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by Wendy BooydeGraaff
The woman is sad. Her eyes are large, her smile muscles slack. She holds her paper cup, and I grasp my for-here mug self-righteously. If someone is going to sit in the coffeehouse anyways, why not get a real mug? I hide behind my laptop and watch.
She breaks off bites of whatever is inside her waxed paper bag and chews, then takes a sip of coffee and looks around at each person. She looks without pretension, without shyness, as if she is sure no one will look back at her. She is unnoticed. She has reddish gray hair, deep wrinkles, nondescript midwestern woman clothing, practical shoes, probably a practical car. She looks at the people coming in the door behind me. She looks at the man with the sweet whipped cream drink at the table beside us—the man who sits with legs crossed, arms crossed, reading his screen, leaning forward to drink from the straw. She looks everywhere but at me, but I’m okay with it. And I wonder at what she’s doing: that this sitting and watching other people is a lost art, that she could be a writer but she has no pen, no notebook, no laptop. Maybe she remembers and goes home to write. I decide we have a connection, she and I, and I look up and watch her until her eyes meet mine.
She stares as if unsure why I am looking at her. No one looks at her. She is the observer. I give her a small smile, barely a smile, what I hope is an “I understand and it’s okay to look at other people” smile. But then she looks away. Right before she breaks our gaze, there is something in her eyes. Defeat, maybe. Pain. She crumples the top of the bag and looks at other people. The people behind me, who are chatting at one of the tables across the entrance aisle. Someone who says “totally” a lot, and a man who has a deep voice that reverberates. Everyone within a six-seat radius can hear them and their overanimated conversation. The kind of people I think want other people to listen to their conversation because they find themselves so interesting, but the words are unsurprisingly banal. What’s interesting is the tone, the subtext, the things they are unaware of.
I think the woman didn’t like me looking at her. She gets up, quickly grabs her coffee, throws something—not her coffee, not her waxed paper bag—into the trash bin, and walks out. Her car is reliable, a sedan, gray, not old, not new. She gets in and fumbles with the seatbelt, then backs out of her spot with a shaky swerve and drives away.
This is part of my treatment. Prescribed by my counselor. Two times a week, I get up and I look at my own coffee pot but I don’t turn it on. I look at my toaster but I don’t use it. I get dressed and do my hair. I go to the closest coffee shop with the logo that everyone knows and I use my phone to buy a coffee and a pastry. I earn points or stars or whatever. I get a free coffee often. I use my phone as part of my treatment, too, because it is important to keep with the times. All of it, prescribed. I sit in one of the leather chairs. I do this for Matthew. Because he could see me, maybe, going on with my life. I sit and I look out the window. Then I remember to notice the people around me. I look at them. See them working, if that’s what they are doing on their computers or on their phones or in their two-person meetings. I see them smile and I see them do something purposeful. This is supposed to remind me that there is joy in life, that there is meaning, yet. This is to show me that I used to have joy. That I used to have purpose and that maybe I will have it again. My counselor doesn’t say maybe; I put the maybe in there because it seems impossible that I will have purpose again but I am not supposed to talk hopeless. Because then I might believe it. Even if it is only to myself. Especially if it is only to myself. My counselor says I need to be among people. If I am home all the time, I will not see that there is another way of being. That other emotions are available to people. TV isn’t enough, isn’t real. So I watch other people in the coffee shop. I notice their faces and their moods. I remember Matthew and me going out for coffee, only for special times, like our anniversary, or when Derek got that promotion he wanted way over in Philadelphia. We sat and drank a coffee in celebration for raising a boy that could achieve a life different than the one we had imagined.
I sip my coffee. Sometimes someone I know comes up to me and asks me how I am doing. I am honest. They hug me and then order their coffee, and I leave. I can leave after a certain amount of time. That’s okay, according to the treatment plan. Today, I notice intensity in people. I notice a woman across from me on her computer. Typing fast. I don’t care what she is doing, but she looks at me, and she smiles. I used to be her. I look steady at her and think just you wait, soon you will be me too. I turn away. Look at someone else. A man and a woman. Young. Everyone is young. I can’t be here anymore. My throat chokes me with its lumps. I know these lumps well, and I cannot let them loose in a public place. No one needs to see this, see me. I grab my pastry and my coffee, and I go home. I pour my coffee into my yellow mug. I hate the paper cups. So much waste. Matthew and I used to hold these mugs, after breakfast. We’d sit and discuss our plans for the day. Maybe have a piece of banana bread to top off breakfast. Today, I think of my plans. I didn’t know that having a list was important for therapeutic purposes too. Except my counselor calls my daily list my goals for the day. After Matthew, I stopped telling anyone my plans because no one needed to know. But now, my counselor says, I need to tell myself my plans. So I do. I say, Trina, today you are going to go to the coffee shop and order a pastry. You are going to sit and look at the people around you. You are going to be among people for a small amount of time, because that is healthy. I make a checkmark because I accomplished the goal for the day. Then, I tell myself, it is okay that you cannot handle someone looking at you. It is okay that you can only look at others. Because my counselor says to show myself the same grace I’d give a friend. So I pretend I have a friend other than Matthew, and I tell myself what I would say to that pretend friend. I have twenty or more years left. To tell myself my own goals for the day, to visit coffee shops and watch other people live their lives. Half of a marriage, twenty years is. Half of my marriage.