I was hot and tired after walking around Vancouver’s Stanley Park seawall, so I thought I’d relax in a dark little coffee bistro in the West End. It was a bit chichi for me, but every so often I get the urge to find out how the one percent lives. And anyway, the only area sufficiently well-lit to reveal my high-end Walmart shorts, was where I ordered the five-dollar coffee, and where the barista, after staring at me as I punched in the numbers on the card-reader to make sure I left her a tip, promptly banished me to the cool, embracing darkness without a word.
In a room with dark walls, black carpets, and whispers that brushed against me like padded curses, my eyes took a while to adjust and I only achieved table by bumping into one by mistake. Fortunately, it was empty so I felt around for a chair, and placed the fancy heavy ceramic cup in what I hoped was the geometric center of the too-smooth table top –just in case. And, until my retinal rods took charge, I felt safe and snug –like one of those black things that hide under logs.
When I finally regained sight, however, I realized I was ensconced in a room full of whispering mouths. The wealthy are evidently groomed to talk to each other in sotto vocoid hues and gentle, pale-blue tones –or at least to the people they are meeting in the dark. It was quite soothing, actually and I was briefly envious of the serenity they had worked so hard to attain…
I say ‘briefly’, because I suddenly became aware of the couple sitting at the next table. There was a woman with long dark hair that hung like a horse’s mane to her shoulders and which didn’t seem to move in concert with her head. I could only make out her nose in the dim light but it dominated her face. Every so often, I caught a glimpse of glasses that kept sliding down it like a rock which her Sisyphean fingers were eternally condemned to put to right.
He, on the other hand had hair that looked to be glued in place, especially over a patch of skin that stretched from his forehead to a dim horizon near the back somewhere. And even in the gloom, I could see he was frowning –scowling in fact.
“Must you always wear that fake-smile Dorothy?” he said in a muted, sibilant hiss that immediately attracted my attention. I find that sibilance always seems to pull at my eyes, but of course he wouldn’t know that -and, judging by his expression, probably wouldn’t care if a pair of loud shorts and a Value Village tee shirt that said Listen to Me overheard his scorn.
“You mean like the one you have glued to your face, Jimmy?” she answered, laboriously rolling her glasses uphill once again.
He sighed in noisy mockery. “You wouldn’t know a real smile if anybody mistakenly put one on to surprise you.”
I tried to concentrate on sipping my coffee, but my ears were pointed at them like dogs waiting for a command.
I couldn’t see her mouth, but her glasses suddenly slid down her nose, indicating some sort of facial reaction which her fingers rushed to correct. “I don’t understand why you think I should be smiling anyway, Jim. You’ve already lost a bundle –like you always do, I might add- and now you expect me to be happy you’ve found another stock that’s failing…”
“Falling,” he corrected. “Falling, not failing…That’s when you buy, remember?” She must have done something with her face again, because down slid the glasses, and up went his hands as if in frustration. “And is that expression supposed to be contempt? Or just another type of mocking smile?”
This was getting serious. I couldn’t wait for her reply.
“James,” she said angrily, “What is this issue you have with smiling? Your whole face has a wardrobe of exactly three smiles: the one you take out of your pocket whenever you meet a new person who might be an investor, the one you replace it with when he refuses, and then your everyday, lounging-around-on-the-golf-course puppy-dog-innocent one that you hope will convince someone to buy you a drink.”
“Well, my three beats your one… And besides, you hardly see the real me, I don’t think. I smile a lot when you’re not around…”
There was a micro-hesitation before she replied. “Well, you’re going to have a pretty tired face when my lawyer gets through with you, Jimmy. That puppy-dog one will be fraying at the edges.”
“Now that’s a better smile,” he said, chuckling softly. “I’d forgotten you had one of those.”
Her glasses slid suddenly down her nose and it was only through quick thinking that she was able to rescue them from the cliff. But once safely on the summit again, she shook her head slowly while holding them in place. “And where have you been hiding that one, my love?”
He reached across the table and squeezed her free hand as it fumbled for the cup. “My private collection, Dor.”
It was Dorothy’s turn to laugh. “I thought you’d mortgaged all those, J…”
His smile grew and quickly transformed his whole face. And, although it was too dark to tell, I think his eyes were twinkling. “I save them for my best investments, sweetheart.”
At this point she actually took the glasses off and stuffed them in an expensive looking purse on her lap. “You wouldn’t have married me if I weren’t, J.”
He sat back and laughed –a full, throated, convincing laugh that so disturbed the room that six or seven indistinct, shadowy heads turned to look. “Go ahead.” He dropped his voice to a muted version, obviously flattered, but embarrassed too. “Now tell me I’m not a great investor, eh?”
She snorted, clearly amused. “One may smile, and smile, and be a villain…”
They clasped hands again and were silent.
I was still trying to figure them out when they both, as if on a signal, got up and headed for the door. But not before Dorothy turned to look at me and smiled. I couldn’t tell if it was genuine, or the kind the one percent dons at an airport in a foreign country -or a zoo… But maybe she just liked my tee shirt.