“He whom God has touched will always be a being apart: he is, whatever he may do, a stranger among men; he is marked by a sign.” -Ernest Renan
TALES FROM A COFFEE SHOP: A Story Within A Story
I often get approached by the strangest people in coffee shops. I haven’t figured out why this is the case but I assume they feel that I, a.k.a lonely girl sipping coffee by the window clearly stuck in thought, am the best candidate who will listen to their obscene analysis on anything small but enormously important to them. Today I had an entirely different experience meeting a stranger. It was what I would consider bittersweet and beautiful in its own way. It was just what I needed. You know that moment of bittersweet clarity, which makes you sigh and go “hmm”? This was one of those moments.
I sat down with my coffee and opened up the paper to read the obituaries, as I sometimes do. Some would find this morbid but I find them interesting. I’ve been fascinated with death and stories about those who have passed since I was a kid. I always wondered where we go when we die. Do we turn into dust and nothing more? Do our souls leave our bodies and venture off to other places, or do we come back as someone else or something else? Everyone wonders about life after death. It’s why we place so much emphasis on living the one we have now, to the fullest. We are given life and then we spend the rest of our lives searching for its purpose or meaning.
So I sat down with my coffee and opened up the paper. An elderly man dressed in a beige peat coat and a hat walked by my table, smiled and said hello, as he usually did. I often saw him there alone. He’d stare out the window and smile. I never really knew what he was smiling at but I admired him for his happiness. Maybe he was deep in thought and was reminiscing about something lovely? He didn’t seem complacent or worrisome, yet there was a particular sadness that followed him, a certain kind of sadness that made me wonder what his story was. Unlike any other day, today he stopped to talk to me. When you’re a regular at a coffee shop and you see other regulars, they are bound to turn a smile into a conversation at some point or another. That’s exactly what happened today. He walked up to my table and asked me what I was reading. I looked up at him and pointed to the paper “I’m reading the obituaries.”He looked at me with sadness and asked me if I had lost someone recently. I told him I hadn’t and explained that I occasionally read them because I find them interesting. He couldn’t understand why. He said I was too young to be concerned about death. I explained that one is never too young at all because death can happen at anytime, whether you’re young or you’re old. I figured I may as well reciprocate with the same question, so I asked him if he ever read the obituaries. He replied, “Everyday.” I wondered why. He sat down and asked me if I had time to listen to a story. I smiled and said “Sure, have a seat.” It was always a pleasure to listen to a story, especially a story from someone I had never met before.
He began to tell me that the reason why he loved to read obituaries was because his heart had never completely left the woman he once loved. I was confused. Had she passed away? Had he lost the opportunity to tell her that he loved her? He began his story by describing where he had grown up and talked a lot about a lady named Eva who had grown up with him. He said that they were practically neighbors. They attended the same high school and college and became very good friends. He was always too shy to ask her out but finally after college he worked up enough courage to ask her to the graduation dance. They dated for a year after that and then her family moved away- somewhere up north. He missed her tremendously. They called and mailed letters to each other but eventually the phone calls stopped and the letters came every so often until there were none. He had hoped that she’d call or write, but she never did.
A few more years passed and he heard through a friend that she was teaching at a school in Toronto. He decided to pay her a visit at the school. He waited across the street and watched her line up the boys and girls for home time. He told me that she looked as beautiful as she did when he last saw her. He described her as having milk white skin, dark brown hair and light green eyes. He said she was absolutely divine. His conscious was at war with him as he watched her from afar. A part of him told him he was crazy and begged him to turn around and go home. The braver part of him told him to sit tight and wait. When she finally emerged from the school doors his heart started beating so fast that he thought it was going to leap out of his chest. He called out her name from across the street. He said that she turned around slowly and smiled like an angel and mouthed his name. He was so happy that she remembered who he was, even after all those years. After a long-winded explanation for how he had caught wind of her teaching there, he asked if she’d like to get a cup of coffee. She frowned at him and declined. She explained that she was engaged to be married. She said that although she appreciated the effort, it would be indecent of her to be fraternizing with an ex-boyfriend. He told me his whole world had crashed and had fallen down on him. When I asked him what he said or what he did, he replied “Nothing. I just smiled. I had to be happy for her if she was happy. I wish I had told her I loved her though. Maybe that would have changed things. Maybe not. I’ll never know.” He told me that he had never loved any other woman the way he loved Eva and that he should have listened to the skeptical voice in his head telling him to go home. He had humiliated himself out there in the street in front of the woman he loved so much. I told him that he would have always wondered about the what if. He smiled and agreed. So I asked him what his story had to do with reading obituaries. He told me that although he had never run into her after that, there was hope he’d see her or hear her name again. After all these years and old age getting the better of him he thought maybe he’d see her name one last time in an obituary. I thought this was a little alarming. Why would anyone want to hear of someone passing away or see someone they knew in an obituary? He said he wasn’t sure when his moment to pass would be and explained, “I’m getting old and I could pass away any day now but perhaps if I see her name in the obituary then maybe I’ll feel better about dying. Maybe our souls will someday re-unite and we’ll get our chance in heaven.” I looked at him in awe and with sadness. He said, “You might think I’m crazy but I’m telling you it’s better to love after than to never love at all. So tell the one you love that you love them because you may never get that chance.” After that, he got up and thanked me for listening. I was glad I listened. It’s a beautiful story that I think I’ll tell anyone I meet. After all, we all have a story to tell, whether it’s our own or a story which belongs to someone else.
On that note, I think its time to leave this coffee shop.