It didn’t feel new, but then it did somehow. Because of her.
It’s not the first time I’m seeing her. But, it’s the first time this close. A table and two chairs away.
I’m sitting in my regular spot at Alice’s sipping on my coffee occasionally. My fifth one today. She is not looking at me. She never looked at me. She never really looks at anyone. She’s new to this café. She rarely changes her routine.
I curse under my breath, realizing my stalker-self is starting to show. But then, all human faces reveal themselves in different stages of our lives. The next one is always waiting around the corner.
She plays around with the sling of her bag, nervously. That’s a usual demeanor of hers. Nervousness. I feel her anxiety all the way here. She looks around at people entering and leaving the café. She chose a bad time for being brave. It’s the rush hour.
I glance back at my laptop, trying to come up with some words. My mind draws blank, giving me the finger. It’s been like this for two days now. My manager’s calls are like snoozed alarms now.
“When’s the next chapter coming, Mike?” goes his usual conversation starter.
I glance back to see her breathing in and out, hard. She stands up slowly holding onto her sling bag, tighter than one would hold onto a rope during rope-climbing.
She is face to face with a tall boy who looks pissed off. He hugs her immediately, like a routine.
“You know I was with a client, Anna.” He sits down opposite her.
“I’m sorry.” The apology is almost immediate, like clockwork. It seems like she had a lot of practice.
“Did you order?”
“It’s gonna be freaking long. Why this café, Anna?”
She is silent for few seconds, probably cursing her decision. Her eyes wander, and suddenly look straight at me. I freeze.
She looks away first, embarrassed. Or angry? Irritated?
I look back at my laptop again, reminding me of my priorities. Why am I curious about her? Why would I want to overhear her conversation with her boyfriend? Like I do through my apartment wall, sometimes. It’s not my fault that he speaks as if he has loudspeakers inside his throat.
“What is it, Anna?” There he goes again. Even the grumpy middle-aged man at the end looks up.
“Can you be a little soft, Ben? There are people around.” She sounds soft, but I am able to hear her. I won jackpot with my regular spot today.
“So you shouldn’t have called me here.”
“I wanted to talk to you, Ben.”
“Couldn’t it wait?”
“Customer 309, you’re next!” Alice’s niece calls out from behind the counter. She gets up, only to be stopped by him.
“Put in a croissant for me. I had a very early breakfast.”
She sighs and nods before moving to the counter to reorder. She returns back with two coffees and hands one over to him.
“Tell me, what is it that couldn’t wait?”
I realize that my eyes are again on the couple. Is this curiosity in-built in a writer? I’d like to blame that for my behavior. Anyway, it’s my habit to find the next best thing to blame for my weaknesses.
“I see you very less these days.” Bad start. Highlighting his shortcoming as the starting line is challenging his ego. He would want to overpower you.
“I work in an investment firm, Anna. It’s not a kindergarten.” Punch one. Predictable.
“You shouldn’t disrespect my work, Ben.”
“I’m not. I’m comparing priorities.”
“And where am I on this list of priorities?”
“Anna—I” She holds up her hand, stopping him. Unusually bold, it’s a new side of her.
“We are not working out, Ben.” Straight and forward. That’s a tough one to deal.
“Do you want to do this here, in this café?”
“I couldn’t do it at home.” Why? Scared?
He seems tense now. He is looking at everything but her. I smirk at the all too common visuals of human interaction. This one, however, peaks my interest. Because of her.
“Anna, we can think about this. Talk this through.” Logical argument.
“It’s always you talking, Ben. I never talk. It’s been you all along.” Would you call it his fault?
“So you are tired of me, suddenly?”
“It’s not easy for me, Ben. I’m hurting as well.” He scoffs at that.
“I called Tina and I’ll room with her for the time being.” She says looking down onto her lap.
“You’re moving out?” The washing-your-hands-clean tactic. Seen after a long while. A smirk finds its way on my face again.
I look up from my laptop to see her staring directly at me. This time I’m sure it’s irritation written all over her face.
I bow my head back down, dipping it low, hiding behind the screen. I feel guilt but it washes over me quickly.
“That’s all I had to say, Ben.” I hear her again from behind my laptop.
“So you’re gonna end a three-year relationship. Just like that.” It’s a usual thing. People end twenty year relationships over things like food. It’s nothing new.
He suddenly leans in. His posture and aura changes.
“Anna, think about it again.”
“I’m leaving New York in a few days, Ben.” Bad move, again. Hitting him with another blow.
“London. To my parents.”
“Are they okay?”
“They are okay, Ben. They are fine. They don’t have to be dying, for their kids to visit them.” Sometimes, you don’t visit them even after they die. My parents died, but I got to know three days later. I was off the grid, with my writing.
His phone is ringing. He looks at her and then the phone. He picks it up.
“Sir…Sir…Yes. Right away, sir.” He stands up. His priorities are set right then and there.
“Anna, we’ll talk about it again. At home.” He holds onto her shoulder. “Please.”
She sighs and looks down. He murmurs something and runs out.
I look at her from a table and two chairs away. Her face is still down.
“Customer 309! You’re next.” Maisie calls again.
Her face is still down. It’s unsure if she is ignoring the call or she hasn’t heard it at all.
I call out from my chair. “Miss!”
I call out again. She looks up this time. “You’re next.”
Her eyes are emotionless as she goes up to the counter to get the croissant. She doesn’t return back to her table.
She stops in front of my table and places the croissant in front of me. She sits down on the chair opposite me.
“Michael? Apartment 7B, right?” I am surprised. Dumbfounded, actually.
Not because she knows me, but she is talking to me.
“Ye…yes. Right. How do you…?”
“I recognize a chauvinist when I see one.” What?
“I’m aware of you, Michael. I’m aware of everyone around me including you. Being a writer is not an excuse to pry your way into anyone and everyone’s life without their permission. Your indecent curiosity was much tolerated. What gives you the right to judge anyone?”
I can’t speak. It’s not that I don’t want to, but I can’t. I’ve never known what to speak.
“I hope your book is read by many. So many can then come to know of your true identity. Good day.”
She walks back to her table, picks up her sling bag and walks out of the café.
I sit still for one whole minute. My phone stings me back to reality. It’s my manager. I pick it up.
“Gerald, I’ll send it soon.”
“Just wait, Mike. Hear me out.”
“What is it?”
“The publishing house is deciding to cut off some writers. Josh and Simon are already off the company.”
“I thought Josh was doing fine” He is my drinking buddy.
“Let me finish, Mike.”
“The associate editor called me in to talk about you, Mike.”
“What about me?”