Coffee on Bloor St. W.


Coffee on Bloor St. W.


On the other side of forty, I thought the excitement and surprises in life were largely behind me. I was wrong.

Every second Sunday of the month, the three of us met for coffee on Bloor Street West. These gatherings were important to me, a serene spot in a world spinning a bit too fast. It was always a pleasure to see my friends’ familiar faces.

Nat, Alex, and me, Rob, had known each other since being deployed to Afghanistan. We spent six trying months in that troubled country. That was in 2006, an awful time but we survived. Soon after that the three of us left the Canadian military and created new lives for ourselves. We were determined to succeed and we did, in a conventional way. Now in our forties, our coffee talk hovered around children’s accomplishments, our careers and our happy or souring marriages. Politics, sports and vacations were also hot topics. We rarely reminisced about our bloody days in Kandahar.

It was the first Sunday in June but only Nat and I showed up since Alex was on vacation in the Rockies. We sat at a table on the front patio of the Ternopil Restaurant just west of Durie Street. Nat had shaven off his moustache and was sporting an undercut hairstyle, long hair on top buzzed short on the sides. For a man his age he looked absurd. He didn’t accept the fact his youth had come and gone. He pushed back but failed to convince. To me it was a sorry sight. His expanding waistline and the crow’s feet around the eyes told the real story.

“Well, nice to see you,” he said to me. “So how was your trip to Nigeria?”

“The contractor cancelled it. We did the whole consult via Zoom and texts.” I took a sip of my coffee. “An increase in Covid 19 and Lassa fever, he claimed. But I think they just looked at the account books and decided we were going to go over budget. Yeah, it sounded interesting but also risky so I’m not disappointed. So what have you been up to, Nat?”

“We were told our new house will be ready the end of September. The wife and kids are thrilled. With three children and a dog running around our little bungalow it feels really cramped.” Nat gave me a half smile. “Your kids doing okay?”

“School’s fine and Debbi is doing a piano recital next Saturday in some mall. Olivia has been batting 314. But she keeps on saying she may quit softball.”

After ninety minutes of this we called it a day. Nat and I paid, left a fat tip and started to exit the patio. Just then a man approached me.

“Aren’t you Rob Miller?” His eyes shone with anticipation. He stepped in close and cornered his prey.

I tried to step back but found myself pressed against a table. “Yes,” I said cautiously. Who the hell are you? I thought.

I turned to Nat for support but he gave a slight shrug and said, “Well, I’d better be getting along. Take care, Rob.” He nodded toward the stranger and took off without another word.
            “Wow, it’s great to see you again,” said the unfamiliar person. “It’s been a long time but I never forget a face.” He seemed very pleased with himself. “And you haven’t changed one bit so of course I recognized you.”

It was clear he assumed I knew who he was, but I didn’t. He was a man of average height with bushy eyebrows and a pleasant toothy smile.

“Sandra won’t believe I ran into you. It’s been how many years?” And on and on he went talking, and smiling and talking and talking. He was married to Sandra, had a son and daughter and sold real-estate. Business had been better but he was still doing fine. Sandra was an artist and teaching at OCAD. They had a cottage, they were in Berlin last month, he’d had surgery for gallstones. Every topic was covered except the one where he told me where the devil he knew me from. I could not get a word in. The more he talked, the less I was comfortable asking him who the hell he was.

“Have to go,” I said interrupting him as he began to launch into a description of his losing campaign to become a school trustee some four years earlier. “I’m sorry but I’ve got to get on my way.” My voice had a harder edge than I had intended but it got his attention. He stopped babbling.

“No, not before I give you my address. It’s Sandra’s birthday next Saturday and you have to show up. She’ll be so happy to see you.”

He pulled out a business card, wrote the location of his house, phone number and email address on the back and handed it to me.

“The email address is your name,” I said out loud feeling relieved, even though I still could not place him. “ Right?”

“Yes, yes, that’s right.”

I felt it was only polite to also give him one of my business cards. It had the contact information for the small engineering firm I ran with a partner.

If in the unlikely event I did go to this birthday party for a mystery woman, it might turn out to be useful. Business had been slow of late and maybe, just maybe, I might be able to find a new client. For a guy who once dodged bullets it shouldn’t take much courage to show up to an event that could at worst become awkward. It might even be fun, something to regale my pals about on Sunday. 

The dreams began that very night. At first they were strange but not unpleasant. I was at a baseball game and Jason was up to bat. He hit a homerun which landed in the stands and I caught it. A moment later I was playing shortstop and missed the ball because my hands were wrapped in blankets. As the ball passed me it became a purple horse with wings. The following two nights were also filled with benign dreams. That changed.

The dreams dissolved into nightmares.

The first one had to do with fly-fishing. We were both on a riverbank casting our lines when they became entangled. Jason let out a scream and was transformed into a soldier. We were inexplicably hiding in a trench in Afghanistan, machine-gun fire ringing in our ears. Taliban surrounded us. Suddenly a couple of AA shoulder-fired missiles landed nearby. I was hit, torn clothes, blood all over. Oddly enough I felt no pain. I woke up in a sweat. The next two nights were also filled with angry imaginings, horror and disgust. But I said nothing of this to my wife.

Saturday evening I took a cab to a large Tudor house in Hogs Hollow. I was alone, my wife having decided my mission was insane.

“Are you going to go to a party to meet a couple you don’t remember? Why? At a minimum you’ll end up being embarrassed. I don’t want to be there when that happens.”

I couldn’t tell her that I hoped my nightmares would end once I was able to figure out where I knew Jason from: Afghanistan, high school, university, business. Where?

In a nice shirt and dress pants I showed up carrying a bottle of French wine in one hand and a bouquet of flowers in the other. A woman in a blue maid’s uniformed took the items from me and pointed me down the corridor. Chatter and music floated past from that direction. The dining room and the adjoining living room had been emptied of most of their furniture. Three dozen people were milling about. The scent of savoury dishes and perfume filled the air. Laughter punctuated the conversation as soft jazz played in the background.

The walls were decorated with paintings, mostly portraits of naive children and wistful old men. A couple of abstract canvases looking like afterthoughts hugged an obscure corner by an upright piano. Next to them was a small framed photo of Jason in the uniform of a Canadian Army sergeant. He looked young and full of hope. Could I have met him at some military function? Was that where we knew each other from?

The rooms were festooned with trite party ornaments. Paper streamers hung from the walls and the ceilings and a banal Happy Birthday sign that appeared to have been salvaged from a dollar store was placed above the door to the kitchen.

I was hungry and happily made my way to a table laden with food. I filled a plate with pasta, tortillas and coleslaw then elbowed my way to a spot by a wall where I could inconspicuously stand. Jason stopped me from taking my first bite.

“See, Sandra, I told you he’d show up,” he said to an attractive woman of about forty.  

“Hello Rob.” The woman gave me a long kiss on my cheek. She smelled of vanilla and citrus. “My, my, Rob the years haven’t touched you. You look in fine shape.”

I searched her lovely face for some sign, some dimple of territory that might be familiar to me but I found nothing. I was lost for words and produced a foolish smile. Coming to the party had been a mistake.

She turned to Jason, “Honey, I see Rob is missing a drink. Could you get him one?”

“Scotch and water,” I said. A drink at this point wouldn’t hurt.

As Jason headed toward the bar Sandra lifted up her blue eyes toward me. “You don’t know who I am. You don’t remember. I can see it in your face.” She began to giggle like a teenage girl. Some people turned to look but soon lost interest and returned to their conversations about the Blue Jays and the high cost of living. She stepped in close to me, reached up and ran her fingers quickly through my hair. “Those red locks, freckles and hazel eyes, no I could never forget them.”

Jason returned with drinks in hand as Sandra held my plate for me.

“I was just reminding Rob about the wedding where we all met. It was raining I remember, and Alex’s sister had on this wonderful antique wedding dress. Gee, we got drunk and stoned that night.”

“I’m going over to say hello to the Browns,” Jason said. “Pardon me.” And off he went.

            “Yes, the wedding,” I said to Sandra, thankful to finally have my memory jogged. But what exactly did I remember from that event? And then it came to me and I blushed. I searched for the exit, found it, but my feet were glued to the floor.

The wedding had taken place at a church on College Street but the reception was held at a large banquet hall on Eglinton Avenue. It was a lavish venue, marble floors, crystal chandeliers, five-piece band, food and booze without end. We partied till late into the night. My wife complained that her feet hurt and Jason didn’t dance so Sandra and I hit the floor together, moving our legs, shaking our hips to the music.

The reception was the only event taking place at the hall. Most of the building was empty. I somehow ended up walking down a long corridor with Sandra, a woman I had only met hours earlier.

I pushed open a heavy wooden door that led into a vacant office. All the lights were off except the red exit signs. I unzipped her dress and she unbuttoned my shirt. The deep blue carpet cushioned our love-making. When we were done we lay there for a few minutes then hurried back to the dining hall where nearly everyone was on their feet dancing.

            “Yes, I remember,” I said and gently patted her shoulder. “How many years ago was that?”

            “I know exactly how many years ago,” Sandra said. “Thirteen years and three months.”

            Two children joined Sandra and me.

            “These are my kids. This is Vincent and this is Evelyn.” 

            I could not help but stare at Vincent.

            “Evelyn is ten and Vincent twelve, twelve and six months to be exact,” she said cheerily.

            The bottom of my stomach fell out. While Evelyn resembled her mother, Vincent looked nothing like either of his parents. He had red hair, freckles, and hazel eyes. He looked just like me at his age.


Abe Margel


Abe Margel worked in rehabilitation and mental health for thirty years. He is the father of two adult children and lives in Thornhill, Ontario with his wife. His fiction has appeared in Fiction on the Web, Scarlet Leaf Review, Academy of the Heart and Mind, 2020 and 2021 BOULD Awards Anthology and the Spadina Literary Review


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. i ran to read it because it had coffee in it. Real nice job.

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