Okay, so the cafe isn’t quite empty. It’s got a few green-shirted workers sweeping the
floor and standing around balancing on their heels. But it’s almost empty.
A gray drizzle shadows the campus outside and a warm fire flickers nearby, giving the illusion of warmth. Most of the students have left for break or are elbow-deep in packing. I’m staying to work and reflect. It’s been a busy few weeks and I need to catch my breath, write my thesis, and sort out my post-graduation life.
A few thoughts swirl in my head. Last fall, I sat in this same cafe for 12 hours. It’s a campus-bound Starbucks with earthy colors and cozy chairs called La Verna, a place where time slips away unnoticed and people pass through like birds in migration. Grounded there for so long, I felt like a rock watching the seasons change.
My stint started when I grabbed a chai latte and started a New York Times at around 11:00 a.m. on a typical Friday. Crowds peaked at around 12:00 to 1:30, then gradually frittered away. The topography of tables shifted. Isolated islands gathered, surrounded by chairs. A few tables swallowed my own solitary post as I joined lunch with friends.
By 3:00, the cafe had emptied again. I started listening to music. The workers pushed the tables back in place. The day had that heavy 3 p.m. feeling–the slanted sun, the uncomfortable warmth, the sleepy eyes around me. A few strangers joined me, wondering what I was doing, but they never stayed long.
One of my friends came near dinner at 5:30 and joined. By now, my computer was dying, so we talked as the battery trickled down and more friends joined the table.
In time, they left too. By 8:00, only one friend who joined for dinner and I remined. I was tired, but something held me to the seat. I joked around.
“I’m going to write an existentialist drama about a man in a cafe,” I’d say.
The friend would smile, as he flipped through biochem flash cards.
“I’m doing research.”
In reality, I was scared to leave. I couldn’t face the world outside. I had work to do. Things were rough with my girlfriend. Most of my friends had graduated. I was depressed. My only refuge was a one-bed room on the other side of campus with books and my computer charger, a room which felt empty, even with me in it.
Once I left the cafe, I couldn’t hide any more.
So I stayed. The hours ticked by. I tried reading Plato, but I was too tired. The friend and I talked now and then. The hours started to creep along, slow and painful.
Near 11:00 p.m., my cell phone buzzed. “So, what’s this I hear about you being in a cafe for 12 hours? Is everything OK?” From my girlfriend.
I set the phone down. “Yes,” I sent back after a few minutes. She was in the same building, on the other side, in the basement. I didn’t want to see her. I din’t want to leave at all. But my computer was dead, my cell was dying, and I was exhausted.
The night looked cold, empty. But I had to leave. My friend kept pushing me. My girlfriend texted me.
I went outside. The night was cold. Dazed and tired from sitting for so long, I stumbled in the darkness. Each step I took brought me farther from the warmth, from the table I’d claimed for twelve hours. The problems came soon enough. My girlfriend was distant–she nodded in hello before leaving with friends–and I walked back to my empty room, staring at the ceiling until I fell asleep.
We broke up two days later. My councilor called the cafe a breakdown.
Since then, I’ve tried to piece together my life. Some life phases have clear borders, specific events that mark the territories. Last year was a boarder in itself, so thick and tangled I’m not sure where it bisects into other times. Instead, I know it from it’s tone: a gray, searching emptiness that has lingered until recently.
I keep coming back to it because it still has more to say. It’s become a reference point, an ocean that beats the banks of my new worldview, my new self. Somewhere, out on the waters, is the Brett who stayed in this cafe for twelve hours. I feel so detached from him, that my recollections are alien, unreal. Yet, I know I owe much to him.
He bore the journey that brought me here: the sleepless night I spent walking down a road to Kitty Hawk, the long, lonely hours watching a pine tree billow in the wind from my room, the psyche evaluation, the trips to the pharmacy for medication, the long lines at the soup kitchen in Kensington, the Zen monastery, the unsent letters taped to my desk, the children tugging at my shirtsleeves in Egypt, the hours spent dragging my suitcase around New York.
I’m back here, back in this cafe, but the boy I once knew is gone. He’s not at the tables, and I don’t feel him in my head. Everywhere I look, I only find his fingerprints. But as I look to the future, I hear his echo on the bay. I want to thank him and understand his journey. The echo is weak, the ocean wast and wild, so I strain.
It gives me hope. It still has a story to spill.