Fast Food for Thought
Return it. Use the machine. Browse the shelves for something else; it doesn’t matter if you don’t have anything particular in mind. Don’t think about the bookcase at home, full of unread paperbacks bought cheap to fill time and space.
Twenty free minutes on the internet. Decide to read a government report on loneliness. Meanwhile, a teenager is on a low-quality news website reading a story about a couple that had sex in a pizza shop. Remember this trashy tale from a few years ago. Avoid the pull of nostalgia.
Concentrate on your screen. Look at the contents page. Estimate how much of the document can be read before the session expires. Note there are around sixty pages. Scroll down to the first, the foreword. Grimace at the photo of an almost smiling former Prime Minister. Wish you had picked something else but continue regardless. Reach a drawing depicting life events that may lead to people feeling lonely. Look at the almost stick figures and imagine, with ease, this drawing finding its way into your nightmares.
Glance at your watch and realize you have already used half of your allotted time. Scroll through the document to get a feel for what is left. Pause on chapter three which is about community spaces. Read about parks and the rural coffee caravan. Think about the parks you have been to, the benches you have rested on in autumn. Wish you could have done the same in summer. Remember how irritated you felt when they were always taken by families and groups of friends.
Allow moving images to catch your eye. Realize the teenager has found the CCTV footage. Notice him notice you and notice how he does not appear embarrassed. Gain a better view when he angles his screen. Wonder if voyeurs often work in pairs. Observe how the couple look drunk and rowdy, how the man’s face and neck appear very red. Recognize that it’s not just the quality of the video; the staff all look pale and the woman looks like she’s undergone a spray-tan. Wonder why he is so red. See him stood in the doorway, like a big red wedge. Watch a member of staff leave the shop for their delivery bike and have to open the door wide to squeeze past. Raise an eyebrow when the man appears not to notice the door shut on him. Think about the last time you stubbed your big toe on the frame of the shower door; how much it hurt. Your pale face in the mirror. No one to kiss it better.
Keep watching as the woman waves her debit card around like a glow stick. Wonder if this is what they had in mind when they invented contactless card payments. Think about the last time you mopped the kitchen floor as the woman takes a seat on worn tiles. Consider briefly sitting on yours, just once, so that you know you’ve done it. Dismiss this ridiculous idea. Travel back to pre-school as the woman picks up the shop phone and pretends to talk on it for a bit and then puts it in her mouth. Remember that you still have a Swingball set in the garage whilst you watch the woman swirl the telephone above her head by the cord. Decide whether or not this is intended as foreplay.
Shake your head as the big red man holds a big yellow cone horizontally against himself and thrusts away. This is not what the cone was designed for, but he doesn’t care, he is laughing. They are both laughing. Appreciate that the yellow cone was a joke she loved.
Imagine yourself entering a pizza shop with the woman in the video, except it’s a coffee shop and you’re on your own. Think about how rare it is to see someone like you and someone like her together. Consider the pair of you as inanimate objects and acknowledge that it is much harder to think of her this way. Spend some time thinking about it and decide that you would be a grey cardigan and she would be a bright yellow jumpsuit. Imagine the looks you would get and the whispered words you might still hear if people saw you together. Decide it would throw everyone completely, that they wouldn’t even be able to countenance you as colleagues. See it from their point of view; wondering how this loser could afford an escort. Recall your bank balance and the pending transactions. Conclude that it would have to be frozen pizzas if you had company.
Regret not borrowing anything from the library. Crave something to read whilst you sip your flat white. Turn your mind to the woman again. Feel yourself buzzing and fear it’s not just the coffee. Feel ashamed. Break out of the daydream by imagining the woman discarding her unfinished pizza. Hear her raise her voice to show her displeasure over the supermarket fare. Ask her what makes pizzas from big cardboard boxes superior. Hear her citations of perceived peculiarity as you rescue the remains of the dinner she dodged. Watch her open the door and disappear. Take a sip of your coffee. Go over your last thought and decide if it was amusing or sad. Appreciate the importance of possessing a great sense of humor. Hope that you do.
Fail to make the coffee last any longer. Feel obliged to leave. On the way out, walk past the queue of people waiting for their takeaways. Wonder if there could be an opportunity to talk with the woman that served you. Decide there isn’t; she’s too busy. Consider saying thank you, but admit she’s not looking and don’t disturb her. Wonder what you would have said if there wasn’t a queue. Nice coffee! Doubt the sentiment would have advertised your full range of qualities.
Walk home. Try not to notice the litter, the raised voices, the crying children. Focus on the natural world instead. Attempt to convince yourself you’re not staring, that you’re not supposed to always look down at your shoes. See the dark-haired woman sitting in a car on her own, smoking. Wonder if she is listening to a voicemail message through the loudspeaker or if it’s the radio. Hope it’s the radio. Admire the smoothness of her right arm, the one you can see resting on the frame of the open window. Consider the cigarette in her hand and decide that if tobacco advertising was still a thing, no matter how many billions they spent, this scene would be superior to anything the creatives came up with. Distract yourself from thoughts of cancer by marveling at her make-up. Consider it to be professional quality. Don’t think about what you are judging it against. Find yourself overwhelmed by her glamour, just like you did when you saw her in the hospital with a stethoscope resting on her shoulders; her make-up looking just as perfect then as it does now. Fail to envisage it ever coming off.
Plan to read more science books in the future; specifically, those about the brain. Wish you could be shown scans of four brains (yours, the doctor’s and those belonging to the couple from the video) and have the differences explained. Look at your reflection in the windscreen of the next car. Brush your hair down; it’s sticking up above the crown. Plan to spend more time improving your appearance. Make a mental note to Google the term ‘Manscaping’. Kid yourself that this search will be worthwhile.
Reach the point, halfway up the hill, where you can see the apartments. Take a moment. Over sixty people live here, but your apartment is just for you. Know that once inside, everything will be exactly how you left it. Do whatever you want inside. Listen to music, watch TV, whatever you want. Read a book, make some tea, whatever you want.
Unlock the door. Take your phone out of your coat and search for the pizza shop footage. Press play. Wish there was someone here to stop you. Look down at your feet, still inside your shoes.
Slip into something more comfortable. Pull down the blinds. See the traffic cone outside; its reflective tape shining thanks to the lights of a passing car. Resist the urge. Be a better man. Change a phrase to end a phase; be a better, lonely man.
Martyn Greenwood is a librarian living in West Yorkshire, UK. He has had short stories published by Sixth Element (6e) and he occasionally writes about works of fiction set in the Yorkshire seaside town of Scarborough. www.scarboroughfiction.uk is his website.