Two strangers meet in a New York coffee shop.
The weather was cool for May, and the mid-morning sunshine that washed Thirty-Fourth Street was the most brilliant New York City had to offer. Martin ducked into the corner coffee shop as he did on most days. Three people queued in front of him. He glanced around the room for a seat. There was no need. It was an awkward time of day, and the neat rows of tables were filled with empty chairs. The Starbucks barista – Martin winced at the term – handed him his coffee, and he made his way to a place near one of the floor-to-ceiling windows that bracketed the shop on two sides.
Martin slung his jacket over his chair and he caught sight of a woman seated a few empty tables away. He thought she must have been buried in her laptop, as she was now, when he first scanned the room. He was sure she was younger, at least by a dozen years, probably more, perhaps in her late thirties, and strikingly familiar. Her hair was full, dark, and short enough to expose two gold button earrings that bookended sharp cheekbones and an aquiline nose, and luminous, hooded brown eyes set far apart. Her blouse was crisp, the small collar turned upwards; her skirt looked silky to him, comfortable, and near to her ankle in length. Martin was slow to lower himself into his chair.
The woman hit her fist lightly on the table next to her screen. “Merde!”
Martin watched her fiddle with the keys for a minute before he rose and walked to her. “Excuse me. May I help?” He gestured toward the keyboard, his coffee in hand. She hadn’t seen him approach. Tall, thin, well into his fifties, with close-cropped gray hair, he wore a starched blue shirt and neatly ironed trousers. She appeared startled at first, then quickly composed herself. Martin watched her assess him.
She leaned back. “All right.”
Martin glanced at the screen. The page was still loading, and he realized her frustrated key punching had slowed the response. “Just give it a minute. It’ll be fine.” They waited in silence, and moments later a law firm’s web site revealed itself. “There,” he said, pointing to the screen.
“Thank you. I’m too impatient,” she said.
He thought her smile pensive, maybe wistful. He pointed to the page. “Are you an attorney?”
“Oh, no, no. I need information.” She ran her finger along the address displayed at the top.
“I see.” He waited for a response. Nothing. He turned to walk back to his seat. “Litigious world,” he said, walking away.
“Not really. It’s about my husband.” She didn’t look up, but she said it clearly, her rising tone suggestive.
She hesitated. “Yes, they’re handling his will.”
Martin swung around. His coffee still in hand, he returned to her table. “I’m sorry. When?”
“Three months ago. There are still some things I need to take care of.” She jutted her lower lip and rested her chin on the heel of her hand. Her gold wedding band shimmered as it pressed against her cheek.
“Maybe I can help. I’m not a lawyer, but I did go through something similar a few years back.”
“Similar?” she asked. She had yet to look up, still scanning the page. “When?”
“When my wife passed away a few years ago. A car accident. Things were a mess for a while.”
She faced him now. “Oh, that’s terrible. How did it happen?”
He gestured at the open seat across from her. “Is it ok?” She nodded, and he placed his cup on the table before retrieving his jacket. When he returned, she extended her hand.
“Océane,” she said in perfect French.
She said something after that but he didn’t process the words. “Pardon me?”
“Oh say AHN.” She pronounced it slowly, a nasal twist to the last syllable.
“That’s a beautiful name.” He spoke away from her. “You’re French?”
“No. I’m American.” The woman paused and seemed to review her thoughts before she spoke again. “My father emigrated when he was very young, right after the war. I was born here, but he insisted we speak French in his house.”
He smiled. “Well, I’m Martin. New York, born and bred.”
She leaned forward and returned to their conversation. Her shirt was cuffed to the elbows, her long thin forearms rested on the table. She clasped her hands. “Your wife?”
“Yes, she was hit by a drunk driver. Middle of the afternoon. Ran a red light.”
“I’m terribly sorry.” She was quiet for a moment. “Were you married a long time?”
“Twenty-two years, but we knew each other since we were fourteen.”
She paused again. Martin thought her weighing her words. “When you think of her is she young or old?”
He liked the question. It was odd. He also liked that she was unfazed by her faux pas. Her question was direct, in much the same way his wife would have asked it. “I think of Karen the way I dream of her - differently, depending upon which point in our life together. Sometimes, she’s both middle-aged and a young woman.” He thought for a while. “I guess it depends on what I need from her in a given moment. But I feel guilty taking anything from her now.”
Océane inched forward. “Guilty?”
“Yes, Karen was always there. I loved her for that…but I took advantage of her kindness. I thought I would be able to repay it when we were older… when I had more time for her. I thought I would spoil her then.”
“Have you children?” she asked quietly.
“No. Not intentionally, it just didn’t work out that way.” His voice softened. “We just had each other,” he said. Only within the last year had he been able to reminisce with friends. The accident occurred on a Tuesday afternoon and he decided he would visit her grave at that time each week. He kept their car. He knew no one needed a car in Manhattan – too inconvenient, and much too expensive - but he held onto it for Tuesday’s, and his trips to the Queen’s cemetery. Most weeks he brought flowers.
“And your husband?”
She leaned back, and began slowly. “He was very ill, but only for a short time.” She took a breath, and then hesitated before continuing. “My husband never loved me. He loved his work - a writer. He always said he needed to create something, something beautiful, memorable. You see, he would craft the most amazing stories – works of art, painted words. But me, I was just there. Familiar, and dependable, I guess.” Her voice grew stronger. “And really stupid. Even toward the end, he would be more likely to ask for a pen and paper than ask for me.” She paused again. “I hated him for that. But I…”
Martin said nothing, and she continued.
“I asked him early on if he would rather people admire or enjoy his work. He told me he wanted readers to be enraptured, much the same way he was. I knew then the best I would ever place was second. But I was young, foolish; I thought he would change over time. But he didn’t. He just grew worse. His need for other’s approval was insatiable.” Her fingers pressed against her cheekbones. “My opinion never counted. We were together for fourteen years, but we were only married for the last nine months, after he got sick.” She looked directly at him. “You know, we never really get to choose whom we love.”
He remained silent. He measured her as her mood shifted.
“But Robert did like to dance and I …love to dance.” Océane closed her eyes. Her shoulders were square, a bit bony beneath her shirt. Martin thought there was a sway to them when she spoke. “Robert would take me dancing all the time. He told me it was the way that I expressed love, much in the same way he showed it through words. I think he was happiest with me when I danced with him.”
Martin noticed that her eye’s crinkled like Karen’s the few times she laughed. She went on at length, a slow, unexpected reveal of her life. Martin thought the experience comparable to the quiet thrill of lunching with an old flame. But her mood rarely lifted until Martin stood up and took his jacket from his chair. Putting it on, he then buttoned his coat in his most deliberate manner. Océane’s eyes narrowed, and her lips parted, but she said nothing. He walked around to her keyboard, and then began to punch the keys, searching for a song. He turned the volume to the limit, and “La Vie en Rose” began to blare. Heads popped, necks craned, chairs swiveled. There were more than a few glares. It was now past one o’clock, and every seat was filled. Martin glanced quickly at the rows, noting crossed legs, and strollers, and shopping bags, anything impeding their path. He threw back his shoulders and faced her squarely as she remained frozen in her seat. He tried to be as elegant as he could. “Would you care to dance?”
“You mean here? Now?”
“Yes. Now.” He kept his back arched, and held out his right hand to her.
She smiled a real smile, shook her head, and rose to meet him. “You’re crazy.”
He extended his left hand to provide a frame, and placed his right hand on the small of her back, finally appreciating the few dance lessons he had endured before calling it quits. He hoped he could keep up. She clasped his extended hand and placed her left hand behind his shoulder, and they began.
They danced slowly at first, having barely enough room to wend their way between tables. Martin did his best to keep his posture knowing he was never a good dancer. No matter. They began to glide around the room, the scowls of the customers slowly replaced by bemused looks, and then a collective effort to clear the aisles. Martin danced with her. He dipped and weaved her between the tables, at times twirling her effortlessly, and miraculously holding his frame. Smiling and laughing at the start of it, Océane grew serious, her gaze fixed and intent, and only inches away from his. The room grew much quieter, the plaintive strains of Edith Piaf resonating in support. The usual sidewalk traffic was siphoned off one by one as the number of noses and palm-hooded brows pressed against the tinted glass, eventually filling the windows.
They came to a halt in the middle of the room. Océane beamed a broad smile amid streaming tears as the song ended. The applause was loud, the New York mosaic erupting on cue with approving whoops and hollers. Behind them, the sidewalk was filled with upstretched hands. Martin bowed to her, his right arm bent across his waist, his left arm tucked behind him. He brushed a wisp of her hair as he leaned in to kiss her cheek.
She dabbed her eyes. “Thank you.” She barely mouthed the words.
Martin smiled. “Goodbye, Océane.” He turned and stepped away. He walked out into the sunlight and disappeared into the afternoon crowd. It was Tuesday afternoon.