Sunday, July 29, 2007

Short Story: Old Friends and Coffee-Shops

Old Friends and Coffee Shops

Misha sat on the bar stool at the high little table in the corner of the coffee shop. She watched as a car drove past; someone taking their drivers test. She had seen a lot of those around here, with the DMV right across the street. The shop door opened and she turned to see if Opal had come yet. It was just some bald-headed businessman with a black suit and hideously colored tie. He was closely followed by what appeared to be a man left over from the 70s. He stank of hemp and other things she couldn’t quite identify. Misha shrank away from the smell in disgust. She didn’t think such a mixed variety of people would be found in a place like this – but there you had it. Businessmen conducted agreements at the tables, druggies and hippies buried themselves in the corners talking, and there was always at least 2 or three college students chatting about this class and theory or that professor. Even the churches in town were constantly asking the shop to cater for this or that event. I wonder if they even know the owner is gay. Probably not, they just like the food.

The door opened again. Hopefully, Misha looked up at the newcomer. A very tall, skinny lady was approaching the counter. She looked about 30 years old, and had to be over six feet tall, not counting the three-inch heels she wore. Her face looked embattled, like she was trying too hard to make it attractive, and the vertically striped sweater she wore just accentuated her height.

With a sigh Misha slumped in her chair and looked at her watch again. Quarter-past. I’ll wait another 15 minutes and then order something to eat. At least if she doesn’t show, I can still get some lunch.

She let her mind drift. They had always met here for lunch in the past, she and Opal. It was their shop. Even the owners knew it. As soon as school let out they would run down here and grab a fat-free smoothie to plug the holes in their stomachs before they would head to the studio. Class always started at 4:30 and they wouldn’t get to eat again until eight or nine o’clock that night.

They were both dancers. They had started ballet class together at the tender age of three and had stuck together all the way through high school. In their first recital they had been mice at Cinderella’s castle. They stole the show of course, at least that's what their moms had said. They had helped one another sew on the ribbons for their first pair of Pointe shoes. (They had been so excited neither one had noticed they had forgotten to the cut the ribbon first and had to unstitch the whole thing.) Hours had been spent on solos and duets for recitals and competitions. They had always had each other’s bags to rummage through to look for Band-Aids, hairpins, and even leotards. Opal was always forgetting her leotard. Just like she always forgot everything. Most importantly, their friendship provided a shoulder to lean on when one or the other didn’t place as well as they had wished. Like the one recital Opal had strained her knee and fell, halfway through her solo. She had tried to do the correct thing and get up and keep dancing, but she fell again in pain. It wasn’t until they had gone out at 2:00 in the morning and splurged on milk shakes that she had finally been able to laugh about it all.

Misha sighed again and glanced at her watch. 12:22.

It had been a year since she had last seen Opal. All their lives they had wanted to dance together professionally - they had planned it all out. Then came their senior year of high school. It was a week before the university audition. Misha had waited at the studio for over an hour for Opal to come so they could practice their solos for the audition. She had gone over her solo three times and had finally settled on the floor to stretch when she heard the door to the room open. Opal stood there, her long hair loose around her shoulders, dressed in jeans and her blue dance sweater which read, “Shut up and Dance.” Her suspiciously red eyes and the crumpled tissue in her hand gave silent testimony that she had been crying.

“Opal. What’s wrong? Why are you so late?”

“Sorry. I was talking to someone. I…I…,” she stopped and took a deep breath. “I can’t dance, Misha.” Her voice was strained.

“What? What do you mean, ‘can’t?’”

“You heard me, damn it!!! I CAN’T DANCE. How many times do you want me to say it? I can’t dance, I can’t dance, I can’t dance!!!!” With that she crumpled into a ball on the floor and began to sob.

Misha had run over to her and held her until she was calm enough to explain what had happened. All the while Misha was rehearsing scenario after scenario in her mind. What could have happened? Of course Opal could dance. She could always dance. That was what their lives were meant to be…

“My knee has been hurting me again. I didn’t want to tell anybody, but Mom came home one afternoon when I didn’t expect her and caught me crying about it. She insisted we go and get it checked out by the doctor. He took x-rays of it, and I got the results today. My kneecap is shot. He said there’s no way I can ever dance on it again without damaging it so much I would have to have major surgery.”

Even now, Misha could remember the chill which had coursed through her body as Opal told her what had happened. This wasn’t in their plans – it wasn’t supposed to be like that. Surely another opinion, therapy, something…but in her heart she knew it was pointless. They both knew it was pointless. A dancer’s career is based entirely on the fitness of her body. No university, and certainly no company, would ever accept a dancer with such a major defect.

Misha had gone to the audition. Opal had insisted she go. She kept saying that Misha couldn’t give up her chances just because her friend wasn’t able to go.

“Besides,” she had told Misha,” I can always just get my education degree and teach dance. I’ll be fine.”

Misha was so lonely in the car on the way to the audition. That was the first audition Misha had ever attended without her friend. Amongst the midst of strange girls in leotards and tights with numbers pinned on their backs and stomachs, she was even lonelier.

Two weeks later Misha received her acceptance letter from the University. She was in. She was going to do it – live her dream, be a dancer. Her heart had sunk when she thought of calling Opal. Opal had congratulated her and they had talked about options for Opal, but it was all wrong. Their conversations were strained and short, well under the three-hour conversations they used to have that had convinced both their parents to get them a separate line.

Since then, so much had changed. Misha had gone to the university and succeeded in her classes there. Just a few weeks ago a scout from one of the bigger companies on the coast had come to their end-of-year performance to check out the dancers. He had told her to come to the company audition next month; they probably had a place for her. She was in her prime; she was living her dream. But always there was a place in her heart that longed for a black bag with silver stitching on it spelling out Opal, lying next to her bag.

Opal, she thought sadly. Misha looked up and saw her friend standing there.

“Opal!” She got up to give her a hug. It was like hugging a piece of armor.

Opal somberly said, “Hi Misha. How are you?” Opal was dressed in a professional suit carrying a little purse and a black day-planner. She was working as an intern for an insurance company and was taking night classes at the community college to get her degree to accounting.

Misha smiled at Opal, “I’m doing great. Have a seat, join me.”

As Opal turned to set her jacket down, Misha felt something was missing. Then it hit her. Opal’s beautiful long hair, the hair she had prized since she was three, had all been cut short and was now framing her narrow face. I guess there’s no point to her having long hair anymore, no need for buns.25

Opal sat and they looked over the menu like they had never seen it before – even though it had never changed in the 10 years they had eaten there. The food was ordered, and the necessity of talk became apparent. It was all very polite, matter of fact, and shallow. Opal had a new live-in boyfriend, the third in that many months. "Yes, her schooling was going well. She should be done with her degree in a few years."

"Had she gone to see her grandmother recently?"

"No, her job and studies kept her very tied to town, thank you."

After 45 minutes of charred talk they finally got up to leave. Please, Misha wanted to beg, please, say something real, anything. Smile. Tell me you hate me. I don’t care. I just want to know you’re still a person…Where’s my Opal?

Opal extended her hand to shake with Misha. “It was nice of you to look me up. Be sure to call again next time you’re in town.” With that she turned and walked out of the shop.

Misha sat back down on the barstool. The bell rang as the tall lady walked out of the shop. Misha glanced down at the table, finding she had unconsciously shred a napkin into strips. Lying there was Opal’s day-planner. Still forgetful. Well, at least one thing is still the same.

Misha picked up the day-planner and walked through the door, out of the shop. She needed to return this quickly. After all, she had a plane to catch. The door closed firmly behind her.

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