Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Coffee Characters

In the corner, under the lamp so low that it stands accused of causing the headache of many unwitting patrons, sits a matriarch lost in time. Surrounded by her family, she mutters wisdom under her breath. She has watched the rise and fall of civilizations. She’s seen the sun set over a thousand lands. She has witnessed the death of ten people, both parents, two husbands, her firstborn son, and five others: relations and friends whose names are indelibly etched in her memory. You do not forget a person you’ve watched die.

She is too old and hunched too low that not even that lamp, stretch as it might, is a peril to her. Her family pays no heed to her words, because even her daughter, aged seventy-three, reaching across to pull the blanket over her mother’s shoulders, is too young and headstrong.

So she mumbles incessantly, even over the lip of her earthen mug, the history of the stars. She scatters the treasures of a lost world on ears which are attached to mouths that say, “take a sip of this fine warm soup now, _Mee-Ma_.” No woman is an oracle in her own house.

At the next table closer to me sits a short man who shaved his face this morning with a flat razor while leaning close to small round mirror as the dawn’s newborn light illuminated his square chin. While he shaved, he hummed an aria from an opera I don’t recognize and in a language he doesn’t know. Now he’s sitting silently, leaning back in his chair with his legs crossed in a manner that is confident, but there is a tension beneath his mannerisms, like he’s trying too hard to be comfortable. I think, perhaps the only time he’s truly at ease is while he’s shaving in front of that small round mirror, in the bathroom of his own low house which smells of damp stone and aftershave.

At the far end of my row, a wizard and apprentice discuss some arcane experience. The elder mystic is content in himself, is surprised at how easily he slipped into the role of tutor. He frequently finds himself recollecting his own time as an apprentice and finds himself unconsciously emulating the body language, posture, and tone of his professors. He's doing it now: leaning back against the uncomfortable straight wooden chair, leg crossed, hands together or steepled on the table. He thinks that this posture must have been passed down, tweaked, personalized, by unknown generations of mystical tutors, since prehistory. He imagines now, while he continues to discuss the latest alchemy, his apprentice in this position a hundred years from now. Her own thin hands steepled. There's a word, he's sure of it, for the cultural markers passed on and around, evolving in meaning and method, a word that has itself passed into popular culture with expanded and unscientific meaning, but he cannot think of it. She probably knows. He won't ask.

She, though, is more interesting to me. He's certain, and I tend to dislike certainty. She is intent, concentrated, absorbed by the new knowledge. Two years ago she had been a frightened little girl with a talent for the telekinetic that she could not understand and could barely control, meeting a group of  powerful people that intimidated and impressed her. Now she is a woman. Through force of curiosity, she made something like a family out of that eccentric disjointed convocation. She’s confident and powerful and she simply won’t look at me. Hasn’t glanced in my direction, or any direction, really. Her eyes bore holes through the mind of her professor. She leans forward, over the table and her medium brevĂ© in a to-go cup. The closer she is to source, the quicker she hears the words.

Behind me, a tree stares deeply into her mug. She’s trying very hard to focus on the things she’s learned since assuming her human form, things like the an appreciation for time and mortality, the nature of loss and physical pain, but also of joy and pleasure, but she keeps getting distracted by the thing her roommate told her about Deidre’s boyfriend’s brother. She flushes and the sap rises to her cheeks and leaves uncurl in her mossy hair. She’s cute and unkempt and younger than her years.

And in my corner, in my chair, sits an ordinary man with wild hair and terrible breath. He’s seated at a small computer, typing at it absentmindedly, and he keeps getting confused about who he is. He’s imagining the lives of strangers and forgets that he is the ordinary man in the corner. He’s looking at his own hands now and wondering, ‘Who’s hands are these?’

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