Charles is sitting in a cafe window. I can see him through the reflections of clouds cast from above. He’s wearing a herring bone knit sweater over a cream colored button down shirt. He has grey flannel pants on and brown wingtip shoes. His light brown hair is long in front and short on the sides. It’s brushed over to one side in a rakish fashion. The red in his cheeks makes it look like he’s blushing but really that’s just his complexion. He’s smiling self consciously as he listens to his companion, a hand on his mug and his long legs crossed lazily. He looks both rapt and relaxed at once. Charles must be a good three inches taller than my six feet and he’s as skinny as a rake. I know this because I see him daily in the health food store where he works. He’s pretty much the friendliest person in the place, always calls me sir and has a smile. He makes me feel old. He must be no more than nineteen or twenty.
In the cafe he’s sitting across from Sebastienne, a girl he knows from school. Sebastienne is explaining something in depth to Charles, the look on her face suggests that she doesn’t believe he understands and also that she doesn’t know how to make herself understood. She has dark curly hair, a red wool coat and jeans on. She’s stunningly good looking and numerous patrons are staring at her sidelong, spilling the cream as they fix their coffee and tripping on the doormat, sodden from feet covered in brown snow. Sebastienne’s knapsack is hanging over the back of her chair, books threatening to spill out onto the wet floor. In her hands, on her lap she holds a tawny colored, nappy teddy bear. You can tell that the bear is old, an heirloom of some sort and it’s also obvious that Sebastienne always has her bear with her.
The cafe they’re sitting in is remarkable in it’s success. Remarkable because it is so unremarkable. It has large, lightly tinted windows encased in black anodized aluminum. They face onto a street which carries a great deal of traffic which slowly drools by. Next door is a laundromat and next to that a gas station. The cafe interior is without charm. It has cheap round tables and cheap uncomfortable chairs. The walls are unadorned but for a couple of travel bureau posters advertising Lebanon and Syria. The whole affair was thrown together in the eighties and hasn’t changed since. It’s greatest charm is it’s smell. It is odiferous of coffee. Strong coffee. In the back, the real reason for the cafe, they roast coffee beans. One merely has to enter the premises to get a caffeine fix, the scent is so strong. And so the place has developed a loyal clientele. I’ve gone in to get a coffee to go but I’ve never sat down and I’ve never understood why anyone would, unless you were a cousin of the owner. But that’s me.
“Luther, my cat, threw up all over my bath rug last night. I walked into the bathroom this morning and there was a big slimy hairball in front of the tub. I almost stepped in it. Aghh. It was so gross.”
“Do you think he’s sick, Baz? Maybe you should take him to the vet. How old is he?”
“No. He just has a bad diet. He licks himself all the time and he has such long hair...I tried feeding him hairball control food, but it made no difference. He gets sick at least, like, once a week.”
“He seems to know where not to get sick, though. Even though I’ll have like all my clothes all over the floor, after coming back from the laundry, he never pukes on them. I always think that he will but he always does it in the bathroom.”
Charles was noticing how every line she spoke sounded like a question. He was always noticing things about how people spoke. Accents, ticks, stutters.
“I think I might like to become a speech pathologist.”
“Really? And work with kids who have behavioral disorders and stuff like that. Wow. That would be so altruistic. I could never do that. My sister was dyslexic and she was such a pain. Cost my parents a mint to try and fix her. She was always yelling and breaking things. A real drama queen. And of course she was the favorite. Because she was fucked up. Squeaky wheel.”
“Well I was thinking I’d work with kids who had unusual speech impediments and, like, I don’t know, accents or something.”
They both started laughing, realizing how ridiculous Charles’ idea was.
“Oh yeah. Like a kid moves from England and your going to analyze his speech patterns and determine that, like, he come from England. I think you better stick with psych.”
“God I hate psych. Its all so boring. I wanted to learn about serial killers and stuff. I’m so sick of hearing about self-actualization. And Mr Berringer is such a creep. He’s always staring at the girls in class and asking them questions and making fun of the guys. Except for the jocks. He leaves them alone. What a creep. And that cheesy moustache he has to cover the scar on his lip. Do you think he had a cleft palate?”
“You should take an art history class. I really like it. You sit in class and and its dark and you look at pictures. It’s at Nine, so if you were out late you can just sleep through it.”
“Art. Who cares. I can’t believe they give classes in that. Lets analyze why this artist paints people with blue faces...because he’s color blind and has no talent. It’s all bullsh...”
Charles stopped talking when he noticed that Baz, who had her hand held against her temple as though leaning on it was extending a finger in and out, pointing at something, or someone, behind him. Charles turned to see Anthony standing right behind him, a wry smile on his face.
“How long have you been standing there?”
“Long enough to hear you, like, completely trash my way of life. I guess you didn’t learn anything when we were together. God, sometimes you’re so immature.”
“Oh, shut up. We were never together, Don’t flatter yourself. And I don’t think that by being in a first year art program you can call it a way of life. You’re a student.”
“Oh Charles. Like I always told you, the difference between knowing what you want and sitting around thinking about it is the thing that counts. I am what I do, Chas. I work. And you are what you do, dahling. You talk. See you two later. Love your teddy bear, Baz. I see you still haven’t washed him.”
“Yeah, whatever. Is he still standing behind me? ‘Cause I think I feel a hairball coming on.”
“No, he’s gone. Don’t you mind him, Ally. You don’t smell. You’re perfect.” Sebastienne was talking to her bear, which for the first time she had brought above her lap and now held in front of her on the table.
As I walked past the cafe and saw the bear through the window, one button eye barely hanging on to it’s woolen head, I thought how sad that bear looked. And I remembered a line from deep in the past; All is to no purpose, all the ways of men are to no purpose.