by Mark Brazaitis
Robin woke up lonely. Jenny, his girlfriend, had gone to work, and he tried to soothe himself by thinking that his loneliness would disappear as soon as she returned. Although his cherubic cheeks and abundance of curly brown hair sometimes confused people into thinking he was a six-foot-tall middle-schooler, today he felt like a baby in an empty nursery.
When Jenny came home at her usual hour, he asked her about her day. As she spoke, he realized he could have been any audience and she would have said the same thing, in the same way. As he spoke about his day—he was a wedding photographer, and winter was a slow season, so he didn’t have much to say—she glanced at her fingernails three times. When he’d finished, she held up her fingers. “I’m thinking of painting my nails purple,” she said.
Later, in bed, he and Jenny exchanged a swift kiss before she turned out the bedside light, rolled over to face the wall, and fell asleep. He closed his eyes but quickly opened them. He feared he would be even lonelier in his dreams.
Jenny heard him fidgeting. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Nothing.” Time passed. At some point he must have fallen asleep because he was sitting at a café with his mother. Although she’d drunk only half her smoothie, she stood up and said goodbye. “Wait!” he pleaded. “You haven’t finished!”
Jenny woke him: “What’s wrong?”
He opened his eyes. “Another dream.”
She placed her arm over him. “It’s over.” Their comforter was between her arm and his chest. He imagined it was a layer of soil over a coffin. Unsettled by the image, he grabbed her forearm.
“Ouch!” she said as if a bee had stung her.
“You need to cut your nails,” she said.
* * *
The next morning, as Jenny headed out the door on her way to work, he wanted to say, “Don’t go.” But if she were to stay, her cheerful words would only patter against him like rain against an umbrella. Before leaving, she blew him a kiss.
After he ate breakfast, he read stories on the Internet. One recounted the ordeal of a woman who’d been found after going missing in Zion National Park for twelve days. Being alone, Robin knew, didn’t necessarily equal being lonely. In the wilderness, the woman might have befriended a mule deer or a pronghorn antelope. Or perhaps she’d forged an intimate relationship with fear or ingenuity.
The woman looked like his mother. She was tall, with long arms, long hair, and a crooked, mischievous smile. His mother, though, would never have hiked alone unless she insisted on it. She could propose a trip to a landfill and have company.
Only his brother was unmoved by her charisma. Daniel’s preferred company was his computer. Three years older than Robin, he had moved to the West Coast at twenty to become a software designer and had returned only twice in fifteen years. Robin hadn’t spoken with him in months. He doubted his brother would be a loneliness cure, but he had no better option.
“Robbie,” Daniel said after answering his phone. “It’s six-thirty in the morning here. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Nothing much, anyway.”
“So what is it?”
He felt awkward admitting the truth. “I’m a little lonely, I guess.”
“Lonely?” Daniel said. “Is Penny out of town?”
“Has she been working late?”
“Are the two of you having problems?”
“No. Everything’s fine between us.”
There was a pause. “Maybe you’re depressed,” Daniel said.
“I’m not unhappy,” Robin insisted. “It’s just that I feel…I don’t know…like a clarinetist in a marching band who turned left when everyone else turned right.”
“When did you learn to play the clarinet?” Daniel asked.
“I don’t play the clarinet.”
“Maybe it would help.” There was a pause before Daniel said, “Promise me you’ll see someone. A psychiatrist. A psychologist. Hell, see both of them at the same time and have a therapeutic threesome.”
* * *
In his parents’ wedding album, his mother was everywhere, laughing, singing, dancing, lifting a champagne glass, hugging the elfin-like ringbearer, even playing maracas with the wedding band. She was so exuberant that the photos seemed like movie clips. He strove to capture the same animation in his work.
Robin liked to meet with his clients at least once before their wedding. The more comfortable they felt with him, the more candid and natural they were likely to appear in his photos. It was surprising how revealing they could be with him. They told him not only about how they’d met and where they planned to spend their honeymoons but about their fights over wedding venues, their infertility fears, and, sometimes in explicit detail, their ex-lovers. They never asked him about himself.
On the first Monday in February, he met Chuck Chase and Gina Pulaski at Big Bob’s Steakhouse, where they would be married in April. The ceremony would be held outside on the tennis-court-sized patio, the dinner and dance inside in what Big Bob’s generously called a banquet hall. As Robin spoke to them at the bar, they held each other’s hands with the tenacity of children in a haunted house. Their trepidation, Robin thought, was understandable. They’d been dating for less than a year and were startlingly ignorant about each other’s lives. In the course of the conversation, Gina revealed that she was thinking about applying to graduate school in architecture and Chuck confessed to having an uncle in prison. Neither party knew this about the other. Equally disconcerting to Robin was the way their words crisscrossed, his like sports cars on a highway, hers like bicycles on an overpass.
When Robin asked, “Are you two ever lonely?”, he’d thought his question a natural segue. But from their expressions he could tell they found it strange and pathetic. The soon-to-be husband and wife turned to each other and exchanged smiles. “Never,” they answered before a chime sent them searching for their cell phones.
* * *
Dr. Benjamin Bryant, diminutive and white-haired, wore a tweed sportscoat and a tie decorated with pink depictions of the human brain. The near wall of his office was covered with old black-and-white photographs of what at the time would have been called madhouses or lunatic asylums. Seeing where he was looking, Dr. Bryant said. “Do you know the main difference in psychological care between the early twentieth century and the early twenty-first century?”
“Knowledge and compassion?” Robin guessed.
“Pills,” Dr. Bryant said. “The best psychiatrists today are the best chemists. Give us your symptoms and we’ll calculate your cure.” He paused. “So go ahead.”
“Go ahead?” Robin said.
“Give me your symptoms.”
Robin spoke about his loneliness.
“Well,” said Dr. Bryant after Robin had concluded, “if Pfizer made a drinking buddy in pill form, I’d prescribe it for you. As it is, I’m stumped.”
Robin left the doctor’s office without a cure but with the names of the doctor’s three favorite bars.
When Robin texted Daniel to report on his visit, Daniel texted back to suggest he see a therapist.
A week later, he sat in the office of Bev Mosely, who looked like the grownup version of a Bev he’d known in elementary school. Like her youthful doppelganger, she had brown skin, a long, thin neck, and sympathetic dark eyes. She had degrees in social work and music therapy, the latter of which explained the guitar, cello, and drum set in her office. After he told her why he was seeking her help, she said, “I’d like you to have a conversation with your loneliness.”
He didn’t know if his loneliness was capable of a conversation. Its muteness was one of its powers. So was its invisibility. But he didn’t want to disappoint her. Pretending his loneliness hovered above him, he looked up and said, “We don’t need introductions because you know who I am and I know who you are.”
“Good,” Bev encouraged.
“Why are you preventing me from feeling connected to anyone, even to my brother and my girlfriend?”
“Excellent question!” Bev said.
“You make me feel like a balloon someone was holding, and now I’m floating off into the sky.”
“A blue balloon, I’m guessing,” Bev said. “What does your loneliness say in response?”
Robin listened. “Nothing,” he said.
“Maybe I can coax it to sing.” She grabbed her guitar and started plucking. He thought he recognized “One is the Loneliest Number” but couldn’t be sure. After she finished, she said, “Any luck?”
“Maybe it sings at a frequency I can’t hear.”
She scrutinized him. “Did I know you in elementary school?”
After they concluded they’d been in the same fourth-grade class, she said, smiling, “You look different.”
“I’m two feet taller now,” he said. He stroked the beard he’d recently grown. “And the only facial hair I had back then was the mustache I pasted on when I was one of the Three Musketeers for our Halloween party.”
“I remember that party!” His mother, she reminded him, had come in costume, calling herself Mommy the Mummy. “How is she these days?”
He didn’t know why he said, “She’s doing great.”
* * *
Jenny was baffled by his visits to mental-health professionals. At Biscuit & Bacon, where they were eating brunch one Sunday morning, she said, “Are you lonely now?”
She wasn’t fooled. “You’re looking at me like you’ve never seen me before.”
She was right. The more he looked at her, the more indistinct she became, like one of the mannequin heads his mother used to keep her wigs on.
“I feel inadequate,” she said.
“It isn’t you,” he said.
She huffed. “A mindless cliché is the best you can offer?”
“I don’t know how to say it any better.”
“You’re feeling lonely, and you claim it has nothing to do with me even though you spend more time with me than with anyone else?”
“For lack of a better word—yes.”
“Okay,” she said. “O-very-well-kay. Well, let me tell you something. Ever since you announced you were lonely, I’ve been lonely too. I’ve been lonely for someone who isn’t lonely when he’s with me.” She gave him a narrow-eyed stare. “I bet you’re pining for Little Scarlet.” Scarlatta Mercado was the woman he’d dated before Jenny. Jenny called her Little Scarlet out of spite, although the description was apt: Scarlet was four feet, ten-and-a-half-inches tall and had hair like a fireball. After she’d been offered her dream job back home, in Argentina, she invited him to come with her, but his mother had received her diagnosis the week before.
Robin looked around. This had been his parents’ favorite brunch spot. On every table laminated menus rose from their holders like tombstones.
He realized that Jenny was looking at him as if she expected an answer to a question she’d asked. He hoped a nod would suffice, but after he provided it, angry tears sliced down her cheeks. “I don’t know if breaking up with you will make you less lonely or more lonely,” she said, “but you’re about to find out.” As she stood, her thighs smacked the underside of their table, rattling their glasses of tap water and their plates of half-eaten tomato-and-cheese omelets. Out of habit, or perhaps as a taunt, Jenny blew him a kiss before flying out the door.
* * *
Robin knew he’d made a doleful impression on Gina and Chuck when, after he’d shot portraits of them an hour before their ceremony—they insisted on having several taken in front of a statue of an enormous brown cow—Gina said, “If they weren’t all married or engaged, I’d set you up with one of my bridesmaids,” and Chuck slipped him the business card of an escort service. “My bachelor party,” he whispered, “was out of this world.”
The ceremony was held at the far end of the patio. No matter what angle he shot from, the frame included at least a portion of a sign emblazoned with the restaurant’s trademarked slogan: Where Meat’s to Be Eaten, Good Friends Like Meetin’. The reception, in the banquet hall, presented its own challenges. As if the couple were a music duo who’d booked their venue before their popularity skyrocketed, the hall was wall-to-wall with guests. As Robin maneuvered between crowded tables, his Nikon clipped the bride’s father in the forehead. Mr. Pulaski, whose beefiness suggested he’d devoured his share of Big Bob’s signature offerings, stood up, poked Robin in the chest, and said, “My daughter calls you Mr. Lonelyhearts. One more camera-to-cranium hit and your name will be Mr. Black-and-Blue.” Robin beat a retreat to the back of the hall.
On her way to the bathroom, a woman in her early sixties, her lipstick spilling from the ends of her lips like a clown’s frown, stopped beside him. Her breath smelled like medium-rare steak and fruity inebriation. “What’s wrong, sugar?” she asked him.
“Nothing,” he said.
“Don’t tell me nothing,” she said, “when my sixth sense senses something.”
“You caught me,” he said. “Have you ever been lonely?”
“I used to be,” she said, “before I discovered yoga.”
“Yoga cured your loneliness?” he asked hopefully.
“Not yoga,” she said, “my yogi. She was hot yoga in the flesh, and we didn’t have to be in her studio to practice it. Understand?”
“So you found your loneliness cure,” he said, sighing.
“With the right mantra and the right man,” she said, “I bet you’d find yours.”
“I’m not gay,” he said.
“Are you sure? Maybe your loneliness is telling you something.”
“Believe me,” he said, “if I thought it would do the trick, I’d date a giraffe.”
* * *
A few days later, Robin walked downtown to the Purple Cow. When he was a boy, his mother told him that the café’s homemade ice cream and yogurt was the creation of a “plum-colored bovine named Bessie” who lived on the second floor. The café doubled as a community art museum; it currently featured the work of a local painter whose specialty was mythical creatures—dragons, unicorns, phoenixes—enhanced with the kind of glitter Robin had used in abundance in his elementary-school art projects. Although the café’s cracked floors had needed replacing for a decade and one of its back windows contained a bullet hole courtesy of a political dispute at the senior center across the street, Robin continued to think of it as magical, so he was half serious when he said to the barista, “I’d like the loneliness cure, please.”
Although the barista couldn’t have been older than twenty, he sported a long beard like a cartoon wizard’s. He nodded as if he’d heard the request before. “For here or to go?”
“Here,” Robin said.
“Coming right up,” the barista said. He left the counter and slipped into the kitchen. When he returned, he was carrying a cup of tea. “Don’t add milk or sugar,” the barista said, sliding the cup over to Robin. “It works best when drunk straight.”
Robin laughed at what he assumed was the barista’s joke. The barista rang up the purchase—it was a dollar more than a regular cup of tea—and after Robin paid, he dropped his change in the tip jar and found a table next to a window. His tea smelled like a familiar flower, although he couldn’t remember its name. “To the end of loneliness,” Robin said, lifting his cup to the emptiness across from him. He drank; the tea tasted as savory as it smelled.
Robin looked around the Purple Cow. Several of his fellow patrons were long-time friends of his mother: Bill, who always sat at the table with the chessboard painted on it and occasionally played a match against himself; Edgar, who sat on a stool at the counter in front of the glass cake container, reading a detective novel and, every so often, barking an observation at no one in particular; and Marcos, who sat at a round table in the elevated back part of the café where he taught group lessons in French, Italian, Spanish, and Swahili. An eager trio, cappuccinos in hand, approached him.
In the Purple Cow, as everywhere in town, his mother had been a whirlwind of extraversion, saying hello to everyone in the place, resuming conversations from her previous visit, gathering updates on people’s families and pets. She’d worked as the city’s events planner but could easily have been its mayor.
Once she’d visited with all the café’s customers, however, she sat across from Robin and they talked long after their smoothies had become tiny lavender puddles at the bottoms of their glasses.
He drank again. When he put down his cup, his mother was standing in the café’s doorway, illuminated by a cascade of sunlight. He was about to wave her over to his table when the light dimmed and she disappeared. He lifted his cup and had another sip. His mother appeared this time at the counter, ordering from the barista, who seemed unimpressed to be serving a ghost. A sound outside Robin’s window distracted him. When he turned back to the counter, his mother was gone.
He downed the last of his tea and waited for her to reappear. When she didn’t, he walked his cup over to the dish bin at the end of the counter. “Any luck?” the barista asked him.
To say “no” would have been untrue. “Sort of,” he said.
“Sometimes,” the barista said, “it only takes full effect later.”
“I’ll be patient,” Robin said, smiling at their joke. He glanced behind him. His mother was at the table he’d vacated. She acknowledged him with a wave. He blinked and she was gone.
He saw Bill slide a white queen across an empty chessboard. Edgar closed his latest detective novel. “Unsolved!” he announced. “Who writes a whodunit and doesn’t reveal who did it?” To the three people at his table, Marcos spoke words Robin didn’t understand.
As he pushed open the café’s door, he heard his mother laugh.
* * *
The cemetery where his parents were buried was a mile-and-a-half from the Purple Cow. As Robin walked to it, afternoon became evening. His mother’s grave, at the cemetery’s highest point, overlooked the Sky River, which, meandering between trees, looked like a question mark. On her headstone, beneath her name and the dates of her birth and death, were the words she’d chosen: “Live to Love, Love to Live.” She’d wanted to add “Enjoy Every Breath, Say ‘Fuck You’ to Death,” but the cemetery’s custodians had vetoed the profanity. His father, who’d died a decade before his wife, had been cremated. His slab of pink-red marble, embedded in the ground below his wife’s grave, was carved with his name, his pertinent dates, and “Worshipped the one above,” which was not a somber declaration of his devotion to God but a sincere tribute to his wife, who’d promised him he could be buried with her even if she remarried.
Evening had become night. The air was warm, and its breezes touched Robin’s hair like soft hands. As he kneeled in front of his mother’s tombstone, he felt a powerful drowsiness. He wondered if the loneliness cure doubled as a tranquilizer. “Forgive me,” he said.
He was surprised that he wasn’t surprised when his mother answered: “For what?”
“For not following in your footsteps, for not embracing your love of life, for not chatting up the world’s most downcast strangers and inspiring them to smile.” He paused. “Forgive me for being lonely.”
He eased his body on top of her grave. He smelled grass, dandelions, clover—and whatever the loneliness cure was made from. Thyme? Lemongrass? His mother’s perfume?
“Now,” his mother said, “are you still lonely?”
“No,” he said, “but I will be when you’re dead again.”
“When I’m dead again,” she said, “let life be your companion. Enjoy where you lead it and where it leads you.”
“That’s easy for you to say.”
“Is it? Death’s my tour guide now.”
“Right,” he said. “Sorry.”
Sleep enveloped him like a blanket. “It’s late,” he murmured.
“It’s always the same time,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean it’s always now.”
* * *
When he woke up, it was dawn. A man stood over him, leaning on a shovel. He was middle-aged, muscular, of indeterminate race. His t-shirt said Gravediggers Do It to Death. “Your mother?” he asked, gesturing toward the tombstone.
“Yeah,” Robin said.
“It hasn’t been so long, has it? I’m sorry.”
“Stick around,” the man said. “You’ll have plenty of company.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s Mother’s Day. Isn’t that why you camped out here all night—to get front-row seats?”
After the gravedigger left, Robin stood, brushed the grass off his shirt and pants, and looked at his watch. He wondered what time the Purple Cow opened. He wanted another cup of the loneliness cure. He could see himself becoming an addict.
He was about to leave his mother’s grave when the day’s first mourner, a woman his age, arrived. She wore a yellow sundress and a green scarf, and either her hair was blond or the sunlight made it appear so. In her hands was a bouquet of spring flowers. Three graves down from where Robin was standing, she stopped, kneeled, and placed the flowers against the headstone. He caught a few of her whispered words: “time,” “dream,” “Uncle Jimmy’s fourth wife.” Eventually, she stood and looked around. When she noticed Robin, she smiled. As if he knew her, he gave her a wave. She returned it with the same familiarity.
He imagined the two of them meeting between their mothers’ graves. As they gazed at the river, she would tell him she thought it looked less like a question mark and more like an arm wrapped around the waist of the forest. In the warmth of the rising sun, they would walk out of the cemetery together, exchanging stories about the dead and the living. At the Purple Cow, the bearded barista would serve them smoothies made of every fruit in the freezer. Between delicious sips, they would pull up chairs at Marcos’s table and ask him to teach them a new language.
Mark Brazaitis is the author of eight books, including The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, The Incurables: Stories, winner of the 2012 Richard Sullivan Prize and the 2013 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Prose, and Julia & Rodrigo, winner of the 2012 Gival Press Novel Award. His latest book, The Rink Girl: Stories, won the 2018 Prize Americana (Hollywood Books). He wrote the script for the award-winning Peace Corps film How Far Are You Willing to Go to Make a Difference? His stories, essays, and poems have appeared in The Sun, Ploughshares, Michigan Quarterly Review, Witness, Guernica, Under the Sun, Beloit Fiction Journal, Poetry East, USA Today, and elsewhere.