Submitted for your approval: your friend walks into the cafe where you’re supposed to be meeting for a cup of coffee together. I know you probably don’t remember what meeting for a cup of coffee is like, but let’s pretend the COVID problem is now well-contained and life is back to some semblance of normal.
To your surprise, your friend walks in, towing some dude behind them. You thought the coffee date was supposed to be just the two of you.
“Hi!” Your friend says. “Hi, hi! Sorry I’m late. I couldn’t decide what to wear.” Your friend notices that your gaze hasn’t left the guy. “Oh! And this is Ulysses-Stephen; we call him U.S. for short. He wanted to come along and watch from over there. I told him you wouldn’t mind.”
You do mind, but you miss your friend, so you shrug. Friend sits across from you, and U.S. sits at a table directly behind the two of you, unblinking and distrustful.
You try to ignore his eyes on you. “It’s so hot out!” You say. “Hotter than usual for this time of year, right?”
“IT’S FINE!” U.S. is standing now, and he’s yelling. His eyes are about half the size of his head. “THE WEATHER IS ALWAYS LIKE THIS! IT WAS COLD THIS PAST WINTER! SHUT UP!”
Your friend turns and hurriedly whispers some words to their beau, who begrudgingly sits down. The new boyfriend makes sure to point two fingers at their eyes and then at you, though, to ensure that you know this ain’t over.
“Sorry.” Friend says. “U.S. gets super touchy when he thinks people are talking about…”
“Climate change?” You ask. U.S. glares harder at you and Friend raises their voice as they very awkwardly laugh. “HAHAHA what? NO! That’s not even a thing!” They lower their voice to a whisper. “Can we please just talk about something else?”
You suck your teeth, but decide to move on for the sake of your friendship. You wave down the waitress, and your friend orders. As the waitress leaves, your friend removes their jacket, and your mouth falls open.
“Um…” you say, “…is that a shirt with his face on it?”
“Oh this? Haha, yes.” Your friend replies. “U.S. loves it when I display my loyalty to him everywhere I go. I used to have to pledge allegiance to the shirt every morning, but I got him to agree to let me stop doing that; he’s not happy about it though.”
“That sounds a little weird.”
“It’s not that weird. All U.S. asks is that I salute it when I see it, and that I don’t get it dirty or let it touch the ground or drape myself in it unless it’s his birthday.”
“Is…is today his birthday?”
At this point, you’re regretting not calling off this coffee date. The waitress comes back and you fight back the urge to ask for the check. Instead, you try to change topics. “How are you feeling? I know the last time we spoke, your diabetes was getting a little harder to control.”
“Oh I feel very woozy and haven’t had any of my insulin today. Thanks for asking!” Your friend’s face is frozen in a grin.
You feel like you might be losing your mind. “WHAT?”
“It’s fine! U.S. says I don’t need that much insulin. I mean…his best friend does.”
“What does his friend have to do with anything?”
“Well, whenever I’m feeling sick and need medicine, U.S. calls his buddy and that guy will decide whether I really need the medication or not. If he says I don’t, I don’t get any. If he says it’s cool, then U.S. gives it to me and I just pay like $700.”
You stare. “But…you need that to live. And you work as a librarian. And don’t you also need an epi-pen?”
“Oh yeah! Sometimes we play this game where he makes me decide which one I’m buying for the month. He says it’ll teach me to be more responsible with my money.” They say the last bit with a sigh; be it from love or low blood sugar, you can’t tell.
At that moment, U.S. sees a young Black man walking by with a lollipop. His eyes track the young man until he’s left the building. “Hey, babe,” he says to your friend, “I have to go check something. Be right back.”
He leaves. You decide to take the opportunity to talk some sense into your friend.
“Yo,” you say, “this relationship is…well it’s bad. Very bad. Are you okay? Do I need to disappear you? Just tell me you need help, and I’ll help you!”
To your surprise, your friend pulls back and looks scandalized. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“The guy seems unhinged and controlling and probably more than a bit racist. Is this what you want for yourself?”
Your friend puffs up. “LISTEN. He’s the best boyfriend in the world. The. BEST. There are no other boyfriends out there who are as good-looking and as rich. And he lets me do a lot of things. Like alot. You know he lets me speak? And work? And he bought me a gun the other day. It’s like he always says: I should be glad I’m not with one of those guys who would stone me to death for just speaking my mind. Is that what you want? Me to be stoned to death?”
“I mean…I feel like there are probably some steps between a guy who’ll stone you to death and a guy who would treat you with respect, but no. No I don’t want that.”
“I’m very free in this relationship, ok? His love is just something I have to earn, like food or a bed or shelter.”
You start looking for cameras. It seems your friend is serious. “I’m sorry. What? He makes you earn food and a bed?”
“I’m not guaranteed those things. You have to work for them or you’ll get lazy. I slept outside last night and I’m fine.”
“It…was -5 degrees last night.”
“I only lost my right pinkie toe, ok? No one even uses it for anything. Like I said…I’m fine.”
You’ve had enough. You signal desperately for the check. “I’m sorry, but I don’t think I can do this. I can’t watch you do this to yourself.”
Your friend is yelling now. “You know what?! You think you’re so great just because you’re educated and can afford medicine and because your boyfriend listens to you? My boyfriend knows how to dress and he’s a landlord and owns lots of buildings!”
You say nothing and start signing your copy of the check. Your friend continues to talk to themselves.
“…I mean…sure he lets some of the lower-rent buildings fall apart and the water pipes haven’t worked in awhile and a lot of the kids there are kinda starving…but I mean…U.S. can shoot you. So there’s that, too.” They say the last bit with a smugness that almost makes you throw your coffee back up. You start gathering your things.
“I’m going to just go.” You say.
Your friend opens their mouth to argue, but U.S. suddenly shows back up, looking very satisfied. “Hey, babe,” he says, “that Black guy was eating a lollipop but they don’t sell lollipops here, so I asked him to give me a receipt for it to prove it was his. He didn’t have one so I called the police.”
Your friend looks thrilled. “Aw, babe, I bet they were so happy.”
“Actually the cops got kinda pissed at me because it wasn’t an emergency, but then the Black guy laughed at me and they tazed him and arrested him so I’m good.”
Your friend shoots you a dirty look and gets up, wrapping themselves around U.S.’s arm. “Let’s go, babe,” they say, “we’re done here.”
You watch them walk out, then signal for the waitress again. You apologize, then ask if they might be able to deliver you some sort of booze, to which they reply they are a coffee shop and that you may have a drinking problem. You decide it might be time to leave. As you stand, you see your friend come back in, their face worried.
“Hey, so like…sorry I yelled.”
You open your mouth to say it’s ok, but your friend keeps talking. “Sooo U.S. just started a fight with some Middle Eastern guys in the parking lot — he says they had guns and I didn’t see any, but they probably hid them real quick or something — anyway, he destroyed their cars and he doesn’t actually have any money, so would you be able to pay for it?”
You laugh. You laugh because it’s all you can do. You laugh so hard you can feel you’re about to pass out. Before you do so, you ask that no one call the ambulance because you can’t afford a $5,000 transport bill.
Then the world goes black.