I’d be lying if I said I don’t notice him enter the restaurant. We all do. It’s impossible not to.
He isn’t drop-dead gorgeous or anything. In fact, I can’t describe a single trait I haven’t seen before. He’s not particularly tall, nor is he memorably short. His hair is messy in an intentional kind of way that makes you think he cares a little, but not too much. At the very least, he used to care and old habits die hard. He’s dressed similarly, casual, but uncomfortably so, like this is his one pair of jeans in a closet full of suits. Although really, his jeans are too expensive to count as jeans anyway. He hasn’t shaved in a couple days but it suits him and makes you pretty sure it’s an intentional look. No, it isn’t any of that.
It’s the way his eyes scan the café. The chairs, the walls, the ceiling. The way what should be a very confident young man cowers in the entrance, the cold air blowing in behind him, interrupting our breakfasts with his personal drama. Stan Hemford even mutters something about moving in or moving out, but I don’t worry about Stan. I can only stare at our intruder’s clenched fists and the way they mirror his set jaw. He’s here, but he doesn’t want to be.
And then, his eyes seem to find what he’s looking for.
I almost choke on my tea as he begins his approach, and my brain launches a frantic index of the last few years, trying to piece together why I’d have any role in this person’s life. Maybe he kind of looks familiar, but I don’t think I know him. He isn’t the type you’d forget so I believe myself. In a brief moment of absurdity I even consider the possibility that this is a real live hit. But he doesn’t look like a hit man, at least not what a girl who’s spent most of her life in a rural Pennsylvania town imagines a hit man to look like. He looks more like the guy who would hire the hit man. Actually, he looks like the actor who would play the guy who hires the hit man. A hit man? That’s my working theory? I swallow.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” he begins with an obvious accent, which is actually the first thing about the scene that doesn’t surprise me. Nothing about him fits here, at this place, in this moment. It’s all so foreign that, for a split second, I feel like I don’t fit either.
“Can I help you with something? You look lost.”
His eyes change again, filling with a heavy sadness. Fear, maybe. No, terror. I don’t move. Everyone is watching us.
He shakes his head. “I’m not lost. I was just hoping I could have your chair for a bit.”
“There are many others available.”
There’s one right across from me. I really don’t have a good reason not to move, nor can I imagine denying the simple request with him looking at me like that.
“Sure, no problem.”
I push my saucer across the table and stand with great ceremony. He stares at me in shock, maybe a hint of amusement, as I skirt around him and drop to the other side of the table.
“This ok?” I ask, and when his lips twist into a slight smile, something beautiful happens to his face. But it’s gone so quickly I actually feel sad.
“You’re very literal.”
“You’re the one who interrupted my breakfast.”
He nods but doesn’t apologize, and I suspect he suddenly forgets about me. He’s far away now. I watch his face as he studies the chair, his eyes tracing each detail. The chipped paint, the frayed fabric of the seat. He reaches out and touches it, tentatively at first, and his fingers caress the back, gliding over the bumps and cracks. I fight my instinct to say something, to interrupt the awkward encounter between this stranger and a piece of cheap diner furniture. The defensive humor slips to my tongue, but catches on my lips. Again, it’s his eyes. There’s something there. Something deep. Something shattered. I’m not even sure he’s here to sit.
After a long pause, he bites his lip and backs away.
“Thank you,” he mumbles before breaking for the door and disappearing with the same impact with which he arrived. The audience is glued again, and I hear Stan mumble something about punks and hippies.
I stare after the stranger as well, maybe even with a little regret that I hadn’t been more memorable. While it’s clear I’m not part of his life, I’m suddenly afraid this odd event will make him part of mine.
My server approaches with an apologetic smile.
“Sorry. I should have warned you.”
“Warned me?” I ask, still watching the door as if he’ll return and explain the mystery so it doesn’t explode into something that will haunt me after I leave.
“Yeah. It started on Monday. You haven’t been here since. Third day in a row. Same time. Same table.”
“What do you mean? What started?”
“What you just saw.”
“He comes in and stares at this chair?”
She shrugs. “Basically. Just stands here and looks at it. He touched it today. That was new, I guess. What are we gonna do, though, right? It’s not like he’s breaking any laws. Just acting weird is all. Can’t arrest a guy for being weird. Well, unless he’s naked, too. You think I’m kidding, but that happens. At least this one is just weird.”
Weird? That word seems dissonant to me. Part of me can’t help but wonder about the weird naked guy, but just a small part. The rest is still invested in our current, clothed weirdo. No, not a weirdo. The name just doesn’t work. I would need a lot of words to describe what I’d just witnessed in those brief seconds, but “weird” isn’t one I’d choose.
“He seemed so sad.”
“I don’t know. Maybe. We get all kinds in here. None of my business as long as he doesn’t disturb the guests. Sorry if he bothered you.”
“You want a refill?”
I nod and instinctively study the vacant chair across from me.
I never eat breakfast at Jemma’s two days in a row, but I knew the second I left yesterday that I’d be back. I’m not a nosy person by nature, but I am an observant one. And I certainly can’t ignore things the way a lot of people can. I sense I’m exposing myself to a world I might regret, but judging by the amount of time I’ve spent reviewing every detail of that strange encounter, I’m pretty sure I’m already stuck in it.