Earlier this week, Minna Zallman Proctor wrote about Virginia Woolf’s short stories and the blog post as literary form. Today, taking inspiration from the narrator in Woolf’s “Street Haunting” who attempts to inhabit the minds of the people she passes on London’s streets, Minna imagines the interior lives of a couple in a coffee shop. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.
But, after all, we are only gliding smoothly on the surface. The eye is not a miner, not a diver, not a seeker after buried treasure. It floats us smoothly down a stream; resting, pausing, the brain sleeps perhaps as it looks.
—Virginia Woolf, “Street Haunting”
There is a couple in the coffee shop where I’m working today who are talking about running away together. I’m trying hard not to eavesdrop, forcing their perfectly audible conversation to muddle itself in my ears, the way you can make your vision blur by relaxing your eyes. But the mutter and rhythms of their conversation is just as revealing as specific words would be. Sometimes they stop talking entirely, reach across the small table to hold hands and stare deeply at each other, at a length that only belongs to the besotted. The prolonged gaze that would make a friend look away or bore a spouse. Between these two, the looking feels like a hungry tattoo, imprinting this stolen time. Because neither one has actually abandoned their real lives. This is stolen time in a crude and absurd coffee shop — forged bohemian in a neighborhood of immigrants, pensioners, taxi drivers, and substitute public school teachers — with amber light bulbs, putty colored walls, a series of seventeen provisionally framed sketches by a local artist hung in a distressingly uneven horizontal line…
He’s older than she is by some years. Bald and white grey, in a short sleeve chambray button-down that fits loosely, timeless casual, over khakis. He’s wearing socks under his sandals. She’s in jeans and an expensive, form fitting fleece. Clogs. Her curly hair is pulled back into a ponytail and held off her face with a brightly colored headband. She has her back to me but I can see from this angle that she has beautiful cheekbones and practical glasses. Her earrings are from a museum gift shop.
It’s pouring out and still early morning. Even though I’m only catching snatches of conversation, I know they are talking about how to make big decisions. Talking about the way people in their lives, a son maybe or sister, are resilient. Anticipating consequence. At one point, he tells her the story of a great betrayal. I don’t mean to listen — but up look up accidentally from my book and catch him wiping tears when he says, “He was the best friend I’ve ever had.”
Tall, grown men crying breaks my heart. Nothing else makes me want to solve everything in the world that can’t be solved more than a crying man, not even when my own children weep (children always weep). “I either want to come back to Brooklyn,” she says suddenly, “or Boston.” I understand, I think. “But do you have another offer in Boston?” he answers and there’s more silence before she answers with a long discourse on failings that I can’t hear but think would sound too familiar if I did. Boring to hear one’s own endless neuroses rehearsed once that first shock of recognition has evaporated.
They stand to leave. They embrace with great affection and sadness, for letting each other go, for having to let each other go. Affection so chaste and enduring. The physical contact of a lifetime. I see now as he turns from her and walks out the door, upright and bravely inclined as tall people are, before he even hits the street, against the rain. Leaving her standing behind, phone already in hand, preparing for the next moment of her day. I see now what’s been grotesquely evident all along, they are not lovers, they are father and daughter.
Minna Zallman Proctor is a writer, critic, and translator who currently teaches creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where she is also editor in chief of The Literary Review. Her most recent book is Landslide: True Stories. She is also the author of Do You Hear What I Hear? An Unreligious Writer Investigates Religious Calling and has translated eight books from Italian, including Fleur Jaeggy’s These Possible Lives. She lives in Brooklyn.