Short Story – The Late Great Mr. Cobb

I’d like a Cobb salad please, I say, and then add: but no bacon, I’m Muslim.
None of it is technically speaking untrue. I was raised a Muslim and, while I follow none of the tenets, I never bothered to revolt. And I would like a Cobb salad without bacon, because I don’t think salad and bacon go well together. I’m not quite sure why I said the Muslim part. I guess I just don’t want to make a needlessly picky impression. Who am I to question the judgement of the late great Mr. Cobb, whoever he was? I also don’t know why I felt the need to stay within the realm of the technically true. I have nothing against lies, ethically. Just like to keep my stories straight I suppose.

It’s a silly habit, to be honest. Being honest. When Amy called to say that she was having a picnic with Lou and the Dutch twins and asked if I wanted to join and I told her I couldn’t, told her that I was having lunch downtown but that I hoped they would have a great time though – in a friendly but hurried voice meant to imply I was meeting someone, a date perhaps, or an old acquaintance – when I told her that and hung up I could have just stayed at home. Would’ve saved me some time, some money. Instead of the Cobb salad (sans bacon) the waiter is bringing me now, I could’ve bought like half of a paperback novel. Or vaccines for several Ethiopian children. But I didn’t spend the money on those things. I went out to have a Cobb salad for lunch, by myself, in this downtown cafe, on, I suppose, the off chance that Amy and Lou and the Dutch twins forcefully break into my flat to verify the truth of my claims.

They are charming people, really. All four of them. We’d have a lovely time together, I’m sure, if only I could come within fifty feet of her without being consumed by the crushing despair of unrequited desire.

Two tables away from me sit a young girl and a young boy. She has dimples, and when he uncrosses or crosses his arms she does the same. He tells her that he’s tired of bullshit, tired of drama. That he don’t wanna play the games. She nods, slides a finger along the rim of her coffee cup. She doesn’t ask him to clarify what he means. I’m wondering what he means. Perhaps he’s tired of people just looking to get laid when he wants to find genuine romance. Perhaps he’s tired of having to feign romance when all he really wants is to get laid. Either way I’m not judging. At least he’s not eating salad alone and listening to strangers’ conversations.

I used to be into honesty. Been there, done that, didn’t even get a t-shirt. Back when I was younger, and sadder. Back when I read Iqbal and Shakespeare as though doing so was a character strength. I’d lay my heart bare for any girl unlucky enough to stumble into my affection. What could they do but smile and nod and slowly back toward the exit? I discovered self-awareness around the same time I swapped continents. When assembling my new set of friends I would talk about wiping the slate clean, erasing my criminal record. They thought I was joking. They weren’t, technically speaking, wrong.

I still do the honesty bit now and then. A revised version. I’ve heeded the customer feedback to craft a better end user experience. Speaking of social contract, I might say for example if we’re talking about the social contract, now that we’re both dead drunk can I say some things I know I’ll regret tomorrow? And then when I’m done, when I see the awkward silence approaching, I’ll make them agree to a blackout. I’ll joke to assure them it’s ok, that I’m ok, and I’ll hand them some verbal bobby pin with which they can make a graceful escape. It’s not a bad method. In four (4) attempts, it has yielded: one (1) decent talk leading to a good friendship; one (1) good talk leading to a bad friendship; one (1) session of mediocre pity sex. I was close to a fifth try with Amy, but each time she found herself talking to me alone she’d invite a bystander into the conversation. Hey Lou, she would say, we’re talking about the social contract. What was that thing you said before about that Pacific island society?

The girl and the boy have finished their coffees and slices of raspberry pie. As they leave she timidly wraps her fingers around his upper arm. She seems nice. Considerate. Taking the crumbs as they come. It’s easy to be the one baring your throat, it’s harder to be the one asked to tear it out. Sometimes it’s best to make do with ambiguity. To take the hints and quietly show yourself out, have lunch at a downtown café. Sometimes, instead of the truth, you have to tell something that isn’t a lie. That’s what people have done since the dawn of civilization. Who am I to question their judgement?

The waiter picks up the cups and plates and spoons from the other table. While passing he asks if I’m happy with everything. I tell him the salad’s delicious, which isn’t a lie.

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