This piece draws a portrait of a stranger in a coffee shop. Offering a kind of weekly enigma to me, she has come to represent the constant allure of mystery in the seemingly trivial. This essay focuses on that enigma, and the possible answers I have for them.
I start the essay with a snapshot of what this woman is. What does she look like? What does she do? In giving a descriptive appraisal at the beginning, I lay the foundation of the mystery. I note her gestures – the faint inclination of her head when she looks at her watch, the expectation apparent on her face when someone walks through the door, and the inevitable disappointment almost every time – and raise the question that would bring us closer to “solving” her mystery: Why? Why does she look the way she does? Why does she act this way? Why is she there? In this part of the essay, I create the mythos I have woven about her through the answers to these questions.
This essay presents her as what she seems to be, and then seeks to go further, bringing both reader and author along for a venture into who she is, or at least, what she might be. In writing this, I thrust the philosophy that everyone really has a story. The natural inclination of the curious man is to find out. And if one cannot know, then you can always let your imagination run free.
Literary Nonfiction Essay
There she is again, alone in the table at the far corner. Today, she has brought books with her: sonnets by Pablo Neruda, a creative writing textbook, and a discredited memoir. The book of poetry has been opened, and rests on her lap. A notebook, bound in leather, lies open on the table. A pen rests on the stark whiteness of the pages. She is looking at none of these. She smokes bent cigarettes every five minutes or so. She drinks her coffee as she glances at the door, trying not to look as if she were truly alone – that by looking at the doorway once in a while, she can pretend (and the world with her) that someone is coming to meet her.
Her cellphone, too, lies open. She takes a bite from her slice of lemon cake. The phone’s screen remains dark, no matter how long she stares at it.
Outside it is raining.
She looks up, scans the crowd, most of whom are oblivious of her presence. I cannot be. I have known her for far too long. No, I do not know her name, and I do not think I will ever ask. But I have seen her so many times before, her presence is more familiar than a stranger’s should be. Today, I have positioned myself only two tables away from her. Because I know I can never march up to her and demand what she is, I content myself with absorbing everything I can of her. I have sat closer to her today. I cannot help this fascination. I simply want to know.
Her gaze finally rests beyond me, towards the door. I see her face more clearly than I ever have before, after all these weeks. Oval, and wan – her forehead is high, her eyes wide and dark. It is not a delicate face, for perhaps the prolonged sadness has seeped into her bones that her face has toughened, has become stronger. Her cheeks jut out and her lips are thin and pale. Her mouth is arranged into its usual tightness. She sighs when the door opens, then closes, and turns away. She looks at her watch. She sighs once more, leafs through the open book of poetry.
When will she realize that she is the only woman in a cafe of lovers? Or has she always known? She has one mug all to herself, the others have to share. One cup of coffee, one white porcelain rim, for two bleeding mouths of bleeding hearts.
Inevitably, I think of the possibility of the reluctant lover. Every week, I see her here, always alone. I have never seen her leave with someone. I have never seen anyone, man or woman, stride over to her table, hold her hand, to lead her outside.
Perhaps she has waited with the smallest of hopes that soon, someone would come to end the waiting. But perhaps the reluctant lover roams now the asphalt streets, in a suit and tie, a briefcase hanging from one hand as though it is an extension of his body. And this woman, with her poems and novels and empty notebooks – she is here, waiting, being watched by a person who has seen enough of her to realize that she is waiting.
Another woman – more of a girl, really – is at another corner. But she smokes her cigarette with the ease of one who knows that someone will meet her. Soon she will be gone and this woman, this woman, would light another cigarette and turn another page of one the books she has brought.
I see her cellphone buzz, vibrating on the surface of the table. She twitches, then snatches it. Her eyes run over the illuminated screen, taking in the message quickly. Then, her lip curls, and she tosses her cellphone back to the table.
Has she been told that she has to wait longer?
She returns to her book but her gaze is blanker now. This book she has been reading has quite possibly turned out to be a chore and all too soon, the words blur until they are white. There is too much of her coffee, and the crystal grains of sugar have refused to melt. The lemon cake crumbles. Even her cigarette offends her, and she puts it out, only half-consumed.
With her, this woman, her waiting – things pale and darken at the same time. Knowing these things are just distractions, something to pass the time that just seems to crawl slower and slower that it sometimes falls still: the coffee cannot be finished, the cigarette doesn’t burn, the page goes on and on and on. Something has cloaked her – is it the knowledge that all these are things she’d rather not be doing? Shouldn’t be doing in the first place?
She must finish her coffee, and only crumbs should be left on her plate. The book, open on her lap, can be replaced. There are two other books in her bag, and she takes them out: poetry speaking of a requited waiting.
She must think now: all this talk about unrequited love, when poetry should be made about unrequited patience: waiting for the phone to vibrate, waiting for the crumbs to settle, waiting for the coffee mug to empty, waiting for the cigarette to turn into ash, waiting for the books to turn to the last page, waiting for the rain to stop, waiting for the clock to strike ten, waiting for someone to come through the door with the spaciest of smiles just for her. Waiting, waiting, waiting.
If she wrote – and I have feeling that she does, in spite of the blankness of her notebook now – how many times has she written about women like her?
She looks at her watch. Her phone vibrates one more. Listless, she picks it up, punches at the buttons. In but moments, her face clears, she sags in her chair. She is starting to smile.
I wonder then: the reluctant lover (but only in her mind, only when they are not together.) Has the un-reluctant lover tells her that he is near? Would Neruda, then, glow again?
Because she is a woman who waits diligently albeit unwillingly, week after week, later, she will be disgusted with how much everything makes sense now. Even waiting in a parked car, while errands are run, will make her smile. The rain will fall harder. The drops will be opaque against the windshield and yet it shall leave shadows on her jeans.
Oh, that smile.
And she will think: Everything should be a familiar novelty, a novel familiarity. Yes, even waiting for him to come back with a bag or two of bread, while a Japanese love song drifts from the radio. She will think the song talks of a fulfilled longing, of a waiting ended.
But now, she is still waiting. But now she is sure that someone shall come for her.
She looks at me, sees me watching her. The smile she gives me is fleeting, the token nicety for strangers who stare too long at you. I smile back at her.
She looks at the doorway, but it seems more out of habit, than anticipation.
One last look, then it is time for me to go.