Before work I’d stop at Grey Dog Cafe for iced coffee and a morning muffin sprinkled with blueberries that stained my fingers inky purple. There was never a good place to stand, but it was cozy and the line moved fast.
I was a regular who noticed the other regulars, especially the woman in the velvet technicolor blazer who wrote in a pencil on a yellow legal pad most every day. I imagined her to be a writer or maybe an award-winning therapist. She was single, I thought, and a very good aunt, one who sends you books in the mail, and slips you a $20 for a cab home after taking you to dinner at a really good Indian restaurant.
I lived so much in my head back then. I made up lively stories about the people pressed against me on the subway, the people in coffee shops, the people I passed on the street.
But my neighbors? Instead of meeting them, I scurried into my apartment each time I heard their palms press into their doorknobs. I lived in the same apartment in Astoria for five years, and I never met the people who shared my walls.
I should have knocked. I should have brought them brownies. I should have asked them for a book of matches or an egg.
But I never did those things. I stepped into the peaceful loneliness of my apartment at the end of each day; shut out the whole world so I could watch a never-ending loop of Law and Order: SVU. Made a pot of pasta or ordered in thai food. Fell asleep reading a book, cats curled up behind both knees.
Being alone felt like magic. I’d left a no-good relationship with a brilliant man who held himself in the lowest regard. We broke up because he refused to go to the doctor despite having a deep, unsettling pain in his gut for over a year.
“Chuck, I’m giving you six months. Go the doctor or we’re over. Please. I’m too young to be a sort-of widow,” I said.
On the final day of the sixth month I asked him if he’d made an appointment.
“Seriously? You’re asking me TODAY? I need more time, I’ll do it,” he said, red faced and furious that someone not related to him cared enough to want him to live.
Of course, he never went to the doctor. Of course, I had to leave.
Now here I was, alone with Benson and Stabler and my cats and the loneliness of it all settled on me like a dog’s thunder coat.
“I’ve got to get back home. You know, feed the cats,” I’d say, ducking out of happy hours and birthday parties earlier than most. I had excellent friends, beautiful co-workers, and together we had the kind of fun you have before life’s obligations start grinding you down. But I wanted to be back home, back to the safest place–inside my apartment, inside my head.
Inside my head that coffee shop woman, the writer or therapist with the legal pad and a bowl-sized mug of cappuccino, was a friend. Sometimes she’d smile at me. We’d make eye contact. She’d look appraisingly at my outfit, the green and blue snub-toed cowboy boots, the fluorescent pink hunter’s cap. Were we kindred spirits? Twenty years from now could I be living in Greenwich Village and working out of a bohemian coffee shop decorated with reclaimed wood and hand-painted tables, just like her?
There was a perfect fall morning. The sky was the color of a shack by the sea. The clouds ripe and soft. In my head I ran through a list of things I was grateful for–living alone in an apartment with yellow lemon walls, having a job that was very hard but always exciting, landing in a city like New York with all its wonderful weirdness.
The door was a little sticky that morning at the Grey Dog, and I had to push a little harder than usual to get inside. I remember smiling, the morning muffins looked especially excellent, my outfit looked especially cute. It was cardigan weather.
On the way out, I stopped to grab a straw and an extra napkin. Coffee shop woman stood up, headed my way, slipped a folded piece of paper into my hand.
She said nothing, but her eyes were so bright before she turned away to sit back in her seat.
My brain lit up like the Broadway marquee.
She wants to be friends! We’re going to be friends! The lady writer / therapist and I are going to be pals and do cool things and this is such a perfect NYC story—
I walked a block away, turned a corner. The paper, yellow and lined, of course. The message? The damn message.
“I got lap-band surgery and lost 75 pounds. You could do it too. Ask me about it.”
All the brightness in my brain fizzled out. Was she a writer or a therapist? I’d never find out.
After she slipped me that note I never went back to Grey Dog for coffee or morning muffins or anything. It was the scene of a crime, the scene of hopes dashed, and I started going to a coffee truck instead. The man slinging buttered rolls and cups of strong coffee called me beautiful and knew my name. If I looked sad, he slipped me a free jelly donut and told me it would be ok.
Rachel Kempster Barry is the author of several books on creativity and kindness.