Surprisingly, on that very morning, fresh sunlight was indeed pouring through the main avenue. A pattern of lights and shadows stretched the silhouette of the street and that of its varied occupants. From the passers-by to the light poles and the moody parked cars and proud fire hydrants, everything and everyone was basking in the brisk air. The minutiae of city life showed up in vividness: pigeons went so far as to delay their next flap to admire the view, trash cans were left aghast while peeking from their dark corners, and tree branches went limp with a sigh of painful covetousness. It was one of those days.
For a few brief moments that morning, the world was set afire by a sense of wonder. Not a soul dared break the spell. It is said that even the trove of delivery men busying themselves to and fro were tiptoeing from one elusive door to the next, scratching their head in perfect unison each time they wove across the road. Light bounced, taunting the shop windows whose glare cross-fired in random directions. Sunshine highlighted the texture of the sidewalk in all its glorious granularity. The unevenness of the concrete laid down just the previous spring was now apparent. It was a moving sight to suddenly realize that all year long you were trampling and shuffling over a piece of man-made ground. Curiously, a few feet from the first step leading to the square’s gate, you could decipher in the very pavement the imprint of a boot and the congealed movement of the wooden float used by the worker in-charge of smoothing out this particular section of the sidewalk.
At first sight, all those who were present were enchanted. All were grateful to witness such a spectacle. A confused feeling of hope and opportunism pervaded the air. It was, indeed, one of those days. But soon, drifting smiles made way to a tensing at the corners of the mouth; teeth began to grind; some people snapped out of their dream-like state and burrowed their head in the consequences of the choices they had made so far, picking back up their pace to go head on with the seriousness of their affairs. Others were left blinking for an instant before casting a furtive glance towards those who were grinning at them, looking back longingly at the others who dared remain still a few more seconds, rapt in the beauty of it all. A few brave ones stood their ground: they watched as the light fleeted away, wading in the melancholy coursing through their veins. But all were privy to a common knowledge, a shared experience, as if they had seen each other naked, as if stripped of their pretensions and clunky illusions, they had felt that life was elsewhere. They had then all moved on with a part of them left numb by this realization. Not one them knew how to recapture that feeling nor what they would do if they happened to succeed. It was already gone, elsewhere forever. It was only to be remembered.
As if on cue, a taxi swerved towards the embankment and settled itself to a purr. Right on time. There was no turning back now. She was probably waiting already.
The dean was standing on the steps to the entrance hall. She radiated pride and authority. Today was the day. Years of work and discipline hinged on the success of today’s events. Her welcoming words were formal but he perceived a touch of excitement. The place was quite different, most probably because people were now looking at him. It wasn’t par for the course. He had always felt ignored here in the past. Yet, he was ready. “Follow us this way, sir. We are all looking forward to it.”
“I am honored to be among you today in order to celebrate the closing of a meaningful chapter in your life, and to welcome with open arms, and debt-burdened backs, the coming of a new age for all of you, minus one or two cynical souls already bereft of misguided desires and unsound faith in what’s to come.
Decades ago, it was I who stood silent while a far more qualified alumnus kept on rambling about the future and the many hopes that were there along for the ride. Just like you today, I was doubly bored by the certainty that life was not only awaiting elsewhere and elsewhen, but I was also, and above all, eager to finally experience the actualization of a long hoped-for date with Nancy – 5 p.m., at the luncheonette on the corner of Expectation Street and Melancholy Avenue. If by chance, one of you happens to also be looking forward to your date with one named Nancy, this speech should prove to be oddly memorable if a little uncomfortable. For all the others, well… patience shall bring its own reward.
Focus, dedication, and entrepreneurship had been the three friends I most cherished during my years in the very buildings that surround us, and thanks to which I managed to successfully secure, by the end of my studies, the aforementioned date. I guess other qualities were imparted to me by the many teachers and classes I attended over the years but I wouldn’t dare to name any of them for lack of any clear recollection.
But I digress.
When I received a formal invitation by the Dean to join you all today and contribute to the festivities with an uplifting speech and a joke or two to boot, I first refused nonchalantly as a way to disguise my having no clue what to tell you. In short, I tried to pull off the same routine I had already employed with Rebecca, Nancy’s cousin on the mother’s side, when she invited me to the movies. In either case, my strategy ultimately failed because in the end I had nothing better to do, or to go to, then and now — and by now both Nancy and her cousin have long moved on with their lives, and I with life as it so happens.
Graduation day sure is a strange beast of a day. A lot has been said on the matter and I could – as I thought I would the instant I had made up my mind to show up – take part in the discussion and share with today’s assembly my personal insights. What I will say, though, is that this magical day should be included in the list of legal holidays that we, the people, have a right to enjoy and freely make use of in order to observe our shared if imperfect humanity – or is that the other way around? Almost all aspects of our modern life, life in society, are celebrated by a dedicated day: work, love, memory, so on and so forth until death do us part. But what about our crushed and depleted dreams? We know how to acknowledge the life that was, the world that can be and will be as long as we maintain course (if such a mirage ever held any distant truth), but I would argue that the existence that might have been is also part of who we are, and where we are as a people and individuals. So, how about a day, a single day each year, dedicated to celebrating our futures that never were or could have been? Since the only potential slot in the calendar was, it turned out, already occupied by Pizza day, I have no choice but to relocate the active remembrance of who we were to be on Graduation Day.
It goes without saying that I won’t dwell on who I have become and what I have done since it was my turn to leave those sacred educational grounds because, in a way, I am merely one of you who’s been gratified with the chance to address you. All I can tell you is that I am a proud and relieved graduate of this very school that we, this glorious scholastic wayward community, hold dear.
Much like today, the day I remember is cool and the light incandescent. My pals and I are sitting at the eastern extremity of the lawn, straddling the terminator that divides the part of the lawn hiding under the languid shade of the ancient oak trees and its calcinated counterpart fizzling out in the open. The optimist in me listens dreamily to the speech being delivered, unbeknownst to him that he would one day have to do the same, and instead thinks about his upcoming life as a man; a life of adventure, surprise, and unending potential. Graduation is all but the end for him, merely a formal way to start living on one’s own terms. But he realizes that for some, this is it and this baffles him. How could this be enough? How could one be satiated by those few years of pseudo liberty and half-baked discoveries nudging him to a broader world awaiting beyond? For him, a path of invention and self-transformation is what truly awaits outside the yellowish spread of those decorous and, surprisingly, intimate grounds. And it all starts with Nancy, or so he thinks. But Rebecca is the one he can see. Not too far off in the distance, she is standing closer to the wooden stalls that enclose the area that make up the outer shell of the precious diamond on Saturdays when the local team fends off its own doubts and demons, one strike at a time like a not so precise clock. What is she thinking at this point, he wonders? Is she worrying about her future self or only basking happily in the sunlit glory of her diploma near at hand? All around, faces are smiling, fingers are twitchy and the luster of our robes flicker in as many shingles of light as when desperate salmon jump their way upstream – back to where it all began. Up, up and away until they may per chance meet the secure footing of an insolent and bullying dam. The effervescence of the hydraulic jump disguises the plenitude of still water up above, licking tastefully the edge of the concrete belt withstanding arrogantly the pressure. The peacefulness of contained water upstream; the chaotic playfulness of fresh water gushing out downstream. What will it be? What should it be? And now the Dean has stepped forth, inviting us to take a good long look at each other for one last time, thus contemplating the ebullient pool of our hesitant beginnings. Here in the security of camaraderie and studentship we have been fraying in the safe waters of our enclosed world. But tomorrow, the world outside shall intervene and decide for us… unless…
But why reminisce when you can go ahead with your life. That’s why I want you to think of all the future that were once potential – of all your futures that are still possible, and forever will. What call are your hearing? the reassuring murmur of the upstream water, or the tentative roar downstream?
In many ways, I am still struggling to decide which way to go, still standing on the lawn, here among you, and trying to figure out the where and when and whys of my being. Ever since that fateful day of graduation, my whole being has shrieked in its contradictions, to paraphrase a fellow human being more deserving to be quoted than I, though I forget his name. The advent of my self-actualization hasn’t come to pass, yet – at least not that I am aware of. But despair not, is my advice for today and years to come. Because one day you might be asked to deliver a speech to a new generation, looking up at you with avid eyes and twinkling hopes, and at no point should you contemplate admitting of having given…”
“And then you stopped.”
“That’s right, I gave up.”
“Lemme ask you”
“Why? Well, ain’t that the question?” The man was fidgeting with the spoon he had previously used to smooth out the layer of foam circling round inside his coffee cup. “They used to give you a spoon whether you planned to add sugar or not. It felt like something special, a careful mark of attention. A trifle but no less symbolic. No wonder whole societies are woven around the delicate relationship between coffee and spoons. Now, I have to go out of my way to ask for a spoon when there’s none. I don’t think it’s fair that spoons should only be given to a select few.” His eyes drifted towards the window, his face bearing the projected stamp mark of the backlit sign engraved on the glass. “I’ve never been a smoker but boy do I like the idea, the accessory.”
“At least, they are not forcing you to drink your black coffee outside,” the other man said wryly.
“Can’t argue with that,” said the other with a congenial smile. “Although the weather has been particularly nice, of late,” he added wistfully.
“I wouldn’t know, we editors are…”, the barking of a dog erupted behind the small nook where they sat. An uneasy look flashed between two waitresses who attended tables a few rows over. He cleared his throat, as if resetting the scene. “So, what happened today?”
“I told you, I could not do it. I’m not sure exactly why.” Gliding by, a waitress deposited a small plate on their table. Although her hands were full and her arms covered with plates, her movement were graceful and fluent. Only the treble of the fork indicated that the plate had not appeared magically.
“There you go, apple pie. Want me to fetch you a second fork?”
“No thank you, I’m here for the coffee,” replied the editor, raising his cup gently as proof.
A few moments trickled down while the other took a bite, impressing the tines of the fork on the crumb left behind. His attention seemed distracted by the TV perched above the counter, leaning down as if to sniff at the smell of coffee billowing out of the espresso machine purring underneath. He finally broke out: “To tell you the truth, I never finished the damn thing. I thought I would… could, but there was no point.”
“You could at least have given it a try… I mean, a few concluding words would have been enough. Better than…”
“Better than fleeing? I’m sure you would have preferred that.”
“Well, yes. But it’s not about me. Sure, it’s a mess. It’s a fine mess if you ask me, but I’m used to it by now. And as we both know, that’s what I’m here for. No. What I can’t grasp is why wait until the very day.”
“If not the very day, then when? Timing is key, you of all people should know it.”
“Except it’s not a joke. You may not care but it’s not just about you. It’s an embarrassing situation for all of us and now we have to deal with the consequences.”
“As you said, that’s what you’re here for.”
“Shut up and hand me the plate, will you?”
Amused, the other man darted his eyes back to him, before nudging the plate slowly forward. “One of those days, huh?”
“One of those days, you betcha”. He then axed a piece of pie with the side of the fork and picked it up with one fell swoop. “This one’s on you, buddy,” he said while pointing the fork. “If I’m not allowed to kill myself with smoking, I might as well do it stuffing my body.”
“That’s a sound alternative, can’t argue with that.” The man eyed the bag of a customer sat at the counter. The day’s paper was sticking out. “Anything yet?” he asked while directing his companion’s attention towards the bag.
“Not yet,” answered the editor while swiping his mouth. “Don’t fret, it’ll come soon enough.”
“I want you to know, it wasn’t out of spite. When they asked me, she, I thought ‘what the hell, alright’. But the more I wrote, the less I could go through with it.” Another waitress swung by to refill their cups. The editor covered his with his right hand. While the dark liquid was being served, the other looked outside pensively. He was biting his lower lip. He then erupted: “Give me a break, who am I to tell those kids what’s coming? I’m nobody! Do you know anything? because I sure don’t. Of course, people ask me what I think of this, of that, how come, why. And since I went through the same place, I’m obviously in a great position to guide them? Why do people put so much pressure on everyone? I’m a fraud, don’t they get it? That’s the whole point!”
“Not a fraud. You’re a pain in the ass, though.”
“Why do you think I write? I don’t know what else. Can’t be bothered to do something different. It’s all gestures. It’s all make-believe. I pretend and I’m good at it.” A kid behind the counter switched channels. Today’s game, not the news. “Those kids… they deserve better. I should never have agreed. While writing it, I had fun, that’s what’s troubling me. Well, troubled. Once I realized how much fun I was having, I had to stop. It was all fake so I threw everything away and never looked back.”
“Threw everything. You mean there’s nothing to salvage? Let me get this straight: not only did you not show up at the event while everyone was waiting for you there, but you went so far as throwing everything away for good measure? Nothing left?”
“Not one bit. I was ashamed with myself. Could not stand the sight of the thing.”
“And here I came thinking we could work something out, provide them with a… Damn, now I do have to smoke.”
“That’s a poor excuse, you know.”
“Well, I clean up your mess as long as you write. But when you don’t, and I need a smoke, you just pay the bill and follow me outside.”
“Fair enough.” On the lookout for a waitress’s look, he stretched his neck.
“I tell you, you better come up with something. Anything. But first I gotta take a leak. Be right back.”
“Want anything else?”
“I would like the bill and one last coffee–to go, please.”
He was not used to drinking that much coffee after 2 pm but today was different. The cold outside was the main reason why he doubled down on coffee, but he also needed something to do with his hands. He always felt the need to toy with something. How dumb people looked when they walked with their arms limp along their body! Probably why pockets were first invented, he thought.
“There you go, 2.25 please.”
“Is that all?”
“Well, I expected…”
“Want to pay more? I recommend the apple pie, still warm.” She pointed to the revolving display case that was lodged in a corner.
“It sure looks delicious, but I’m good. Maybe next time.”
“I’ll be here.”
He ruffled in his pocket looking for change. He finally handed her a crumpled bill.
“What have we got here,” she said as she flattened it out by stretching it on the edge of the tabletop. “So here’s 2.50 and,” she leaned back while peeking down her wallet, “3, 4 and 5; there you go, that’s for you.” She deposited the change in neat stacks on the table. “Your companion’s not here today?”
His gaze went automatically to the restroom door but he corrected the trajectory and looked up at her. “I’m afraid not. Too cold and too far. I would not want his paws to freeze, he’s not used to it.”
“He’s a good boy, you know. We all love him around here. Never barks, never jumps. Just fond of him, really. Perfect customer.”
“I’m glad. I’ll make sure to tell him.”
She smiled: “Yes, you do that. See you two tomorrow then,” she quickly added as she stacked the plates on her tray.
“The weather’s supposed to thaw up. Sunshine and warmer days coming in.”
“Is that so? Well, I don’t see why not then.”
She started to retreat but turned round suddenly. “Can I ask you something?”
She caught him shuffling with his coat and bag. “Fire away.”
“I could not help but notice, earlier,” she observed while pointing at his note pad with her own. “Anything good today?”
“Well, it was one of those days.”
“I’ve seen worse but it wasn’t what I had hoped for.”
“May I ask you what you’re writing?”
“I’m not entirely sure, to be frank.” He leafed despondently through the first few pages of his notepad. “It’s supposed to be a speech, graduation speech. That was the initial idea, at least.”
“That so?” she smiled, turned to go but stopped half-way. “There’s an awful lot of talking… for a speech, I mean.”
“I guess that’s true. It’s become its own thing. I can’t help myself, monologues are not my cup of tea.”
“So you’d rather have people talk and drink coffee,” she added before she could check herself. She quickly went on: “I’m sorry, I could not help hear you talk over the phone earlier.”
“The coffee’s an excuse, actually. As it often is.” Like a judge ordering silence with the gavel, a busboy hammered down the portafilter repeatedly. They both smiled.
“So instead of writing your speech, you come here to drink coffee and write about people getting coffee instead of writing.”
“Not entirely, you forgot the pies.”
“Silly me, the pies, of course!”
“Actually, most of you,” he waved around, “are in it, too”.
“Am I in it?”
“Not sure yet,” he said teasingly.
“And what’s it called?”
“That remains to be seen. For now, the working title’s ‘graduation date’. But things tend to change.”
“Graduation date, as in d.a.t.e., really?”
“I’m afraid, yes. Don’t like it much, do you?”
“Permission to tell you the truth?”
“I thought so. Any suggestion?”
“Graduation day, plain and simple.”
“It doesn’t help that it’s the name of this place,” he said while looking around. “So much for originality.”
“Well, I like it. That’s my two cents. Take it or leave it, I don’t mind either way.”
“I’ll think about it.” He finally stuffed his bag with today’s paper. “Gotta go.”
“Just one moment, you ordered a coffee to go, remember?” Three nimble steps and she was behind the counter.
Meanwhile he strengthened the knot of his scarf and adjusted the strap of his bag.
“There you go.” She quickly added, “I’m certain I’m in it now.”
“Your book, I’m owed a mention now, don’t you agree?”
“Only time will tell if it’s a book or not,” he quickly retorted with a smile. He grabbed the cup from her hands and pushed the door open. Just as he was leaving, she called out: “And good luck with your speech, I’m sure you’ll finish it and they’ll love it.”
“I’m not sure it’s ever been meant to be finished,” he replied with his eyes turned to the sky. “Just a doodle, to pass the time.” He looked up and frowned. “Difficult to believe tomorrow’s forecast”, he added while stepping over a weeks old snow bank. He then turned to her and raised his arms: “But what do I know?”