I spend a lot of time working in libraries and coffee shops (which is where I meet my insect friends) because D and I share the World’s Tiniest Apartment and until last week, neither of us had an office. I like working in public, most of the time. There are good days, like today, when all the noise blends into a buzz, so I don’t distinguish talk from traffic from milk-foamers from espresso machines from Starbucks Greatest Hits (lately: Joni Mitchell’s “California” which is a relief after “We Are Young” by fun. which was on repeat all last winter). I get a lot done on those days.
Other times I’m not so lucky and my brain pingpongs around the room. I can’t stop myself from listening to what I hear, and often remembering it. Long stories. Arguments. Career planning. Personal injury. In-jokes. Hook-ups. Detailed accounts of really terrible relationships. At least one very very unsuccessful job interview, and a few good-sounding ones.
Some exchanges stick with me, because they’re funnier or weirder or ickier than the others. There’s one I have thought of more than once, not because it was gross, or particularly revealing, even.
It was in August, in a Starbucks downtown that I like because it reminds me of the Calgary Airport, for some reason. It’s corporate, impersonal, and there are always crowds in suits, or kids with backpacks running through it from one place to another. You see a lot of Ryerson and U of T students there. It’s both intimate and private because we’ve all agreed to ignore one another, so while you might chat when you share a table, for the most part it’s both companionable and anti-social.
On this day a young woman came in and instead of going to the counter to order, she sat down near me, then she stood up, then she paced to the door and back to her enormous handbag. She was thin, with long, well-managed hair in that expensive, natural-looking shade between blond and brown. She wore an orange striped maxi dress that displayed her thin, perfectly tanned shoulders. She stood. She sat again.
She said into her phone, I wanted to call you right after! Then she started to explain:
The agent totally thinks I can do Stratford but I need to get new pictures and I can really sing and she said she said my voice is far beyond my years but but but the agent won’t rep me now. She said I should do ads as well as theatre.
No– I still want to do theatre, but you can’t live on that. I should do ads. She said I shouldn’t join the union, because that’ll just limit my options. But I definitely need more pictures taken.
Yeah, it’ll be expensive but the agent says it’s worth it. No, it’s really worth it. No, it is!
I wasn’t interested in her not-very-successful meeting with the agent. The things that caught my ear were her repeated questions: are you proud of me? and you’re happy, right? You’re happy? and eventually tell me you’re proud of me! Her voice rose with each repetition, so I guessed that the person she asked so insistently had not given her the answer she wanted. Her final goodbye was ragged. I thought for a moment she was going to cry. She didn’t. She jabbed at her iPhone instead.
It’s the weird contradiction of the city, the way anonymity can feel so much like privacy that sometimes we assume our displays of feeling are lost in the ambient noise of espresso machines and Joni Mitchell. Even tiny moments of revelation, like this, can be shocking when we see all the shades of need and vulnerability in someone we don’t know. Even when the revelation is as tiny as the question are you proud of me? repeated with greater and greater desperation.
Should I have said something? I assumed that it would have made her even more uncomfortable. But maybe I only think that because I wanted to avoid the awkwardness of admitting that we are not anonymous, and that I had noticed the slight rift in her otherwise perfect facade. I felt for her. I know I’ve wanted to squeeze the “right” answer out of someone who just won’t.
I didn’t say anything. I looked away when she glanced in my direction, as though I had heard nothing, allowing her the fictional privacy that makes our shared, corporate living room possible. But I still remember her, and wonder if the person she was talking to ever said yes, I’m proud of you!