by Doug Jacquier
I don’t know why I keep coming to this café. In fact I do, but that’s what I used to say ritualistically when I met friends there occasionally and they complained about the espresso coffee (too much or too little crema), the unsmiling service provided by the grandchildren of the original Italian owners, and the mass-produced tasteless cakes.
“I don’t know why,” I would say, and mumble self-deprecating words of mock embarrassment that varied from “Force of habit,” to “I love the irony of the unchanged tacky 70’s décor,” to “Loyalty to the memory of Franco and Nina, who fed me often when I was an impoverished uni student.”
But I do know why. It is here that I had my first coffee after moving to the inner city to escape family, suburbia, and the single-track lives of my young adult friends and their focus on replicating themselves and their parents interminably.
It is here that I first experienced what “home” might be like in another universe. It is here that I talked volubly and naïvely with my university student friends about revolution. It is here where we planned protests. And it was from here that we went home to each other’s share houses, smoked dope, and fornicated with each other in a type of serial group monogamy.
It is here, many years later, that I brought my future wife and Franco and Nina fussed over us because they sensed that this was my way of saying, “This the one.”
It is here that I came after the divorce. She said that she wanted deliverance from the black hole of my world processor of existential angst. She said she could no longer wear the nun’s habit of disciplined vows and hard, self-made beds. She said she should have gone years ago, having seen my Janus faces of laughter and despair. Franco and Nina let me sit on one cup of coffee for several hours as I watched couples stroll past, kissing and laughing in the weak winter sun.
And it is here that I came after my father’s funeral, instead of going to his cliché-driven memorial service. My siblings knew that I would abandon them to the fairy tales of my father’s goodness and virtue, delivered by women in obligatory black and men in old, too-tight suits and black ties.
I imagined that some would attend just to be absolutely sure he was dead. Some would be there because they were related to him in some way, or worked with him, or drank with him.
None would be suffering under any delusion that Dad gave a damn about them. They knew he was the epitome of malevolence toward all people and all things that were not centred on him and his desires.
They knew that he had never uttered a solitary word of praise or admiration about anyone, unless it was followed by a stiletto dipped in venom, sunk deep and twisted.
They knew it was a never-ending drip of misery and disappointment for Mum. They knew why us kids took off at the first opportunity and rarely looked back. They knew that on those rare occasions when we did, it was for Mum’s sake that we coped temporarily with the barrel of bile that Dad had been saving up. They pretended she hadn’t taken her own life while consoling themselves that she was now at peace.
But they came to Dad’s funeral anyway. To pay their respects.
In his last days at home and after he went into permanent care, Dad held court with anyone who was paid to pretend to listen. He was absurdly old when he put down the TV remote for the last time at 99.
Toward the end, I agreed to visit him, with my siblings. His parchment skin bruised at the slightest touch. The lingering smell of incontinence drifted through the corridors, despite all attempts to mask it. Immigrant staff did their best to be kind when feeding mush into one end and wiping it up at the other. Eventually he just sat, vacant but seemingly anxious and recognizing no-one, including us, his own family, which seemed to me to have an element of continuity.
These days, I only come to the café alone. I do not lie to myself about what this café means. I know it is simply a familiar shell into which, like the hermit crab that I have become, I scurry, knowing full well it is a home borrowed from someone else’s past.
That past is mine. One filled with desperation to be as unlike my father as I possibly can; one filled with self-loathing when his genes ambush me unprepared; one filled with yearning for someone I could trust to understand the legacy my father left me, and let me use him as an excuse for my self-inflicted failings.
In my retirement village, as I slide inexorably into more intrusive levels of care that involve a revolving door of underpaid strangers paid to be patronizingly respectful, I cling to the last of my freedom and capacity to shuffle with my walker to this café. It is all of me that is left.
Doug Jacquier is a former not-for-profit CEO who lives with his wife on the Fleurieu Peninsula in South Australia. He’s lived in many places, including regional and remote communities, and has travelled extensively, especially in Asia. His poems and stories have been published in Australia, the US, the UK, Canada, and India. He blogs at Six Crooked Highways.
photo credit: Doug Jacquier
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Brutally frank but authentic and well written. Thank you.