For almost two hours I sat in a big cushy chair at Starbucks with a book, The Outlander, open on my lap. From my spot, I could watch everyone who came in or walked out. I listened to the impossibly long orders for coffee, or something like coffee. I did fly through quite a few pages of my book, but it was hard not to look up at every whush of the door opening or closing. I can never resist a good opportunity to watch people.
I like to make up stories about them, too. It’s gotten easier with time and with age, and my guesses are less fanciful these days and more shaped by the common denominators of mid-life. Marriage. Children. Jobs. Paying for the dentist. An aging parent. Loss. The compromises. The small moments of joy we hold like umbrellas over everything else to keep it all from getting muddy.
It’s fun to invent a crazy story about the man who walks in wearing a suit on a Saturday, speaks with some sort of European accent and talks ridiculously into a gadget attached to his ear. It’s easy to spot the couple on their first date and to toss some made-up details together like salad: Harvard grad (her) meets community college dropout (him) at a concert. They seem mismatched, but he’s got a great bike, and she loves to feel the wind in her hair and he loves how she feels leaning against his back. And, of course (in my telling of it), it probably won’t work out.
You get the idea.
But it’s trickier to come up with a story for the woman in the corner, the quiet one alone, the one who was there before me and seems quite settled into her spot. The details of her appearance are really all I have to go on.
The story I imagine for someone like that never comes in full. Pieces of it light up like fireflies and go dark. Does she like her life? Is she happy in her marriage? Happier with her divorce? When she reads her book, is she able to focus, or does a ticker run across the bottom of the page like on CNN, with the shopping list and what’s for dinner and make a doctor’s appointment tomorrow and when was the last time we had sex? crawling under the lines of prose. Or maybe two lines of a maddening children’s song loop through her mind, ceaselessly.
And what of that look that just darkened her face? Could it mean that she’s just thought of her mother, who is ill, or did she just realize that she can’t remember the last time a whole afternoon stretched out before her, with no one waiting at the end of it, expecting a meal or a basket of clean clothes, folded?
Maybe she feels, most days, as though she’s walking in sand, and too close to the tide line. Or, when she sees the shadow of a plane cross the road in front of her, it makes her ache. That trip to Charleston he promised, postponed. Again.
And now, that one raised eyebrow and a smile pulling at the corners of her mouth. Was it a memory, unbidden and random, of an approaching storm and her, standing fearless and rapt at the edge of a field, waiting five minutes longer than she should before running to the safety of the house? The thrill. She had forgotten. These days, she’s all good sense and get inside, there’s a thunderstorm warning. Fearful.
Or was it nothing more than the funny thing her teenager said in the car this morning, a rare light moment?
I enjoy guessing at the inner life of others, but the truth is I wouldn’t want to be in there, in the middle of another person’s thoughts, any more than I would want someone else picking over mine like goods on sale the day after Christmas. The guessing is the fun of it.
Still, beware next time you’re at that little coffee shop in your neighborhood. That woman you see pretending to read? She’s making up all kinds of stories about you. So do something interesting.