im looked at his phone in the coffee shop and saw his own face. He didn’t recall setting the camera for a selfie. He touched the control button to move on. Nothing happened. The face frowned. “Stop that!” it said.
Tim froze, staring at himself.
“Let me out.”
Tim tilted his phone. “What the hell?”
“Let me out!”
“How do they do that?” Tim asked. “Does the app record me and somehow dub my words on top of the image?”
“You’re not paying attention.”
“It looks so real.” Tim noticed his uneven collar and the circles under his eyes. He hadn’t slept well last night, groping for his phone several times before dawn to check for a text message that didn’t come. Now he straightened his collar. “OK, I’m going to move on. I’ve got stuff to do.”
He put down his phone.
At nearby tables, people conversed or sat alone with their devices, sometimes smiling and reaching out to caress a screen. No one observed him.
After several sips of coffee, he was bored and picked up his phone again.
“Well?” his face said. “Thought you had stuff to do.”
“I do. I want to call Jeannie. I need to check some information.”
“Information? You mean like NASA data about ocean temperatures? A recipe for ceviche? Or maybe a video of cats with little boxing gloves on their paws?”
“That’s nobody’s business.”
He tapped at his phone and then pressed firmly but nothing changed. He swiped repeatedly. His face grimaced but didn’t go away.
“I can’t…” Tim massaged an icon. “I can’t even get emergency service. Enough, OK? This isn’t funny anymore.”
His face squinted at him. “This is the emergency.”
The barista arranged a tray of muffins. A steamer hissed. Tim fiddled with a stir stick, pondering. In his disgust he’d turned off his phone and placed it across from him on the table as if it belonged to someone else. An invisible friend.
Right now, what he truly desired was to hear from Jeannie. Was she still asleep? He didn’t give a damn about stupid cat videos or those other things. He’d anticipated a relaxing Saturday morning at the coffee shop, plotting his next move. Instead he was blocked.
“I’m outta here.”
He stood up and slipped the phone in his pocket and left the coffee shop.
“‘Whence knowest thou thy misery?’”
Jeannie had popped this question last week as they lay in bed and watched clouds move across her skylight. It was the fourth or fifth time he’d slept over. Cars hummed in the street below, and from the stairwell outside her door came occasional thumps as neighbors went to work. It was very cozy and Tim didn’t want to move. She curled closer, adding, “The catechism tells us: ‘Out of the law of God.’”
“What are you talking about?”
With Jeannie there were always surprises. She had a grouchy cat named Lou who climbed surreptitiously onto shelves and when you least expected it, he would shoot out his paw and bat you on the head. Startled the bejeezus out of you. Or when Tim had texted “♥U!” for the first time, Jeannie had responded with some sexually explicit emojis that he hadn’t known existed. This swiftly brought their relationship to another stage. And now, in bed under the clouds, Jeannie told him about her childhood.
She was a pastor’s daughter and had grown up attending church three times a week. She knew the Heidelberg Catechism by heart. She had considered going into the ministry herself.
“Is that so surprising?”
Tim pictured her at work, poised in her blue suit, clicking through her PowerPoint. He was in logistics and Jeannie was a developer in human resources. The credo in Tim’s department was Right on time, every time! Jeannie’s brief included multiple project synchronicity and diversification. It was decidedly bigger picture.
“The only comfort is that you are not your own.” She ran her palm across Tim’s bare chest, adding, “‘Canst thou keep all these things perfectly?’”
“Well, a guy can try.”
“The catechism tells us: ‘In no wise; for I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbor.’”
“Geez. That’s pretty hardcore.”
She kissed his ear and slid out of bed. “Sweetie, I’m not the one who said it.” She went to the kitchen and put on the coffee machine. “Cereal OK?” she called. “Afraid I’m out of milk.”
Tim got dressed, and Jeannie tied on a kimono, blue with flaming orange tiger lilies. She clutched her cup with both hands, looking down into it.
“You believe all that?” he asked.
“I used to. It’s how I was brought up, with redemption as the goal. That’s the point. It’s not as harsh as it sounds. There’s something beautiful, actually. Putting everything in order, accepting a greater love.”
Lou padded into the kitchen. He looked up with buggy eyes and let out a screaky meow. She pulled down a box of cat food.
“But then I couldn’t muster it anymore,” she said, shaking out nuggets. “It’s a matter of faith, right? You have to believe it, not just say it. You shouldn’t fake what you don’t have.”
Hearing her speak this way, Tim felt as if she’d invited him into new territory. It was like the first time they’d seen each other naked only more personal, like sharing a password.
Lou sniffed at the dry contents of his bowl.
“You want gravy, don’t you?” she said.
Tim observed the parked cars and the sun on the sidewalk. I’m not going crazy, he told himself, touching the phone in his pocket. The world still looks the same. What would Jeannie think when he told her?
He spied a pay phone. Wow, what luck—these were hard to find nowadays. But when he drew nearer, he saw that it had been vandalized. A minute later he reached again to his pocket. He wanted to hear her voice. Maybe the settings in the phone’s silicon brain had realigned their electronic synapses or whatever those little thingies were.
“So what’s it gonna be?” his face told him.
“What do you mean?”
“Think. You paying attention?”
“Get out of my face!”
He stuffed the phone in his pocket and continued walking to Attucks Square where he sat on a bench. He stewed for several minutes until gradually his surroundings reset his thoughts. It was a fine day, no doubt about it, better out here than in the coffee shop. The air was sweet. A pair of sparrows hopped on the green with sudden, popcornlike movements.
He’d left Jeannie a voicemail last night, suggesting that they meet for lunch at Kothu Kothu. It was a designer bistro whose interior featured live bamboo and a fountain. A plan had been taking shape in his mind, a plan that Tim rehearsed and petted. He saw himself and Jeannie at a table with starched linen and crystal, beside the fountain and its pool where koi carp lurked and waited, their large lips opening, closing. Tim ordered wine, which arrived in an icy bucket. The cork popped, the server poured. The koi mouthed a silent chorus of approval. And when Jeannie looked up with shining eyes and said My, this is nice, Tim would lean forward and announce: “I think we should move in together.”
That was the plan. It was bold, a person could say he was rushing things. (How long had they been seeing each other? Two months and two days, precisely.) But he sensed that Jeannie wasn’t afraid to be bold. It was time to embrace the future! They could set up house in one of those new duplexes by the river, on a street with a front yard, a tree, birds. Lou would like that.
Tim spent a quiet half-hour on the bench, alone with his thoughts. It was an unplanned diversion, like surfing on the inside.
He considered how his upbringing had been different from Jeannie’s. His parents weren’t anti-religious, exactly, but they’d been too frazzled to take their children to church. Fervor and catechismal rigor didn’t register. His mother was a night nurse and on Sundays refused to leave her pajamas, while Tim’s father, a junior high geography teacher who would roust his children on school days (“Up and at ’em! Time to milk the chickens!”), on weekends left them alone and retired to a shed in the back yard where he pretended to tinker while he drank.
As a teenager Tim had spent many Sundays at Doobie’s Diner, where he bussed tables and learned other lessons. Once, a blizzard had blanketed the city, brought everything to a halt. The manager got stranded somewhere, leaving the young staff in charge.
It was like a holiday! They cranked up the music and joked cheekily with the few customers who straggled in; they played hockey in the kitchen with brooms and a bar of soap while the fry cook put up his feet and rolled a joint. Toward the end of his shift, a waitress named Loretta grabbed Tim by the back of his belt, turned him around and kissed him on the mouth.
Loretta Rinaldi. His first real romance, and the Sunday snowstorm had started it. Loretta was short and round and smart and had scored highly on tests and was applying to fancy private schools in hope of a scholarship and sometimes she corrected the speech of other employees, which didn’t win her any friends, but Tim didn’t mind, most of the time. Loretta was exotic. She cut her bangs in a severe straight line across her forehead and favored scarves that she referred to as foulards.
“Shall we then?” she said, nodding toward her coat, reminding Tim to help her put it on.
One day at the diner, a roly-poly lady with red cheeks sat at the counter eating pancakes and Loretta hovered over her with a pot of coffee and seemed very nervous. Tim wiped down a nearby table. As he moved away with a tray of dirty dishes, he joked with Loretta, “Your fan club is waiting for you in the kitchen.”
“Is this Tim?” the pancake lady piped.
He stopped. “Hello.”
“Loretta said you was a nice fella.” She grinned at him, a dab of syrup on her chin. Loretta blinked and said nothing and in a flash he understood that this was Loretta’s mother.
“Well,” he replied, “Loretta is as fine as they come.”
“Oh, she’s a sweetie, she sure is.” Mrs. Rinaldi stuffed a huge forkful of pancakes in her mouth, her eyes bright. Tim sensed that Loretta wanted him to go away, right now. He excused himself and returned to the kitchen.
Loretta didn’t speak to him about the conversation with her mother, but in those days, after closing hours at Doobie’s, she invited him to a walk-in storage closet where he sat on a chair and unzipped his pants and she stepped out of her panties and hiked up her skirt and straddled him. His hands clutched and roved, and Tim told himself: yes, now I’m entering the adult world.
But no. No. As he sat on a bench in Attucks Square, he could see that those rendezvous in the storage closet were just one of those teenage things, while the adult world resided in the unfinished conversation with Loretta’s mother, which Loretta pretended had never happened. He’d gone along with the charade, because if he brought up the subject he knew it would embarrass her and she might put an end to their meetings in the storage closet. That had been his worry, when he was a kid.
Tim rubbed the side of his face, feeling a stab of tenderness for Loretta. He should’ve talked to her, made it clear that she had nothing to fear.
What is Jeannie afraid of? he wondered.
Tim got up and exited the square, passing dog walkers and food trucks. A kid thundered by on a skateboard. Without thinking, Tim took out his phone—a reflex, like scratching an itch—but he saw his face and instantly recalled his situation. “Oh God. It’s still you.”
“What do you want?”
“I want to use my damn phone!”
“Is that your only wish? Come on, dude. You’re on a roll.”
Tim swiped the screen but his face did not yield. He slapped the phone back in his pocket.
On the street he passed a pet boutique, a yoga studio, a closed bookstore. Rounding a corner, it occurred to him that he was only a five minutes from Jeannie’s place. Roaming had taken him this far. Well, hell. He could arrive at her apartment—right on time!—and update her directly. A personal invitation would be better.
“Ring ring,” he’d say.
“Hey!” She would smile. “What brings you here?”
“We got a beautiful emergency.”
Tim turned onto Baywater Boulevard, and soon he reached Jeannie’s building. He knew the four-digit code and let himself into the lobby, then climbed the stairs to the third floor.
He knocked on the door.
A man with a chipped front tooth answered. “Yes?”
Tim took one step backward—for a confused moment he thought that he’d knocked on the wrong door. But no. This was Jeannie’s place, all right. The man wore gold wire-rimmed glasses and a tiger-lily kimono. “Who are you?” Tim asked.
“Who are you?” the man replied.
“Is Jeannie here?”
“No, she’s out.”
“Who are you?”
Footsteps sounded on the stairs and he turned to see Jeannie holding a yellow paper bag, which he recognized as coming from Badou Bakery, the best place in the neighborhood for fresh croissants.
“What are you doing here?” Jeannie asked.
“Didn’t you get my message?”
“Yes, but…listen, Tim, I’m not available. I would’ve let you know if I was. We can talk about it another time, if you like. But you shouldn’t just show up like this.”
“I wouldn’t have, but my phone isn’t working.”
“Whatever. Could you let me pass, please? This is not a good time.”
At first Tim didn’t move but she pressed forward, so he stepped back. There was a determination in her eyes that he hadn’t noticed before. Jeannie entered the apartment, announcing, “Don’t let Lou slip out.” The man closed the door. Tim heard a murmur of voices on the other side, but he couldn’t make out what they were saying.
Before leaving the building, Tim stopped and sat on the stairs. He spent several minutes there, rubbing his knees, breathing hard, trying to collect his composure. A boy with a basketball under his arm ran up the stairwell and then slowed down, staring as he passed, but Tim ignored him.
Later, back on Baywater Boulevard, he pulled out his phone. He wanted to talk to someone. A familiar face. But when he turned on the phone, it wasn’t there.
The streets stretched before him, vast and bright.
Charles Holdefer is the author of novels, stories and nonfiction. He grew up in Iowa and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Sorbonne. He currently teaches at the University of Poitiers, France.
His short fiction has appeared in many magazines, including the New England Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, North American Review, Los Angeles Review, Slice and Yellow Silk. His story “The Raptor” won a Pushcart Prize.
He also writes essays and reviews which have appeared in The Antioch Review, World Literature Today, New England Review, The Dactyl Review, The Collagist, l’Oeil du Spectateur, New York Journal of Books, Journal of the Short Story in English and elsewhere.