He is an edgy, impatient cab as he walks into the café, interrupting its expensive, up-tight ambience. His deep-set eyes, which are fallen stars, skim through the velvety booths like hurried wipers and take on the familiar shade of regret. I am no less than a hound at sniffing out disappointments. Under watchful eyes, you must keep your forsaken chin up and pretend you are right as rain.
There's also the possibility of over-reading. The odds he has invited himself in for solo rounds of macaroons and coffee could be staked. Or some other exotic delicacy. The shrill voice on the adjacent table was going on and on about desserts.
'The syrupy-Baklavas, the cinnamon-Tikveniks- oh I tell you my husband's palate is way too bland for such tastes! I am a rake for epicurean delights. If food be the music of love, eat on- that sort of thing. Quite Shakespearean.'
I wonder if her quiet companion who said nothing about the misquotation is really here for any cuisine. Or soliloquies on cuisine. She only keeps staring out the open window, which may well have been a door considering its size, with a face like farewell blues.
Loneliness can starve you out and make any kind of food passable.
I sit beside time that mocks my premature arrival. It usually isn't like this. Most days time is a very brief drizzle, a guilty cotton-candy dissolving at once. Today may well be unusually long, the moments stretched into a strange ritual of waiting.
Boredom can turn into philosophy without your consent.
As I play ping-pong with the passing minutes, the restless stranger notices my half-empty booth and starts reading my face like a pack of tarot cards. He casts a vague smile at me, the kind strangers do when they abruptly bump into each other.
His freckled face is the clarity of an opaque glass.
It is likely, I imagine for a brief microsecond, that he keeps the clichés of romantic love far away and floats around town like a paper bag. He could well be my soulmate.
My head fills up with ironic laughter and I give him the benefit of a poker-face. What does it matter who passes time on the other side?
'You don't mind.' His first words are frank like ticket-stamps, punching the air around us with a price between an order and a request as he plops down on the seat facing me.
Did he read my implicit approval? If that's the case, I am a see-through glass-pane stained with cracks.
'Flight's delayed. Bistros around the airport are more talk, less food'. He makes a case for encroaching my space.
He has no luggage or an outfit which stands out as impressive. Must be picking someone up. Or simply hiding the fact he just got stood up.
'Tell me about it.' I nod and arch my back as he picks up the menu without going into introductions. There are no sit-down buffets, I hope as he flips through the pages ignoring me like I am a mannequin.
'How's the oolong? Is it on the fruity side?' he suddenly insists after a few minutes of silence, like I am some well-known gourmet.
'It can be anything between floral to grassy.'
He raises his eyebrows perhaps surprised by my prompt reply. I had overheard the next table sometime back eulogizing the benefits of drinking unique kinds of tea. Is this what I do for a living? Sit at tables like prying napkins and scribble down what others like or don't?
'I'll go for my usual. Would you like a cup of green tea as well?'
I don't answer.
He looks around distractedly and decides that the only waiter at the edge of the room would take ages before attending to him. Clearly he is not the waiting kind. He could just as well be in a hurry.
'Let me go get our drinks.' He announces like I am his date and gets up and heads for the counter.
Watching him waiting is like staring at the shadow of a shadow. He holds nobody's attention, not even the sharp-eyed man at the mahogany counter who feeds his brief order into the POS machine while smiling at the ladies who have just lined-up behind him.
I am surprised I begin to pity a stranger I know nothing about. The fact that he hides his paunch under a baggy shirt and covers his balding scalp under a fedora makes me want to forgive him for his lack of subtlety. Perhaps he is only taken seriously when he is rude and direct.
My cell beeps with two simultaneous texts.
Just a reminder. Tomorrow's the due date. PS: Mom I know I can always count on you.
Shouldn't take more than an hour. The witch is just leaving. You know how it is!
The messages are like asteroids which hit me from two different worlds. My old habit of wiping away one realm like stains on a window when I prepare to step inside another makes me implode when they accidentally meet.
The shiny fork, a victim of my momentary clumsiness, drops on the polished floor. All the surrounding clatter cushion its cry to be picked up. It can't even scream out for help. What a shame!
'Leave it be,' he states like we are old lovers and sets a simmering cup on my side of the well-furnished wooden table. It doesn't smell like tea.
'Everybody drinks coffee,' he shrugs and takes a large sip that must burn his tongue. 'They are out of teabags.'
Coffee gives me the trots. I don't tell him that and pick up the spotless fork anyway. Nobody's coming to rescue me in order to trap me just yet. I decide to play along.
'You seem at home here,' I say as I finger the hot cup just above the rim, disturbing the curtain of smoke.
'You don't look out of place either,' he replies casually, looking outside the window behind me like a portal to another world.
'Like this place?' his voice interrogates the dry air between us.
'What do you think?'
'This was her booth. She used to pay extra to reserve it.'
'It's nice no doubt,' I concur without going into the unobvious charm of this mundane looking cubicle or the whereabouts of his her. Imagine what would happen if he started snooping around.
'Is this what blind dates feel like?' he presses his thumb against the prongs of the fork, drooping his shoulders but mine grow tense.
My life's a blind date with his kind. I am a sitting duck. I don't tell him that.
'It's not a set-up,' a taut reply should cut it.
'Rather an accidental set-up. No, I meant is this how strangers who meet for the first time behave?'
I know exactly what you mean.
'Probably. I am told the less nosy the strangers are, the better their time flies.' I hope he takes the hint. Why does he laugh?
'Not if both are detectives.' Is it lame or should I giggle like a teenager?
'You remind me of her in some ways. Would you like to exchange seats?'
'Am I missing out on the appeal of jam-packed roads?' I remark, quite certain time is facepalming at our exchange of words. So far I have managed only a single, reluctant sip from my cup.
'You were here before me and I forced my company upon you. I just felt maybe you liked the other side better.' He stops and looks up at me. 'Walls of a closed room cannot beat the prospect of an open window.'
It is true I did have a choice between feeling free or knowing my loneliness is being watched.
'Must be her words,' my mouth speaks out instinctively, like a rising wave of boldness concealing pity.
His lips are open smiling silences. It should fill me up with warmth. But it only spreads out a smoke of unfulfilled emotions. Like the last dregs of tea on a strainer.
'She would sit on this booth, sipping her oolong and stare outside the window. Whatever the view held, a falling leaf, a broken-down car or an alley cat would become stories in her mind. My green tea would grow cold and forget it even existed.'
'Are you picking her up tonight?' I choose to be hopeful about them.
'I wish. Although that is how we met. She boarded my taxi after flying halfway across the world only to be stood up.'
I really don't know what to say.
'Anyway if I get to meet her again, I will ask her about oolong. She never drank anything else. I wouldn't want to taste it in her absence. It would be like cheating.'
My phone beeps again.
Should be there in ten. If you get us thrown out you will be getting extra, Michel. Think up something. Be creative!
'I am really sorry. I wish I didn't have to ask you to leave just yet,' I say almost apologetically, without lifting my face from the touch screen.
'Not a problem ma'am. I was just about to head out.'
'I will be back in a bit. I guess I will see you around,' I say like we just made love and embarrassed each other, dreading any eye contact while rising up.
In the soundproof washroom I begin my makeover to be Michel. I take out a shade of Ruby Woo from my handbag and turn my parched lips into Red Plums. I brush my glossy hair and let a few strands contour the sides of my face. Then I put on a nervous titter as I stare at the foggy mirror. The reflection is eerily that of a blushing, natural-looking messy dish, waiting to be devoured.
An unrestrained, exotic delicacy.
Michel gazes back at me through the misty glass like a cold, confident fish, fearless of letting her hair down. She knows no loving daughter whose unemployed father drinks away her college money. She has been Sarah, Peyton, Tia, Bonnie and many other forgetful characters like a chameleon who never tires of its changing colors. I am less than a stranger to her.
Michel takes a deep breath and strides out like a racehorse few stallions can keep up with. The world outside the washroom drastically alters into a surreal nightmare. The tables are all empty and disheveled. No one stares at her petite figure or sensual walk. Instead the café is an uproar of smashed dishes and upturned teapots. She finds all the murmuring guests gathered around the booth I had just left. Only the epicurean lady sits exactly where she had been raving on about desserts, clutching her quiet friend's hand in horror whose face is blanched by shock. Michel takes another deep breath and cuts through the crowd to see what the fuss is all about.
Outside the open window whose panes look pristine, hangs a fedora on a barbed fence. Underneath it a bald man whose loose shirt flails in the wind, sleeps on the road like an exhibition of death.