Bledsoe always arrived first at the café where we met, and as soon as I sat down he started to agitate with his observations. He claimed I made up stories that suited how I wanted to see things, which kept me from seeing the truth in most situations. I claimed that Bledsoe saw people in a limited way and typically failed to show empathy for them. Bledsoe said I couldn’t face seeing people as they were and empathy had nothing to do with facts. I said that empathy could help us see a broader range of possible facts.

We hadn’t seen each other since being classmates as teenagers, but I happened to bump into him at a multiplex movie theater, Bledsoe heading into the theater at the exact moment I was heading out. I recognized him first, and he quickly said my name and we chatted. I learned that he was married to a woman named Crissy, no children, Bledsoe added rolling his eyes, and we told each other our occupations. We arranged a breakfast meeting and shook hands on it. I liked the idea because I’d lost touch with my few connections from high school and I figured he’d hold up his end of the conversation. I remembered that he drew attention to himself in those days with an unrelenting flow of wisecracks.

At breakfast, I could see the old Bledsoe in the new Bledsoe. We usually had the same woman server at the café, and I objected when he referred to her as No Lips, No Lids, or just No Lids. He said it was a simple fact that the server had almost no lips and no visible eyelids and her facial features had nothing at all to do with him. I said that a number of stories existed within this woman, none of which we could know. Perhaps the flesh around her eyes was swollen because she had allergies or a couple of young kids who kept her awake half the night or she might be working herself to the point of exhaustion at three jobs to help support her family. Bledsoe argued that whatever factors caused her eyelids to disappear were irrelevant to his observation, and besides, how did I explain her lips? I couldn’t explain her lips, I said, except to say that both or one of her parents may have had thin lips, but reducing her to an insulting nickname based on how she looked showed a lack of empathy; there had to be much more to her and what could the thinness of her lips have to do with the kind of person she was? He answered that he hadn’t meant to suggest that her lips or lids had anything to do with her character and that I was simply imagining a story around her.

At another breakfast Bledsoe complained about his visit to a doctor’s waiting room. He said he was the only person in the room reading a hard copy of a book, and magazines lay untouched on racks and tables. Around twenty other people passed through the waiting room while he was there and all of them occupied their time gazing at electronic devices, oblivious to everything else around them. Bledsoe had to ask himself, he said, if they’d come there to be treated for an electronics contagion. As he looked around the room, a man of about forty caught his eye. The man sat slumped with his back on the seat of the waiting-room chair, his head and neck sticking up at a right angle, a tablet stacked on his foot-high stomach, his sausage-like fingers occasionally poking its screen. I asked Bledsoe why he saw these details as worthy of my interest, and he replied that he was passing along what he’d seen and I could make of it what I wished. I asked if he was tempting me to make satirical remarks about the people in the waiting room, hypnotized sheep or automatons as opposed to living and breathing humans. He said he was merely stating facts, and if I chose to interpret them as being unflattering to him or others then I was the one making up the story. Did it embarrass me to expose myself as a hypocrite before an old friend? he asked without a trace of a smile. Here comes No Lids, he said then and held up his coffee cup for her to refill as he pushed his empty plate toward the edge of the table. I didn’t like his way of bringing his coffee cup to her attention or how he shoved his plate at her, but I decided to let it pass without comment, hoping the tone of our talks might change.

But annoying patterns continued at our breakfasts. Bledsoe never thanked our servers for pouring coffee or water or removing empty plates. His manner with the servers, whether it was the woman he referred to as No Lids or someone else, seemed brusque to me and I said so to him. He never looked at the servers, as if they were beneath his consideration. He wouldn’t lean out of a server’s way if one of them had to reach past him and would seem bothered if a server’s arm got close to him. He ritually complained about the service at the café though he showed no interest in switching to a different place. Bledsoe never tired of complaining about the conduct of others, about how people drove or that people didn’t look where they were going in the mall and would smash into him if he didn’t jump out of their path or stop in his tracks. He complained that people in cars or at the mall or in waiting rooms had little or no awareness of their surroundings.

A related pattern emerged that Bledsoe began to complain about me complaining about his constant complaints. Bledsoe's observations, I argued, said more about him than about others. He complained that I saw a hard-hearted person reflected in his complaints, and I did not disagree. He said my imagination blinded me and his comments had no reality to me outside the realm of my interpretations. I replied that if he were to punch me in the face the punch would be a fact, but there’d be a reason behind the punch that originated inside him. He asked if there was a reason I’d imagined that example and if the reason for the punch could have originated inside me.

I found Bledsoe at the table looking particularly upset one morning, and I wondered if he was angry with me. But it turned out he’d been angered by something Crissy had said. I told Bledsoe he didn’t have to get into it if he didn’t want to, but he insisted it was not a topic that involved gory marital details. Crissy had decided she didn’t want to go by the name Bledsoe anymore, that she preferred her family name, which was Boucher. The name Bledsoe seemed too thick on her tongue, she’d admitted to him, but mainly she didn’t want to lose a sense of where she’d come from. And she didn’t want to go by Crissy, the nickname she’d had as a girl. She liked her real first name, Christiane. She wanted to be called Christiane Boucher rather than Crissy Bledsoe, she’d told him, and she wouldn’t accept that he preferred to call her Crissy, because if he continued using Crissy other people would follow suit. He had to switch to Christiane and support her on both names, she’d told Bledsoe, who especially didn’t like it that she wanted to emphasize where she came from over where she was now. He’d been angry for several days, he confessed, and she’d been angry with him for being angry with her. She’d left him no choice but to accept the change, and his lack of choice in the matter fed his anger. As he saw it he was having trouble with his wife, and as she saw it she was having trouble with him. Bledsoe said he felt as if he didn’t know a person called Christiane Boucher, a person he’d never married or lived with, but he did know a person named Crissy Bledsoe, who his wife no longer wanted to be.

I tried to stay out of it, but he wanted to hear what I thought. So I told him I thought he should accept Christiane Boucher, that he loved the person beneath the name and was creating a self-centered storyline out of fear he could be losing her. She should become Christiane immediately, I said, and he should tell her he would do his best to embrace the change. Bledsoe resented me for taking her side. I wasn’t seeing things from his point of view, he said, and I answered that he wasn’t seeing things from Christiane’s point of view. I said it was up to her what she wanted to be called, not him. Bledsoe then criticized me for not having empathy for him after I’d so often reproached him for not having empathy for servers or whoever. In his view, Crissy’s desire to be known by her family name amounted to at least a step away from him. I said he was probably exaggerating about her taking a step away, and he said I couldn’t possibly know what was between them. I couldn’t refute his point, but it concerned me that he showed no inclination to change his mind.

The next time, Bledsoe looked as if he hadn’t been getting much sleep. His eyes were swollen half shut, and if I’d been like him I would have said he should go by the name of No Lids. I dreaded listening to him, thinking that no good could come from that face. When No Lids didn’t fill his coffee cup to the top, he called her abruptly back and asked if they were short of coffee this morning. I was considering the idea that today could be my last breakfast with him, and I hoped he might be thinking along the same lines. Judging by his manner, it was a possibility. He seemed hesitant to look at me, but he didn’t keep quiet for long. He pointed a finger between my eyes and accused me of becoming the disparaging person I didn’t want to see in him. And then he said that in thinking about Crissy’s reasons for wanting to change her name he’d taken on my penchant for imagining the point of view of others. Still, he said, it was a fact and not an interpretation that Crissy wanted to change her name, not just one of her names, both of them, and was that supposed to be a coincidence? It had to mean something, didn’t it? He waited for me to answer, but I didn’t want to tangle myself in his logic. If I’d answered I would have said that the name change probably meant what Christiane said it did. She wanted to grow her identity, and if he weren’t so hard-hearted he’d be able to see that.

A woman showed up at the table then and leaned over to kiss Bledsoe, who was obviously surprised to see her.

This is Telepathic Teller, he said, gesturing toward me. I too had been given a nickname.

Christiane?

Bledsoe squeezed his eyes shut when I said her name. She seemed pleased her to hear it.

I was on my way to exercise class and thought I’d stop by to meet you. You look familiar.

I don’t think we’ve met.

I sometimes come in the library where you work. It’s near my class. George uses the library at the college.

His eyes avoided Christiane, and he already seemed eager for her to leave. I feared he’d make some embarrassing remark. I didn’t think I could start a conversation with her without cranking him up.

Sorry if I’m interrupting. I’m running late this morning so I need to get going. I’ll see you later, George. And she walked away.

What’s the matter with you? I asked.

Why does she want to show herself to you?

I don’t understand your anger.

Did she look familiar?

Slightly. A lot of people come in. You didn’t tell me she might have seen me before.

Let’s drop it. You don’t want to hear it anyway. Did you have to call her Christiane? Did you want to put her on your side of the table?

I didn’t think I should call her Crissy.

Bledsoe seemed to have much on his mind though he apparently felt unwilling to say any more of it. I had the impression he couldn’t stand the sight of me. I didn’t want him to spiral into a crash, but I couldn’t intrude into their business and wouldn’t have trusted his viewpoint if I’d heard it. Rather than sit there seething he cut the breakfast short, and we made no plans to meet again.

A few weeks later I emailed him, asking if we could get together. I didn’t say so in my message, not wanting to overstep, but as I thought about him I doubted I’d tried hard enough to imagine the situation from behind his eyes. How much could I expect to know about why he was angry with Christiane and how could I understand him unless I made an effort to accept the obstacles between us?

He didn’t reply to my invitation. I saw Christiane in the library a couple of times, but she never said a word to me or glanced at me. I never approached her, reluctant to speak her name.

GLEN POURCIAU’s second collection of stories, View, was published in March by Four Way Books. His first story collection, Invite, won the 2008 Iowa Short Fiction Award. His stories have been published by AGNI Online, Antioch Review, Epoch, New England Review, Paris Review, and other magazines.