He has left their table. She sits wiping her eyes with a white paper napkin, then carries their cups and plates to the counter, and returns to sit by herself. As they had talked he, tall, shaved head, dark blue suit, leaned into her, a serious look that seemed to slap her soul. The table, now quiet, is small, round, in a downtown coffee house.
A young couple sit along side each other at a long table next to a window. She, silent, short dark hair, looks at her computer while he, thin pale face long draping hair, talks incessantly to her, leaning in to kiss and stroke her back and arms.
An older man pauses in his writing. A draft of a short story lies on the blond wood surface of the table before him, next to the window. Outside the sun glints off parked cars and vans. He is watching a middle aged couple’s faces flash anger and anguish. They both wear wedding rings. What could cause her so much grief, he wonders…the end of an affair, perhaps. The man rises abruptly, walks away through the door without looking back. She remains dabbing her eyes, sad, broken. He wonders why the man would do this to her in a public place. His anger, her pain.
He looks at the couple at the table in front of him. Such a difference, talking, smiling, caressing, especially the kid who looks like a 60s hippy. As she works at her computer, she seems to love him like an affectionate, eager pet. Soon he rises, busses his cup, and leaves. The older man wonders whether they live together, for how long, what kind of place, his work, her work, how they met, why they are so romantic in public.
As she holds the napkin, her mind crumbling, she is waiting for it and her emotions to gather back together, for her face to regain a stoic shape. She notices an older man looking at her, observing, actually, as though she’s a question to be answered, a puzzle to be figured out. She has seen him here before, writing, always writing. What, she wonders, does he write about day after day in his worn jeans and long white thin hair like uncivil threads. And why is he intently looking at her, piercing her privacy. He is always alone, wears no ring, shirts wrinkled…is he emotionally needy. God only knows, she thinks, as she crumples her napkin and angrily looks away.
The young man, inflated by love, walks past shops and restaurants. Occasionally, this morning he had noticed an older man watching him as he whispered his joy to his girlfriend. A voyeur, he thinks, as he reads the menu of his favorite Greek restaurant. Voyeurs, such empty souls, devoid of life, of passion. He thinks of her, he smiles.
The old man reads the draft of his short story, flash fiction, actually. That’s what he’s been writing recently, that and short poems. He comes here most mornings and watches people, all ages, shapes, wardrobes, those who live their days, moment after moment, action after action, unaware of the nothingness beneath them, the end that awaits them. The woman looks away, straightens her black jacket, and leaves bearing her pain. This is life. The young man, so enraptured by love, is also living, unaware. Despair, the old man thinks, my story is about despair.
Jack Hernandez is the Director of the Norman Levan Center for the Humanities at Bakersfield College. His poetry, non-fiction, and fiction have appeared in a variety of publications.