“Come here often?” the young woman asked as she set her drink on the table. She could have been my granddaughter. Except my granddaughter wouldn’t dress like that. So scantily. So revealing. So cheap. The woman sat without an invitation. Brazen, aggressive women like her had always targeted me. They’d push their way into places where they didn’t belong. Coffee shops, newspaper stands, the street, a bus. A bar. Not sure why. They’d case the joint and pick me out of the crowd.
“Often? No. Not really,” I answered with suspicion. “When I need to, I guess.”
“And you need to?” she asked as she beamed a smile that winked “I get it.”
I didn’t answer. I avoided eye contact. I should have asked why she was there, but I knew the reason. Maybe not the details, but I knew the basic reason. Instead, I focused on the others around me. It was an older crowd, people who would avoid noisy places, like dance clubs. Their expressionless, empty faces mirrored my feelings of pained loneliness.
“The music’s nice here,” she said.
I listened for a moment. “Yeah. Nice.” It was unobtrusive background music, cool jazz, allowing for contemplation, personal space, hushed conversations, and distracting cellphone play.
“Jazz is sexy,” the woman said. “Don’t you think?” She smiled again…you know the kind…a flirty, seductive smile.
“Sexy? I suppose so.” I didn’t really think the music was sexy. Soothing would be an adjective I’d use. Calming. But she’d used that word on purpose. My evasive gaze wandered to the back wall and the long, mahogany counter, a barrier that separated patrons from personnel. A woman, Denise, worked behind the counter, administering comfort and caring as best she could. It was a narrow, cramped workspace, considering how much she moved around. Denise looked tired, as if she had been doing this for years, as if she were sick of tending to other people’s problems. She glanced up, peeking at the silent television mounted high in the opposite corner. My eyes followed hers.
CNN, muted, reported the news with bottom-of-the-screen tickers telling viewers about a virus outbreak on a cruise ship. I looked away, too preoccupied with my need for being there. Too preoccupied with the young woman near me whose purpose was clear; she wanted me to be her “friend,” if you get what I mean. Me or someone else. Anyone else.
Across the room, a man and woman peered into each other’s sad eyes. Near them a man, perhaps forty-five, tapped his toes to the music. Why doesn’t she hit on him?” I thought. He’s only old enough to be her father, not granddad like me. The man began drumming his fingers on the table, next to his drink. I laughed to myself. Well, maybe not him. He’s not tapping to the music; he’s tapping because he’s nervous.
I continued staring straight ahead, but I sneaked a peek at the young woman. Twenty-two, maybe twenty-five, I thought. Doesn’t she realize she doesn’t belong here? There’s no one else like her in the place. She sighed. A plea for attention, I told myself. She sighed again, but with more volume, even a hint of pain. Does she really think I’m interested or a possible sugar da…
The door swung open, like the slap of bad news. It startled me. A woman entered. She was about my age. Her face was gray, her expression sad. She, unlike the young woman, fit in. I could see why she was here. She looked around and approached Denise. I looked away. Their exchange was none of my business.
“It sure is hard,” my young neighbor said, “when life sucks and luck looks the other way.” Her voice rang with desperation.
It’s an act, I thought. She’s gonna ask for money, just like that. She’s done with the flirting, the sexual come-ons. I exhaled, blowing my anxiety across the room. A simple escape plan formed in my head. Get up. Move. I tried to stand. But I couldn’t. My knees were too weak. I sank into my seat, helpless, resigned to my lot in life.
“I don’t know how I ended up here,” the girl said, as she took a sip of her drink. “I had a whole different life planned.” She said something more, but it was interrupted by a sniffle, making most of her words unintelligible. But I heard her say, “my daughter.” And then she sniffled again.
Oh, shit, I thought. Now she’s pulling the old waterworks trick. And she’s got a child. Tug at my heartstrings, why don’t you? How manipulative. I looked at her. She was looking down, unaware of my gaze. Nope. Not gonna happen, I told myself. I forced myself to stand. I teetered across the room and turned around.
The girl stared at me, puzzled, as a door near Denise’s post opened. A kind-faced, middle-aged woman stepped out. “Mr. Garrett?” she asked, scanning the room.
“Yes,” I answered.
“The doctor will see you now.”
I stepped to the door and toward the oncologist’s office as the woman announced, “Hailey, you’re next.” There was a pause. “Are you OK?”
“No. I’m really scared, Loraine,” I heard the young woman say.
She’s next? I thought with surprise. I turned to reassess my impression of the girl and saw her crush her hospital cafeteria to-go coffee cup and toss it in the wastebasket in front of the end table that had separated us. “But I’m trying to be positive,” she added as the door closed.
I spun around, ashamed of my judgmental self, and faced the oncologist waiting in his office doorway.