Carrying a box of greens, the owner nurses his cigarette. This is his last chance before the cafe will take him buzzing about bantering, putting his hands on shoulders, attending. The door only a dozen paces away, he splashes every possible moment with brooding paint before two of the moments walk in, long and denim. Their wearer is finally painting regularly, and not just as a hobby. It’s tiring, though, and he leans on the counter waiting for a cup of coffee. In the studio across the alley he’s painting a model today, or at least he’s trying to. He never could paint the subject itself, only fantasies brought on by the subject. His paintings are fantasies of women’s bodies, and intricate images of the kind of techno-biological horror found in late 90s computer games: green, slimy grotesques slithering inseparably with glinting machinery and electronics. More than anything else, he paints an unchanging sense of cool. Which, it can. It changes as she raises her eyebrows in appreciation of her friend’s appreciation. Her friend, she says, shows her how full of life the world is. She told her friend about her rock collection, which her friend knows nothing about, and it brought tears to her friend’s eyes. Her other friend, to whom she is telling this incident, smiles and shares in her appreciation of the appreciative friend. Late in their lives, the three of them have only newness ahead. Here everyone is given such second chances. By the window there are French lessons. She will never really learn, but they are trying. They try twice a week. The teacher enjoys trying. People work on their hobbies here, like this one I am now engaged in. Groups meet to speak Italian, Spanish, French, and to talk about the book they’re working on. One comes to feel like whatever one is doing is worth it. But anyway the appreciators are in Italy, in a love affair with food and a man, the same man. They are in Italy in color, not in black and white. They bask in its invariably honey-colored sunlight and stare into brown eyes while being pelted with red tomatoes from the audience, some of whom later pan the performance as more parasitic than parody. The playwright and director claims she has never read or seen Eat Pray Love, nor did she pay audience members to fling tomatoes at the actors. But despite the spotlight of the scandal, she approaches the counter with shyness, placing and replacing her feet on the floor, a nervous horse, or a dog. Really, either one. Well, not that it is any small matter. She has wondered all her life if she is a dog or a horse. Some tell her that only a dog would roll in carcasses and chase helplessly after small woodland creatures. Wanting to believe them, she does not say to these people how she also takes immense pleasure in chewing grass or how she whinnies when impatient. Instead she looks into their eyes and smiles while they tell her to stop angsting about this horse business and to begin living her life as a dog. Then she goes home to cry and to gorge herself on hay, feeling more than ever a horse. Of course, for the moment she is content with a hot chocolate with lots of whip cream. The barista obliges, staring at the Balinese mask on the wall as he steams the milk. The owner has, for no apparent financial purpose, created a cruel economy by having only one bathroom and placing the mask where it overlooks the room. Customers are thus powerfully induced to pee, believing it to be caused by their consumption of hot beverages, and form a fidgeting line at the bathroom door. However, there is a whole other room under a skylight, which lies outside the mask’s gaze. Unwatched, those in this other room watch each other. Long bouts of unbashful eye-contact accompany their goodbyes. They hug and they touch each other’s cheeks. The two will only cross paths this once. In years past one was the other’s savior, and, as all saviors, the time for her necessity passed. But the saved remains indebted, and not disingenuously. Today, given this rare opportunity to meet years after the fact, the saved searches her older savior’s eyes, wanting desperately for this to mean something, to engineer a memory. But it doesn’t take forever to stamp a document, and then the document is shunted from desk to desk, accumulating officiality before ending up in a filing cabinet where it might never be touched again. The document, accepting its fate, closes its lips tightly and shambles determinately back home, looking straight ahead.
The work of a cafe is against decay. One must sweep the leaves and dirt, one must clean the tables and dishes, and must keep things in order. But there are some things that can’t be done on a daily basis. This subterranean-feeling room was tacked on over the top of the bookstore. Its floor is the bookshop’s ceiling. Between them is a hidden layer of material being slowly weakened by the force of feet. Outside, the patio is rotting under puddles of rainwater. Eventually it will have to be torn out and replaced. We don’t see the detritus, but the patio surface where it collects. That’s where we stand.
There are other things about which nothing can be done. It could burn down one summer. The enormous Yellowstone volcano could erupt and cover everything in a deep layer of ash. The bookshop below could go out of business. And plenty of unimaginable circumstances.
The empty patio is covered in almond blossom petals dampened by the rain. Before they dry they’ll become a thin layer of pink sludge, and afterwards they’ll be swept away in anticipation of Spring crowds. In their place other blossoms will grow in baskets in front of the door, and in small pots on outdoor tables. In the summer, and for the rest rest of the year, nobody will think about how there were once almond blossoms. There will be no video footage of their petals being swept away for which people might weep. No, this happens. Every year they come back, and a year is not so long.
Unlike the petals, the dust of words can’t be cleaned off the ceiling and walls or vacuumed out of the carpet. Sitting in the armchairs speed-reading serious tomes makes a mess. How many phrases have tangled themselves on corners of the room where the eyes rest, have been dispersed by the sound of steaming milk, have ridden on scraps of overheard conversation, or have danced to the movements of bodies glimpsed just off the page?