His coffee stood cooling while he traced the edge of its lip with his finger, a slow orbit that passed the time. It was a pleasant way, he thought, to wait, as long as you didn’t know what you were waiting for.
He manipulated a little eddy into the surface of his coffee with a swizzle stick, pretending that, like the center of a slow moving whirlpool, time could be made to turn on a single point.
It is impossible to tell where thoughts like this come from. We can guess that Alain, like most people, was prone to the sort of vague daydreams of a person sitting at a café table on an agreeable spring morning. We can understand that, being content with the general climate, a contentment rarely experienced in the city, he wished for time to stop awhile, and, having this wish, that the ability to make it so was within his power, that the whole dark mystery of interval and instance lay within his own mug of coffee which he could tap and stir at will.
Notions like this come and go all the time. Alain was not unlike you or I in this regard, though it is hard to believe. No one can recall how vital these seconds of dreaming are, how close they appear to come to unlocking hidden truths. We do not think them through. We allow them to remain merely an idea in the abstract until they vanish to where they came from, where they cannot be reached again. For this reason we believe we are alone in our experience.
Alain was no different. He was not, I can tell you, particularly disturbed by the failure of his experiment. He found the movement to be too complex, since he could not keep his arm from shaking, his heart from beating, or the air from resisting the path of his hand. The table wobbled and the sun flashed off a passing car window. That is to say, time did not cease for even a moment, but there was solace in the probability that he was the only one who noticed.
Business had picked at the café, both inside and out. Alain watched the crowd, expecting to see someone he knew. It was very likely. Not someone he knew well, but some random member of his social milieu. Alain recalled encounters of this kind months ago, when he happened to come to this café more frequently. He didn’t like the idea of it. As it happened, he then began to recognize several faces of people who were always there, the regular, ubiquitous characters. This did not bother him so much. The chance of his own self being recognized, the conceit of familiarity, the embarrassing questions, this is what concerned Alain.
At one point there were nineteen people on the patio, a figure he checked twice, remembering both times to include himself. When two left, two more arrived. The tables were nearly full, except for the one Alain sat at. The two central tables had four chairs apiece, all full, including the one Alain had granted a fifth chair with a nod and a wave of his hand. It had been a man roughly his own age, dressed smartly in a dark brown suit, who approached for the chair, which he then gave to a woman in an above-the-knee floral dress. Alain watched this woman accept the chair, hang her chic black purse on the back and sit down on the edge of the seat, carefully crossing her legs and leaning forward so that her back did not touch the chair at all. A thick wave of dark hair was pinned to the back of her head. She and the man in the suit spoke to one another in Italian. They spoke loudly over the conversation of their table companions.
Alain counted seven shaved heads, all male. There was a woman with long gray hair pulled back into a pony tail. There was a woman with red hair holding a white balloon. A girl with light brown hair stood up and walked to another table to ask a man about his salad, which was piled high with green beans. The redhead twisted in her seat and tied the balloon to the back of her chair.
There was a table of old men, two of them in particular whom Alain recognized. Everyday they sat in the shade and smoked, but rarely ordered a drink. They chatted in beige coats and blue caps, or red coats and no hats. Alain considered them and envied the age of the men, the freedom of thought they exhibited in such limited physical compass. But then a curious thing occurred, which changed his opinion.
The man on the left was reading aloud from a magazine. His companion hardly seemed interested in whatever topic it was. He looked elsewhere and repeatedly waved his hand about and nodded. There was a picture that went with the article, and his friend wanted to show it to him. The magazine shot out, a knobby finger jabbing at the page.
“No, no! Wait,” the other man growled, grabbing his coat off the ground beside him.
“What is it? Just look, would you!”
“Oh no! Oh! Where are they? Just wait!” The old man’s voice sent shivers through Alain, who hated when people became distressed in public. The man was desperately searching through his coat pockets for something. What was it? His glasses?
“What? You lost your glasses!” The man with the magazine stood up, then sat back down. “Oh..!
People began to stare. The pathetic tone of the men’s voices was piercing. What could anyone do? It was even worse than with children, he thought, because with children there is always an explanation. When they lose something someone always knows where it is. A parent is there, or some other adult who understands. Even when the thing, whatever it is, is really gone, broken or can’t be acquired, there is a ready explanation, a reprimand, or a moral to be learned. What do you do when it is the adult who forgets? A man who walks to a café everyday to banter with old friends is considered capable. Of course this isn’t always true, and although most people recognize the fact, no one is prepared to deal with a breakdown. What could be said? You cannot take their hand and talk the problem away. No one is there to appease them at all. Worse of all, there is no lesson that can be taught or learned in a case like this, except that with age we are all doomed to the truth of our own disintegrating minds. Therein is a world no one else can access or answer for.
As he watched the men, one practically on the ground, the other bending backwards and forwards in his chair, Alain grew rigid. His chest muscles tightened as he hoped, practically prayed, that the glasses would be found. Suddenly a young man entered the patio area and quickly approached the man kneeling on the ground.
“What did you lose? It’s me. John. What happened?” The immediate comprehension and gentle compassion in the young man’s voice bordered on being patronizing, but it was very clear to all around that he knew the man, and was probably his grandson. They discussed the missing glasses at length, the young man continually assuring his grandfather that they were at home. He never had them. The old man remained agitated. As they talked he paced about his table and even out onto the sidewalk where he glanced about the pavement as though his glasses might have fallen there hours ago. At last he composed himself, was talked into sitting down and putting on his coat.
“Try to enjoy yourself,” said the young man. “We’re going to D.C. this weekend, remember? We’re going to the zoo.”
As much as he was pleased with the outcome of all this, Alain disliked the grandson. “It is just as I thought… nothing has been gained from the old man misplacing his glasses, yet he is talked to as though he were a child. That’s a disgrace. His grandson even seems to have gotten some pleasure out of his situation. He is proud of himself and seems to want everyone to know that he is taking his grandfather to the zoo this weekend. What does he think there is to gain from us overhearing him talk like that?”
Eventually they left, leaving the other man alone with his magazine. Alain continued in his reproach for the grandson for awhile, until he was well assured that it was all quite disgraceful. New patrons entered the patio, and there were new distractions, such as a trio of young girls sitting nearby, attractive college students who probably lived in the neighborhood. Each one was pretty in her own way, and he discreetly watched them during the half hour it took them to finish their teas and leave.
Alain grew restless. His mind wandered. “A nice day, with coffee, cigarettes and time. I should be… ah!” He tapped the pocket holding his pack of cigarettes and pulled it out. Completely forgotten, this “discovery” excited him a great deal. He slapped the head of the pack against his left palm six times, rotated it 180 degrees and slapped it six more times. He stopped there. The noise of this ritual packing seemed ostentatious. He hurriedly unwrapped the cellophane, careful not to crinkle it too much, and removed a cigarette.
“Amazing,” he said to no one, fishing out his lighter. Then to himself, “In my pocket all this time. I hardly need it, I suppose, but now that I’ve got it…” and he lit the end and inhaled.
For a few minutes his mind was clear. His eyes strolled over the patio, not really observant, but simply looking. He noticed a woman with tortoise shell sunglasses resting on her forehead. She sat near the café wall, reading what appeared to be a medical textbook. Alain’s eyes slowly took all this in, but the longer he looked at her the less he comprehended. The image blurred as his cigarette burned down, and he allowed his eyes to roam with his hand as he stubbed the end out. When he looked back up, it was as if what he had just seen a moment before was again new and unfamiliar. He saw the tortoise shell shades propped up on her forehead, and the book. It was a textbook of some kind. Her head tilted as she neared the end of the page, and straightened again as she turned it. Instinctively Alain fingered his manila folder. He straightened up, startled. It lay on his table like a sallow fish glimmering in the sun, drawing attention to itself. It did not feel like his own anymore, and he irrationally wished that he hadn’t brought it with him.
“What is the point of this now? I should have bought that film anthology. What was that… objects in rapid succession? And what was the context? I hardly had a chance. Didn’t take the time. Rushed over here, and for what? Maybe I’ll stop back later, though that’s hardly necessary. How ridiculous would it be to run down there now? That’s something people notice. A man leaves his table for five minutes and returns with a book he didn’t have before. A film anthology. Does that make sense? No, it’s out of the question. No… no, I should get the paper, instead.” He stood, cautiously leaving his manila folder on his table to go inside.