The coffee shop was surprisingly full on the early Sunday morning, although downtown Toronto was deserted, windy, cold and forlorn.
It was raining lightly and the opposite view of the streetcars, high-rises and the harbor was engaging for a watcher in no hurry.
He was enjoying the coffee and the scene from his customary corner window, slightly away from the main serving area, a bit secluded alcove ideal for meditation that only regulars can do in public places.
He loved to sit and watch people. His way of unwinding, particularly on holidays.
An early riser, the Saturdays and Sundays brought no relief from a daily grind—empty home repelled; long day stared. Frustratingly on weekends, he woke up much earlier to his frustration and felt irritated and bored! The flat-mates slept as logs. He envied their sleep. His mind got hyper in the stillness of the early mornings. Wanted to escape. Quickly getting ready in casuals, he left home at 7:30 AM, took a bus and then wandered in the city, clicking the streetscapes, his Instagram-moments for the denizens of the virtual space.
This coffee house was a favourite.
Once every Saturday, last year, he dropped in there for a Latino girl managing the counter. She smiled pleasantly and he, on every visit, felt enchanted by her—and that special smile and twinkle in the eyes she reserved for certain guests.
Taking coffee in hand, he sat across her, watching her work the busy counter and the coffee machine.
Whenever their eyes met, she smiled at him.
A smile that always cheered a lonely heart.
He returned for that peculiar smile that radiated her dusky features. Afterwards, he increased the frequency and dropped in on weekdays as well, during the evening hours, occupying chairs near the counter. She came to welcome him with a nod and an encouraging smile that left him dazed, heart racing and mouth dry, legs weak. Before he could muster courage and approach her, he realized the abrupt loss: She had gone. Never seen again. He was devastated. Regretted the indecision of a 29-year-old man not sure of women and courtship rules. He continued to visit the shop, hoping against hope to catch her there.
Who knows she might return to claim arrears or to say a hello to friends?
Or, might run into her in an adjacent locality.
He recalled reading a story about a similar search by a smitten merchant who kept on visiting the alleys of Copenhagen for a gypsy maid, first seen selling fruits in the market square, subsequently lost and finally re-discovered, few years later, on the same spot by the relentless pursuer, following the dictates of a pining heart.
The ending was forgotten. That did not matter for him in anyway. What mattered most was the pilgrimage to that spot where a goddess once sat on a throne and converted a young man into a life-long devotee.
The story had stayed on as a haunting template—impossible can happen; rational is irrational, irrational, rational. Romance turns the dross into something unreal, magical.
With the passage of time, however, the grim realization that miracles hardly happen in real-time had begun denting the enthusiasm of a pursuit that came to seem more like a doomed business project rather than a profitable adventure of spirit in the Land of the Unknown and Romance.
Is the New Millennium anti-romance?
He was gradually becoming skeptic like most of his tribe.
An unknown person lost forever in a sea of strangers! Chances of re-union—nil, unless it is a fairy tale.
And fairy tales happen in the Disney World only.
Sometimes harshness of the world is difficult to accept.
He brooded over the short happiness of a nomadic existence.
A quick movement caught his attention.
Before he could realize, a silent figure materialized, partially blocking the beautiful landscape.
It was a female.
She had breezed in and plopped down on the chair, adjusting hair and goggles, in a casual way, her left hand rotating mechanically, right clutching an over-sized bag and a phone.
She seemed to be there—yet, not there. Hardly noticing anything.
He got disoriented by the unexpected appearance.
He could not help noticing another smile that conveyed lots of emotions at the same time.
He thought he was transported in a strange country.
As his glance reluctantly travelled back from the rain-kissed harbor to the interiors done in warm oranges and blues, it got locked simultaneously with her fleeting look. Both saw the other and as per the custom of the land, smiled officially, slowly realizing their common nationality.
“You from India?” He heard him inquire.
“Yeah.” She was curt. Most women are—first time meeting a male stranger.
“Me, too. What a coincidence!” He laughed.
She smiled. It lit up an oval face and brown eyes, restive.
“Sorry! You, newly arrived?” He again could not help asking her.
“Yeah. Sort of.” She said and withdrew into a protective shelf. He looked at her and then looked out of the window—at the empty street and a rain that had intensified in the intervening minutes—nursing the coffee in right hand, left fiddling the cell-phone.
A young inter-racial couple walked in— a white guy and a Chinese girl, hands linked, eyes smiling.
He felt abandoned.
Where is love?
The tone was pleading, soft; voice, cultured; accent, modulated and cultivated.
He came back to the ground zero.
She was looking at him innocently. Face, guileless.
“I did not mean to sound rude. Bit out of sync.” She explained.
He smiled, melting inside but did not show.
She strongly reminded him of Kitagawa Utamaro, in the profile, eyes beaming a certain melancholy that only the lovelorn young, sick or old possess.
“No problem. I am Rajesh.”
They shook hands. Formally. A handshake brief— brushing of fingers.
“I am from Mumbai. You?” He asked.
“You must be royalty.”
She laughed at the remark, flattered by the compliment. Her eyes lit up.
“No. Plebeian. But seen the royals often. Their palaces. Forts. Jaipur is steeped in history.” She said; voice tender, like the silver chimes of the temple bells, wafted on the breeze from a distant valley. The smile broadened the face with the saddest eyes, he thought.
“New here?” Rajesh asked, sipping coffee.
“Five months now.”
“On student visa?”
“Yeah.” Then her eyes showed sudden alarm—“Am I so transparent?”
“No. Not that. A fellow traveller. Or once I was. Know the symptoms.” Rajesh said and smiled. “Familiar with this species.”
She relaxed. “You working here?”
“Yes.” He replied.
“How is the country?”
“Good. A lot depends on us.”
“How we adapt. How we embrace the new. Integration is the key.”
He looked out of the window—a streetcar going down the tracks. The rain was whipping the harbor. A ferry could be seen in the misty background, bobbing on the gray-bluish waters.
“You waiting for someone?”
She got distracted by the question. Hesitated. Then blurted: “Yes, I am.” And then, involuntarily looked at the glass doors that swung open, admitting an elderly couple.
She looked longingly at the doors.
The day suddenly appeared gloomy.
At least, she has got somebody to wait for!
He exhaled. Then checked the messages in want of something better to do, while Sunita fiddled with her phone, tensed.
He wanted someone to talk to. Anybody, on this morning.
He took pity. The poor thing!
Who is that ungrateful bastard? Making this damsel wait?
He wanted to talk to her in earnest now.
“Should I bring coffee for you?” He carefully sounded friendly, not a flirt. Did not wish to put her off, when a rival was around the corner.
“No thanks. My friend is expected anytime.”
Her voice did not match her confident mood. It betrayed some hesitation, nervousness. A trace of a subtle fear as well.
He nodded in understanding the situation, the uncertainty. A heavy silence ensued. And a certain awkwardness that creeps in the communication gaps between strangers brought together by chance.
Rajesh wished for the rain to stop—and get out of the shop, before another competitor arrived to claim his trophy.
He felt lonesome. The familiar feeling of isolation returned like bile in the mouth. He wanted to go out and sit in the rain in order to avoid a possible reunion of lovers before him. No, he was not jealous. Rather he was frightened of his own loneliness and lack of true love in a happening and friendly city.
“Can I get some good job here?” She asked abruptly.
He returned to the present.
“Depends a lot on us.” He said enigmatically. She blinked. Then looked at his face.
He kept quiet. Avoiding a direct gaze into her depth-less eyes that reminded him of somebody in the distant Mumbai.
She smiled at him—a smile he could not pin down in words. Certain weariness characterized the lips that hinted at a smile. Yet, full of hope—against hopelessness of a typical-immigrant condition in an alien city of a million hopefuls, trying to carve out a better life, or realize such a promised life-style. Or, any life away from their hell—lived or imagined—in their countries of origin.
Migration were fascinating subjects. Economic migration in particular.
What makes a person leave their homelands for strange shores?
He could see mirrored on her face the frustration and joy of a classic immigrant or a migrant with nothing but a suitcase or two and some dreams. She was a recurring replica of such a roaming tribe. The universal stories of escape from a dismal, ill-governed land; of grit and fortitude; sacrifices and struggles; daily battles against stereotypes, labels, language and culture other than their own.
Survival was a daily challenge.
Like putting on masks.
A tough role!
A middle-class high-tech real warrior’s code and valiant efforts to alter given history; of transplanting roots in foreign soil.
She looked at him and held his gaze for a few minutes and then looked away, blushing suddenly. Maybe becoming aware of his presence—tall, gawky, bespectacled nerd full of warmth and openness.
She bent a sideways glance at him, almost involuntarily and caught him looking at her. Her blush deepened immediately, lending a rosy tint to her face, making her glow.
He got smitten again on that morning, lonely and wet. And smiled back at her.
She returned a smile that hooked him further.
Desperately, he wanted to have her as a companion.
What an ethereal smile!
Or, has his perception changed?
Then he remembered the wondrous line that has preoccupied him for long:
Never stop smiling not even when you’re sad, someone might fall in love with your smile.
Why did he remember it? Of all the lines, only this one? He had no clue. The odd statement—an epiphany kind of thing— surfaced suddenly in his mind and he connected with its strange truth.
“OK. I can suggest some good place…”
“Oh! So kind of you.” Her face lit up, eyes shed their original diffidence. And sparkled beneath the arched eyebrows—animated orbs framed by the black tresses on a sensitive face.
Her smile was infectious.
He smiled back. “Any experience?”
“Hmm. Typically student! Ha.”
“Yeah. No other opportunities available.”
“What you doing?”
“Masters in Science.”
She smiled. “Let me bring coffee.”
“Your friend not coming?”
“No. Now he won’t come now—for sure.”
The honesty came as a surprise! Her tone was a matter of fact, gaze fixed up at some far-off place, mind deciding fast.
“In fact, I do not think he will ever come now.” She opened up her heart—as if she wanted to share the hurt, the betrayal, the resultant bitterness with someone, even an utter outsider, in a coffee house, away from the prying eyes of the well-wishers. He nodded, feeling relieved by this development, the new turn of the story, in an odd way.
Kind of triumphant secretly.
She got up and walked to the gleaming counter managed by a young duo of African and Asian females; her gait bold and confident, head held high. Maybe the confession lifted a burden. She looked liberated and at ease with the changing world. When she returned, she looked different!
Sad but radiant. Firm.
A new woman walking back to her seat—and a new man in life!
“Coffee is better here.” She said. “And the ambiance.”
“You come here often?” He asked, more as an intimate friend now than an utter stranger at the beginning of the encounter.
“Whenever in downtown, yes, I do. And you?”
“Same. Generally, weekdays and Sundays. Love the place. Watch the people coming and going. Good time-pass. Take a stroll down the streets. Watch the lake waters. You do not feel overwhelmingly sad or lonely. Part of the crowd.”
She smiled. “All of us do a similar activity. The immigrants, especially, trying to make sense of the things, the change, the place. A whole community of the displaced professionals, in a mad search for enduring love, family and home. Waiting for Mr. or Ms. Right. It is the best way, coming out of your costly cages and rolling downtown Toronto—or any big city, for that matter.”
“Yes.” He agreed. “Professionals in quest of a floating community in a foreign locale. The best brains in search of the best democratic values taught to them by the system but denied at our first homes in the native lands. We are all dreamers and make the world a better place.”
After a pause, Rajesh asked, “What is your story?”
She said nothing. Then slowly looked up and quickly away, bit pensive by the recall of a past that maybe she wanted to forget—or so it seemed.
“If intrusive, please forget…”
“No, no. Nothing like that.”
He sipped and waited. Finally, she shared the brief details of a life, long-buried in some other part of the world. “Father died of cancer three years ago. Mother is a homemaker. The younger sister is studying in a college. Father wanted to send me abroad for further studies. I worked hard and saved money. Here I am, finally, fulfilling a dying man’s wish. A poor man who wanted to give the best to his daughters. The best future, not possible there. Gave me wings…” Her eyes welled up and the voice trailed off. A tear dropped down on the right cheek.
Rajesh was moved. He held her hands. She did not flinch. Tears were flowing fast. A dam was broken inside. Her slender body shook. His own eyes watered up, recalling the struggles of his own parents in Mumbai—their sacrifices, individual and collective.
He continued to clasp her small hands that registered each tremor that released pent-up frustration and layers of sadness coiled up for long inside a feeling heart. The sudden warmth emanating between the clasped hands further radiated their beings…and her face flushed a shade redder.
He knew the mood—being alone and lonely can mean a lot on an off day. You need somebody near you who can understand your peculiar solitude and emptiness and lack of family ties.
They sat like that for a long time, saying nothing. Just feeling the presence of the other in an unlikely scenario scripted by the conspiring destiny. The warmth, intimacy—unexpected—comforted both the seekers.
They sat and watched the rain outside.
Then she stood up, calm and composed, and took over the control, serene and confident. “Come on, Rajesh let us take a walk in the rain. It will be fun.”
It was more of a command than a request.
A completely startled Rajesh instinctively stood up and followed her into the rain outside, simultaneously remembering Garcia Marquez, on a Sunday morning that turned so dramatic and magical, in few minutes…
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
An intertextual work of fiction nodding towards Marquez and Cervantes and capturing the essence of human condition in foreign lands under the gaze of both the Masters. A rich tribute and an extension. On love and romance and their intertwined nature on display. Real and magical.
Sunil Sharma, a senior academic and author-critic-poet--freelance journalist, is from suburban Mumbai, India. He has published 22 books so far, some solo and some joint, on prose, poetry and criticism. He edits the the monthly bilingual journal Setu published from Pittsburgh, USA