Stephen Coates: When Walking, Walk

Mar 2023 | Short story

This is the way we brush our teeth. This is the way we study our reflection in the bathroom mirror, ripe with disappointment. This is the way we wash our face before stumbling to our bed for another fitful sleep that will leave us as jittery and unrefreshed as today and yesterday and the nine days before that. Ever since my old friend Nick texted me to say that he would be in town over the weekend.

When eating, eat. I tell myself it’s mindfulness, living in the moment, but I know that’s a lie. It’s simply a nervous tic, white noise designed to avoid introspection. Anyway, this morning is this morning. Perhaps it will offer me a chance of redemption. I am brushing my teeth, again. I am shaving. I am putting on green cargo pants and a cotton shirt.

I am humming. I realize that I am humming because I am excited. Happy and excited to see him after all these years. For the first time since his arrest. The first time since the night when, love-snared by a blue-eyed history major, he got crying drunk and smashed into an ambulance. Served a six-month sentence, fled the country, left his past behind. It is natural that I am happy. We are, it goes without saying, great mates.

I am driving. I am driving into the city to meet Nick. I am no longer humming. To my consternation, my hands are trembling on the steering wheel. My armpits are sweaty, even though the heater is broken. Can it be that I am nervous? No, that’s stupid. This is me, being stupid.

In the Funky Bean, we are shaking hands, not quite man-hugging. We are teasing each other about expanding waists and receding hairlines. We are examining the menu, both ordering the hot chocolate for old time’s sake. With marshmallows. I don’t recall drinking this all that often when we were students, but what the heck. I give him news of former friends. We are rehashing youthful misadventures. Our talk is filled with comfortable insults. This sense of dread, it is all in my imagination.

I am telling him the story of my life. My life since university. In my telling, it sounds more eventful and rewarding than my actual experience. Somehow I seem to have omitted five whole years from my early thirties. He is shaking his head, possibly in admiration. I do not tell him about mindfulness.

Nick’s biography, too, is maybe edited. With deadpan wit, he recounts his one failed marriage and two cohabitations. He is skating over his work as not worth mentioning. In fact, he claims that even talking about it sucks away his will to live. I am laughing and holding my stomach. I am almost able to suppress my guilt. This is us, two old pals enjoying a jolly reunion.

I am suggesting that maybe we could go for a pint later. An afternoon at the pub, like we used to, shirking our responsibilities and revelling in the shirk. Nick does not say yes, not say no. Next we are reliving the drunken antics of a distant acquaintance whose crowning achievement was doing tequila shots for breakfast and passing out on the floor in his final law exam. I think his name was Derek, and Nick thinks it was Duncan. Either way, we are sharing a laugh about it.

It is good that we have found something in common.

I start to remind him of one of my own embarrassing escapades, but then it occurs to me that it probably took place later. After his misfortune. It is also, perhaps, not the most tactful of subjects. Nick is revealing that he rarely drinks these days. Booze, he says, has not been his friend. He is quoting Homer Simpson on alcohol: “the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.” I am crossing my legs, twisting in my chair, crumbling the remains of my blueberry muffin.

I launch into an anecdote. An anecdote about Ingrid. I am aware that I am babbling. Ingrid and I took some classes together, chatted in the cafeteria, but we were not close, so when she turned up at my flat I was surprised. The following morning she was flying to Australia, or maybe the UK. We sat in a coffee shop until midnight, sneaking vodka into our ice-cream floats. Then she went home. I am wondering why she chose my company for her last evening in town. Perhaps she harboured secret longings for me. Nick is insisting that on the night in question all her friends were struck down by a mysterious virus, leaving me her only option. I agree that this could be true, sad but true. But them’s the breaks. Show me a man with no regrets and I’ll show you a life painted by numbers.

Now it is his turn. His tale also involves unrequited love.

“Stop me if you’ve heard this before,” he says.

I have, but I don’t. I had hoped he had forgotten. It is about Jane, a woman he knew at uni. Nick doted on Jane from afar, unable to express his feelings. He grins ruefully at his own timidity. Jane took a job in Scotland. Unlike me, he can remember where she was going. The day before she vanished from his life forever, Nick returned from a lecture to find a note tucked inside the textbook on his desk in the library. Apparently he has treasured this for years. He is reciting it.

Another time, another place, who knows?

J ♥

He acknowledges that learning of this lost opportunity came as a shock. He admits that he did not handle it well.

“Um,” I say.

This is me, confessing that I wrote that note, as a joke, on a whim. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I leave a silence that invites him to call me a bastard and punch me lightly on the shoulder. Here’s me stretching my lips, showing my pearly whites. Listen to the sound of air wheezing in and out in a passable imitation of laughter. Feel the pressure as the corners of my eyes wrinkle in false merriment. My hands are raised, fingers splayed. I know that this gesture is a sign of penitence, a plea for forgiveness, but I get the impression he does not understand this.

On the other side of the table, that is Nick. It should be comical, the way the colour drains from his face. The mute opening and closing of his mouth, that should be funny too, until I realize that I am doing the same. That is his cup rattling against the saucer. That is the sound of his dreams shattering on the grey tiled floor. This is the sound of friendship dying. I stand and walk away.

When walking, walk. This is me, walking. This is me.

Stephen Coates comes from Christchurch, although he has been living in Japan for many years. His stories have appeared in Landfalltakahē, Reading Room and Headland, as well as various overseas journals. His story ‘Brendon Varney Opens the Door’ took third place in the 2022 Sargeson Prize. He is a firm believer in Terry Pratchett’s maxim, ‘Writing is the most fun you can have by yourself.’

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