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Malaise

By Lavender July 16, 2010

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I went to my neighborhood coffeehouse—Malaise—this morning. I generally avoid this place, because Malaise lives up to its name in every respect. The staff is disenchanted and glum. They bitterly resent that they have to stop scribbling nonsense in their journals just to wait on your sorry ass.

I stood at the counter for several minutes before a stick figure with a buzz cut and a minefield of facial piercings finally approached me. She walked to the counter warily, like a sick dog would, doing her best to avoid eye contact. Then, she slouched her way to the coffee pot, and groaned when she lifted a cup, as if the action were draining the last of her life force.

In retaliation, I rapidly tapped my fingernails on the counter, a gesture I picked up from my mother, who uses it quite effectively to intimidate poky clerks, bridge opponents, and my father.

My impatience was lost on Miss Anemia, who was like a superhero armed with spectacular powers of passive-aggression, which she used to defy all laws of motion and civility. When she finally shuffled over with my coffee, I handed her a $10 bill, and told her to keep the change, hoping she’d use it to buy herself some multivitamins.

As I was leaving the shop, I heard someone call out my name weakly. I turned to find my friend, Ingrid, huddled at a tiny table in a dark corner, looking more like a smudge mark than a girl.

“I’ve been up all night,” she said, “trying to figure out how I can have an affair without hurting Wendy. And I think I’ve come up with the perfect plan.”

Ingrid handed me a notebook filled with manic scrawl that clearly charted her harrowing journey through caffeine-induced psychosis. The penmanship swerved dangerously across the pages, spelling out her crackpot justifications for engaging in a “purely sexual” affair with a woman she has had a long-simmering flirtation with.

On Ingrid’s laptop was a spreadsheet that graphed the planned lifeline of the affair. It would begin with some frantic groping in a piano bar, and end six months later with a handshake and hearty good wishes all around. No harm. No foul.

“The beauty of the plan is that it doesn’t include any emotional involvement,” she said, looking up at me with crazy eyes. “It’s just sex. So, no girlfriends will be injured in the process. What do you think?”

I was touched by her notion that infatuation can be tamed through careful planning, and the use of sophisticated software programs. The sad truth was that she had as much hope of controlling the wild emotional trajectory of the affair as I did of convincing the coffee waitress to stop sniffing her fingers, and fetch us a refill.

But I rarely am asked to be the voice of reason, and from the desperate look in Ingrid’s dilated pupils, it was clear she wasn’t in any mood to be talked off the ledge.

So, I said, “It seems like a foolproof plan,” trying not to place too much emphasis on the “fool.”

As Ingrid’s shaky hand reached for the cold dregs of an espresso, I noted that she’d be in need of something much stronger than coffee the next time we met.

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