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?

Still Life Sunday: Unable to Connect

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28 Unable to Connect

The forest is dark but the sky is clear with stars. I stand in the snow, holding a phone in my hand. Behind me, the camp fire lights up the night and laughter from the people around the fire reaches my ears. I turn my face up to stare at the sky and the stars, then I look at the fire and after that, forced, my gaze turns down to the phone.

I hesitate to take off my gloves to dial the number.

My muscles feel heavy and tired after today’s hike but my mind races like a wild horse on an open field. Instead of the luxurious relaxing feeling of a good day’s work, I feel anxious and ashamed. The conversation from just moments before has left my body burning.

“What does your second child do nowadays?”

 “She’s finishing her Master’s Degree. You know, writing her thesis.”

 ”Oh, she’s come a long way! What is she writing about?”

 “Hmm, I’m not sure. I think it has something to do with communication?”

 “Does she plan on graduating this Spring?”

 “Um, I don’t know. Probably.”

 “What does she plan to do after that?”

 “I… I don’t know what she’s been planning. But then again, who knows what the kids think and do nowadays?”

I had always been sure I would be able to give equal affection, curiosity and discipline to all my three children. I had brushed away the talk about how the second child tends to get the least attention because the first child is the rebellious rule-breaker and the third the slightly spoiled because of her youth and take all the attention they can get.

I had been sure it was just talk.

And suddenly, here I was, in the middle of nothing, realizing how little I knew of my second child. How I had fallen into the stereotypical pattern and failed to give equal affection to all three of them.

After the conversation, there had been no more questions because everyone had realized I didn’t have any answers to give. In the silence that followed, I had reached out to my backpack, taken my phone and walked away from the group, saying I needed a moment for myself. Now, I look at the phone and finally, after several moments of hesitation, take off my gloves and press the home button, making the screen fill with light. I have 72% left of the battery, enough to make a call.

My body is filled with a mixture of cold and grey shame, a feeling of loss and wonder. I feel a strong need for compensating for all these years of failure, a need for fixing everything. I try to understand what has led to this moment in the woods, to this burning sense of shame in my body. Where did everything start to go wrong?

The screen goes dark. I press the home button again. Now the battery says 63%. It doesn’t like the cold. I don’t like the cold. In fact, I’d rather be at my second child’s door right now, ringing the door bell, asking if I can come in for a cup of tea and a friendly talk. Would she let me in? I really don’t know. But I could call her instead.

I could call her, but the battery on the phone keeps on announcing dropping percentage. Soon I won’t be able to call her because there won’t be enough power left to make one.

I could call her. I should, I really should. But what would I say?

I stand in the snow, thinking about calling her, searching for the right words to begin with. I almost find the courage to do it, but then the cold starts to creep into my fingers and toes and neck, and I shiver. I slip the phone into my jacket pocket and walk back to the people and the fire. I feel disappointment and anger with myself but can’t help but think

if there’s even a point in trying?

Even if I could call her or walk to her door, I wouldn’t know what to say. Because how do you pick up the conversation after ten years of hollow small-talk?