(This is fiction. But I wish it were real.)
She sat there. In the back of the coffee shop. At a small round table. She wore headphones and squinted into her laptop screen. She checked her watch at ten minute intervals and her phone at five. She clutched a yellow highlighter and rifled through a small stack of papers. In the moments when she concentrated, the tip of her tongue poked out from her mouth. When she was stuck or stalled, trying to think up the right words, she placed that highlighter squarely in her mouth and looked up. At the line at the coffee bar which alternated between long and short. She watched the people. How they tapped their feet and adjusted their bags. How they leaned in when ordering their complicated concoctions.
She searched for smiles, but didn't spot too many.
And this was a safe place to look because no one seemed to look back. No one seemed to see her. To notice. For her, this was material without consequence. But then. When she was conjuring the perfect way to portray a little girl's longing for her lost teddy bear, she caught his eye. An older man. He noticed her. He studied her. When he collected his coffee from the lady behind the cash register, he walked over. And sat down.
"Hello," he said.
She tidied her papers. She twirled her highlighter. Her eyes escaped to her screen.
And he smiled. Sipped daintily from a tall cup. And asked her a simple question.
"Who are you?" he asked.
And she paused. In her mind, she weighed the appropriateness of this exchange, the decades of distance between them. But then she gave him what he asked for. What she thought he asked for.
With this, his smile expanded. He placed his coffee on her papers. And clarified.
"That's not what I asked. I didn't ask for your name," he said. "Who are you?"
Now, she was exquisitely stumped. She looked to her screen, but its brightness offered no answers. And then she fessed up.
"I have no idea. I have no idea who I am."
And then, impossibly, his smile grew wider and he retrieved his coffee and stood up. And as he did, he looked down at her. Made her feel tiny and unsophisticated and lost. He looked her deep in the eye, for as long as she would allow, and then bid her adieu.
"I didn't think so. I didn't think you had any idea."
And then he turned and walked away. She noticed a limp. How he dragged his left leg only slightly. She watched as he snaked along the wall and by the newest lineup of strangers seeking a jolt. She watched as he approached the door and then paused as a big group entered.
And she surprised herself. She jumped up. She left her computer. Her phone. Her spot. Her haven. Her world. Her self. And she ran.
She tapped his shoulder on the sidewalk as he pulled out a cigarette. He turned. He didn't seem surprised to see her. This was his biggest smile so far.
"I don't know who I am," she said. "I don't know how to answer your question. And the minute I do, life will be over. I think the good life is about uncertainty. Without this particular uncertainty, I think it is all meaningless."
He chuckled and lit his cigarette. Inhaled. Blew smoke into the winter air. She watched the smoke billow and fade.
"Good girl," he said. "Good girl."
At these two words, condescending and compelling, she smiled. At this nameless stranger. At fresh-faced understanding. And she looked up at the endless sky and turned to go. But before she did, she took care of something.
"Who are you?" she asked.
He paused, pinned her with his eyes, eyes cradled by life's wrinkles, and titled his head.
"I haven't a clue," he said. "Not a clue."
And she nodded fiercely. And walked away. Back to her things, to her spot, to her place. Suddenly, she felt the weightless bulk of a new blank slate. Suddenly, she had so many words.
So much to say.
- Who are you?
- Do you blog or read blogs to gather clues about who you are?
- Do you agree that identity is the biggest, most exquisite, question of existence?