It was a rare, sun splashed morning in OB, the marine layer having retreated somewhere beyond the blue horizon.
And good riddance. I mean having spent twenty-two years in Las Vegas, I haven’t minded the cool, misty mornings, but when the misty mornings turn to misty, windy afternoons for days on end it eventually begins to wear on you.
A four-foot swell had the surfers out in force and the premium spots on the sand were filling rapidly with beachgoers out for a day of fanciful frolic: Families with enough gear to justify a week of camping; groups of young teenaged girls whose every movement was tracked with laser-like intensity by groups of teenaged boys; middle-aged couples lounging under the shade of artfully placed beach umbrellas taking in the unfolding drama with detached amusement.
My local coffee shop was packed with patrons, and while the demographic defied categorization there seemed to be an overarching and pervasive spirit of good humor and conviviality in the room.
Except, that is, for one couple.
They sat in stony silence, neither glancing at nor speaking to one another, their expressions reflective of people who didn’t really want to be together.
They were an odd pair.
SHE: Early thirties with ill-cut, shoulder length, drab, brown hair; large, blue eyes set off by a facial bone structure and clarity of complexion that could have easily been transformed into stunning beauty under the skilled hands of a makeover artist. A gray, below-the-knee shift, that seemed more suited to one forty years her senior, mostly obscured a trim and athletic figure.
HE: Fifty, with graying hair that fell in greasy strands to just below his jaw line; overly large, metal-rimmed glasses; mismatched shirt and slacks; sallow, pitted complexion with thin lips that did little to offset his rheumy, gray eyes.
She took a slow sip of her coffee, peered at the ceiling over the rim of the cup, decided that there was nothing there of interest and then looked back at down at the table.
Returning the cup carefully to its saucer, she began to arrange the items on her side of the table—spoon, sugar, creamer, water glass—all placed just so, then rearranged in seeming random order as if desperate for something to occupy her attention.
The man held a cell phone in front of his face in the manner of one whose vision has deteriorated to the point that even with corrective lenses reading is a challenge, laboriously tapping out what I assumed to be a text message.
I suddenly found myself caught by the woman’s eyes—a gaze uncommonly stark and unwavering in its focus.
I quickly looked away only to glance back a few seconds later to find that she was still staring.
I looked down at my computer screen.
Glanced up again.
Just when I began to get really uncomfortable, I suddenly realized that there was no challenge in her eyes. No seduction. No humor. No interest. Just…nothing.
She simply stared.
A bead of perspiration appeared on my forehead, succumbed to gravity and slowly moved downward, slipping past my nose and onto my cheek. I fought the urge to begin waving my hands in an effort to provoke a reaction.
Who were these people, anyway?
It didn’t seem plausible that they were man and wife, but neither was he old enough to be her father. Perhaps she was a younger sister, niece…personal assistant? For some reason I settled on the latter.
She flicked her eyes at the man briefly before returning to the object of her apparent fascination, i.e., me.
I mean, why me? Why not the guy seated at the table next to me? Was she trying to convey to me that I had something on my face, my head, my clothing that needed to be removed in order to save embarrassment? Did she find me attractive; hideous; enthralling?
In the end I dismissed all of the above as I realized that she was merely seeking some form of human contact, for it was abundantly clear that, whatever their relationship, she had none from the man seated across from her.
Without preamble the man abruptly stood, brushed a few crumbs off of his prominent belly, turned and headed for the door, pushing through it and walking purposefully toward a large, late model Mercedes leaving the young woman hastily scrambling to gather her things and hurry after.
Pausing just before exiting the store, she glanced briefly in my direction, the depth of despair in her eyes nearly palpable in its intensity.
Then, with head and eyes downcast, she trudged after the man as if walking through a field of quicksand, opened the driver’s door, climbed behind the wheel and drove away.
I stared after the car for a few seconds, pondering the significance of what I had just experienced, indeed, wondering if there was any significance at all or if the entire episode had been a mere random occurrence to be dismissed and quickly forgotten.
“Mate, do you know the password?” said a heavily accented voice off to my left.
Giving my head a quick shake, I replied, “I’m sorry?”
“The Internet. Do you know the password to get on the store’s Wi-Fi?” said a twenty-something Australian vagabond.
I gave it to him and discussed briefly how amazing it was to have nearly universal Internet connection before returning to my musing.
Ultimately, I decided that it wasn’t the girl’s stare that had left me in such a troubled state, but, rather, what I had seen in the depths of her eyes.
And while I will most likely never see her again, I will doubtless see others who struggle against the same soul stripping despondency—even in the midst of a busy, bustling, bright and blithesome coffee shop; individuals deserving of my compassion and attention.
“That’s not it, mate,” announced the Aussie.
“The password. It’s not bloody working.”
I wrote it out for him on a slip of paper and handed it across the divide between our tables.
He laughed, saying, “Well, then, that explains it. I heard you say something completely different.”
We talked for a few more minutes during which time I learned that he was visiting from Perth and was considering a move to San Diego to attend UCSD’s International House, home to approximately two-hundred-sixty students from more than thirty countries who live and learn together as a community.
Life was good. He, in fact, loved his life—loved everything about it. Wouldn’t trade with anyone.
He was filled with hope.
The girl was hollow.
The juxtaposition of two such disparate life trajectories was startling in its contrast.
And yet, it doesn’t require a great deal of effort to alter trajectory—ask any sharpshooter or archer.
I bid him a good day, closed my laptop and headed for my giant, red Kronan Swedish Army bike, which I’d left chained to a pole outside having lost all interest in novel writing for the moment.
The black Mercedes appeared in the periphery of my vision and then cruised slowly past; he driver’s side window rolled down and the girl gave me a funny little wave.
I waved back.
It transformed her face.
I pedaled slowly homeward.