The Not-Sad Story About the Very Sad Thing
The coffeeshop at which I write each morning is unusual for Los Angeles. Nothing on the menu has aioli. Nothing is vegan. The muffins, when they have them, are gluten. With dairy. And nuts.
There are a few once-glossy magazines on the table by the door, but they are not about the entertainment industry or expensive cigars or exotic cars, and most are from a long time ago, as is the coffeeshop itself (it is most definitely not a “café”). It’s not trendy, or trendily anti-trendy. It’s just old. It seems strange to call the young man who works the counter a “barista,” so I’ll just call him Mike, which is his name.
There are regulars.
There are the three retired men who bring their own crackers and lox and hard-boiled eggs and mustard and little paper plates, and who laugh and joke and talk about people they know who died.
There is the young Asian-American couple, who come every morning, and who sit side-by-side and radiate joy and never seem to pass a bad word between them.
There is the old hippie with a long silver pony tail who passed out at his table one morning from smoking too much pot in the parking lot before he came in. “Shit’s too strong now,” he said to me a few days later, and we reminisced about the good old illegal skunk days.
And there is an elderly couple, in their eighties, maybe nineties, who come in together every morning; every morning he holds the door for her, and every morning she smiles at the regulars and every morning everyone smiles back.
They shuffle their way to the counter.
“Two mochas,” the elderly woman says to Mike.
Mike knows. He is already working on their coffees, along with their usual pastries.
“And two muffins,” he says. She laughs as if this is the funniest things she has ever heard.
The couple steps to the side and chats quietly while they wait for their order. Sometimes they chat amiably. Sometimes one of them is in a mood. When their order is ready, they carry their cups and plates outside, where they sit at one of the coffeeshop’s small sidewalk tables, watching the traffic and enjoying the sun. If they are amiable, they chat some more. If one of them is in a mood, they chat less. Afterwards she helps him to his feet and they go home.
Yesterday, as Mike arrived for work, he saw her coming down the sidewalk.
“Two mochas?” he asked, pulling the door open for her.
It was only then that he realized she was alone, and that he had never seen her alone.
When she turned to him, tears filled her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
Her husband, she explained, had passed away.
Mike told me about it when I came in and ordered my usual black coffee. It shook me, as it had everyone.
“They’d been together for fifty years,” he said. “So sad.”
“Tragic,” added the woman behind me.
He handed me my coffee. I took it to my usual table, sat down and opened my laptop.
It was time for me to write funny things.
When I was young, I was angry, cynical and possessed of a tragic world view. Life was cruel and people were fools.
As I grew older, though, I realized that most people are angry and cynical and possessed of a tragic world view, and so I was faced with something of a pessimist’s conundrum: if A) people were fools, and B) people tended to be angry and cynical, then C) how could I be angry and cynical without being a fool as well? As George Carlin said, “Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.” It follows, then, that if large groups of people are doing something, it’s probably stupid (check out the Best Seller lists, or box-office hits). Even misery. Misery began to seem easy to me - lazy, dull, obvious, no matter how much the miseries patted themselves on the back for being so insightful and wise. I determined, instead, to laugh – a Vonnegutian laugh, a Beckettian laugh, a Kafkaian laugh – a laugh that doesn’t deny the abyss, it mocks it. The highest laugh, as Beckett put it, the risus puris, the laugh that laughs at that which isn’t funny.
Yesterday, at the coffeeshop, I began to wonder if sadness can be a sort of laziness, too.
“So sad,” Mike had said of the husband’s passing
“Tragic,” the woman behind me had added.
But I wasn’t so sure. Was it “sad?” This man and woman had spent their entire lives together. They had loved and they had laughed, they had been young and they had grown old, they’d had mochas and they’d had muffins. It didn’t seem “sad.” It wasn’t “happy,” but it wasn’t “sad.” It wasn’t “tragic,” either – if he’d died the day after their marriage, that would have been tragic. Nor was it “shocking” or “surprising” or “unbelievable” – he was in his eighties, after all, maybe nineties. It wasn’t even “bittersweet” – what was the bitter part? Death? Death is part of life, of nature. And for fifty years of that life, they loved as most of us would be lucky to for a single day.
It wasn’t sad.
It was beautiful.
I went back to the counter, ordered a croissant (my wife doesn’t like muffins), stopped off to get her some flowers, and hurried home to give them to her.
We’ve been married over thirty years now, Orli and I. We have loved and we have laughed, we have been young and we are growing older. One day, one of us will be that woman, shuffling down the street, her heart heavy, her eyes filled with tears. I hope we’ll know how beautiful we are.
Yours in the fetal position,
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