Life is a garden, but I don’t seem to have planted well. Now that it is autumn, there is not much of a crop to show for it at any rate. There should be rows and rows of green and leafy vegetables beckoning from night-dark fields and plump red apples calling from their aeries on the trees my father left for me to prune. There should be more to show for all these years, but as I look around, I have to squint to see the harvest.
On a recent moonful night when the winter’s cold had seeped into the room, and the only light was grey and percolating slowly through the somber clouds, I suddenly awoke thinking of Aesop’s grasshopper –you know, the one who discovered to his dismay that you have to plan ahead; that doing what you enjoy does not necessarily provide for future sustenance. And I, in that nadir of the depth of night, imagined that I may have enjoyed my job too much; that I may have sewn patients as my crop instead of friends; I may have built only a coffee-stained social network of hospital records…
But when day finally arrived and the rest of the bedroom surfaced, I realized I had found the answer to retirement: coffee. The meaning of the panic attack was simple: to achieve the full potential of the freedom that lay ahead of me like a field of untrodden prairie snow, I had to socialize. It was never one of my strong suits, mind you, but I understood that it was probably only a question of practice. I mean how hard could it be? I merely had to show up at the village coffee shop, order a coffee, and sit at a table somewhere. The progression from there was unclear, but I envisaged some sort of engagement with strangers curious as to who I was and why I had chosen the table they always used –my first social intercourse.
And it was Wednesday –I had to check my phone to be sure- so what better day to start a new and enriched life? I pulled on a fresh pair of jeans and a just-washed black sweat shirt –no sense in pretending I was a workie- and headed down to the cove to the coffee shop nearest to the ferry terminal. I live on an island whose mornings revolve around the hourly ferries to the mainland, so start big, I thought. Start busy. And start early –the meetings would be necessarily brief as the work-serfs ebbed and flowed.
But crowds at 6 AM are anomalous no matter how much you prepare. And noise is a companion to the afternoon -okay, and maybe the evening –but definitely not the early morning. I’ve always used the early hours to plan for the day, to decide how to proceed -not to party. And yet, as I walked into the café that first time, all sorts of strange thoughts swirled in my head. I wondered if I would be noticeably out of place, or carded. How would I explain my sudden, unexpected appearance? How could I justify my presence in this club to which I obviously didn’t belong?
As it turned out, the problem was not so much one of explanation or apology, as of fighting my way through the crowd –finding a place to stand. There were no tables that didn’t have uncountable appendages arrayed around them, no spaces that weren’t already occupied with arms waving for attention, hands busy with Styrofoam cups shielded from danger by little cardboard sleeves. The noise was deafening, the recognition absent. I might as well have been standing on a crowded rush hour bus downtown for all the socialization opportunities available.
If I hadn’t been so anonymous, I would have felt embarrassed at having arrived with such an amorphous agenda -embarrassed for standing around pretending I had just come down for a coffee; embarrassed that I was the only person in the crowd whose lips were not moving: the embodiment of solitude in the herd I had come to join.
I was about to turn and leave when I felt a hand on my shoulder. The sensation was so unexpected, l think I shuddered at the intimacy. When I turned, I saw an older man smiling at me almost apologetically.
“I think we both got here at the wrong time, eh?” he said, raising his voice to be heard. “I usually come around nine, but for some reason I woke up early today.” He looked around the crowded room, shrugged disappointedly and glanced at his watch. “They’ll be gone soon, so we can grab a table before the next shift arrives.” Then he looked at me more closely. “Retired?” he asked, and a mischievous smile immediately appeared on his face.
I nodded. “How did you guess?” I asked, wondering if it was really that obvious.
He chuckled and let his eyes study me for the briefest of moments. “You get to recognize fellow travellers,” he said, and pointed to a free table as the room began to empty like water down a just-opened drain.
“My name’s John, by the way,” he said, extending his hand to shake. “You hold the table while I grab us a coffee.” His eyes suddenly twinkled. “You do drink coffee, don’t you Gary?” He knew my name! I think my mouth must have fallen open in surprise, so he smiled. “It’s a small island, my friend,” he said, walking over to the coffee urn. “Did you really think you were an unsigned letter?”
No, but maybe an unplanted seed I thought, feeling his smile still lingering in the air as he walked away.