The smiling man at the coffee bar is attentive and careful as he pours pumpkin spice flavored coffee. But he’s got a gold ring already and when she smiles back, it’s not her best work.
Let’s be straight here: Abigail Newton is lonely as hell in this city—one that’s got the work she needs but nothing else she particularly wants. This place is all cliques and awkwardness, the void of everything she might normally do. There are no light posts that rise up four stories from what seems to be the epicenter of American soy to beckon the full town each Friday evening, no bleacher sections where alumnae gather to gossip and aggressively cheer their sons onward to glory and brain contusion. There is no risk of a lengthy conversation with a neighbor or former teacher or the parent of some long-escaped classmate or someone who wants to reminisce about the folks. There is no family. There are no standing weekend Pabst-slurred bonfires, the sort one just wanders into when they’re in town, no invitation needed.
Instead, it’s just building after unending building and even the things that might be familiar—Sunday morning services—are a complex maze of unfamiliar denominations and sour glances at the squeaking entry door when the actual start time doesn’t match what’s posted on the Web site. For the past six months she’s tried to forget this lost-loneliness, week by week and church by church, in all the places that might possibly make her feel more celestial, or what she doesn’t let herself think: more like she’s home.
This week, it’s a four-story palace of steel and glass and coffee bars and flat panel televisions, a place that’s got nearly everything she wants this morning—if it weren’t for all the wedding bands and backpack babies that compound the loneliness.
“Glad you’ve come to worship with us today, ma’am,” the coffee pourer says as he pushes the drink toward her. There’s a little twang to it and it feels forced, like it’s a part of the evangelical uniform he’s obliged to wear. Abigail Newton could do without the pretense. She could really do without the twang. In terms of content, though, he seems exceptional for a moment. He’s spoken to her with more depth and detail than any who passed through the queue before her. But then she realizes she’s just daydreaming again, and that she’s holding up the line.
Abigail says, “Glad to be here.” And she is.
The church lobby looks and feels very much like a shopping mall, and since it’s still half an hour out from the service time she’s decided to attend, she does what people do in places that feel like shopping malls: Abigail Newton roams.
First she roams to the ladies’ room to examine her hair and examine the light film of her makeup, the shape of that hard line between lipstick and skin, to make certain that everything is in its prime state. She even adjusts the straps of her sundress—yes, yes, everything is in place. Nothing is in need of further adjustment. She pauses, though, in this otherwise empty room, places her hands on the sink counter and shuts her eyes to pray. It’s not lost on her that this is perhaps the only spot in the building where this particular act seems out of place and yet, it’s maybe the most private spot, so there might even be some merit, a logic to this odd location. She doesn’t pray for anything in particular, because she’s tried a thousand strands of specificity already at a thousand volumes and in a hundred different postures. She’s prayed with the Methodists for greater faith and for serenity and with the Baptists for love and for something to distract her from the absence of love and with the Catholics for patience and for ambition. She’s prayed with the Presbyterians for wisdom and discernment and even with the Anglicans for recklessness and the ability to quit caring altogether. She’s asked for all these things in turn. Maybe some of these things even came to her in fashions and spurts, but if those prayers were ever answered, the solutions came too subtle for her noticing and never gave her anything but a variant shade of hollow. What she asks for now is just general goodness. For something hopeful to happen. A simple burning bush or two.
Finished, Abigail Newton wanders back beneath all those skylights, behind all those glass doors. If this were a movie treatment, a single beam of light would follow her, perhaps aimed by a guardian angel with fantastic hair, clothed in skinny jeans and a knowing grin. There might be a man at the end of the angel’s light stream: a romance, because that’s how the movie version always goes. This aiming guardian angel might be some combination of mischievous or novice. Or perhaps hers would be once fallen and now ascendant. Either way, they would guide her to the answer, which would come in the form of a smiling man and a nice house, maybe even an uptick in occupation. That guardian angel would ferry her all the way through to the playful montage, scored with dance songs from the eighties until a fade-to-black, perfectly timed to insinuate a perfectly happy future.
But Abigail Newton’s life is no film.
She would just as soon settle for the anti-cinematic, platonic version. A group of hip, trendy friends, perhaps, with a standing weekend party—the sort one just shows up to without having to be invited. Someone, anyone with whom she could connect.
Not only is her life not a film, but she suspects there might be no angel. She suspects this whole place might be an enormous joke on her: similar in size and population to her entire hometown town and yet so disconnected, anonymous.
She wanders across the atrium, dotted with pole-mounted television monitors that show inklings of the service going on right now, a duplicate of which she’ll soon experience in the flesh. It feels as though there might be an Auntie Anne’s and a Limited on the mezzanine, if the second level weren’t a daycare. She sits and sips at her coffee, which she’s topped with just a touch of cream and a touch of sugar. She doesn’t particularly care for either, but the ways in which a person prepares a drink can be a great conversation starter, and to the best of her knowledge, no one’s ever started a life-changing conversation by talking about black coffee, even if there was pumpkin spice flavor brewed into it.
After a moment of sipping, she thinks better of her seat choice and scales one of the grand stairways toward the row of barstools that line the balcony. She looks down at where she’s just been, and watches as a well-dressed man (he’s even got a nice, classic wristwatch with a black leather band) who appears to be in his late twenties maneuvers into the very seat she just vacated.
If she were anywhere else, she would curse between her teeth.
But there are empty seats next to her, available for someone social, someone like her who doesn’t wish to be confined by the isolation of a table.
This is the kind of church where people look each other up in the missed connections section of Craigslist afterward. It could be a city street at 5:05 p.m., but with no traffic lights and fewer people asking for money. People buzz around and smile, say fast hellos and then flit onward. She surveys the room and smiles and tells herself that this is a place where possibility can start. As the thought formed, she was acutely aware that is sounded more like a corporate slogan than the trajectory of her evening. She thinks it again and decides her new slogan has no meaning whatsoever. She takes a sip of coffee and returns to watching.
Before the doors open for the next service, the earlier thousands leave through their own set of doors. They churn and braid beneath her like a tankful of guppies: some headed straight for the door and their spot at a restaurant table, perhaps in front of a screen with a game. Others go back for coffee refills before they leave, or mingle with friends or stand in line to pick up children. Some rush. Some loiter. When they’re gone, the doors remain closed for a while—presumably while the stage is reset. She waits at the door: Abigail Newton is about to play the seat lottery. She will find a row of her own and leave it to providence
She has been known to cheat at the seat lottery. More than once, when flanked with grandmothers or prototypical, full families, she’s accepted a fake phone call as an excuse to vacate the spot and try again. Today, with so many people vying for seats, she might not have that chance. She’ll have to pick wisely.
There is a small beep that accompanies the timed opening of the automatic doors. It may as well be a starting gun. Abigail Newton walks slowly enough to ensure she doesn’t spill coffee on herself, but she is the first one through her door and the first one to claim a spot in a side section, six rows from the stage. It is an unpretentious spot, one where a thoughtful person of superior hygiene and speckled morals might sit.
Instead, a couple of teenagers take the two seats directly to her left and play games on their phones. She takes out her own phone and finds excuses to fiddle with it, to seem occupied. When she looks up, the kids are gone and she’s mercifully alone again in the row: she’s gotten a reprieve, a chance for an upgrade.
Abigail Newton sets her cup of coffee in the drink holder and waits. Her heart ticks a little quicker every time someone approaches her row. She turns and glances at the aisle, filled with a steady stream of parishioners. Already, she anticipates defeat. Already, she’s thinking about how she will navigate her own exit when the time comes.
She smiles. People smile back. She says hello a few times, even, and each time, it feels like an inflated balloon is trying to escape her throat. Abigail wants to find a positive insinuation in this, but everyone knows inflated balloons do primarily two things: float away and burst.
She finishes her coffee. Her row is still empty. The countdown clock behind the pastor’s microphone boasts of seven minutes and thirty-six seconds until the service starts, while reminding families to deposit their children in the nursery. She panics. She bails out. Or maybe, she just needs more caffeine. Out into the aisle, she salmons against the oncoming masses, races to the coffee line and stands and stands and stands, the brown paper insulator soaking up just some of the clamminess from her palm. This time, she takes plain black coffee grown at an Ethiopian collective, and sure, ma’am, she’ll have some creamer because you’ve asked so nicely. She walks back into the auditorium and is tempted to sit in the darkened back rows, the way they had in those in-between years—when she and her sister were young and they hadn’t quit going to services altogether but her mom had gotten good and tired of answering questions about where Joe was and when he’d be coming back to join in the worshipping.
Again, she moves toward the front, underneath the stage light rigging and with a clear view of one of the large stadium screens. But not too close to the bank of fog machines—she’s got an inkling they inflect her allergies. Row thirteen is, somehow, still entirely empty and she chooses the center seat. Someone will have to sit by her.
There are still three minutes left, but a video has begun—something akin to the movies, reminding people to turn off their phones. She remembers sitting at her mother’s hip and watching how the minister would come down from behind his pulpit and lecture children for speaking or rustling in their seats; now, it’s just a suggestion that your phone doesn’t go off. She’s not sure which way she prefers. She’s not sure what that says about her.
She shakes her head and tries not to look disappointed as a family of seven shuffles into her row, and there’s nothing she could possibly have in common with any of them. But there’s still the other side—until four college boys sidestep their way in toward her, still whispering about last night’s exploits, something between cackles about getting their money’s worth out of this week’s forgiveness. They leave a gap seat, though—one empty space left.
The lights dim and the band starts. Abigail Newton stands to sing, and she does so beautifully—or at least she imagines so. It feels nice to be drown out by the wall of sound that descends upon her. For even her loudest of joyful noises to do nothing more than blend into the room and waft toward the rafters. At the end of the song, a lady reads a list of announcements and asks everyone to move in, to get rid of the spare spaces so there’s room for everyone. The college boy nearest Abigail looks at her and half-smiles, but stays right where he is.
And then: an usher comes to her row, flashlight blazing. It’s almost time to pray, but perhaps this time the answer has come first. The usher is escorting a young man with tortoiseshell glasses and an undercut and a cardigan, and the usher brings this man directly to Abigail’s row, spots his flashlight on the seat next to her (yes, in film treatment fashion), and everyone’s about to stand so it’ll be easy for him to get through and it won’t be awkward at all, and he’s even gotten there before the part where everyone shakes hands and meets their neighbor and—at the end of the row, a woman takes the liberty of waving everyone down a seat. The most reluctant of the hung-over students finally slides toward her and that beautiful, perfect man remains out there on the edge, so near but so critically unreachable.
“Amen,” she hears. The word reverberates through the tremendous sound system and she’s missed everything that preceded it. “Amen,” she whispers, because that’s the word for endings inside this building.
And so the service begins in earnest, and Abigail Newton listens to a minister talk about carving out room for personal time in a world of over-connectivity. The boys to her right and the family to her left nod frequently, and are kind enough to avoid staring when she gives up on trying to keep her sighs inaudible.
“Hey there, beautiful!”
She stops in her tracks, there in the middle of the lobby.
That balloon returns to Abigail’s throat. She turns. Slowly.
A man who’s just fetched his kids is waving down his wife, who happens to stand just on the other side of Abigail.
There’s a third thing that balloons do: deflate slowly until they’re hollow and past usefulness. Abigail feels the air leave her lungs, and when she continues breathing, she can’t tell for sure whether they’re actually filling again. She simply stands there, unable to move. She imagines she hears the undulation of voices, feels the churning and braiding of the crowd around her. In the aquarium full of guppies, Abigail Newton is the plaster coral.
Abigail Newton fetches one more coffee. This time she skips the flavoring, skips the cream, skips the sugar, takes her drink the way she wants it. The door-holding greeters gone, she pushes her own way through the West Lobby Exit. She practically jogs to her green Volkswagen, buckles her seatbelt, and gets in line to leave, traffic belayed by a bearded youth and then a tall woman and then an elderly man, each waving aircraft control wands to send everyone to an appropriate exit.
If Abigail Newton would look at her rearview mirror, she would see the vehicle behind her, a recently washed black sedan driven by the man with tortoiseshell glasses and a cardigan and an undercut. It’s just as well that she doesn’t look up, because nothing rational can be done about it now anyway.
Abigail Newton places her name on the list for a brunch table. On the waiting bench—too uncomfortable to make up for the spectacular aging that marks its wood grains—she sips complementary black coffee from a foam cup. Cream and sugar are not an option.
As she waits for the host to call out for Newton, party of one, she takes her phone from her pocket and turns it back on. She navigates to recent pages, selects the missed connections section of Craigslist and presses refresh and sips and presses refresh and sips and takes her table.
“What can I get for you, ma’am?” asks the waiter, and she doesn’t look up from the menu to see what he looks like or what he is or isn’t wearing on his finger.
She mumbles that she’d like the French toast with bourbon maple glaze and he’s not sure if he heard it, so he leans closer and asks her to repeat, so she does. He pours her a coffee on his next pass by—before she even asks.
When the food comes, she presses refresh and then bites into it and swears that she’ll only press refresh this once more and then get on with her day. The smiling waiter asks her if she’s got everything she needs and she thinks about that for a moment, but he’s busy and he walks off and he spares her taking a definitive stance, so she takes another bite and presses refresh once more and won’t let herself think about how she never had to do this at home.