Wittgenstein's Illusion

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Wittgenstein’s Illusion

“Why’d you do that, jackass?” I snarled at Sabrina, who was the barista this morning. I make better coffee, if I do say so myself. Well, really, everyone says so, but I was on the schedule for the register this morning, and that was that. “You embarrassed a customer!”

“It was a JOKE,” she snapped back. Just ‘cuz YOU don’t have a sense of humor . . . .”

“It wasn’t funny,” I returned, with considerable heat.

“No,” she said, “It was HILARIOUS.”

I was tempted to respond, but that wouldn’t do anything for our customer, who was already making his way quickly down the street. Besides, Jen, who was relieving me, was just about to come out from the back. “Hey, Jen,” I called. “Can you come on a couple minutes early?”

She popped her head out. “Sure Jack, what’s up?”

“I’ll fill you in later, okay?” I said.

“Sure thing,” she said. “Go!” Wholly disregarding the scornful look Sabrina was directing my way, I tossed my brown apron in the hamper behind the door, ducked under the counter and took off after Terry.

I don’t know Terry’s last name, but I know his first name because I’ve written it on scores – possibly hundreds – of his coffee cups over the past two years I’ve worked at Lord Kitchener’s Kafe. It’s not hard to write; unlike most guys his age – well, our age – he has a conventional name that he spells in a conventional way. But Sabrina, bitch troll that she is, decided it would be “hilarious” to write “Teri” on his venti latte, and even dotted the eye with a cutesy heart. Terry, at least, hadn’t seen the humor. He had flushed bright red, spun around and hustled off, leaving his coffee behind him.

Why would she do that? Well, Terry wasn’t a particularly imposing figure. Short, slight, with deep brown eyes. He had feathery black hair that seemed to stick out in odd directions. He was quiet, polite. Diffident, even. On nice days, he sometimes had his coffee on the outside patio; I had seen him doing charcoal sketches of customers on a pad he always had with him. There wasn’t anything particularly feminine about Terry. But there wasn’t anything especially masculine either. He was just a decent, quiet guy. Just the sort someone like Sabrina would target for her “fun.”

But I expected that Simon Kitchener, like Terry, would not share Sabrina’s sense of humor. Terry was a good regular customer – just the sort that Simon cultivated as the foundation for the cafe’s success. I’m a good employee and I’m sure Simon would approve of what I was doing, but truth is – much as I respect my boss – I wasn’t doing it for him.

I couldn’t call Terry a friend, really. We’d just exchanged pleasantries more often than not. We’d had slightly longer conversations from time to time. But he was a nice guy. A sensitive guy. I liked him. He didn’t deserve Sabrina’s “jokes.” And I didn’t want to be the kind of guy who just sat back and did nothing in the face of cruelty, just because it wasn’t directed at me.

I caught up with him about four blocks from work. “Hey, Terry, wait up,” I said when I was about ten steps back. He slowed, almost reluctantly, then turned his head.

Seeing me, his shoulders slumped. “It’s okay, Jack,” he said. “Just . . . wasn’t in the mood for jokes today.”

“It’s NOT alright, and it’s NEVER alright,” I said forcefully, as I caught up with him. “I want you to know that Mr. Kitchener is going to be ripshit when he hears about it, and he will. From me!”

He looked at me quizzically, then continued to walk, turning his eyes forward. “Maybe you should let it go,” he said, as I kept pace with him. “Not that I don’t appreciate the thought. I do. But I can fight my own battles when I need to.”

He kept walking, and for some reason I kept walking too. He didn’t tell me not to. I said, “I’m not suggesting you can’t. But I KNOW Mr. Kitchener. That’s not something he’d want happening at his place. And he’d want to know if it did. So . . . it’s your battle, I suppose, but it’s not JUST your battle.”

He digested that as he continued walking. When we hit Durling Creek he turned down the dirt path that left the main road. He didn’t ask me to join him, but again, he didn’t ask me to leave him alone, either. He said, “Is it your battle?” Nothing challenging in his voice that I could sense. Just . . . curiosity? So I thought about it rather than answering right away.

After a few yards I said, “Yes, I think it’s my battle too. I may just be a barista, but I want to work in a place I’m proud to work. That has values I share. That didn’t happen today. I’m as responsible for our work culture as everyone else. Making sure it’s a good environment, a positive experience for our community – yeah, that’s my battle.”

The path went back over Durling Creek by a footbridge. Terry stopped in the middle of the bridge, leaned forward and rested his forearms on the railing. He looked down at the water, gurgling through a tangle of weeds and rocks. Even though the band of trees we were in was narrow, it blocked a lot of the normal noise of the busy suburb that surrounded us. The early afternoon sunlight filtered through the oak leaves above us, dappling the ground with pockets of light and patterns of darkness.

Without taking his eyes off the flowing creek, he said, “Well, I guess you need to go fight your battle, and maybe Lord Kitchener needs to fight his battle too. Do what you need to do, and God bless you for it. The world could certainly use more people who think like you do. But it’s got nothing to do with me. For my part . . . I’d let it go.”

I was confused, and said so. “Terry . . . I don’t understand. Why doesn’t it have anything to do with you?”

He continued to look at the water, carefully weighing his response. Finally he said, “Please don’t take this the wrong way, Jack. I DO appreciate what you’re doing. You want to be a good guy and work at a good place. Those are good things. That has to do with YOU. Mr. Kitchener wants to run a good place. That has to do with HIM. Sabrina . . . she’s a nasty piece of work. But she was going to be nasty to somebody. It happened to be me, this morning, but it could have been anyone. I’m not important to the equation. To what you need to do. And that’s fine.”

I tried to process what he was saying. I mean, what he was REALLY saying. And then I had to think a bit harder about why I had charged after Terry. All the while, he just stared out at the creek, apparently oblivious to my presence or the passage of time.

“Terry,” I said softly. “Would you look at me, please?” He straightened up slowly, turned around and leaned on the railing, facing me where I leaned on the railing opposite. He looked wary, cautious. Vulnerable.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Not just for what Sabrina did, though it’s that too. But for how I managed to make it all about me. It IS about you, Terry. I wouldn’t have come after ‘just anyone.’ I came out because I care about YOU. Because you’ve always been a nice, decent guy that I wanted to get to know better, and I hated to see you treated that way. Because you deserve better.”

The wary expression did not leave his face, but he said, “Thanks for that, Jack. I appreciate it. But . . . I’m not really a nice, decent guy. And you probably DON’T want to get to know me better.”

“Why would you say that?,” I asked. This conversation was just baffling to me.

He gave me a long, long look before saying, “Sabrina was nasty, Jack. But she wasn’t wrong. She saw in a week what you missed for two years. I’m not a guy at all. Not really. Even though I’ve nominally got the equipment. I’m a woman.”

I gaped at him for a moment, but then I shut my open jaw and thought back over all our interactions over the past two years. It was like the drawing that looks like a rabbit from one direction and a duck from another. Or like one of those pieces of three-dimensional art that look random, until you see them from just the right angle and the pattern and design become clear as day. What had been lines and squiggles becomes a bird, or a famous building.

Or a beautiful woman.

Terry was still looking at me warily. Like he was waiting for judgment day. I don’t know what was on my face. But I suddenly knew – blowing past all my self-deceptions – why I had come after him today. After her.

“Teri,” I said. “I don’t know why I didn’t see you properly. But I think my heart knew what my mind refused to process. I said that I care about you, and that’s true. I’d tell you that your gender doesn’t matter, and in a way it doesn’t. I care, regardless. But . . . .” I struggled to articulate what I was thinking. What I was feeling. Teri just looked at me, almost expressionless.

“But in another way, your gender matters a lot,” I finally was able to say. “Because I’ve been attracted to you for a long time, and I’ve been lying to myself about that. Lying, because I’m not gay, and I thought you were a guy.”

Her eyes got wider at that – much wider. Then she visibly schooled her features and said, cautiously, “I’m a woman inside, but like I said, I don’t have a woman’s physical equipment. You need to know that.”

I nodded. “I understand. And I’m not going to say it doesn’t matter. I don’t know if it will or won’t. But . . . can we . . . can we maybe find out?”

Her sensitive face was showing fear, indecision, hope . . . . She leaned against the rail, unmoving. Too scared to move toward me, too hopeful to run away. Very slowly, very carefully, I raised my right hand, palm facing up.

She looked at me – a look I would remember if I lived to be a hundred – a look that pierced my heart. With equal care, she took my outstretched hand in her own and we came together. My left hand cradled her cheek, and I bent down and kissed her. A light kiss, so soft . . . I was so afraid, in that moment, that she would run.

Maybe she would, one day. Maybe I would. But in that beautiful morning on the footbridge over Durling Creek, my heart sang with the joy of love finally seen, finally recognized, and I saw that love reflected in her matchless eyes. And the world, in that moment, was a magical place.

The End

For information about my other stories, please check out my author's page.

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erin's picture

Thank you.


= Give everyone the benefit of the doubt because certainty is a fragile thing that can be shattered by one overlooked fact.

Thanks, Erin

Emma Anne Tate's picture

Glad you enjoyed it.


Just a new thought

erin's picture

Has anyone ever drawn the rabbit/duck illusion with Bugs and Daffy? :D


= Give everyone the benefit of the doubt because certainty is a fragile thing that can be shattered by one overlooked fact.


Dee Sylvan's picture

It's not that the illusion doesn't apply, it's that it fits perfectly with your story. We oftentimes miss what is clear to others because we have our own illusion. Another great story, Emma Tate!


Too right!

Emma Anne Tate's picture

Thanks, Dee.


Rabbit or duck or rabbit-duck?

SammyC's picture

In the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett, the Soul Cake Duck is the anthropomorphic personification of Soul Cake Tuesday, capable of laying confectionery eggs. Being analogous with the Easter Bunny, the Soul Cake Duck is a reference to the rabbit-duck illusion.


We should be getting college credits

Dee Sylvan's picture

Thanks for that piece of historical background Sammy! Between Emma's stories and comments like Sammy's, we are getting graduate level English and linguistics lessons! (Not to mention high entertainment value.) Thanks Ladies!


Aspect Perception

We are who we . . . they . . . us . . . think -- and agree -- we are.

A wonderful tale.


Angela Rasch (Jill M I)

Thank-you, Jill

Emma Anne Tate's picture

By way of counterpoint, Sartre said that we “only become what we are by the radical and deep-seated refusal of that which others have made us.” Some days I’m inclined to one view, and some days the other. I’m glad you liked the story!


Very sweet

Thank you. Nothing superfluous added. Nothing required left out. A skillful and touching story.


As a savory appetizer precedes the hearty courses (viz. Duet and Aria), this must be considered a sweet.

Thanks for the promo!

Emma Anne Tate's picture

I’ve been trying to see if I can say more with fewer words . . . I’ll stop before I hit haiku!


It's a lovely story, but

I read it because you were the author! The former practical scientist in me was never a student of philosophy (even philosophy of science), so I am still not "with it" for your title.
I have yet to be disillusioned by your story-telling, both long and short, so no matter how cryptic the titling, I will continue to look forward to your next offering.
Best wishes


Emma Anne Tate's picture

Sometimes I write a title first and build the story or chapter around it (William's Tell; Gotterdamerung); other times I write the story first and when it's done the story suggests a title to me. This was one of the latter occasions. Sometimes it works; sometimes it don't. :D

Thanks for the nice comment, Dave. I'll try to let you keep your illusions!


Philosophy often reminds me of a Sidney Harris cartoon

Lab-coated man in the library stacks, under signs reading “semantics” and “that is, books on semantics” and “by which we mean books whose content is the subject of semantics.”

... by which we mean...

Daphne Xu's picture

"... by which we mean books with paper inside, and with words on the paper arranged to form sentences on the subject of semantics."

-- Daphne Xu

The Eye Of The Beholder

joannebarbarella's picture

Sometimes the scales need to be ripped off to see what we've been missing.

A lovely little story.

So true!

Emma Anne Tate's picture

At least this time, Jack's encounter with reality was a positive one.

Thanks, Joanne!



This is a wonderful little pill of life. Always enlightning us with your talent. As an absolutely talentless person regarding literature and arts, I always admire the ones who have “it”.

Piffle, Max!

Emma Anne Tate's picture

Your comments are far too good, in content and execution, to claim a lack of talent in the writing department!

So glad you enjoyed the story, Max.


Let's hope so!

Emma Anne Tate's picture

Thanks, Julia. Glad you liked it!


Sabrina's Joke

Daphne Xu's picture

This probably explains Jack's fury at Sabrina's joke.

-- Daphne Xu

I think . . .

Emma Anne Tate's picture

He’d have been furious regardless. He’s a nice guy; everyone says so. But I doubt he’d have given chase. :D


Sabrina is lucky

That Terry wasn't a specimin of Redneck Americus Asshole. The smaller ones can be very prickly about their "Manly Dignity". Never insult a little man carrying a concealed weapon, as they are known to do. Staring down the business end of a snub-nosed .357 or 9mm can be detrimental to your mental and/or physical wellbeing.

Maybe I missed the explaination, but who is Wittgenstein?

"Life is not measured by the breaths you take, but by the moments that take your breath away.”
George Carlin

The bigger the gun . . .

Emma Anne Tate's picture

the smaller the man? Well, maybe, and you’re surely right about her luck.

As for Wittgenstein, I’d just say he was a philosopher, but that would be the waste of rare opportunity to share a classic Monty Python lyric:

Immanuel Kant was a real pissant who was very rarely stable.
Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar who could think you under the table.
David Hume could out-consume Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel,
And Wittgenstein was a beery swine who was just as sloshed as Schlegel.

There's nothing Nietzche couldn't teach ya ‘bout the raising of the wrist.
Socrates, himself, was permanently pissed.

John Stuart Mill, of his own free will, on half a pint of shandy was particularly ill.
Plato, they say, could stick it away, half a crate of whiskey every day.
Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle, Hobbes was fond of his dram,
And René Descartes was a drunken fart: "I drink, therefore I am.”

Yes, Socrates, himself, is particularly missed. A lovely little thinker, but a bugger when he's pissed!


Never a

Python fan, so that's a swing and a miss.

As for philosophers, the only philosophy I ever had was a 1000-level course my freshman year of college. My only activity in the class was to ask questions of a young Southern Baptist lady, challenging her statements of (religious) fact. Between the professor and me, we kept her wound up most every class.

I, on the other hand, never made any definative statements that I could be challenged on.

So other than having heard about most of the yahoos you mentioned, I know nothing about them. I followed the wikipedia link (provided by Eric below), and after about five minutes of looking at the illustration all I saw was a duck. Daffy always was a spotlight hog. That wascally wabbit was probably hiding in his hole. ;-)

"Life is not measured by the breaths you take, but by the moments that take your breath away.”
George Carlin

And let's not forget that

And let's not forget that Plato was a homophobe, if I'm not mistaken. Or he had an agenda to instrumentalize that.

Freud said: "The smaller the

Freud said: "The smaller the "gun" the more "bloated" the man". >:-> (Analogous)

A Wonderful Story

Lucy Perkins's picture

Thank you Emma for this gem of a story.
In a few paragraphs you created a perfect picture of both a rabbit AND a duck at the same time. Your characters always draw me in, and I shall spend the rest of the day dreaming of their Happy Ever Afters (and in my mind, it will be a happy ever after, "it has to be" to paraphrase Tom Hanks as Joe Fox).
Oh, and by the way, thank you for the reminder of "The Philosophy Song". I learned the little I know about philosophy by looking up all those mentioned in the song in my Great Aunt's Encyclopedia when I was fourteen !
Lucy xx

"Lately it occurs to me..
what a long strange trip its been."

Thanks, Lucy!

Emma Anne Tate's picture

Thank you for the lovely comment. The Bruce song was my intro to philosophy as well!


For Terry to have such a bad

For Terry to have such a bad reaction to have her name spelled Teri she had to have been hurt badly emotionally.
Let's hope it works out for Teri & Jack.

Thx for an excellent story^^

Perceptive Barista

Sabrina G Langton's picture

Very nice, loved it. I especially loved how quickly Jack changed his perception of Teri. Also how quickly the spelling of the name was changed after that, thought that was so nice. And as for that nasty Sabrina, I think she might have been more perceptive than we all think. We should give her the benefit of the doubt, just saying... Sabrina

I’m sorry Sabrina!

Emma Anne Tate's picture

I should have come up with a different name for that character!

You’ve got an interesting take on the story, and that’s fun to see as an author. Sometimes people get things out of my stories that I didn’t think of, often triggered by events in their own lives. And I think, “Huh! Wish that had occurred to me!” It’s part of what makes the comments section so enjoyable.

Thank you so much for sharing your idea, and I’m glad you enjoyed the story!


Read in reverse order...

RachelMnM's picture

And I can honestly say it made all the difference to me (on a personal level). A beautiful reflective story... Truly a wonderful story. Thank you for posting!




Rachel M. Moore...

A Magical Moment

BarbieLee's picture

In the puzzle or tangled web of life, sometimes there is something that takes place no one expected. A lightning strike, an arc of static electricity, that intangible no one can explain.
Hugs Emma
As life moves on, we mortals are stirred into the mix in the cauldron of life and time.

Oklahoma born and raised cowgirl

So true!

Emma Anne Tate's picture

And the tragedy is, if we are distracted by the blizzards of our life, if we aren’t fully present to the moment we are in, we miss them.




Iolanthe Portmanteaux's picture

I'd love to be able to say something witty about Wittgenstein, but I'll restrain myself and only say that it's surprisingly tender and complete for so short a story. It's well done, well crafted, deftly accomplished, as always.


- iolanthe

Thank you, Iolanthe.

Emma Anne Tate's picture

For a short short, this one kind of sticks with me. I find myself revisiting it, and its companion story, surprisingly often. Not sure why. But thanks for giving me an excuse to re-read it today!