By Lili Flanders
You are in a foreign city, seated at a round metal table outside a café, pushing the flakes of a pastry around a thick saucer rimmed in green and fantasizing about the lives of people around you. For instance: the tall, gaunt waiter with graceful hands (does he spend his evenings at the piano, in a cramped apartment he shares with his mother). And the elegant woman two tables away, who has a little brown dog tucked into her jacket (is she wearing a silk blouse of the same fine quality as her tweed, or does she hold the beast against her bare skin, a secret pleasure she enjoys in public). There’s a young man (of course there is) at the extreme of your periphery, who’s reading the book of poetry you read last week, the one you loved, the one you felt was written just for you. He must speak English if he’s reading that book. He might welcome a casual comment or even invite you to join him (this is the fantasy) because he is not looking for a beauty but a soul mate, someone with astute insights into rhythm and tone. You turn slightly in your seat (in case the young man should wish to engage you in conversation) and gaze across the boulevard. There is an apartment for rent on the opposite corner; a sign hangs from a balcony in front of shuttered windows. Below, a tall wooden door stands slightly ajar, offering the slim view of a courtyard garden. You imagine yourself a resident of this city, the inhabitant of a third-floor apartment with windows facing the park, a habitué of this café (the waiter would greet you daily with a friendly jut of the chin, would have your usual order at the ready).
It is not until the bookish young man stands up, drawing your eyes away from the shuttered windows, and greets a long-haired fellow in a tomato-red scarf—they do not speak, but kiss on the cheek once, twice, three times—that you recollect the story (prosaic, inevitable) awaiting you in another city on the other side of the ocean. Getting to your feet, you hoist your leather bag onto a shoulder, and stride off, head down, toward the river. You forget the cotton sweater slung over the back of your seat, and though the waiter (whose mother is long dead) calls after you, holding the sweater aloft, you do not hear him (there’s a musician drumming on upturned buckets at the street corner), nor do you see the young man (who is mute; he cannot shout, but he can run) pluck your sweater from the waiter’s grasp and sprint after you, much to the amusement of the elegant woman (who is fully dressed, but not quite sober), so you don’t turn around until he taps your shoulder, breathing hard, his face aglow and his eyes telling you what he cannot say.