Still Life Sunday: Meeting a Stranger

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29 Meeting a Stranger

I look at the elderly man standing next to me in the line. He is wearing a long, brown jacket that matches his thick beard of the same color. His eyes wander around the café we have walked into, resting on the flower arrangements that somehow don’t seem to fit in with the rest of the interior.

“Is it true you wrote most of your book here?” I ask, unable to control my curiosity.

I can see this man sitting at one of the tables, reaching his hand to a pile of notebooks to check some timeline or other detail from the history; the black coffee getting cold as it waits for its drinker’s attention. The wrinkles on his forehead bear the signs of deep concentration, of thoughts working hard on tricky plot lines that need to be aligned to build a cohesive storyline.

He nods and points to a table next to the railing. From there one can observe the life on the lower floors without being seen. I should have guessed: the favorite place of a writer.

“Not even once did I have to sit somewhere else”, the man says, his thoughts trailing somewhere back in time. “I almost think the workers in this café kept the table empty for me, so that whenever I came I could sit at that table.”

He looks forward to the counter where a young man is taking orders from a customer.

“But time has passed and none of them work here anymore. Or Frank does but he has become so old he does only one shift a week, and even that he does just for fun.”

I love listening to his calm voice, somewhat strained with age and thought. I’m actually supposed to be choosing what I want to eat and drink but I can’t focus on the colorful pieces of cake in the glass cabinet. Instead, I observe him with fondness, unable to believe that it was only a week ago I managed to gather my courage and talk to him.

I had been bumping into him for weeks. For years, I had been a fan of his work, of his words, of his way of creating magical entities that were turned into books. Never ever had I imagined I’d have the opportunity to talk to him or even see him in real life – but suddenly I had.

The first time I saw him was in the library. I knew it in that instant who he was and followed him while he browsed through the History section (of course).

The second time was in the traffic lights. He was on one side, I was standing on the other. It was a sunny day and light was in his eyes, but I observed him while the light was red, and, as the light turned green, observed his quick steps.

The third time, the time I finally walked up to him, was in the food market. He had been examining the oranges and I thought it was an opportunity good enough to say something. So I did. I presented myself, told him I was a fan of his books and then, without even panicking about it, said I would love to sit down with him for a coffee sometime and talk about writing.

“You’re a writer yourself, are you now?” the man had asked, raising one of his eyebrows in a friendly manner. I nodded and told him about the book I was writing, gave that elevator pitch I had been working on. It seemed to make an impression because the old man took out a small notebook from his brown jacket pocket, scribbled a date, a time and a place and ripped off the page, giving it to me.

And here we are. He seems to be deep in his own thoughts but I don’t mind the ticking of time, the minutes already wasted on silence instead of spending them exchanging thoughts on writing and on being a writer in this hectic, money-driven world.

But then, quite suddenly, he wakes up from his thoughts and grabs my hand with both of his hands and shakes it in a way that feels desperate but in a relieved way. He looks into my eyes, properly for the first time after the food market talk, and his eyes are filled with warm gratitude.

“I really appreciate this, I do”, he says. I don’t know what to say so I just stare at him, trying to keep myself calm and keep his gaze, let his hands hold my own, still shaking.

“Is there a problem, miss?” the café barista asks, looking at us nervously. His eyes dart to the old man and I realize he doesn’t recognize him, doesn’t know he is the great writer, the regular who made this café famous.

The situation probably looks strange to an outsider, too: why would a young woman and an old, rather shabby man go for a coffee? I hate to say it, but the old man’s brown beard and jacket make him look a little bit like a homeless person, so I’m not all that surprised. But – –

“No. Everything is fine”, I say with confidence, and then add, slightly nervously: “He’s my… mentor.”

I glance at the old man to see what he thinks of my words. He releases my hands – but the gratitude in his eyes does not. In that movement, I see his loneliness – the loneliness of being an old unmarried man, of being a writer, of the preference for isolation. And instead of bearing the weight of loneliness, the man only wishes to have someone to talk to, to pass on his wisdom to.

“I think I’ll take a piece of lemon meringue pie”, I say, looking at the barista who now tries to hide his embarrassment with a neutral expression. The old man looks at me and I nod to him.

“And he will take one as well.”

The man smiles and I smile back. We are both amused for our similar taste for sour in desserts.

Who knows who of us two needs the other one more?