A very short story about everyday social exchanges, or their lack.
| Unasked, Ungiven|
I was sitting at a corner table in this Japanese coffee shop with a French name. It was just after noon. There were a few students sitting on the other side of the place. At a nearby table sat three housewives hunched around a table taking turns talking. They did not touch their coffees. The one facing me looked a bit haggard, even in the midst of her leisure, which her husband probably would have killed for, but which she, I imagined, could not stand, as it was most of what she had.
So I was sitting in this coffee shop, and feeling kind of terrible and thinking mostly about myself when a man in his mid 40s came in and ordered a small coffee. The woman prepared and handed him his coffee and thanked him for purchasing it. He did not seem aware of her doing so, but one could hardly blame him; people apologize and thank one another until the meaning is eventually beat out of those phrases.
The man walked past the many open tables and set his things down on the only table next to mine. I did not let him see that I was watching him. He put his hand on the book he had just set down and rearranged it unnecessarily. He seemed to be steeling himself. He then pressed between our two tables, saying in perfect English as he did so,
I turned my head in his direction without looking at him and sort of hunched my shoulders while lowering my head, (it is not only greetings that become abbreviated.) I continued to let my eyes pass over the words on the page of the book I was trying to read while I thought about the man and how very much he might like to talk to me. Most people in Japan are forced to pay for that privilege. I thought about what I might say to him and how he would probably react with the astonishment the Japanese direct at anyone who engages them without a sufficient situational pretext for doing so. I though about how he might pretend that he did not want to speak English with me, feeling that he somehow should not want to. I though that he might instinctively reject me so as to save himself the possibility of being rejected.
I glanced over at his table. The accoutrements of his coffee were very neatly arranged: The napkin parallel to the top edge of his table, the coffee centered over the round icon on the napkin, the stirrer placed inside the empty sugar packet and the creamer with its lid pressed back down so that someone could see and and mistakenly think it unused. The man himself had a thin intelligent face. He looked stricken with what I imagined to be an excess of awareness.
I considered again the possibility of speaking to him. I had ruled out small talk, it would likely only make us both feel worse. Instead I thought about saying something assumptive and romantic, something like, “I see you.” Or perhaps I could use some small talk, accompanied by an imploring sort of eye contact and maybe a smile. I thought it unlikely that any of these things would turn out as I imagined them. That seems to be the way of things in my experience.
He too was now looking over the pages of a book, which I did not think he was actually reading either. I never did expose myself enough to get a clear look at the title, but I did see that it contained large bold-faced type, which was sectioned and numbered. I guessed it was probably a textbook or set of instructions for something.
I checked the clock and saw that I had to go. I first threw away my trash and then went back for my bag. “This is it,” I thought, “say something.” But for some reason I did not; I walked right out of the coffee shop, inclining my head as the ladies thanked me for coming. I felt a little sad and a little bitter. “O well,” I told myself, “there will be others.” But this did not make me feel any better. I took one last glance at him through the window before I turned the corner. He was not looking at me. “What do I know,” I thought, “maybe he was just reading his book.” But I didn’t buy that either. The only thought that felt true as I walked away was this: there he sat, starving for love, and there I had been, wanting to give it to him, and yet he had not simply asked for it, nor I simply given it.