The barista, a younger woman with a lotus tattoo on her wrist and a streak of red in her dark hair, greets me with a soft smile and asks, "What can I get you?"
I look up at the chalkboards listing the options, glancing out of the corner of my eye to spot the one with whom I am meeting. I just go with a simple mug of the house blend. After I pay, I make my way over to the table by the window where my partner sits by himself.
He's dressed simply, a grey turtleneck sweater over dark blue jeans. His black peacoat is draped across the back of his chair. It's all familiar to me as I remove my own coat and similarly arrange it on my own seat. I sit across from him, nursing my mug as he does his. He doesn't acknowledge me during any of this, preferring to stare into the black liquid in front of him.
I am content to wait, choosing to study his face in the meantime. His glasses help to mask modest circles under his eyes, betraying a fatigue that I'm sure I'll hear about when the time is right. His hair, which I once knew to be dark brown, now has hints of white sprinkled on his temples. He is young, but these features reveal his worries and responsibilities.
The silence persists for a while longer as the acoustic version of a Regina Spektor song starts playing over the speakers. This of all things seems to be what brings him out of his revelry.
"A while ago, somebody told me that I was a good writer," he begins without looking up. "It was a silly thing I was doing at the time, writing stories based on a wrestling character I'd created. E-fedding, they called it. I was actually considered one of the best storytellers on that website for a little while."
He takes a sip of coffee before continuing. "Eventually, I didn't want to write like that any more. But I took the feedback to heart, and started writing in other ways. I figure, hey, I just started my career. I should write about that, use the internet to process my first years, connect with others, all that stuff."
I nod. I know this story. But he wants to tell it, and I want to see where he's going with it. He takes another sip, running his thumb across the rim to catch a wayward drip afterward.
"It was great for a long time. A long time. I kept getting feedback, even got myself some notoriety here and there. That was a little freaky. But I liked it. I figure hey, I gotta keep this up. I gotta keep my audience. Keep writing, keep contributing to the conversation, blah blah blah. Once I stop, they disappear. And then what?"
He notices a couple walk past the window, and this breaks his monologue for a moment. He takes another sip and I do the same. Something the barista says to another customer causes him to turn partially around, then he faces back toward the table. For the first time, he looks up at me.
"At some point, doing stuff the same way gets old, you know? Writing the way I did...I don't need to write that way now. I'm on my second gig, I'm not the new guy on the block any more..."
He trails off, as if trying to find how to phrase his next thought.
"It's like...it's like that Beckett quote. 'I can't go on. I'll go on.' You know? I write, I want to stop, I keep going, because I really don't want to stop. You know? That's, like, the nature of a discipline. Right?"
He falls silent for a time, savoring a few more sips, noticing people passing by the window. Finally, his gaze focuses back on me.
"It's ridiculous, isn't it? I mean, I think I complain about this every few weeks, don't I? 'I don't want to, I want to, I don't, I do.' You get tired of it, I get tired of it. On and on and on it goes. And what changes? What do I end up doing about it? I can't not write. I can't. I have to."
He holds my gaze for a few moments. I wonder if he actually wants me to respond. My mind races to fill the silence as he leans back in his chair. He raises his glasses so that they sit atop his head and folds his arms. I try to buy myself time by taking another sip, watching the window, playing with a cuticle on my left hand.
Just as my mouth finally starts to open, he leans forward again, still looking directly at me.
"There's so much out there, man. Books, music, having kids, the church, this new spiritual direction gig. What am I complaining about? Seriously. I should just suck it up, because that's what real writers do. So if I want to keep pretending to be a real writer, I have to keep going."
I nod, stifling a laugh.
"I dunno. Even the most dedicated ones feel the need to just sweep all their papers and stuff off their desks, right? Be all like, 'the hell with this, I'm gonna go raise pigs,' or something. It happens to all of us, whatever it is that we do. But then the next morning we wake up, make the coffee, and go back to work."
My lips start to move, but he keeps going.
"Well, whatever. Sometimes I just need to hear myself talk it out, you know? There's a lot more to write, a lot more words. Back to work, back to work..."
His voice trails off as he looks back out the window, nodding to himself. He starts tapping his finger on the table. Both these actions become more intense the longer our silence lasts. The traces of a smirk form on the corner of his mouth.
For as long as we sit together, he doesn't say another word. I finally make it to the bottom of my cup. He just keeps watching the street, tracing his mug handle with his finger. I stand, don my coat, and walk my empty mug back over to the counter, where the young woman gives me the same polite smile as earlier. I open the door, once again tripping the bell. He still sits and watches, though what he notices is known only to him.