Meetings: Three Characters Observed
1. He's wearing oxford lace-ups in black leather, and black socks, under frayed white pants and a shapeless pullover and a faded denim jacket, holding a legal pad crammed fat with stapled sheaves of paper - a professor, almost certainly, tenured and indifferent now to eccentricities. His wife left him seven years ago. He looks to his graduate students and tenderly unwraps baroque theory, historiography, builds clausal edifices and enunciates semicolons and thinks of himself as above such pedestrian emotions as regret. He shaves only rarely, but with a certain self-consciousness; he has tried and cannot manage a full beard.
He has a high voice, full lips, curly dark hair hidden underneath a footbaall cap. He affects an interest in professional athletics at cocktail parties, and to his students, pale and hatching into young academics. When they chide him, he clucks, "Not everything in life can be abstract, or intellectualized. You cannot discount the value of the physical, the tactile." He once seduced a student in this manner, a month after his wife left him.
He listens now on the subway, indulgently, to his female graduatee student relate to him the story of the man she is seeing, her fears that he is an alcoholic, the time he stilled whiskey-and-soda down her shirt on the sidewalk outside of a bar. He lit a cigarette and tried to give her one by way of apology. She worried he might set her on fire. She is wearing pink Chuck Taylors, which he finds both charming and contemptible, a little child-like for somebody her age, a little twee. She has a guileless lack of style. Her flaws charm him. Her unstable love life charms him. He thinks he cannot afford to get involved with a student, but there is no harm in listening, in being the voice of reason, in working out her problems for her. He chews his fingers in mock consternation. He speaks softly. The more hysterical she becomes, the softer he speaks.
2. She butters her toast delicately, like she is holding a paintbrush, and tosses her hair. She leans in while he points out something in the book she has propped on the narrow countertop of the café. She covers her mouth while she chews, pretending to brush away crumbs; her mother once said watching a woman chew was like watching a cow and its cud. While he speaks, she makes sure to look interested, to blink her eyes rapidly, to draw her shoulders back.
She is barely aware that she does this. She has forgotten completely her mother saying that it will be expected. She'd decided years before that her mother was a vain, shallow woman, that she had pushed parts of herself into the background for years until the only things left were a bright false smile, an almost imperceptible softness, the faint smell of martines. She'd felt that if she were to tap her mother there would be a hollow sound, that if she pushed too hard her mother might crack into fine shards of manicured glass. She resolved in high school to move away, to buy a shabby green coat, lose her virginity, pierce her naval.
She finds, now, no harm in flirting a little. She thinks, wouldn't it be easier to marry a rich man. She has become pretty without realizing it, and later that night she will regard her mother with a new and tempered understanding. She begins to understand the temptations.
3. He is exceedingly nervous, young, Vietnamese, in a white buttoon-down with thin stripes and jeans, hair carefully parted, alone and asking for a table for two. He feels as though he is being carried along on rails. He is rushing, his vision telescoped: the table is clear in front of him. The rest of the room recedes.
He sits, and forgets to the thank the hostess, and stares straight ahead, feeling as though he is traveling at great speed. He can barely catch a breath. The room to either side is a smear of color and movement. He remembers being little and on his first train, being walked to his seat by his mother, who flirted shamelessly with the conductor and was allowed to see him off, he remembers being left there and feeling as though he was sitting perfectly still and watching the world pull itself away from him. He remembers trying to catch a glimpse of his mother in the crowds and seeing nothing, and only hearing later what had happened.
He sists now in the small café chair, waiting for the woman he is to meet, the girl he knew, and feels again like that boy, feels again the world rushing by him, feels again helpless and abandoned by fate. He looks at his watch and gestures brusquely for tea and wonders what she will look like, wonders what he will look like to her.