I got the idea from a lawyer friend, who married a handsome furnituremaker in Maine, a man who owned more books than she did. "Sometimes," she said, "I met three a day. You only need 15 minutes." It took her two months. She quickly lost count.
After six months, I am at four.
We meet in a coffee shop parking lot. He springs out of his enormous red convertible, more like a boat than a car, and thrusts into my hands a fat library book. He looks ten years older than his photo and roughened, like someone has taken the smooth young version he posted and rubbed sandpaper over it. I stare at the book he's handed me, turn it over. It is a book of ideas and complaint. He is ranging around the parking lot on foot—big loops. Why is he ranging around the parking lot? Why am I holding a fat library book? "Finally," he says, rovering up to me, beaming. "Finally someone in this godforsaken place gets me." I kneel down, set the book on the pavement, pretend to tie my shoe.
The next man wants to go out again. I tell him about the coffees. He wants to know what number he is. "I want the T-shirt," he says. "Number X, with the cup, you know. That's what I want." He pats his front. He says he wants to be 99. He, too, has books, paperbacks in his backpack. Two backpacks. One is his office.
I feel so bad for them all. The man with a part in a play who could talk of nothing but the play. The play is his life. Both will start soon. The man in white kneesocks and black sneakers who chose a coffee shop across from the mental institution. It was very distracting. The whole time he talked, I kept trying not to think he'd come from across the street on a pass. Then, when I talked, at the end, I felt I was the one on the pass.
The chef/Hemingway aficionado/sea captain (age 53, two kids at home, blue eyes) who said he would be divorced but the economy was really bad and he couldn't do that to his wife just yet. She had a boyfriend. He was excited about dating.
It's like going to the pound and I am a nice dog from some other pound.
I felt afraid one time. He yelled, stood, holding his coffee aloft in the Buzzatorium, "I'm not a loser! I'm not a loser! I do not think I'm a loser!"
I feel forensic. I feel I should be getting paid, because this feels hard, like a job, all these coffees. And I have to get specifically dressed for it and leave my house.
They behave as though on job interviews or in sales positions, leaning forward, pitching. Maybe it's the caffeine, but the men do not shut up. Not nervous-talky, like a girl gets, but sales-talky, rushed, forceful, boasty. They have a few prepared questions, but they aren't wanting the information. They're checking boxes off. Asks questions. I'm talkative, and I can't get a word in edgewise. They talk for 30 minutes and I wonder how my friend kept it to 15. She lives in New York. In the Midwest, everything is slower. I listen too much. I need exit strategies. I need less hope. In the Midwest, we're shadowed by hope, enveloped by it.
Part of me wants them to keep talking; it's similar to reading a mediocre novel. I know I'll never finish, but I can't quite put it down. I know it won't get better. Can it get worse?
When I stand up to say goodbye, the men say, as people do when they've felt listened to, "Wow. You are a great conversationalist."