I took the train into the city because of the snow and now I worry about being able to get back home. Boston’s transit system has not aged well and for days many stand waiting for hours to move themselves across town in the arctic cold. The commuter rail seemed to be moving better than the locals but today’s forecast will likely change that. I keep checking my wrist for the time but I don’t wear a watch. Why check then? Nervous tick I suppose. Something to demonstrate I here, in this vast food court between my daughter’s school and the train that dropped me, for a purpose. Unconsciously, I must be pushing up my left sleeve to show I am not just hanging around wasting time like a creep, a criminal or a pedophile. Checking the time means you’re waiting. Checking the time means something is expected too happen, something important. Yet, checking the time can also be a sign of nervousness, impatience or a lack of ease.
My stomach growls. I should have eaten before leaving the house, but I can never eat first thing. This station area reminds me of a shopping mall food court — a bright circle of quasi-ethnic cuisine designed to move in quickly from hand, to hand, to stomach. Technically this isn’t a station at all, really, since the entrance to the subway is outside, but it pretends really well. Again, the growling. Thankfully it’s busy, a throng of commuters rising from underground entering and waves of students descending from their towers above, they all encircle one another intermingling in their decision making as they navigate coffee or meals or find whoever they are meeting on their way to more significant destinations. I wonder if she’ll actually arrive, that is If she even got the e-mail message and there is no certainty of that. Well, I suppose it did arrive in her inbox, I just don’t know. No, she’ll show. Part of me hopes she realizes how long it has been and besides what harm is there in a cup of coffee or a pastry or a sandwich. If it really matters, you can still hold a grudge after a cup of coffee, right? That is her call.
Situating myself in the round court of tiny tables where I can see both entrances, I’m beginning to realize this was a stupid idea. In theory, I should be able to pick her out of a crowd just like penguins do with their offspring. Thousands of minute chattering black and white tuxedoed bodies flapping and squawking and still the damn penguins can find their babies on a desolate frozen tundra. I have greater variables to contend with, though: how do you wear you hair now? Do you still have that stupid floppy knit hat with the blue and green and purple that you like wear inside and out? What are you wearing for a jacket? Do you have a jacket, even? Of course you have a jacket, but still a soft pang of, well, guilt settles wondering if you’re warm enough.
A young couple sits a few tables across from me. I pretend to look at my phone but their tension is compelling. Body language reveals a fight — she leans back in her chair slightly slouchy, arms folded, face pinched. He unwraps a bagel and pushes it towards her bent and wordlessly pleading. She is clearly not happy with him. They barely touch their breakfast. She gets up, heading off brushing a finger beneath her glasses under one eye. Presumably, a tear? He falls back in his chair, heavy, defeated and after giving it a minute tosses away the bagel and her coffee but re-caps his orange juice and then fades into the rest of his day.
Maybe I have it wrong. Maybe you can only hold a grudge if you don’t drink the coffee you agree to meet over, or the meal you agree to have. She probably said to him, Sure whatever, I’ll go with you but I am not eating anything. He probably thought, If I can get her to breakfast, to share a bagel, to sit the morning after and demonstrate that she matters, then forward is possible. Poor kid. Well, maybe he deserves it.
I have been here too long. My stomach agrees. How conspicuous is a middle-aged man sitting alone in a cafe court amongst so many students and transient business people? And why does having a paper cup on the table before you legitimize loitering? I am hungry. But going to a counter will mean turnng my back on this room and it only takes a second for someone to slip by you and melt into a crowd of bodies and faces. Amazing, though when massed together we blend indistinguishably. An irony I suppose that we consider ourselves outstanding, unique, solitary despite this fact. How do penguins do it, I mean, honestly? I really need a coffee. Maybe a donut. The circles on the Dunkin Donuts sign distract me.
Behind me a laugh. You? No, no it is not. An hour has passed. How much more patience can be exhibited in a situation such as this. Nearly five months of silence. 152 days. What’s another half hour, right?
A text comes through, my wife: Well?
I respond: Nothing yet. Still waiting.
I go to the counter to get a latte, that’s what I really want. Something warm, sweet, caffeinated. I pay and wait. The milk hisses and steams. Out of the corner of my eye I see knit stripes on someone’s head. I grab the coffee and step out for a better view. The height could be right but the movement is all wrong. The head wearing the cap is chatting to a companion and the body holding the head moves smoothly towards the doors on the opposite side. If that was her she moved with intention of going, of passing through, and not with the commitment of staying.
My phone vibrates: Leaving? Storm is coming in a few hours.
No, I think, it has already come and passed.
In my rush from the counter I have forgotten the cardboard sleeve for the coffee cup. My fingers dance in alternating steps across the cup’s hot surface. I turn back towards the coffee shop to get something to protect my hand otherwise while standing waiting for the train and run headlong into a woman exiting Dunkin Donuts. We both apologize for not seeing each other. My hands and sleeve covered in coffee that’s spilled on her briefcase. Sorry I was distracted, I tell her. No worries, she responds. No big deal. I fumble for some napkins, my back to the crowd. Looking down I’ve spilled on my shoes
From behind me I hear a voice, “Hey, dad.” Frozen, caught off guard I turn, my heart skips. Spinning, facing outward into the crowd, breath leaves me. It is another dad, and another daughter and another reunion not my own.
I pivot back on my heels, my face pale, and the stranger, she is gone. My phone buzzes then stops and I stand forgetting for the moment this dull heat coursing across the paper cup into my fingertips or the cooling dampness of my shirt cuff soaked with coffee.