At the Cafe

A tall couple have no time to waste, pushing past me as I wait in front of the Wait to be Seated sign. He is tall and thin and of an age to have known post-war food rationing. She is blonde and looks like him, thin and sharp-nosed, and younger, possibly his daughter. When I am seated beside them, I see that she is in conversation with her cell phone. Facing her and the wall, he watches her talk into the gadget. Is he annoyed? Puzzled? She lifts her phone away from her face to say to him, “I’ll have cake. See what cakes they have.” He gets up and walks away to the front, to the bakery counter. Her call continues with the other person doing all the talking. He returns. Still standing, he lists the cakes down to her. She nods. He sits. She lifts her arm and magically the waiter appears. The cafe is crowded and I would expect to wait longer to order; I envy her arm gesture even as I know I would never do it. After we have ordered, she continues to ignore the man and gives her attention to her caller. I smile at the man. I believe I hear him mentally cursing the gadget and feeling anxious because they have so little time together and this is it and they haven’t even talked. When the food arrives, she doesn’t put her phone away. He forks off a piece of his strawberry tart. After he has chewed and swallowed, I ask him if it tastes good. The tables are close together, in a row. He smiles and says yes. And she shifts her conversation down, saying, “It’s been good talking to you, let’s catch up later” and that sort of thing. She hangs up and by way of apology, speaking even as she stabs at the tart, says “I just couldn’t get him off the phone.” She is halfway through her tart when she says to him, “Your memory is going. Sometimes you forget things. Like your pills. You take your pills, and then five minutes later you say I need to take my pills. That’s what we have to sort out.” I read on his face my astonishment that the first real bit of conversation she has with him is this. Private failings aired in public. Maybe she’s not his daughter, maybe she’s a caregiver. Or would the callousness be the other way around? He finishes his tart in silence. Before she has finished her tart, her arm goes up again. She is asking for the bill, he is gulping his coffee. She orders him to go to the loo. While she pays, she complains that her café au lait was too foamy. Then she gets up and paces in front of the door that leads to the washrooms. I consider whether I should tell her that there is an exit on the other side of the door, that he could escape. But here he comes, tall and straight-postured and dignified and silent. How does he do it?

©Debra Martens