I was in the expected table at an expected Starbucks this morning, reading a short story: “The Shape of Water” by Mark Slouka, from his book Lost Lake. Distractions abounded. A girl with ash on her head stared vacantly in my direction. A man with a bike and an old boom box danced on the sidewalk to Jethro Tull—whenever the door opened, the notes of the song came in. He was not a good dancer. Babies in strollers knocked coffee beans to the floor.
But then I lost myself in the story. I read slowly, sentence by sentence, and when I reached the end I held on to the last word for a while and then—inexplicably—flipped back to the start so I could read the opening paragraph again:
Some say the soul tempered by fire—tortured true—is the better for the trial. Perhaps it is so. But I was born between the wars. My adventures were of the survivable kind, my tragedies ambiguous and undramatic, observed as much as felt. What formed me were anecdotes—often inconclusive, generally unheroic—connected to a particular forty acres of water. An unexceptional place. I did not choose it. And yet, if I could ever open myself, I suspect I’d find its coves there, its sleeping silt, its placental water smooth with algae… and the faces of those I’d known, revealed as clearly as if mine had been that lake of legend said to reflect the hidden heart.
I closed the book and sighed. I felt a little choked up.
“Are you okay?” the girl with ash on her head called over.
I said I was.
“Good,” she said. “I was worried. It looked like something terrible just happened.”
I didn’t tell her what had happened: it was the story, only a story, but the weight of the words made it seem like so much more.