In Rosario, the summer mornings are unmirrored. The nocturnal dew dances on the banks of the sleepy meandering river and a sweet curtain of humidity both caresses the nape of your neck and promises a menacingly hot day to come.
Today was no different.
As I walked to work, I allowed my mind to drift, like the ebb and flow of an Indian summer’s tide, I observed my thoughts and their impermanence. Impermanence had become a topic I contemplated with a growing frequency.
I have worked the morning shift as a waitress in a neighborhood restaurant bar for nearly four years; Casimiro, I almost see. It is not great, but it has its perks, the first of which is the walk there.
The second bonus to my otherwise mindless job is the patrons. Humans are creatures of habit and there is no better way to witness this than by forming part of their daily breakfast ritual. Each day they arrive at the same time, they seek to sit at their usual table, and they always order the same things. No one ever says, “Hey, you know what? I am going change it up today, give me two savory croissants instead of those sweet ones I always order.” They simply look at you and nod, silently indicating that nothing has changed in their order since the last time we met. And while this is incredibly predictable, it is because of this habit that intimacy and understanding grows between us. Our initial introduction, before names and small talk are even fathomed, begins with the taste buds: sweet or savory, strong or milky, complete or sans the OJ. Only after we servers have memorized sleep-burdened smiles and matched them with their preferred wake up remedy, do we bear witness to the more intimate side of their personal lives. In some cases, that opportunity never arises. But when it does, a bond, not quite classified as a friendship, is born.
“Buen día,” I said, as I entered. I took mental note that all things were in their usual place; Jose at table twelve with his first cafe con leche, no sugar, half empty -or should I say half full?- sitting slightly to the right of his opened dog eared paperback. Guillermo tucked into the sports section of the daily newspaper, an empty shot of espresso pushed aside to make room for his second, but surely not his last of the day. Maria, dressed to overkill with her extra large fresh squeezed orange juice, straw, no ice. Susan, the U.S. expat sitting in booth one, two sweet croissants and a pen and paper in hand.
Yep, all things a go, I thought.
Unlike teachers and parents, servers are granted a get-out-of-jail-free card to having favorites, and Susan was mine. It was because of her that my most recent obsession with impermanence arose.
I remember the first day Susan entered the bar. It is hard to forget. She stood out in a crowd, towering above your average woman, or man for that matter. Her smile preceded her body by a meter, arriving a thirtieth of a second before she did, lighting up the room as she waltzed to her own musical stride. She was both girlish and awkward, a 50 year old in a pubescent body, long and lean with short cropped blonde hair and piercing blue eyes that smiled warmly in our encounter. When she laughed, her upper body shook ever so slightly causing her shoulders to roll forward as though she were trying to compensate for her size by making herself smaller.
For the most part of my four years, Susan arrived each morning with her arm braided into the crook of her husband Oscar’s elbow, an Argentinean man twenty years her senior, though equal her age in spirit. He was jovial and joking and layered with a lady’s man kind of charm that glowed exclusively in Susan’s direction. Once, between coffees and croissants, they shared with me how they had met. Twenty-five years later they were still over the moon for each other, the likely envy of every single woman and man they encountered.
But life only appears to stay constant and we perpetuate this illusion with monotonous activities and routines, such as breakfast. While we are stuffing our mouths full of sweet breads and toasts, washing them down with caffeinated muddy water, the world around us is in constant manifestation, changing from one moment to another. And, that which we latch onto for both comfort and assurance, when it moves, it rattles the floorboards under our otherwise stable feet.
Some months back, Susan arrived untangled and alone. And, soon, that too formed a new kind of routine. Her posture changed. Her eyes seemed primed for the threat of tears. No one asked her why, but that didn’t keep us speculating the possibilities from behind the bar.
“She probably caught him having an affair! Men are pigs,” Sofi surmised.
“I can’t see him doing something like that,” I countered. “Haven’t you seen the way he looks at her? I wish someone would look at me like that!”
I should have agreed with Sofi, prayed even for her assumptions to have been correct.
Oscar had been diagnosed with lung cancer and, to our ignorance, had been fighting it for years, putting up a good fight but failing in the end.
The sparkle in Susan’s eyes changed, but her breakfast routine did not.
Chapter 2 –
“Look there Susie, shh, don’t stare. Do you see that guy there? You need to go out with someone like him. He is perfect for you: easy on the eyes, appears to enjoy coffee, or at least he shares your taste in cafes, After all, he is here almost as much as we are. I’d say by the looks of him, he’s divorced, something in his energy, you know? The way he always sits alone at a table for 4, as though he were waiting for someone, someone like you! He is obviously comfortable in his own skin, comodo enough to enjoy life without a hunting license. What I mean to say is, he doesn’t seem to be eagerly looking for anything. Oh and look, he reads! I always say, never trust a man who doesn’t read. Men who fall asleep with books are sexy! A ver, what is he reading? You know Susie, they say you can’t judge a book by its cover, and maybe that’s true, but I say you most certainly can judge a person by their choice in authors. He is reading Murakami!”
“Oh great, I can only imagine what people must think of me then!” Susan scoffed, holding up her absurd selection from the airport’s bestselling paperback section. “I’ve never even heard of Murakami.”
Stephanie rolled her eyes and giggled. Born without a filter, she was a quirky, quick judge of character. She based her opinions on trivial mannerisms and loosely formed definitions of how she thought people wanted her to perceive them: the books they read, the music they listened to, the way they moved through the room. And let us not forget the shoes they wore. She believed that, above all else, one could be judged on their choice in shoes.
“Shoes tell a story,” she always said.
“He is good looking though isn’t he,” Susan smiled, giving way to that girlish giggle that had gone missing for so long, finally peeking its head through curtains of sadness, giving the world a glimpse of who she was before loss arrived on her doorstep. Then, like the flash of a memory caught on film, it was gone again.
“I really am in no hurry.” She fought back the tears that came with the thought of moving on. How exactly does one do that anyway? Move on?
Wiping her eyes Susan excused herself to the restroom.
Stephanie sat, chewing on the quick of her next to nothing nails, questioning her tendency to talk too much.
When am I going to learn to just keep my mouth shut? she thought, gnawing until her thumb nail bled.
She loved Susan with a mixture of admiration and inspiration she had yet to find in friends her own age and she hated seeing her suffer.
In any other context, Susan and Stephanie were an unlikely pair. Susan was a bigwig Human Resources consultant who leaned towards khakis and penny loafers while Stephie, that’s what everyone called her, was an ex-punk rocker turned housewife who threw worry to the wind for a man she met while hiking to Machu Picchu. Different experiences had led them down different paths to the same coffee shop in Argentina. And while, on the outside, they had little in common, time proved differently and a friendship grew.
With a tendency beyond her control, Stephanie turned to the man reading at the next table.
“I love Murakami.”
“I’m sorry?” he said, confusion painting his expression.
It was not common practice for a woman in Argentina to start up conversation with a man.
“Which book is that? He is one of my favorite authors,” she enthused, excited to talk literature.
“Oh, um, Hear the Wind Sing. Do you know it?”
“I’ve yet to read that one. I’ve read The Wind up Bird Chronicles and Dance Dance Dance, I like that one the best, but everyone says Norwegian Wood is even better. Have you read it?”
Shut up Stephanie! Good God! You are doing it again!
“I’m Stephanie,” she said, offering her right cheek as any Argentinean would.
“I’m Jose. Nice to meet you.”
“You and your friend, you aren’t from Rosario, are you?” he questioned.
“No no, we are from the U.S., both of us, but we’ve been here for several years now. We are um…
Stay away from the husband subject Stephanie!
“Writers! So you like to read huh? My friend, Susan, she just got one of her pieces published. We are sort of celebrating,” she said, lifting her half full cup of coffee.
Susan walked back to the table, not surprised to see her Chatty Cathy companion elbow deep in conversation with the man at the neighboring table. Taking a deep breath she hoped her red nose would be perceived as allergies rather than tears. She was tired of the “Are you O.K.?” treatment.
“Susan!” cried Stephanie, overcompensating for the tears she had provoked.
“This is Jose, he’s an avid reader. I was just telling him how you are a writer. Jose, meet Susan.”
Susan smiled a cordial smile. She was warm without being welcoming and made light of Stephanie’s bragging as she looked to change the subject.
Perceiving Susan’s discomfort, Stephanie steered the conversation away from the three-way dynamic.
“Well Jose, I won’t take anymore time away from you and Murakami. It was nice meeting you. I am sure we will see you around. Susie and I come here often.”
“Un placer. The pleasure was all mine,” he said, returning his gaze to his book but surely not his attention.
Chapter 3 –
I awoke earlier than normal this morning, unable to sleep and with an unprecedented need for the sound of silence. Silence has a sound of its own. The cracking of the refrigerator calibrating its thermostat, the low and almost unintelligible hum of electric current, comforted my busy mind.
Massaging the arches of my battered dancer’s feet, I put on my work shoes, and started out the door on my habitual journey to work. I watched the dew dripping from humid overhanging balconies, painting the sidewalk different shades of grey. The day was gloomy and lovely at the same time, accompanied by a stillness that promised change. Summer had stayed its welcome and would be moving on. Another change, like so many other things in life.
“Buen día,” I said to no one and everyone at the same time. A unanimous murmur of buenos dias flew in my direction as I scanned the room. Booth one was empty. I checked my watch. She should be here any minute, I thought.
Over the course of the last week I noticed Susan had taken to arriving a bit later than usual.
Most people would never have documented this minimal adjustment in habits. It was, in the end, only half an hour difference, but I observed her closely. More closely than the other patrons. I noted other deviations too.. She changed her hair. It was shorter, more carefree and she looked younger, nearly happy. She now entered the bar with a bounce in her step, making a special effort to say good morning as she made her way to her usual seat.
Susan’s time in Argentina was a chapter coming to its end. Without Oscar she found it next to impossible to love Rosario as she once had. Negatives now filled the spaces where positives once resided and so, she decided to take a job in San Francisco, her escape disguised as rejuvenation. I would miss her and her smile. We all would.
I looked at my watch again, anxious for her arrival. 10:00 a.m.
She opened the side door and swayed through the room refreshing it with the gusty air that accompanied this strong woman. Stepping forward to greet her, I fell back with realization. Rather than walking towards her usual spot, she approached table 12. Jose’s table. Leaning forward she kissed his cheek and sat down across from him.
I almost see. Casi-miro.
I smiled, dumbfounded that I hadn’t noticed before today, that I had paid little attention to Sofia’s banter last week.
Sofia had spotted me before I entered the bar Tuesday morning. She was nearly running in my direction.
“Good morning Sofia,” I said, surprised at her enthusiasm to see me.
“Oh my god! I have been dying for you to arrive. You will never guess what happened! Yesterday, I picked up the afternoon shift, I really need the money, and guess who was here!” She was vibrating with the excitement of fresh gossip.
“Someone famous?” I humored, feigning interest. Sofia and I were great coworkers, but we could not be more polar opposites.
“You know Jose, table twelve? The guy that always comes in alone? Reads?”
“Yes, of course I know Jose, Sofia,” rolling my eyes. “I’ve been serving him breakfast for nearly half a decade. This place is like his church, office and second home rolled into one.”
“I know! Well, he asked me about Susan yesterday. Susan the American.
She was in for an afternoon coffee. Weird right?”
“Really? Susan never comes in the afternoon does she?”
“I don’t usually work afternoons but Annie, the usual waitress, she said she doesn’t know her.
Anyway, she sat outside with that dog of hers, Molly. Jose asked if I knew her, I told him he had better talk to you, but then he asked me if he could pay her bill! He bought her coffee! I think he likes her.”
Now I saw.
So, here was the reason behind her subtle changes, Jose was her inspiration. Like towering Ombues destroying themselves from the inside to give life to young saplings, the crumbling pieces of her world had given way to rebirth. Impermanence.
In the following days I watched over this new duo like a mother bird, as a bond blossomed between them. The subtle touching of a hand, a lingering smile. The frequency of their casual encounters grew. Their breakfasts rolled into lunches and coffee hours stretched beyond their limits. Grief shelled over and turned to scabs, still tender to the touch but no longer debilitating.
Susan left for San Francisco a month later. But her stay there was cut short. Rosario beckoned her return; love was calling her name once again.