean… I’m a virgin.”
        She nodded.
        “Don’t be upset.”
        “I’m not... upset. I’m just… surprised.”
        “Don’t freak out on me.”
        “Who’s freaking out?”
        “No one, hopefully.”
        “No one that I know.”
        “Is that okay?” she asked.
        “I mean, I guess…. Are you sure you want this?”
        “Yes. Absolutely. I want to know how it feels. I’m ready.”
        “I know it’s weird. I know I don’t know you, and you don’t know me, or love me, but I feel like you could.”
        “Could what?”
        “Love me.”
        “Jesus, I know you’ve never been in love, but you must be aware that this isn’t how it works.”
        “No, I know. I don’t mean you could, like, be in love with me. I just mean… I feel like you would love me. Like you wouldn’t just fuck me, but make love to me.”
        “I don’t know, dude. I don’t know why. You seem…”
        “I am sad, Julia.”
        “I’m sad, too.”
        I stared into her eyes, and though I didn’t have any love to pour in, I didn’t feign anything either, but looked into her and hid nothing and showed her my wholly fractured self, let her see it for everything it was, even if that wasn’t very much at all.
        She stared back at me, searching.
        I rolled onto my side and she leaned up on an elbow. We looked at each other for a while. Then I tucked some loose strands of hair behind her ear and she closed her eyes. I stroked her eyebrow and down the side of her face. She exhaled deeply and smiled. Her body felt warm when I rubbed her back through her shirt. I kissed her forehead, then between her eyebrows. I kissed her on each of her closed eyes and she put her arms around me. I kissed all over her face. I kissed her cheeks and her temples and the corners of her mouth and she pulled me in. Close. I squeezed her tight and kissed under her chin. I kissed her neck and all along her collarbone and she let out soft moans. When I went beneath her shirt and unclasped her bra, she pulled back and looked at me with something that could have been worry, but wasn’t.
        “Not yet,” I said, “I just want to feel your skin with nothing in between.”
        Okay, she said, without words.
        I rubbed her back up and down and nuzzled my nose on hers. Then we kissed, soft and slow, with lips slightly parted, and our lips moved together in long, smooth waves. I pulled my body in to hers so we were pressing all the way together, and stayed like that for a long time.
        Afterwards we held each other and cried.
        She was wrapped around me in the lurid morning. When we were both awake, she looked up at me from where her head rested on my chest and the first thing she said was, “So do you want my number after all?” And I waited a while before saying, “I don’t think so,” because I thought it sounded easier than if I simply stated: