Bad Timing is Everything
I’d been looking out the window since first light. It had been sunny, but after three hours, a darkened sky and rain decided to scare the sun into hiding. I felt relaxed at first; because I had told myself that all I had to do was to walk a few blocks like many people do every day. But I’m not like many other people. Still, all signs pointed to me following through. I was out of coffee and everything in the house was stale – especially the air.
I knew it would be now or never. So I pulled my hood over my cap and made my way across the street. It took everything in me to walk the two blocks to the place and I had been planning it for weeks. My heart raced the entire way there. It didn’t get any better when I opened the door and stepped inside. The coffee shop was crowded…so damn crowded. The voices sounded like a horrible buzzing and every now and then something stuck out like the high pitched laugh of a woman behind me. It stung my brain. I didn’t dare look around; I felt I was close to losing it and I was deciding whether I felt more unsafe in this crowd or stepping out onto the street. At least outside I could hurry home. Thinking about it just made me anxious and ultimately, I was already here and would have to make my way home again so I figured I may as well calm myself and try to get through the exposure. So I tried to ground myself, just like the therapist had told me. I was safe and there was no eminent danger. Then why did I feel as if I were dying?
My turn came and I ordered a latte and a blueberry muffin. I don’t know why, because I felt too sick to eat it. I moved to the side with my blueberry muffin and waited for my coffee. I felt irritated when, despite the fact that I was standing there waiting for my latte, the stupid coffee girl had to yell out my name. I grabbed my coffee and had decided that it was best to walk out, but I was stuck. I was not getting out of that place until most of the customers cleared out and I felt calmer. I’d have to touch them. My eyes scanned the crowd and I started to feel dizzy, so I turned around and quickly looked for a table. I spotted a small table at the very back with two chairs just by the washroom doors. Clearly no one wanted the spot, but it was ideal for me because there’s a back exit. I told myself that I needed to do this and follow through with the instructions – remain in the cafe until my symptoms substantially subside. I sat down and as soon as I did I realized I was looking directly into someone’s torso.
He sat down too and looked at me as if this was all perfectly normal. “Can I sit down?” I started to open my mouth, but he was already seated across from me. He said, “I just need to sit here for a while.” “You can have it,” I said, but as I was getting up he locked his hand around my wrist and pulled me back down. His eyes were bugging out of his face. “I told you. I just need a minute and then I’ll leave you alone.” I said, “Keep the table. I need to go.” But he wouldn’t let go.
He looked wrecked, as if he hadn’t slept in days. He was unkempt and the smell of stress sweat was overpowering. I knew the smell all too well. Something about the sound of his breathing and that smell combined left me feeling nauseated. I was shocked, and so I just froze. And he was still holding on to my wrist. He wore a long black jacket. He was tall with a wide back. His large hands looked like they could give a good beating and his jaw looked as if it could take one. Despite looking young and strong from the neck down, the lines on his face betrayed the rest of him. I could feel his panic even while I was experiencing my own. I had no idea what was going on, but if I was nervous before, I was really feeling it now.
“What kind of trouble are you in? No, I don’t want to know. Please, leave me out of it!” “Shhh, be quiet.” He paused. “If I get caught they’ll think you know too so you need to shut up and act normal. If you act relaxed, they may not recognize me. They may walk in and out if you don’t let on. Give me your cap.” He pulled my Oakland Raiders cap off my head and onto his. This couldn’t be happening. “Is this some joke? Did Rory put you up to this? Not funny. This is hard enough as it is without…” “Shut up. I don’t know a Rory. Shut up and look at me.” I did. I didn’t want to because there was a part of me that knew I was living out one of my greatest fears and this wasn’t some prank. I was sitting across from someone on the run, and that put my own safety in jeopardy. I didn’t know who or what he was running from, but I knew it meant trouble.
“Look, this isn’t a joke. There are some very bad people looking for me. I am not going to hurt you unless you make a sound. If you do anything stupid like draw attention to us, I am better off firing the .22 short I have pointed at you. It’ll cause chaos and give me a chance to run out the back unnoticed. I don’t want to take my chances leaving from the back in case they’re out there, but I will if I have to. I’m going to let go of you and you’re going to keep your cool, okay? Okay?” I swallowed and said, “Okay.” I wondered if there really was a gun pointed at me and decided I should stop wondering if I was supposed to be looking relaxed. I tried to look like a regular customer, but I am far from a regular customer and now all I could think about was the situation I had gotten myself into. Apparently, this shit just doesn’t happen, but somehow it always finds me. The room was spinning.
“Smile. You’re facing the window. Relax, smile and tell me something about yourself.”
“What do you want to know?”
“Anything, tell me your name. Do you have a dog?”
“My name is Ryan. I don’t have a dog.”
“No? I like dogs. I had a dog growing up.” He let out a nervous laugh. “Look I know you’re scared, but I’ll be on my way soon.”
“I can’t have a dog.”
“You told me to relax and I’m answering your question. I can’t have a dog, because I wouldn’t be able to get out of the house on a regular basis to walk it. ”
“Oh, yeah, how come?”
“If you’re trying to look inconspicuous, you’ve picked the wrong guy. I’ve got PTSD and I’m beginning to feel like I can’t breathe. I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be able to contain myself from passing out. What the hell IS going on?”
“The less you know the better. If you remain calm, I’ll get up from this seat soon and you’ll never see me again.” He was looking at the exit behind me when two men walked in. They were dressed much like he was. They started to move up in the line and they were going to get close enough and around the crowd to spot us. I told the guy, “You’ve got to get out of here now. They’re here.” He met my eyes to decide whether I was telling the truth. “They haven’t spotted you yet but they’re scanning the room. Take the back. It’s your best shot.” He looked at me with that weary look again and got up. He walked towards the bathrooms slowly and I could hear the backdoor close. Everyone heard gunfire in the alley and the two men in line ran towards the back exit, pushing several customers on the way.
There was chaos around me. I heard someone say to call the police. I couldn’t look up. I did the only thing I knew would keep me sort of together. I was afraid that they had picked up on the spot he had been sitting in and would return to come after me. Maybe they were waiting outside for me. I pressed my feet into the ground, closed my eyes and tried to concentrate on my breathing until I heard the cop cars. I finally managed to look up to see that most of the customers had stepped outside. In spite if my fear, I found myself walking out the back. I had to see if he was dead. I looked around for them, but there was no one around – except for a body lying on the ground. I was shaking as I approached it, but it wasn’t him or either of the two I had seen, probably with them, though. I felt an unexpected sense of relief take over me. I knew I couldn’t be blamed for his death, but I didn’t need that on my conscience. I just stood there, unable to move when I heard voices.
I overheard a detective say, “FBI issued…” and then “Get the hell out of here.” He turned to some cop. “Didn’t you close that exit? One of you question him and you go block it off!” I started to head out the front and was stopped by a cop. I could see the police were questioning many people. The cop asked if I had seen anything. I lied and said I just stepped out of the washroom. He asked me for my number and instructed me to pull out my ID so he could get my name and I could get home. A detective approached us and asked me the same questions again. He looked at me as if I were acting odd – and I was. He handed me his card in case I remembered anything. Everyone seemed interested in the scene, but I wanted to get out of there as fast as I could. I walked across the street and kept moving until I made it home, not once turning around to look.
I woke up on my couch and had no recollection of getting inside my house. My 28-year old body ached like I was 82. Maybe it had just been some bad dream. I pulled myself up and there he was again. “What the fuck!”
“Look, I followed you home. I’m not here to hurt you. I just need your help.”