Do you ever have the overwhelming need to confess something –well, at least share it without the need for absolution? Coffee does that to me –all I need is a stranger who, although she may think I’m weird, is unlikely to pass it on to anybody I might know. I’m not Catholic, so I don’t have a neighbourhood confessional that I could pop into whenever the mood strikes. And anyway, I’m looking for a laxative for my soul, not a penance for my sins.
The trick is to find the right person -you have to be careful. Older women in conservatively coloured dresses staring at newspaper crossword puzzles work best for me. Admittedly, this demographic tends to frequent libraries and you can’t talk much in there, but occasionally one will wander into Starbucks on the way, so I lie in wait. Their smile is important, by the way –it suggests openness to new ideas, and a readiness to engage, if only briefly. But that’s all I require, really. I’m not looking for a relationship, just a pair of friendly ears, and lips that won’t report me. I don’t think my behaviour is pernicious for a coffee shop, but my friends seem to imply that I’m overly needy. And of course, this is not one of the things I usually seek to confess. I am more into existential disclosures. Nothing personal, you understand –I don’t want to go viral on Facebook, or anything; I favour revelations that encourage sympathy and unfettered eye contact.
Most communication is said to be non-verbal, so I have developed various adjunctive measures to help me along. Coffee waves, for example. These are subtle, controlled movements of the wrist that swirl coffee perilously close to the rim while making a point. I had a few accidents in the early days, but I’m now pretty reliable except when I’m stressed.
I also use the finger jab to good effect. This is risky, of course, and requires careful timing and impeccable judgement so as not to be construed as an assault, but with a little patience, it can be an effective technique. The finger has to be in and out quickly; it must never linger on the sleeve or describe any motion other than a mathematically unidimensional point. And, lest it be misconstrued, it must be used sparingly, if at all.
The object, as I said, is to solicit commiseration and unwavering attention. Not anybody will do, so I’m always on the lookout. Yesterday, for example. I spotted a grey-haired woman in a long, black woolen skirt and white linen blouse sitting comfortably alone at a table reading some papers. Although she was scowling, she was sipping on a latte of some sort as she sorted through the reports, and I took that as an encouraging sign. Nobody’s perfect, eh? A real estate agent, I figured. Good –they’re trained to listen. There was an empty table next to her, so I sat down with my multigrain bagel in one hand and tall, dark, blend-of-the-day coffee in the other as if I was a regular. Actually, I was just trying to get out of the weather.
As my wet clothes started to steam in the too-warm coffee shop, she looked over at me -rather haughtily I thought. “You do realize you’re dripping on my table, I hope.”
This did not seem like the opportunity I had envisaged, but I thought a clever reply on my part might diffuse the tension. Unfortunately, I was still trying to think of one when she sniffed at me –I can describe it in no other way.
“You’re just like my husband,” I could hear her mutter to herself as she moved her latte to the other side of her table.
“I’m sorry,” I said, although I wasn’t.
“He always says that, too,” she said in a louder, more directed whisper, all the while shaking her head. Then she stared directly at me, her eyes uncertain whether they should roost on my lips or my wet clothes; they decided to take up temporary residence on my face after hovering over it for the longest time.
“I didn’t mean to take out my frustration on you,” she conceded, but her expression was tentative, and it was clear that she was relieved that she did. “I’m sure you’re a better person than him…” And yet there was a hesitation in her words, that made me think she wasn’t at all certain. She sighed and withdrew her eyes so she could drop them onto the pages in front of her. The papers were obviously important.
“I didn’t mean to keep you from your work,” I said lamely, and then took a bite out of my bagel.
A smile surfaced briefly on her face, then disappeared into a scowl again. “I wish it was work,” she whispered enigmatically, and attacked her latte.
I made the mistake of glancing at it and was immediately jabbed by a finger.
“Do you mind?” she growled testily, and moved it further away. She was silent for a moment as she skimmed through a few more pages, all the while swirling her latte around inside her cup. I have to admit she was pretty good at it for an amateur.
Then she suddenly looked up from the page and glared at me. “Look, it’s a separation agreement, okay?” Her eyes were granite. “You don’t have to be so nosey…”
I quickly disappeared into the bagel and stared at my table as if I’d noticed something fascinating on the faux grain. Then I felt the finger again, only softer this time, and it lingered, evidently unconcerned about misconstrual. “He’s really not a bad person, you know…” she added, with marshmallow eyes, now intently massaging the paper in front of her. “He means well I think… He just has trouble expressing it.” She glanced at me briefly, but I could see tears forming in her eyes. “He wanted to go for counselling, you know,” she said smiling, finally. “I didn’t want to…”
She touched me again, but this time on my wrist and with her whole hand. She left it there, warm and soft, for a moment. “But, you know, after talking to you, I think I’m ready for that now…” The voice softened like her hand; she seemed a changed woman. “You’re such a good listener.”
Her smile was contagious and I couldn’t stop myself from nodding in agreement.
“I’m so glad I met you today,” she said, scooping up the papers and shoving them into a briefcase hidden under her table. Then she scraped her chair as she got to her feet, sighed in my direction to demonstrate her gratitude, and walked resolutely towards the door without looking back.
It’s so nice to share things with strangers, you know, but you sure have to pick the right person.