Sunday, March 16, 2014

This In-Between Month, Day 28: Character Sketches

Later today I will take a train to New Orleans and fly early tomorrow to Miami and then on to Haiti, but for now I am sitting in this coffee shoppe watching people. Listening to their conversations. Learning, painting little character sketches, trying to understand what it is that makes people in a story believable. The way they interact with strangers, the cadence of their speech, their tics and superfluous movements. The way the boy in plaid stops moving his lips but doesn't lower his voice when he wants to tell his girlfriend a secret. As if lip-readers alone will use this private knowledge against him. Why would he do this? And why does the college guy sitting behind him hunch over his meal like he has done hard time in jail? Protecting his plate with one arm and keeping his face real low, real close to the plate so he can shovel the food in with his spoon. And the man with the rectangular glasses. He has nodded his head in agreement with every conversation at his table and yet not spoken up once. Is he this much of a people pleaser or is he plotting silently the whole time to financially defraud them all? His shirt would suggest as much. That shade of purple. 

But then there are the ones, enigmatic or odd, that capture my attention most.

For instance that man there. He barks when he laughs, like a dog with a cough, like a dog with a deep, rattling smoker's cough. And everything seems to make him laugh. The barista dropping a spoon. His tablemate mispronouncing a former soviet bloc country's name. Always barking his lung hacking laughter. I imagine he does it at the most inappropriate times. The priest with a lisp at his father's funeral, the sloshed champagne of solemn wedding toast. And always, always into a vacuum of silence, he alone finding hilarity in the most mundane of things.

Then, across the room, is this study in mismatched aztec prints who sits perched on her chair like a nervous little cat. The dog-cough laughter keeps making her jump. I imagine she is startled by shadows and sneezes on the subway. That she is always fumbling her keys in locks. "Sticky-tricky locks" she would say, half growl half whisper, never amused that so many doorknobs in so many diverse locations would for so long continue to conspire against her. 

Now they are in line, coffee refills we'll say. And she is fumbling again, through her wallet. She is apologetic, she is out of cash (a conspiracy!) and there is a five dollar minimum on credit transactions. He offers to pay but she declines. He insists and out of deference for the long line forming behind them she mumbles yes. He pays and she smiles gratefully. He smiles sheepishly. She blushes, but this full body sunburn blush and he smiles again, more confident, very warmly and it seems, to me anyway, their eyes hold a second too long. 

So I imagine their life together. 

They are married on a Friday, because Friday is a payday and Monday a holiday. Their house will be affordable. No other consideration will be made before its purchase. They'll move the left-over, left behind furniture from his first marriage and the emotionally neutral furniture from her last bad break-up into the two bedroom one bath fixer-upper. His western trade paperbacks will be placed next to her Faulkner and Hemingway and she will try her best to forgive him but it will keep her up nights. He will always, as if for sport, ask her grand hypotheticals, none that she can answer truthfully without betraying his fragile sense of loyalty. He will ask, "If you had one day left to live, who would you want to spend it with?" To which she will feel she must say, "You, honey."  But being a bad liar she might try and put him off with some non-answer, or some gentle bite back. She will of course spend it reading. He can be there too if he prefers. Instead she will say, "I love you". And they will both know she doesn't mean it, but for the first time, in a really, really long time, she'll wish she did. 
Yep. This is what I am doing when I am awkwardly staring at you in a coffee shoppe. I am living out your other possible lives for you. I just write it down, see what the characters might do, what they might say. And when there is someone or something deeply authentic or universally true in some new way, well I'll hold on to those things for some story sometime. Or it's all rubbish and I'll erase it but I will hopefully have learned a little more about human nature. And every once in a while I'll fall madly in love with someone's imaginary self, and then I'll send them away to some far off locale, and when they get back, if there are still sparks, well then I'll write whatever they say. 

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