“That’s what I mean.”
“That thing you used to do when you were thinking, scratching the rim of the coffee mug.”
“I just did it.”
“No – not the same. It’s different, how you’re doing it now.”
Thomas examined his fingernail and leaned back in the chair. He’d come to the coffee shop to meet his girlfriend, Carlotta, because she needed to speak to him. There was an urgency in her voice over the phone, so he took lunch earlier than usual and met her. It was the coffee shop they frequented on weekends when they wanted to have a tranquil time reading or playing cribbage.
“So, I do it different now. What’s that got to do with it?”
“I’m concerned. You’ve changed and you’ve been hard to connect with. And this–” she said, gesturing at his mug, “is a perfect example.”
“You miss the way I once scratched my mug?”
“This is serious. Here’s what I mean, again.”
Thomas thought for a moment. There wasn’t much he could think of that has changed about himself recently. It’d been same old, same old. Nor could he think of some hint or clue, something Carlotta said or did, that indicated a conversation like this was on the horizon.
“I’m trying to understand,” said Thomas, rubbing his face. “Can you give me some other examples? Like, a big example – not mug stuff.”
“It’s everything, Thomas. It’s the mug. It’s–”
“Listen, if you want to cut it off, just say so… I know I’m not that funny.”
“It doesn’t matter if you’re not funny, Thomas,” she said, looking around.
“I’m just not a funny guy. I know it’s harder to be around unfunny people,” he said.
“See – there you go, scratching the mug.”
Thomas stopped scratching. “So, should I scratch or not scratch?”
“The Thomas I knew… well, sometimes he would scratch the mug and sometimes he wouldn’t,” she said, her voice trailing off as she stared at his finger resting on the lip of the mug. “It’s breaking my heart,” she said as she stood up. “Think about it, okay? I don’t want to lose you… but all these changes.”
She left the shop and left Thomas to stew in his bewilderment. He finished his coffee, bought a croissant to munch on at work, then headed back toward the office. That evening, when he got home, he gave Carlotta a call but she didn’t pick up.
The next day when Thomas got to work, his boss called him into his office. Before he could take off his coat, still dripping from the rain, he was sitting down before his boss’s desk. Sitting beside his boss was a colleague of Thomas’, who over the past year had become Thomas’ closest friend in the office. They’d go out habitually on Friday to the bar down the street, where they’d chat or watch a game or share a meal.
Now his friend, Fred, sat somewhat slouched, a stony expression carved on his face.
Thomas looked between the two, waiting for one of them to say something. After a moment of silence, Thomas began, “If this is about leaving early for lunch yesterday, I–”
“No, no it’s not about that,” said the boss. “I was speaking to Fred here the other day. I knew you two are close, and I wanted to pass something by him.”
“Alright,” said Thomas.
“I wanted to ask him if I was right to think there’s been a change in you,” said the boss. “When I asked him, well, Fred, why don’t you…”
Fred said, “I told him yeah, Thomas. Something had changed with you lately.”
Thomas felt a reflux rising in his throat. He began to race through his memories of work over the past couple weeks. He wracked his mind for something out of the ordinary, but again he could think of nothing, nor could he think of some time he might have noticed he’d inadvertently put someone off.
“So, what do you mean, changed?” asked Thomas.
The boss and Fred exchanged glances.
“You don’t know what we’re talking about?” asked the boss.
“Well, I guess – I’m just looking for clarification.”
“Thomas,” started Fred, “it’s just, everything.”
Thomas shifted his legs around and a pool that had accumulated on his coat poured into his lap. “If it’s about leaving early, I can’t really remember when else I’ve–”
“See, that’s just it,” said the boss. “The Thomas I know would on occasion be late or early… but this.” He put his hands up in supplication, then set them down in his lap.
“If you need me to come in early…” said Thomas.
“You’re not listening to the man,” said Fred. “We’re concerned for you, Tom.”
“All these changes,” said the boss. “I want to keep you around. I really do, but these changes… it makes me wonder about your future with the company.”
They adjourned the meeting, everybody shaking their heads. Thomas went to the bathroom and padded at the wet spot of his pants with a paper towel. Little linty bits of brown paper clung to his pants. He quietly returned to his desk, contemplating his sudden fate as a sexless, friendless, and possibly jobless version of Thomas.
His parents were coming into the city on Friday, so he had to cancel his usual outing with Fred.
“Unbelievable,” said Fred.
The remainder of the week skidded by and Friday arrived. He met his parents at a restaurant close to his apartment. Their wedding anniversary was coming up, and he decided to surprise them with a little gift. It was two tickets to a production of Much Ado About Nothing. He remembered his dad telling him about their first date going to see the production. Incredibly, the same director that had done the one they saw all those years ago was coming out of retirement for one more season, recreating the previous production that had made such a splash back then.
He kept the tickets in his inside coat pocket and planned to wait for the right moment to present them.
They took a table in the back of the restaurant, not far from the table they’d first sat at when he was showing them around his neighbourhood.
“You two want drinks?” said Thomas as he scanned the menu.
“No, that’s alright,” said Mom.
“Dad, I think you’d like this one,” said Thomas, pointing to a beer on the menu, turning the menu so Dad could see.
Dad glanced at it. He did not put on his reading glasses. “That’s alright, Tom.”
The waiter came for the orders, and they sent for water.
“I wanted to talk to you two about something, from way back,” said Thomas.
“So do we,” said Mom. “We’re a little – concerned.”
Thomas experienced another attack of reflux. Now his parents, talking about – he couldn’t conceive of it. “Nothing to be concerned about,” said Thomas.
Mom clucked her tongue. “Thomas, ever since – well for quite some time now, we’ve been worried. There’s just been… a change in you.”
“What, what change?” said Thomas. “Please, be specific.”
“You said you wanted to talk about something way back, Tom. Well, she’s trying to say she wants to talk to Tom from way back.”
“You know, he’s always been a very serious person,” said Mom to Dad.
“Have I been unserious?” asked Thomas.
“No, no, you’re still serious,” said Dad.
“How way back? When did you notice in me – well, what?”
“I called Carlotta,” said Mom.
“I was worried, so I called her, and she said the exact same thing. It was almost a relief.”
“What did she say?”
“She said what we said,” said Dad.
“What was that?”
“I see you’re getting agitated, Thomas,” said Mom. “We just want to make sure you’re alright, and the way things have been going…”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t know what Carlotta’s talking about.”
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Dad was about to speak, but Mom put her hand on his hand. The waiter returned and they ordered. They ate with little conversation, mostly initiated by Thomas over mundane topics. It went fast and the bill came and went.
“Just think about what we said, honey,” said Mom. Thomas hugged his parents goodbye and started his walk home. He felt his chest and realized the tickets were still in his pocket.
After some time, Thomas gave up trying to sift through his memory. In every way he appeared to be as reasonably consistent as any normal individual. Some change here and there, yes, and some novelty of course, but to lack that would be abnormal.
He began working at a different desk in an area that once held other employees before the cuts were made a couple years back. He took his lunch at the desk and no longer solicited Fred to hang out Friday nights or call his girlfriend to set a date for dinner. After the initial sting of lonesomeness, he became more accustomed and started enjoying the solitude.
All the while he knew, he’d have to start speaking to his friends and family, and Carlotta. He tried, too. He would speak to Fred in the idle hours of the middle of the day, and he’d called Carlotta and chat as he ate dinner alone in his apartment. Never though was he feeling the same connection he once did. There was a distance in their voices. Fred would look at him, and so would Carlotta when they saw one another, as if they were looking at an old photograph.
He started doubting himself again. Again, he rummaged through his memories, even comparing texts from the past to the present. He could find no evidence of any significant change. His beliefs remained the same, more or less. His habits, more or less. His appearance, more or less. His sense of humour, the exact same.
He even tried to hold vague conversations with his parents, Fred, and Carlotta about how he was going to ‘put the past behind him’ and ‘go back to the way things once were’. They would all ask him more or less the same thing: ‘What do you mean, specifically?’ To which of course he was unable to supply an answer. The conversation would end with a disappointed, ‘Thomas’ or ‘Tom’ and a long silence.
Again, he abandoned the doubting and puzzling and went on with his quiet life. It might have gone on that way for a long time after had it not been for a chance encounter with Carlotta. He was at the grocery store in the produce when he spotted her at the cashier. She was talking to the man behind her. He pointed at something in her groceries on the conveyor belt and she laughed. She pointed at something in his groceries and he smiled.
He had to take action. They wanted ‘old Tom.’ Well, he didn’t know what the hell they meant, but maybe he’d try something radical. He called up Fred, a good guinea pig for the new strategy: “I’ve thought long and hard and I’ve decided – well first don’t try to talk me out of it, but – I have finally heard what you’ve been saying to me, and – it’s not just about going back to how things once were but growing also, so – I’ve decided to convert to Islam.”
Fred was a little confused, he admitted, but truthfully his sense of relief overpowered his confusion. He was still surprised – a little out of left field, Tom – but he was happy to see his friend finally coming to terms with reality.
He waited until the next day when he would see Fred at work just to make sure things were fine.
“Hey, Habibi!” said Fred. “Glad you’re back. Glad you’ve figured it out for yourself.”
“Hey, man, whenever you want to join me…” said Thomas.
Fred chuckled. “I’m good, man, I’m good.”
He called his parents after work that day. “Can you put me on speakerphone? Mom, you hear me too? Well, I was thinking about how we left off our last conversation, and I’ve felt bad about being so sharp with you two when you were just trying to help, and, well – I want you to know I finally hear you, and before you say no, I want you to know this is about remembering how I was and how you raised me, and – this may seem a little out of left field, but – I’ve decided to register as a Republican – It’s going to be a big part in my life now.”
His parents were a little surprised, they said at first, but they reasoned with one another that even if this seems like a big change – they knew his beliefs, and even admitted that he had been responsible for changing their views on a few things, and those didn’t really connect with Republicans as much – but now they felt they knew Thomas was coming back to himself and the way they knew and raised him, and they would support and cheer this new change in his life.
He called Carlotta. “Babe, I’m sorry. I know you’ve been worried, and I just want you to know I hear you now. I know you talked to my mom and that – that means a lot, about how worried you were. I really want to make this work, but I need to work first, right, so – and this’ll seem kind of wild but – I’ve decided to start a non-profit.”
Carlotta was startled, but she was glad to hear Thomas was back to his regular self. She could hear it in his voice even and – although he had never once mentioned starting a non-profit, and that he wasn’t particularly good with money – she couldn’t wait to help him start putting his ideas to paper and figuring out what it would take. Maybe he could start small and build it into something great. She wanted him to come to her place and bring his overnight bag.
Thomas had created a problem for himself that was at least no larger than the problem he had before and just as resolvable as the first. He thought back about pranks. It occurred to him he had never pulled a prank before – which might be a good explanation as to why he now had no understanding about how to conclude it, but he had Carlotta back, and Fred and his parents.
That week he went out with Fred on Friday as usual and he kept calling him Habibi. Thomas wanted to get bacon on his burger but now felt he couldn’t. That’s when it dawned on him that sometime soon he would have to admit he was not becoming a Muslim or a Republican or a non-profit owner.
Another week passed and he still had no way to conclude the prank, which he wasn’t quite sure qualified so much as a prank as an outright lie. He considered the possibility of simply becoming all three, thus rendering it no longer either a prank or, more importantly, a lie. Although then he would be faced with a lifelong prank and lie against himself. Clearly that was no way to live.
The dam broke at last when Thomas arrived home late the next Friday when he fell backward and hit his head hard against the doorframe to his apartment.
‘Surprise!’ everybody screamed. Carlotta threw confetti, Fred launched a cork from a bottle of brut, and his parents looked on him lovingly. Even the boss was there, munching on a cookie at just the wrong moment and impaired in his ability to shout, ‘Surprise!’
Carlotta went to Thomas and ushered him in, kissing him on the cheek.
“What’s all this?” asked Thomas.
“Well, me and Fred were talking, and we decided it would be so great to show you our love by throwing a surprise party to celebrate your big move,” said Carlotta. She kissed him on the cheek again, and Thomas reflux acted up.
“We’re so, so proud of you,” said Mom.
“Seriously, it’s pretty wild but I think you’ve done the right thing,” said the boss. “Surprise!”
“Thank you, everyone… I’m…”
“You’re so lucky to have an understanding girlfriend,” said Dad.
“Oh, I know it’s a big risk,” said Carlotta to Dad, “but I believe in him.”
“Is there some kind of crazy initiation?” asked Fred.
“No, you just sign up,” said Dad.
“Really, just like that?” said Fred.
“Sign up?” asked Carlotta. “Sign up for what?”
Dad looked at Carlotta, crooking his brow.
“You mean, for a loan?” asked Carlotta.
“No, to become a Republican.”
Fred grunted. “Never figured there were a lot of Muslim Republicans, but hey–” he said, raising a freshly poured glass to Thomas. “Cheers, to what you’d never figure, Habibi.”
“Tom, what do you need a loan for?” asked Dad.
Thomas didn’t answer, and nobody spoke. It was quiet except for the boss crunching on his cookie.
“You’re registering as a Republican?” asked Carlotta, with anger steaming below.
“No, no, babe.”
“What I thought,” said Fred. “Probably no Republican Muslims out there.”
Dad said, “Wait, Tom, I thought– are you converting to Islam?”
Fred choked on his brut and coughed.
“Are you applying for a loan?” asked Dad.
“We already agreed to start slow and not borrow anything,” said Carlotta.
“I’m not starting a non-profit either,” said Thomas.
Once again, only the boss munching at the kitchen counter was heard.
“So, you…” started Carlotta.
“This some sort of prank?” asked Fred, grinning in recognition.
“Prank?” repeated Mom.
“Yeah, a prank,” said Fred. “He told us all different bogus stories.”
Again, it was quiet. The boss was no longer munching on his cookie. He started to laugh. Everyone looked at him. He had a crumb on his tie. It was so big, it seemed to defy gravity hanging there. Fred started laughing, then Dad. Mom and Carlotta looked at one another and they started laughing too.
“Wow, Tom,” said Dad. “Just– wow.”
“I can’t believe it,” said Mom.
Fred came over and hugged Carlotta, “You’ve got a funny man here, sis.” He slapped Thomas on the shoulder.
The boss was still laughing as he poured himself some brut.
“He was always such a prankster, growing up,” said Dad, wiping tears from his eyes.
Fred said, “You should–” trying to stifle his laughter somewhat, “you should see the guy when he’s drinking with me.”
Carlotta put her hand over her mouth. “Can’t you see why I love this guy?”
By then Thomas was laughing with them, but he dared not ask for specific examples.
About The Author
Steven Bergmark lives and writes in Chicago. He teaches high school English on the south side. You can find his work in Sinking City, Sledgehammer Lit, and Not Deer Magazine.
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