Talking to strangers
The other day, sitting in the sun-warm window of a cafe, reading Conrad's Heart of Darkness for the third time (made even better by having just finished The Secret Agent!), I met, or rather, encountered, as she neither introduced herself nor inquired the names of any of her listeners, the most exquisite older woman.
At the start, it was just she and I. I sat down in the window - so bright I needed to wear my sunglasses to be able to read with the sun's glare on my book - and she immediately followed, stooping to ask if the seat across from my table was taken. Being empty, she put a glove - black, well-stitched, neat and small, like the rest of her, as you'll see - across it, and went to fetch a bottle of water and her drink - something clear and effervescent, appropriately, perhaps Italian soda. She was moving from another table.
At first, she simply stared out the window, directly into the sun. I kept my book open, but actually watched her, glad I had kept my sunglasses on so that she wouldn't notice I stared. She was beautiful: clear, nearly translucent blue eyes, made more so by the light; clear, nearly taut skin; weightless waves of white hair floating impeccably-shaped around her face, but thinning so that I could see her pink scalp in many places; a perfectly-cut black blazer, black skirt, turquoise blouse & one of those old Victorian brooches, and a long necklace, actually a heart-shaped stone suspended by a black cord. Finally, black stockings, knit like lace, ending in small black shoes, neatly laced and tied in tight bows. She sat like a girl, bony knees knocked together, heels out; but hands clasped properly on her lap. She didn't touch her drink, but only stared out the window. I didn't touch my book, but only stared at her.
Finally, a middle-aged mother with a baby boy and a teenaged girl came in and sat. The woman's face immediately lit up at the sight of the boy, and she began asking the mother questions about him, deducing, for example, from his hand-knit sweater that he was obviously well-cared for. Then, she began to talk. "I had two of my own," she explained. Had? The verb struck me. I wondered if she had outlived them. And later: "When my husband passed" - I studied her white hair, such a sign of age, but her skin - still so smooth - she couldn't have been any older than her late 60s at the most. But what made her seem most tragic was her loneliness, that she would approach these strangers, not even pretend to simply stumble happily upon us, but that she would reach out to us so deliberately to talk about her family and her life.
Mostly, she talked about her grandmother, who was Irish and had 14 children. This was a conversation that I was left out of, but mostly, I was glad to listen. The mother next to me, though, was able to comment here and there. Her teenaged daughter smiled once or twice at her mom's allusions to her babyhood. As the woman talked, she drank, first the soda, and then the water. And as if it were an hourglass, her time to talk ran out with the liquid. Upon finishing the water, she put the bottle in the plastic soda cup: the conversation was over. She said her goodbyes and left the cafe. "She was sweet," the mother murmured to her daughter, who replied unintelligibly.
The woman, out on the street now, threw away the bottle & cup, and continued on. As she walked, I noticed that her stockings had one very round hole - not even a run - but one hole on the back of her leg where her skin showed - glowing white in the sun - through her otherwise perfect dress.
I think I liked her best for this.