“Mommy, can we go in there?”
“So the meeting’s on for Thursday then?”
“So I said, ‘Sure, the day you grow up!’ Great, right?”
“Okay, okay, will you hold off for just one moment?”
I stood beneath the crossing of conversations, squished between a thin girl with the darting eyes of a squirrel and a plump man with the mustache of a walrus, waiting for the crosswalk light to turn green. Screeching taxi cabs shot by and a cacophony of honking horns was the constant background. Avoiding eye contact with the people around me, I craned my neck upward, watching the morning sun shoot golden flashes across the windowed buildings, each one high above me. The crick in my neck brought my gaze down again and I watched a steady stream of people passing the group I was in and darting across the road anyway, weaving through traffic and ignoring angry yells from the drivers. I glanced at my watch, another minute closer to 8:00. Perhaps I should join the moving group, and I leaned forward as if to take a step, but my stomach quailed at the thought of getting slammed into by a car.
A few agonizing seconds later, the crosswalk figure lit up and we shuffled across the road. Another glance at my watch, and I lengthened my stride, trying to go faster. I dodged a little boy bouncing like a rabbit and his mother zipping back and forth like a hummingbird to keep the boy close. My progress was slowed as I got stuck behind an elderly couple walking hand in hand. Adorable, but their tortoise movements weren’t helping my schedule. I moved to get around them when a flash of blond hair shot past me on a bike. Cheetah. With one more maneuver, I left the herd behind me and speed walked down the sidewalk.
“No, you hang up first!”
“Man, you should have seen my car! Totaled.”
“I can’t believe how busy everything is.”
“That sounds fun! I just have to check my schedule.”
I wove through snippets of dialogue, cataloging each group I passed. A trio of girls were squawking parrots. The disheveled teacher leading a line of students, an obvious school of fish. The old business men with briefcases in hand, a parade of elephants. The teenager adding a piece of chewed gum to an already colorful railing, was just gross. I slipped through the flood of people and finally reached my destination. I glanced at my watch, five minutes until 8:00.
With a sigh, I pulled my mask out of my pocket and pulled it over my ears, climbing the steps to the door at the same time. Once inside, I followed the flow of human traffic, directed by signs at regular intervals.
“Seminar: Starting a business in the midst of a pandemic”
I walked down the hallway to the lecture room, instructing myself. This time, I would talk to someone. This time, I will make a friend. I reached the room and froze in the doorway, my heart sinking. In bright red letters, the board at the front of the room read, “Please sit in a chair with a yellow dot on the back of it”.
I glanced around the room, sure enough, each yellow dotted chair was at least two chairs away from anyone else. So much for making friends. I grabbed a seat in the middle of the middle row, pulling the phone from my pocket to take notes. One minute till 8 and the last few people are trickling in. I turn towards the woman beside me, fighting for the courage to say anything. A small “Hello” escapes my lips, but by her vacant gaze forward, either the mask had muffled my message, or she wasn’t one for making friends. I turned my efforts instead to the comfort of comparison. As I’m glancing at faces, my eyes catch on the sandy haired cheetah who passed me earlier, sitting in the front corner of the room.
Before I can focus too intently on anyone else, the speaker starts his lecture. He looks a little like a meerkat, tall, lean and a short spike of hair on top of his head. Even his voice is a squeaky tenor, but he does speak with confidence.
“In these times, one of the best ways to build a business is by first building community.”
His speech went on, explaining the profitability in relationships and how each connection is a step towards making more. My fingers tapped quickly against the phone screen, writing it all down, but my thoughts were farther away.
Sitting in the middle of a crowded room, I was an island. A hollowness caved inside my chest and for a moment I wanted to let out a sob. If community was so important, then why was it also so hard? The speaker’s words hammered it into me and my dreams of starting a photography business were crumbling. How would my business ever get off the ground, if I couldn’t even tell someone hello?
An hour and a half later, I rose from the chair and followed the mass out of the room.
Back on the sidewalk, I let the crowd move me, the rush of a deadline no longer providing motivation. I didn’t even bother taking off my mask this time, who would I need to talk to? I kept my eyes to the sidewalk, dodging shoulders hitting mine and trying not to step on the long green scarf of the woman directly in front of me. Peacock-like she walked forward in a strut, completely unconcerned with the space she was taking up. It was annoying, but I could admire her confidence.
A light blue sign caught my eye and I ducked into my favorite breakfast shop. The regular cashier was behind the counter and I squinted my eyes in a ‘mask smile’. He hardly looked at me as he took my order and rushed to bring the food. The busy bees of the shop zigged back and forth between each other, nearly running into everyone, a picture of choreographed chaos.
A small coffee and blueberry bagel in hand, walked out of the door, brushing against the same cheetah with his bike. I then made my way to a little bench on the outskirts of a scrap of grass, loosely labeled a ‘park’.
I took off my mask and bit into the bagel, but it’s usual sweetness faded into a bland mouthful, the bread sticking to the roof of my mouth. Pairs and groups passed the bench, their conversations linking them together. Even the few walking alone had phones to their ears, mouths talking and smiling. I cleared my throat with a sip of coffee, efficiently burning the top of my tongue. I let out a sigh and bent my head downward.
I jerked my head up to see the cheetah, a coffee and bagel in his hand, and a half smile across his face.
He tipped his chin towards the open part of the bench beside me, “Is that seat free?”
I gave a small nod, my eyes still wide with shock.
He gently sat beside me, and started to eat, watching people pass on the sidewalk near us. I took another bite of my bagel, the berry flavor coming through a little more brightly than before. We sat in silence for a little bit, together but apart. But then I noticed him glancing at me with deep, brown eyes.
“It gets pretty lonesome in a big city, huh?”
He waited for a reply and I was acutely aware of how close he was. A cinnamon smell curled upward from his coffee cup and suddenly my dreams didn't look so bleak. I looked into his face and smiled, a real smile.