B: “Is it a story?”
F: “I heard somewhere that more questions are answered with questions than direct answers.”
B: “I imagine questions are more often a way of avoiding the answer than looking for one.”
F: “Or in search for a better question. Do you wanna hear my story or not? I don’t know how long I’ll be in the mood.”
B: “So it is a story! Please don’t let me stop you.”
F: “In the early part of this century, when I was still working for a living, when there were still possibilities for living, though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, a man used to come into my café on a regular basis – once a week or so; sometimes he wouldn’t come for a month, once or twice he came twice in the week, but mostly only Tuesday. He was my age – not young or old – old enough to know what it means to be an adult, young still to wonder if there was something of greater promise just around the corner.” Pause. “That’s exactly what I thought: ‘Here is someone of greater promise.’
“He usually ordered a baguette prepared how we did then, and a cup of coffee. He was polite, simply polite, but more considerate than the normal customer. He didn’t just say, ‘Have a good day.’ Something in his eyes said that he really meant it. Or he wanted you – me to know that he meant it.
“He would always sit in the same spot, if it was available, and I always felt his eyes. Sometimes when I looked at him, which I always wanted to do, he’d look up at me, or be looking at me, and look away, often smiling first. But not creepy. His smile was like his greetings, intentionally meaningful, but just as intentionally not suggestive in any way.
“I got used to his weekly visits, looked forward to them, had butterflies on Tuesdays, even though we never exchanged more than the pleasantries I’ve mentioned.
“The times when he didn’t show – I say this as if we had a date – were really sad. Once, when three Tuesdays passed and I hadn’t seen him, I assumed he’d given up on the dump. I mean there were so many nicer cafés in the area, it’s not as if this one were more convenient. Mine was a branch of sorts, and I didn’t get a lot of business. I’d answered a ‘Start your own franchise!’ ad in the paper. The company wanted a presence in every town, so I was able to run the place into the ground with their help.
“The bread wasn’t horrible, just by the standard. True, we were a little cheaper, but I can’t believe that’s why he came to my place.
“I’d like to believe it was for me.” With a certain uncertainty, “Of course it was.
“Anyway, he came back on the fourth Tuesday. I was thrilled but didn’t let on too much. This went on for almost two years. Twenty odd months of looking, wondering; wanting; waiting, wondering, filling in the blanks.”
Visibly sad with the following words, as if she’s aware for the first time of their finality: “The most powerful and long-lasting love is unrequited, relatively undefined.”
A long pause while B waits for her to continue. F collects herself, but when it’s clear she’s not going to continue – at least not right away – B asks, sympathetically, “Did he just stop coming?”
F: “There was a last time. Yes.” A fragile silence, then: “I’m ashamed to say that if it weren’t for this last time, I probably wouldn’t be telling you this.”
B’s confused and doesn’t know what to say.
F: “It’s what happened, what he did. The last time. It was Tuesday, January 6th.”
B calculates, searches her memory, thoughts swimming around her head.
F: “He ordered the usual and sat at his usual table. There was something different about his demeanor, but I didn’t know what. At first it was not a big deal, but then it started to make me nervous. He came to the counter about the time he’d have normally gone. He ordered a prosciutto and another coffee and went back to his seat. I clumsily suggested with the question: ‘More time today?’ and felt like an idiot immediately. He smiled in a way that erased all the apprehension from my being, though, in retrospect, the smile was the same as it had always been – no more, no less.
“At this point I realized what it was that was distinctly different: He was waiting.” She pauses to ponder what she’s said. “He was waiting until we were alone.
“Normally we would have been. Most of his visits were interrupted…” Laughs, “Interrupted! Most of the times one or two customers came in and got something to go. Sometimes somebody’d be at another table.
“Anyway, on that particular day, one or two pairs came and sat and went. I noticed how he would feel his periphery, without actually looking for presence or departure. Now at this point I got so excited. I thought, ‘Oh God! Just maybe today was my lucky day. Today he’s going to declare his undying love for me. Today my life would blissfully evaporate into the ether of eternal contentment!'”
Laughter, awareness of folly, quickly fades to silence. B sits motionless, stunned. Waits. Waiting for the conclusion to this… tragedy?
F: “When everyone had finally gone, he looked over his right shoulder to survey the empty room. His left side was against the wall. He smiled at me, and this time it made me nervous again. The lump in my throat was suffocating, the butterflies unbearable. Then he did something I did not expect, but was no different than every other time, so it shouldn’t have surprised me.
“He took his coat from the back of his chair, and though I was beyond disappointment, although I was filled with dismay – maybe you find this a bit übertrieben – but even though I was near balling my guts out, I managed to say, ‘Out of time?'”