It’s sort of a game I play:
inventing stories and lives for strangers I see.
It’s a little like trying to imagine
what it’s like living in a house you see,
but will never get to step inside.
All it takes is for them to have
an interesting face –
we read so much into faces
thinking they reflect a story.
Yet whose story do we read?
This game of mine is a trick
that saves me the discomfort that may come
in trying to break the ice
that we imagine separates us
from most of humanity.
It’s disheartening how such petty fears
can keep us isolated
and able to be indifferent
to the real lives and stories
we are too timid to learn.
At two o’clock it looked like the end of the world.
Black sky like a roof overhead,
lightning flickering at the edge of vision.
Two baristas and three customers, waiting.
I was the white haired one in the corner.
We must have looked like the painting
to anyone outside driving by,
except we were each at separate tables
enclosed in a capsule of light
surrounded by humid, looming darkness.
How typical that we were isolated,
each assessing the outside world
while carefully appearing to be unaware of each other.
This is not the land of casual openness
now reserved for avatars online.
“Angela” , as I named her, was in her thirties,
sold real estate, judging from the sign on her Beamer,
had a sturdy look of fitness about her
as she sat, legs crossed, papers in front of her.
There was a wedding band on her left hand.
Near the door sat “Frank, the writer”,
bulky and sweating,
loose clothes making him look larger and younger
as if he needed to grow into them.
His eyes edged warily around the room
and then peered outside, his coffee forgotten.
As the first large drops hit the pavement
the thunder got much louder.
People from other stores started running for their cars
while we sat there, suspended,
seeing each other reflected in the glass.
The rain got harder and began splashing in itself.
Angela checked her watch, several times.
I started imagining ways their lives might change
if Frank got up and shielded Angela from the rain,
and then he did it.
He said something to her as they walked,
and I saw how she paused
and really looked into his eyes for a second,
and then smiled and handed him a card.
Frank stood under his umbrella,
watching her drive away,
then walked across the street to a shoe store.
Could I have caused that?
I stared at the rain falling and thought:
It’s probably a coincidence, but
what if their lives have changed?
What might I have done to them?
It’s hard to explain the weird day I had today.
I have had dreams that made more sense.
Dave and I had cereal together as usual,
I went to work, made some phone calls,
then went for a workout before lunch.
When I got out of the club the sky looked creepy.
Almost like night, and eerily still,
as if something was waiting to happen.
I bought a juice and a sandwich,
looking at papers to fill the hour.
Just before time to meet my next client
thunder crashed and rain began to pelt down.
Three of us were trapped in the coffee shop:
A white-haired guy who kept peeking at me,
and a young, sweaty guy, who looked nervous.
I kept watching the storm, needing to leave,
but I knew I would be soaked if I did.
Then the young guy, who suddenly seemed calm
pulled an umbrella from behind his chair
signaling that he would walk me to my car.
This is when the world seemed to tilt.
I felt irrationally pleased and excited
as I walked toward the door he held open.
He radiated a gentle, warm sincerity
that caught my attention completely.
“I can’t say why, but I feel this moment
Is about to change our lives Angela”, he said.
And I felt it too, and I looked at him, smiling,
even though my name is Barbara.
I just handed him my card and drove away.
I thought “You never even asked his name!
You’ve been happily married for almost five years!
What can you be thinking?”
I found my client and sleepwalked through the day,
waiting for my phone to ring.
I started thinking of him as “Frank”,
Just to have a name to go with the face I still saw.
I felt like an arrow ready to release at a word,
yet sure that the direction would be right.
He called just as I was getting undressed.
All I can tell you is that I never talked like that before.
Everything seemed true, honest, and meaningful.
How can you connect so quickly with someone?
We told each other dreams we never knew we had.
And knew we would live them together.
I know Dave doesn’t understand it.
I had to be honest and tell him,
even if it doesn’t make sense to either of us.
I just know it is going to happen
and that I am going to be happy.
I can still remember the day that everything changed.
My life couldn’t have been at a lower point.
I was truly ready to end it all
and take the other people in that coffee shop with me
on that day that looked like the end of the world.
There was going to be a layoff at the shoe store.
I knew I would be the one. I always was.
I dropped things; I stepped on people’s feet;
I sweated too much; I bumped into chairs.
and they knew I had no family.
When I knew that no one would miss me
I decided that I would make them notice
when they heard about the gunman
who killed four innocent people and himself
in a thunderstorm one afternoon.
There were two baristas – a girl and a guy;
some old white-haired guy with a notebook;
and a dirty blond “Type A” woman fussing with papers.
The luck of the draw, I thought,
and they all drew short straws.
Then there was a loud crack of thunder.
I think we all held our breaths
waiting to see if anything would explode.
I saw the woman looking out at her car
and amazed myself by picking up my umbrella.
I was literally a different person at that moment.
I’ve never felt anything like it. I was so composed.
Words just came out of my mouth and she noticed me;
really looked into my eyes, and actually smiled at me.
She gave me a card and drove off.
I remember I called her “Angela”.
It became a joke in later years.
She thought I should be a “Frank”.
I used it in my pen name for the first book I wrote.
“Charlie” didn’t sound much like a writer’s name.
We got married a few months after her divorce was final.
Dave was good about it when he saw how it was.
We still see him a couple of times a year
when the book tours bring us nearby.
Barbara illustrates my books.
She started painting after our first phone call.
Never drew before in her life.
Museums all over the country show her work.
She got me started jogging.
Who ever would have believed that?
Often in the evenings we sit and talk
about the way our lives feel like a script
written by someone who knew who we should be
the day that it all changed
thirty-five years ago.