The coffee house where she had agreed to meet the American was a semicircular building with a glass wall that curved alongside the triangular landing facing the street. The shop’s smart new-age owners had fenced in the space with some plants in pots connected by heavy metal chains. Previously, it had been a car dealership; hence the glass wall was meant to display various cars. Nowadays the place was known for its tasty scones, breads and upscale—that is expensive—varieties of international coffees.
It was a sunny, breezy day, and all the tiny round coffee tables placed outside for the occasional spell of warm weather were taken, occupied by Cambridge’s trendy crowd. The public that usually gathered here was varied, in a way it could be varied only here, near Central Square. Students and faculty from Harvard, MIT, and Radcliffe, people dressed in gay outfits, or the inverse: clothes intentionally bleak, as if faded or washed out, girls in long skirts and army boots. A lot of these boys and girls (even some of the middle-aged women) had tattoos or piercings: three or four earrings whimsically framing the rim of the ear. There were same-sex couples, small groups, lone customers, chatter and laughter—a fanciful medley of languages and styles. In the very heart of strictly conservative New England, even the air here poured into the lungs with an easy leisure of surprising freedom.
Marina had parked her car at the curb of the nearby grocery store, crossed the street, and walked along the semi-circular glass wall of the bakery. A group of young men sitting by the window caught her eye. Were they Lebanese or Pakistani? She kept on walking and passed them feeling their eyes on her back. The only table inside the bakery that wasn’t occupied stood right next to the glass wall or rather the huge window that was partially taken down due to the warm weather. Later, when she had ordered her coffee and sat down with her cup at the available table, her peripheral vision continued to register the group on the other side of the glass. That was when her face started to go numb or, maybe, she was turning into a stone, losing the feeling on her left side, the one that was nearest to the window—her temple, the left side of her face, her neck, her left shoulder, and then all the way down to her left foot with her frozen toes—in an appallingly swift fashion. The only thing that stood between her and them was this thick glass. Looking for distraction, Marina remembered to open her purse. She then took out her paperback with an angelic-looking woman on the cover. On the other side of the window, all sorts of cars were driving by. People were moving in and out, squeezing past her little table, looking for empty seats. She tried to read, but the printed words did not register. With a nervous sigh she moved her book away and turned around to look at the counter where some few people were standing in line. This one? No, not him. He’s just standing there, reading his newspaper. Next to him nestled a short young woman with surprisingly brightly colored green hair.
When Marina’s coffee was almost finished, she placed the book back in her purse. Yesterday, for almost forty minutes, she had been on the phone with her kind-of-friend or maybe just acquaintance, Jacob, discussing the complicated logistics of the American style of dating. He enthusiastically elaborated on the topic of first date, ruling out any possibility that you can go out for a dinner date right away. The person might think that you’re just interested in a free meal. They also talked about the miserable dating situation for men in this culture. Jacob felt that straight men were on a losing end. They discussed how you are supposed to dress when going out on a date. Marina was wearing her black jeans. She had pushed and squeezed, taking a long, long time. And the zipper, the zipper she had to fasten by pulling it all the way up while lying on her back. She was wearing a heavy raincoat. On top she had wrapped a shawl, twisting it around her shoulders; a woolen Russian shawl with tassels, a babushka that she had brought with her from Russia seven years ago. Looking at her reflection in the mirror that morning, she actually liked what she saw, even enjoyed the view. But now, in the bright light, in the midst of this urban crowd, the shawl seemed to emit the air of Russia, the misery of immigration, ghetto, even provincialism; as if she was some kind of character out of an old book, someone who just disembarked from a boat into American life, coming here straight from her remote shtetl.
He entered the café walking with a straddling gate like a veteran sailor; his dark curly mop was long overdue for a cut. His tweed jacket with its suede elbow patches was probably meant to denote some kind of spiritual freedom and a certain degree of intellectualism. Marina gasped and then held her breath—on his bare feet he wore sandals akin to flip-flops with ugly thick straps around his big toes.
First, he ordered his coffee, and then he looked around, spotted Marina, raised his bushy left brow and slightly nodded. According to Debbie, he worked as a programmer; he was divorced, divorced for many years now. She knew that he had two kids who lived with their mother in a different state; she also knew that his children came to Boston every summer to live with him for two or three months.
He said, “Hi there.”
Marina said, “Hello.”
He said, “Nice day.”
Marina nodded. He sat at the table across from her.
He said, “You look Russian.”
All of a sudden Marina was terribly annoyed. She untwisted her warm woolen scarf, unbuttoned the top button of her coat and asked:
“And now? Do I still look Russian to you now?”
He carefully looked her over, her haircut, her coat, her white face, and then said: “Now you look as if your mother came from Russia.”
But of course! “Your mother came from Russia!” Meaning, that she looks like a confused Russian country woman, a baba; that she doesn’t look like a Barbie doll, with her Vologodsky scarf, her brightly painted eyes, and her lonely immigrant’s thoughts.
“What does it matter? If I am Russian or if I am not Russian? … Why does it always matter?”
He didn’t say a word, and she kept her eyes down fixing it on her cold coffee that gleamed darkly in a generic white cup.
“… I am sorry. You have to excuse me … I didn’t want to … I didn’t mean, well … I’m not upset. It’s just … It’s not important, not important at all.
It is nice weather today, indeed.
He stated it positively, not excusing himself. He just dropped this sentence as if putting it on a table, “you’re right”.
“We, Americans, we’re so terribly ignorant. In Europe, people speak two, three languages; and we don’t even know English well. You, by the way, speak English beautifully. Really, my grandparents came from Russia … no, wait … I think my grandfather came from Lithuania.”
“From Lithuania? From what town?”
“I don’t even know. I guess that’s embarrassing that I know so little.”
Marina had an urgent need to ease the tension of this pointless conversation. She reached for her purse, turned to look at the people sitting nearby, and then looked toward the entrance. A very young person was just coming into the bakery. He had a bored expression on his face, which didn’t match the bright orange color of his hair. Was it a guy or a girl? What’s your problem, young man—if you’re man, why are you so unhappy? Since you’ve already done it, you’ve got to walk around happy if you’ve gone and died your hair that color. A girl whose figure resembled a number eight accompanied the guy-girl with orange hair. She was wearing a cropped, slim-fitted army-style jacket and her long beige shorts stopped just above her knees. Her legs, which protruded from shorts in a pillar-like fashion, were knobby and covered in dimples and veins. Marina shuddered. And she is walking around smiling like anything, as though it didn’t matter … And look at that—she even came with a guy. Or was it a girl? And here I am, sitting like an idiot, suffering.
“So, did you say that you have a daughter?” The torture went on and on. “How old is she?”
Boring, how boring, all of these, this talk of nothing. Sitting vis-à-vis, squinting because of the sunlight that’s pouring through the glass; leaning over the table—and staring intently at her with his dark eyes that seem simultaneously lazy and indifferent. Outside, it’s practically winter still. Just this past Wednesday, it was still snowing—and this guy is wearing these terrible sandals (she thought “slippers,” the way her mother might say) on his bare feet.
“So, how do you like this country?” he asked lazily, looking through the window.
Oh, well, grind out your tune; you are my music box, my lovely street organ. Couldn’t you make up something new, something not so … trite or … how do they say it here? Well-worn? Well-loved? And why do you always have to ask the same thing? Why can’t you figure out how to talk to us? Or, maybe, these Americans really are as obtuse as they say? As if America was a woman he’d slept with, and he is asking his buddy: Well, and what do you think, how does she seem to you? How was it for you? Not bad, huh?
“Country? The country is all right.”
“All right? That’s all? Everything is probably very different here. You had to learn a lot of new things, didn’t you? Since you came here, right?”
“Not just learn, but had to forget a lot as well.”
“Perhaps you are right. Can I offer you anything? Coffee? Did you have your coffee already? Maybe you would like something else? No? Nothing?”