An Exercise in Faith

an attempt to imitate the narrative voice in Mary Oliver’s poem The Kingfisher

I climb the carpeted stairs to the bathroom amidst the echo of a drum. I haven’t had a drink in eleven months, since Mark and I started trying. He brought me to this Ethiopian restaurant because he knows it’s my favorite. Nice thought, but I could have gotten what I wanted at any old place. He watched as I ordered the bottle of inexpensive wine, and he watched as I topped up my third glass. When I got up from the table, I felt his gaze burning hot panic through the back of my shoulders.

I climb up to the bathroom, nestled in a corner of the second-floor bar. The coffee ceremony is beginning below. I love this place for its coffee ceremony. The ritual is conducted at a different time each night, whenever the servers believe the moment has come. You never know if you’ll be at the restaurant for it; if you are, that’s luck. The deep drums that beat the pulse of the ceremony vibrate up through the stairs, through the soles of my shoes, reverberating in my hips. I picture the vibrations extending up the walls, through the ground, reaching their quaking tendrils beyond the restaurant itself, beyond the streets of my city, merging and meshing with other tremors of life so that the whole planet is a juddering mass of tension, ready to mutate.

I enter the bathroom that’s always dirty, tissue and water strewn on the floor. I pull down my underwear and witness inside it the dark stain of my eleventh failure. The toilet seat is crooked and pinches the tender skin of my inner thigh as I sit, an admonition, but a warm numbness born of the wine embraces me. Among the graffiti littering the walls, the delicate sketch of a human eye rests in front of my face. The eye, the size of a fat lemon, is drawn with careful detail, each minute hair of the lashes and eyebrows tapering to a delicate point. The iris is a frenzy of thin pencil strokes, whorling with dizziness to the black nexus of the pupil.

I know the artist who made this. He works here as a waiter, or maybe he’s the bartender. He hasn’t arrived yet, but he also isn’t rushing. He carries that cheap pencil in his pocket always. At home, the artist sketches in the morning before his shift. He draws at night by a dying lightbulb. At work, he sits here every time he takes a piss, positioning himself to more comfortably add shade to the eyelid, give depth to the lashes, and when he’s finished, erase whole thing to begin his practice again.

On a slow week at the restaurant, he finishes the eye in four days. More often, though, he’s interrupted by an urgent pounding on the door, a call back to work. On those days, he adds just one stroke, but he knows that stroke upon stroke will eventually yield his eye. The scratch of his pencil adds a tenuous vibration that he hopes will bring his world one fragment closer to rupture. He pursues with slow patience, with unrelenting diligence, the humming purpose of his life. We know that to be a creator is no sure thing. He will not give it up; I will not give it up.

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