Cafe at Night

I sit in the cafe, and fret. It is a beautiful cafe, full of young couples flirting and old men playing chess. The cafe is exactly what I had always thought a European cafe would be, with white tables and chairs pouring over the esplanade onto the sidewalk. I look at my watch. It's a few minutes past seven. Where is she?

I order another coffee. The coffee is very strong and good. She is supposed to be here by now. Is this the right place? I glance at the napkins. No, this is the cafe. Where is she? I look for her face in the passing crowd. The city here has a distinctive sound and rhythm, different from a city back home. A siren wails in the distance, and it sounds very foreign. I sip my coffee and start worrying again. Quarter past seven. I look for her face in the passing crowd, but she's not there.

I take out a pen and start drawing on a napkin, a bad habit of mine. I never draw anything important, just cartoons. People with stupid grins, and frogs. Sometimes I wish I could draw things, real things, instead of dumb cartoons. I write her name on the napkin, but I quickly draw over it, embarrassed. Where is she?

"How are you?"

She's here! I stand and we hug, briefly and awkwardly. We sit, and she orders a coffee. She apologizes for being late. I tell her that it's okay. She smiles, and arranges her things. On the street, a green cab swerves at the last possible moment, barely missing a pedestrian. Both the pedestrian and the driver scream curses at each other, but the cab doesn't even slow down. We look at each other and I laugh, but it sounds forced.

She looks so beautiful. It was her physical beauty that first drew me to her, over three years ago and an ocean away. It isn't an adolescent fantasy glamour: it is more subtle: every part of her seems to be the perfect complement of every other part. I notice she's looking at me, and I realize that I have been staring. I quickly look down into my coffee.

We start talking. She tells me that things at the university are going well for her, but that there is so much work there! I tell her life at my school is good, sometimes a little dull. We chat a little more, about our families and a few old friends. Her English isn't as sharp as when she left, three years ago. That's not too surprising, I suppose. I feel terrible that I know almost nothing of her language, and I tell her that. She tells me that that's okay, and that I shouldn't worry so much. She was always so good in languages, I have always envied her of that.

I ask her how the saxophone lessons are going. She laughs, and tells me that they are still going well, but that she doesn't practice enough. She played piano when she came to my high school, and she joined the jazz band there. That's really where we met. She was a classically trained pianist, and sometimes had trouble in ensemble jazz work. Our jazz band wasn't the greatest technically: what we lacked in substance, we very nearly made up for in style. The judges at competitions had always remarked on our energy on stage. When she returned to her own country, she started studying the saxophone.

We start talking about the year she spent at my high school. She came as a Senior in my junior year. We had a few mutual friends, both sax players, both in the band. We started talking during the breaks in the rehearsals. Later I received a small part in the high school's annual musical, and she was an extra. There was a lot of time when neither of us had to be onstage, and we talked then too. It was shortly after the jazz band's trip to Boston that she asked me to prom. I accepted. I realize that I have been talking too much, and that my throat has gotten very dry. I order a Coca Cola.

I tell her my theory of Coca Cola representing the very best and very worst of American culture, that only the U.S. could make such a wonderful drink and that only a country like the U.S. would want to. She laughs, and orders one for herself. A mother and her daughter walk past the cafe, in identical blue dresses. I smile as I watch her eyes follow them down the street. I think back to all the times she would point out little children playing, and how we would always stop and watch.

The summer following the close of school was a wonderful time. I was in love, and I think so was she. Our relationship was satisfying mentally, physically, and emotionally: it was the first romance I had ever had that was. It wasn't just a matter of being able to tell her anything, it was a matter of wanting to, also. We talk about that: we talk about many things. I tell her how I would drive past the house of the family she had spent most of the year with. She tells me of her father's new job. I describe changes in the high school. We talk for a long time.

We wrote consistently for two or three months after her departure. Then the number of letters from her dwindled, and the ones that did come dealt more and more with the mundane parts of her life. I feared then, and asked her if her feelings had changed. They had. It's getting later in the evening. The streetlights put everything in a strange, unearthly light. Her hair casts her face in shadow. I ask her about the letters. She looks down at the table, and then she meets my gaze. She places her hands on the table. "We said we were going to be realistic," she reminds me. "The last night I was there, in the restaurant."

"But didn't you have feelings for me back then?" I ask.

Of course she did. But our romance was never meant to survive that kind of distance. We both needed somebody who could be there, whom we could talk whenever we needed to. But still, my soul felt captured, and she was firmly on a pedestal in my mind, a great unrequited love. I have had relationships that were in most ways better than the one I had with her, more mature, more firmly ground in reality: and still I felt very deeply for her. She told me before that she was seeing someone: that she had started seeing him a few months after her return. I hope she is very happy with him, I swear to God I do, but I am afraid to ask.

"It is very late," she says.

She's right. The hours have passed quickly. The old chess players are gone, replaced by small groups of younger men and women. We settle with the waiter, and stand. We walk onto the sidewalk, slowly. She turns and faces me. She extends her hands, and I reach to take them. The air now has a nip to it, and she shivers slightly. We stand there and look at each other for a moment that echoes, silently. She looks so beautiful. We kiss, once, very gently. "Bye," she says. Reluctantly I let go. I watch her turn and walk down the dark sidewalk, not sure if I'll ever see her again.