Names by Colin Lubner

His name was Carl. Her name was—I’m not sure what her name was. She was the barista who worked Sunday mornings. That was all I knew. Helen. Or maybe she just looked like another woman I knew, either in real life or from a movie or a show, whose name was, in fact, Helen. She was a tall, powerful presence who nonetheless gave off the impression of imminent collapse, like a gutshot giraffe. 

That I didn’t know her name seemed to me a mostly incontestable condemnation of my character, seeing as I’d been taking girls on first dates there for almost a year. I told this to my date that day. I forget what her name was—Natalie, I want to say, although part of me wants to say Danica. Hannah. I whispered to her, whoever it was, Natalie or Danica or Hannah—Haley—I whispered, “You want to hear something crazy? I’ve been coming here for like, a year, and I could not tell you her name.”

But then she shushed me. Malorie shushed me. We were sitting at a table by the front window, Valerie and me. Carl stood by the entrance, one of the local newspapers tucked under his arm, his jacket zipped all the way up. Neither he nor Helen were in earshot. Still, Vanessa whispered, “Are you listening to what this dude’s saying? This is crazy. This is insane.”

So I listened to what Carl had to say. This was a novel experience. Carl, to my knowledge, had yet to miss a day at his favorite coffee shop. He was the regular’s Platonic ideal, a vet of some war or another, an octogenarian basket of unambiguously racist idioms and empty, well-meant compliments. He called girls young women and older women girls. Carl was a delight, I guess is what I’m trying to say. Carl shouldn’t have. Carl said a lot, but had little to say.

On this day, today, Carl’s wife, Sue—and how is it I remember her name?—was dead. Her corpse was in their bed, growing cold beneath the blankets. She had gotten sick a couple days ago, he didn’t know with what, and now she was dead. He didn’t know what to do, and so now he was here, here he was, asking Helen what to do. That’s what I heard, the first time I listened to what Carl had to say.

What happened next I mostly forget. Helen told Carl to stay put, to stay right there. Then she went into the back. When she came back out she was wearing a sweater with an elephant on it—I remember that. Carl, meanwhile, did little. He just stood there, swaying slightly. Every once in a while he’d adjust the newspaper under his arm, but that was it.

What I remember most is what Melissa and I did after. It was rare that first dates turned into second dates, let alone into anything lasting. There was something wrong at my core, something terminal and transmissible, and it was impossible to ignore. 

And this wasn’t the case with Alyssa and me, either—we didn’t stay together. We never saw each other again. As I’ve said, I can’t even remember her name, try as I might. But what Lydia and I did do was drive over to her flat. We climbed the stairs as fast as we could. We tripped in our haste, Sadie and me. We barely made it to the couch. I told her I loved her, and she told me she loved me. 

Stephanie—Tiffany, Brittany, Brynn—she told me she loved me. And while I don’t remember her name, I bet she remembers mine. 

And that counts for something, I’d like to think.

Colin Lubner writes from Harlem. You can check in on him on Twitter: @no1canimagine0. He’d love it if you checked in