Taking Oneself Out (to Make It Whole)

“The moment I saw them looking at each other quietly, I knew I would take myself out of this,” she said.

She met me at a chain coffee shop. We sat in an area that used to be a separate smoking room until a few years ago. When I sat down, I could still sniff a tinge of burnt tobacco accumulated in every crevice of this room over who knows how many years. It still amazed me that it had once been completely normal to smoke inside coffee shops in this country.

“You really left and never looked back…”

An offer to study abroad came by, and she took it. Then she found a job. Then she got to stay. Then she got married. Then she got kids. Sure, it wasn’t really literally never going back. She went back to visit families every few years. And the paperwork. And the summer breaks. Along with the challenge to cajole the kids to speak their mother’s languages while in her native land. It’s true that she never caught up with us again. And so, for the sake of storytelling, the so-called essential travels are relegated to the ranks of eating, bathing, sleeping, and pooping, which is to say they don’t deserve any mention.

“How’s your husband doing?”

“He’s doing great. Got promoted to a mid-level manager, and now forty people report directly or indirectly to him. Told me one day that his family had some land in the countryside, and said he would work for another three years, then he’d quit and see what he could do with the land. Or maybe we’ll just move and stay there. To take part in this region revival thing…”

“If I didn’t know you from my previous life and I heard your story now, I would think that the story could have been concluded with something like, and we all know how the story pans out…”

“That’s an interesting point. I have reservations about whether we all know how the story would pan out, but overall I have no complaints.”

“I remember you were very frank with your husband that he was not your first love…”

“What’s that, you have a really good memory.” She laughed.

She told me about that when we met again after those years. She just got married and didn’t have kids yet. She told me how different her husband was from her in every aspect. Like how he accepted his life as is, and how he was always the practical and pragmatic one. Also, he didn’t think too much about marriage. She didn’t know why, but probably because of the knowledge that he didn’t think too much about it, she started talking about her past, out of nowhere, about how many pop songs there were in her native language about first love and its unfulfillment, and then, embarrassed, she didn’t know how to wrap up this topic.

“I remember that. You told me that your husband didn’t listen to pop songs. He told you matter-of-factly that the songs you listened to were mostly covers of the ones that originated in his country…”

“You know what, I wasn’t impressed at all when he said that. He never talked about other people’s countries or cultures or whatever. That was the only time. Now that we brought it up again, there’s something very impishly funny about it.”

“What does your husband think now, though, after these many years?”

“What does he think? He really only told me what he thought once, also many years ago. He said he never listened to pop songs exactly because he didn’t know where he would fit in the stories. There was nothing he would identify with. Then he said, as a descendent of a family with hundreds of years of history, he had no resentment whatsoever at the knowledge that his role was to be a pattern in a long tapestry. No resentment. No emotional ripples. The only thing he wanted, he said, was the continuation of the tapestry. And the best way to ensure that is not to become part of anyone else’s story…”

“Okay. I think I can see that. So for these many years, I never ever asked you, whether you knew what happened to them…”

“I know. It’s impossible that I don’t know. But let’s not summon the ghost. This is an age that everything could be made into a blog post. Or a short video. I simply want to avoid anything that would be construed as what happened next in someone else’s story. I only care about my own future, my zu-kunft, my what-is-yet-to-come. I don’t care about others’ con-sequence, others’ what-came-after-with-that. I’m not interested in being the complement of that con-, that with-….”

I watched her speaking with the technical terms that I hadn’t heard again in years. It made me think of the classes she wanted me to audit with her. Her gesture didn’t change at all, just like how I remembered it as I came in late and sat in the back and saw her in the middle of her presentation…

“I understand.” I sighed.

I drank up my cheap latte. Just then the coffee shop finally remembered the hotdog sandwich I ordered and brought it to our table. I tore open a packet of mustard and squeezed some on the wiener.

As I was about to finish it, the PA started to play this song: “The last kiss of ours, aroma of tobacco / The bitter and sad fragrance / … You are always gonna be the one…”

We stared at each other for a bit. “Oh my goodness,” she said.

“Seems to be the ending credit to get rid of us.” I laughed.

“What about you? Are you able to catch the last train?”

“You’re right. I’d better get going.”

“I’ll ask you out for dinner next time I’m back.”

“And I’ll make sure wherever we go the PA won’t play 90s classics.” I winked.

“That’s reassuring.”