The espresso machine revs, then it whirs, then it sputters and kind of coughs the way an espresso machine might cough if it achieved singularity. Silence. The machine repeats the pattern.
I sit at the other end of the café, by the entrance, where the light is brightest from the big front windows. The espresso machine’s coughing subsides under the clacking and talking and slurping happening around me. I think about how I’ve never had an espresso. I think, also, about disintegration.
She sits across from me smiling. Her cup is blue and bowl-shaped. I also smile, even though my cup, which is smaller and orange, gives me less occasion to.
The coffee here is good, she says.
It was my idea to come here, but not my idea to meet. I agree, in any case. My coffee lost its steam five minutes ago.
Did you hear? she asks, sipping her coffee. Her sip is distinctive. It’s soft and slow but focused, like a high note on a violin or the fading ring of a small bell.
I don’t know, is my response.
I guess you probably heard. People talk, I guess. Even if you tell them not to, they talk.
Maybe I forgot, I tell her.
It’s about 3:30 and a Tuesday. The café is crowded. The patrons are young and well-dressed, at least in the sense that having jeans torn in strategic ways counts as well-dressed. Well-dressed, anyway, for people who have fewer and fewer better places to be.
I don’t think you’d forget this, she assures me. But anyway, I converted to Catholicism.
I hadn’t heard this, I say. Congratulations.
When did this happen?
A few weeks ago. On Pentecost.
Disintegration. How do you disintegrate? Is it an acquired condition — like a virus? like tetanus? Is it reacting to something else? Like when you pour salt on a slug? I think about the time I poured salt on a slug. I’d heard about people pouring salt on slugs and watching them writhe and burn in agony. Once there was a slug on the sidewalk. Seeing my opportunity, I went inside and put a very minor amount of salt in my hand. I crouched down over the slug, going about its business, and dappled its back with the salt. Its skin started to forth, it did not enjoy what was happening to it. I ran back inside to get water and poured it over the slug. I don’t remember it dying, but I don’t remember it doing any good. How I must have looked from a slug’s point of view.
I know in the past that I’ve said some things. Some opinions. About the Catholic Church. Needless to say, I recant those things. I was in a sort of darkness when I said them. But now things are much clearer. She pauses and sips her coffee. They’re … they’re brighter.
Can you disintegrate by choice? Maybe it’s a kind of power. Could there be a superhero whose power is disintegrating? What purpose would that serve? Defense? Diversion? Can the superhero regenerate? They must regenerate. Otherwise it’d be a single-issue comic, a movie with no franchise potential. Is the power inborn? Like a genetic aberration? Is it a skill to be taught? Like telepathy in The Shadow?
I’m in a prayer group now. We meet on Wednesday nights.
It’s mostly women, but some men show up who don’t really do anything. It’s fine, though. I hope they see what we do then go do it at home. Maybe they’re doing it better. I don’t pray enough when no one is around.
Around the world, millions of people are probably at prayer. Some of them must be in solitude.
Yeah, you’re right.
Maybe at their desks at work, thinking it to themselves. Or somewhere where it is night — someone’s awake, troubled, while their partner is sleeping.
Probably in New Zealand that’s happening.
It’s about 9:30 in New Zealand. So they’re doing it in traffic probably.
Anyway, I hope you’re right.
Tomorrow is Wednesday.
I can’t wait! It carries over from our confirmation class. We try to bring new people who we think would be interested. Some people really like recruiting. I like it fine as an idea. Actually doing it is hard for me. It basically amounts to going out and looking for people who are a lot like me, who live in the same kind of darkness I used to live in.
There is a man at the table to the right of me, and the left of her, clacking on and staring at his laptop. His face is that stony, resolute expression used for giving and receiving bad news. We are blocking the light from hitting him. The glow of the laptop on his face makes it appear 10 years older than I suspect it is. I was 26 years old when I tortured the slug.
But how do you explain the darkness to someone going through it? Talking about the brightness isn’t so great either. I know what the brightness looks like and how it feels, but it never measures up to how I say it is to them. And they just wave it away. And if they do come, they sometimes do, they don’t really stay. And what does that say about me?
Some other things I did when I was 26: baked a cake for a romantic interest, got laid off, lost my cat, had two cancer scares, fell for a scam, worked remotely for a shale oil shill, watched a lot of old gameshows, broke up with the romantic interest, planned a spontaneous trip, made out with a standup, considered — somewhat seriously — moving to North Dakota, wrote an angry email to the least-deserving recipient, got laid off again.
I told my mom I was converting just before Easter.
How’d that go?
It went okay. Well, I had a better scenario I wanted to have happen in my head. She didn’t yell. She didn’t cry. She didn’t curse. She didn’t condemn. She just kind of sat there and laughed.
Do you pray before you eat?
Not as much as I should. Never in front of her. We had an argument about the Pope. We have a lot of arguments about the Pope. They begin the same way and end the same way. The only difference is when they start. I never know when an argument about the Pope is going to strike. We could be at the mall arguing about the Pope. We could be at the gym arguing about the Pope. I could be taking her to the doctor arguing about the Pope. I’d be at prayer group arguing about the Pope.
In what sequence can you disintegrate? First I thought from the inside out. I think — assuming you can choose to disintegrate — that is the preferred choice. It is the less immediately alarming, because it is reminiscent of a lot of disease and the basics of decomposition. I think about a fast-motion video of a dead fox or coyote, swelling up and bursting open before disappearing. What is the attraction of disintegrating from outside in? More impact maybe. It makes other people feel complicit if they see it. I think about a snowflake melting; a photograph burning.
I have no strong opinions about the Pope, I tell her.
That’s refreshing even though I wish you hadn’t.
I see the Pope and I see every other Pope. I see the President and I see every other President.
Sometimes you just want someone to be special though, right?
They never seem special, do they? Only until later.
The espresso machine revs up again but immediately sputters. I can hear the tapping of the customer’s finger on the counter. The barista grins nervously as she restarts the machine to the same sad result. I’ve never had an espresso. I know almost nothing about it. I’ve never gone out of my way to order one. Maybe my mom let me have a sip of hers and it just didn’t take. I’ve never gone out of my way to see a therapist either. It’s clear that the espresso machine is done for. If I wanted an espresso on this day, and came here in hope of getting one, I would be very unlucky.
Yeah, maybe you’re right. My mom, though. I don’t know what to do.
Pray for her?
Sometimes I don’t feel like I’m ready.
How does that work?
When I find out, I’ll let you know.
Without context it feels like you’re talking about a maze.
She laughs and sips loudly.
Have you confessed?
Since converting? Not yet. I’m still practicing.
Disintegration, I thought, feels like a slow dissolve. Like you are a fizzy drink and you are getting flatter. Or you’re fading out. I think differently now, with the expectant clarifications wrought by maturity and by lived experience. Disintegration is more profound than that. I can’t really describe it. It doesn’t really hurt in the way that most deterioration hurts. It doesn’t look how you’d expect it to look. No dramatics, no fireworks. It’s anticlimax at its finest.
Which I mean to say, I’m still working up the courage.
I want to mention this to her, about what I thought disintegration felt like versus how it actually feels. It’s a brilliant, vital thought with many meanings.
Meanwhile, I try to manage my sins as best I can.
This coffee is good.
You didn’t need to tell me all that.
Maybe. I’m glad I did.
… yeah … still …
So how are you?
The espresso machine is beyond hope.