“Is this seat taken?”
It was a simple question, spoken gently, quietly.
My head snaps up, looking up from my phone, where my attention was focused.
“Uh, nope, it’s all yours.”
The words tumble out in rush from my mouth before I have a chance to actually take stock of the situation. I wasn’t really feeling up to sharing my space today. I have a lot of “work” to do and I have a sinking suspicion that this would be an unwelcome interruption to my flow.
OK, so maybe I don’t actually have any work, but I wanted to be alone with my thoughts.
I get my bearings as I watch his hand shake ever so slightly as he carefully places his coffee on the table. I can see the veins on the back of his hands snaking across his sinewy tendons. His almost translucent skin, loosely covering the gnarled bumps of his joints, remind me of the recent YouTube video I’d watched on Japanese rice paper-making. There’s a simple gold watch, that adorns his thin wrists, the hands froze in time.
He takes a moment to deliberately arrange the flimsy brown paper napkin that holds his Boston Cream doughnut next to his coffee with one hand while the other grasps the back of the chair he’s inquired about with a subdued fierceness, trying to hide how much the chair assists him in keeping his balance.
In what seems like an eternity, he pulls out the chair from its resting spot, the feet make a faint scraping sound across the polished cement floor. Everything takes place in slow motion – as though he’s moving through a pool of molasses, time expanding to fill the space.
I pretend to go back to my phone, my head bent again, but my eyes remain fixed on this older gentleman. Watching. Observing. And, somewhat unkindly if I’m honest with myself, trying to find a graceful way out of having any sort of coffee shop conversation with this complete stranger.
He’s dressed in dark slacks and a crisp white button up shirt tucked in neatly at the waist. Both are impeccably pressed, the collar of his shirt possibly even starched. His shoes, black Oxfords decorated in impressive brogue, are older but meticulously maintained, their shine a testament to their ritualistic care.
“You remind me of my son.”
There’s a hard catch in his voice, the kind of catch that makes you pay attention.
“I’m sorry…?” I hear my voice, those two words conveying both curiosity and question.
“You remind me of my son. I missed him.”
I’m not ready for this.
This is supposed to be a quiet morning on my day off, a chance for me to disconnect from the heaviness of the world, a chance to drink my double sweet extra large mocha, alone with only my meandering thoughts for company. I deal with enough pain at work, I don’t want to deal with more pain at the coffee shop.
“I’m sorry…” this time my voice conveys condolences. I hear the catch in my own voice this time.
“It happens. That’s life. That’s why you have to make the important people a priority.” He pauses to take sip of his coffee after blowing exactly twice over the fold-back opening of the takeaway coffee cup. “Time doesn’t wait for you. It didn’t wait for me. It didn’t wait for him. When you have an appointment with Big Guy upstairs…”
His lowered voice trails off as he exhales slowly, his breath almost a mechanism of control, of strength. Metered. Measured. He looks off into the distance, a small shake of his head, his eyes staring unfocused out the large windows into the bustling street beyond.
He turns back towards me. Our eyes meet across the table. I can see the sheen, I can see myself reflected. He blinks hard twice, as if willing an unseen ghost away. As if willing the threatening cascade to stay safely dammed.
“I don’t know what to say…” I’m at a loss for words. Something that’s never been my problem. Something that’s never been an issue for me. And here, and now, in this moment, words have failed me.
Isn’t that always the case in these situations? What does one say? What can one say? Would my words give any comfort? Would they offer solace, these words of mine, these words of a stranger?
I feel that familiar stinging in my own eyes now. My own eye lids blinking harder. My eyes trying to convey to him what my words have failed to share.
“You don’t need to say anything, son.” He says it softly, his hand reaching out to pat the top of mine. He suffered the loss, yet here he is comforting me. “Just heed my words, don’t take time for granted because one day, if you’re not paying attention, you’ll miss out. You’ll be too late.”
At this point, I can’t contain it any longer. I feel that sting convert to a deep burn. The solitary tear drop crests the edge of my eyelid and begins its lonely travels down my cheek.
I feel his hand reach up to wipe my tear away, this coffee shop stranger comforting me when it should be the other way around.
It was his loss and here he is giving me sage advice, advice of lived experience.
For the second time in my brief sojourn at the coffee shop, my head snaps up.
I see a man coming down the stairs from the businesses above the coffee shop, walking towards our table. He could be my fair skinned doppelgänger, my ghost, his voluminous hair coiled in a bun at the top of his head, just like mine. His beard, more kempt, but nonetheless akin to my own.
“Ah, son. I was just telling this young man he reminds me of you! Sorry I was late. I know you had an appointment with your barber, Big Guy, upstairs, and you couldn’t wait for me. Next time I promise I’ll be on time for our coffee. I’ll remember to properly wind my watch.”