“Oof!” the lady couldn’t help but exhale as her body fell into the booth.
It was one of those long booths that ran the length of the wall of the coffee shop. The man was half-way down, but that only meant he was maybe two seats away from her, on the same side. His once-piping hot Americano still occupied a quarter of the paper cup in front of him. It had tasted good, of course, or as good as could be expected for overroasted, overpressed espresso and tap water. It was his habit, you see, to not to finish it. That quarter cup was the only thing allowing him to stay seated for a couple of hours.
There was once another fellow occupant of this line of booth, on the far side from where the lady just sat. The only artifacts of this lost occupant were an empty cup, a dangling tea bag flapping like a white flag, and three lonely napkins, unused except for having served their purpose as some token acknowledgement that *something* besides a cup of tea should be taken to the table.
The man frowned. He had wondered at the time if he should have slid all the way over once that seat was vacant, but he had sat in the middle, and such decisions always had such a finality about them, no matter how random their beginning. Now the comfort of old decisions meant the lady had no choice but to sit in a place just a little too close for normalcy.
Not that normalcy seemed too much of a concern for her. Her older, somewhat ample frame was draped by a flowing blouse with bold swatches of color, a close-up of technicolor giraffe. Her jewelry was equally as bold and generously round, with wide hoops for earrings, of course. Her hair was still desperately trying to be blonde rather than white, and curly rather than frizzy. Her eyes would certainly be bold enough on their own, but the heavy makeup made a point of reaching out to the world ahead of them.
Her coffee was the smallest available, still labeled as regular, of course, and loaded up with whipped cream and caramel sauce that had become the new definition of “coffee.” Her bag was also larger than necessary, but all of this seemed appropriate for a woman who was likely more comfortable with excess.
She protruded a thin, badly reddened smile toward the man in gratuitous hello, as if they would be in on a great secret, just for the two of them. The man’s smile was a bit more wan. His eyes, considerably more deadened, rolling as he did so. His only thought was “Crap.”
“Crappity-crap-crap,” he thought. “This lady’s going to want to talk to me, isn’t she? Can’t someone go to a public place any more in private?”
He tried to turn his attention to his Economist magazine. He liked to stare at the long columns of words and think about nothing, but he noticed her out of the corner of his eyes reaching into her bag and producing yet another,
like some weird Russian nesting doll or some new show called Housewife Magic.
She set the second bag on the table, then proceeded to set the table around her coffee with a bottle of water, a well-worn Dan Brown novel, earphones with no music player, and, naturally, some token napkins. There also was yet another bag, this one a flimsy white plastic shopping bag.
The lady caught the man staring at her cornucopia of cafe survival essentials then, impossibly, widened her eyes even more. She was indeed sharing a secret with the man, and opened the bag to reveal the sushi she had bought at the grocery store and smuggled inside. She flashed a “shush” with her forefinger in front of a blown kiss.
The man’s eyes said “whatever!” silently. And he snapped his magazine to attention.
The woman looked ahead, too, but leaned slightly to the left, toward the man. Clearly, he would be included in the conversation regardless of his silent protests.
“It’s made with brown rice. Really,” she made the implicit conversation more explicit. “And a bit of hummus, cucumber and red pepper, feta. Greek Sushi, can you believe it? I just *had* to try it of course.”
He forced his eyebrows to raise for a beat.
“I had a friend from work who was from Japan, you know. He brought some sushi for an office party one time? From the grocery store. I mean I *know* people don’t eat it for like every meal or something, or whatever he said, but I just thought it was kind of funny, you know?” She turned to look fully at that man, just to make sure she was clear for her next point: “Well, not *funny*-funny, I mean. You know.
“Anyway, I just say that because I know this has to be kind of wrong. I see a *lot* of cooking shows, though, and fusion is like *the* thing. I don’t think you can really be any kind of chef nowadays and not do something fusion.”
The man wondered why conversation had to happen to him, of all people. Maybe there was something about his face. If so, there would be something kind of hopelessly sad about that.
By this time, the woman had busied herself enough to open a sachet of aoli, herb and wasabi dressing for dipping. “Oh my,” she said. “This looks so healthy! Isn’t it weird that something can look healthy? I guess we can say that something looks ‘delicious,’ but you’re really just mixing up your senses, right?
“I try to eat healthy as much as I can, you know. Not that I started as young as I should have, but what can you do? Everything’s so importantly healthy, or maybe healthfully important, or whatever. It’s too hard to escape it.”
By this time, she managed to pop one of the one-inch oil-dipped faux-sushi rolls into her mouth. She chewed for just a few split seconds then flashed the man a surprised smile, hiding her lips like she needed to cover a quick chuckle. “Oh my gosh! It’s so *good!” she confided.
“It’s hard to think about food as food anymore, right? Just some weird combination of natural flavors with a bunch of vitamins and fibers and what not. It’s like you’re not making decisions about food on a daily basis, but about medicine.”
The man wondered if anyone else would be coming to this section of the cafe.
She went on, the bites of sushi doing little to stem the rising stream of consciousness. “I remember when French cooking was all the rage. Eggs, cream, beurre blancs… And pastries, naturally. God! What was food supposed to be then?” She leaned to the side again, answering her own question, “Cuisine as pleasure.”
She didn’t want to raise a sushi piece too high for the barista to see, but held it firmly as an example in the shadow of the plastic bag. “And this was supposed to be something elegant, right? Japanese food is so carefully presented– crafted, really. I mean, this is tasty,” she said as it too got popped into her wide maw, “but some people dedicate their whole lives to this kind of thing. Like art really. Food as aesthetic.”
“But hey, this had whole grain brown rice, and it’s all organic, too. My package told me it’s the best combination of cancer-fighting vitamins and low-fat, gluten-free, all-natural superfoods. You’d almost think it was farmed locally and all artisan, too.”
The man ruefully looked at the cooled coffee on the table in front of him. He thought it was Fair Trade, but wasn’t really paying attention at the register and really didn’t want to say anything about it anyway.
“If you haven’t been to the farmer’s market on Wednesday afternoons, you really *should.* And I’m not saying that because it’s the trendy thing or something. I really think you should. Whether it’s pastries or sushi or artisanny stuff up the wallapazoo you’ll find it there. Ohmygod I *love* the chilaquiles they have.”
He had to stop himself from asking what chilaquiles were.
“I guess what food really is,” she said, putting away the plastic, like she was trying to hide comic book from her Science teacher. “It’s a community. People at that market aren’t just giving you a piece of their wares, their giving you a piece of their world. And the place in the home that everyone gathers? The kitchen. It’s something that really binds us all, you know, food.”
She raised her whipped cream with coffee underbelly as a kind of cheers to welcome the man once more into her philosophy.
The man stuck out his lower lip and bulged his eyes slightly. Without a word, he threw back his quarter cup of coffee like a shot, for courage. He lifted his weight off the seat and exited, an empty cup a signal of his disagreement, or at least the punctuation to the end of the conversation.
Oblivious to the significance, the woman held her own cup with both hands and smiled as she regarded the whirls of cream before her.