It’s a busy day at the office, I step out for lunch and I want to go someplace to relax for a bit. I see an empty seat in the window of the Starbucks across the street and I quickly cross to get there before anyone else. A woman is at the door, smoking. She moves aside and nonchalantly blows smoke into my face. I ignore her because my attention is called towards someone else moving in the direction of the seat in the window. She has a food tray in her hand. But instead of going to my seat, she sits down at a table with friends. This must be a different kind of Starbucks, I think, because I see many people with food trays. I finally get to the empty chair at the window. I look outside at the people on the street – walking, talking, smoking, waving, rushing. Different kinds of cars, buses. People of all shapes, sizes and ages, well dressed and working class. This is a nice, restful perch and I finally let out a sigh and relax.
Something feels oddly familiar. I’m not sure what it is. Then I remember – I often did this as a boy, looking out from my window in the suburb of Mumbai where I grew up, counting cars as they passed by – a counting game to pass the time. I’d get lost in it, a world I could escape into whenever I wanted. I’d count the taxis that went by. Let’s see if twenty taxis will pass in the time it takes me to count to fifty. One, two, three, four, five…there’s another, then a long wait; I’ve counted to forty-eight and only eight taxis so far; maybe I’ll count to a hundred to get to twenty taxis. Sometimes counting to a hundred would get me there; other times I’d have to start all over again. I’d count black cars, gray cars, lumbering British relics from after the Second World War, the latest Japanese cars – usually bright red or blue, motorbikes. I rarely counted bicycles – not too many to make the game fun. People – Muslims, Hindus, Catholics, other religions, guessing at who were non-believers – the not-so-secular society I grew up in was loaded with rabid religiosity, the type that divided the world into believers and non-believers, and if you were so unfortunate as to be in the latter category, you were as disgustingly bad as homosexuals – a group of people born of Satan’s loins, and either pitied or feared. However, like homosexuals, and unlike priests of all Indian faiths, non-believers did not come with external markings – they probably still don’t, I think – and so they did not readily figure in my game. I counted women with babies, old people, teenagers, children, men with beards, bald men. I usually played the game on quiet evenings in the summer holidays, after all the other boys had gone home. I’d sit in the living room window, sticking my head out through the solid wooden columns which secured the metal grilles that prevented little children from climbing out for a one way visit to the great outdoors. The streetlights were not fully lit until later in the evening, so I had to peer carefully into the dark to pick out the subjects of my game. Many times pre-teen girls my age would pass by. Sometimes they’d look up at the boy in the window. I’d notice them but always looked away and pretend that I was captivated by some fascinating object in the distance. I’d wish I could talk to these girls or that they’d come up to me to talk, but at the onset of puberty, the childhood freedom I’d had interacting with the opposite sex was replaced by a nameless fear that for all practical purposes rendered me mute around girls. Talking about academics was easy, but verbal and visual paralysis set in when I tried to make small talk, or worse, combine small talk with eye contact. I sometimes did think up ways to get noticed though.
Marie was in my Sunday school religion class. She was the first real crush I had, if you didn’t count my third grade teacher. I spent many school periods lost in thought over her. And, to my credit, deftly avoided answering nosy questions from annoying siblings. I didn’t yet know how to put two social sentences together, though, which was a problem. But I knew how to run. So at the end of the religion class every Sunday, I’d walk out with everyone else and then break into a maddened sprint home, interrupted by leaps above tiny bushes in the churchyard, imaginary stones, and small puddles of water. I was convinced that Marie was impressed with my athletic ability, affirmed by the fact that on a couple of occasions she accepted the then popular brand of bubble gum I slipped her, very Don Juan like, when the teacher wasn’t looking. One day, on the way to school, I saw Marie on the other side of the street. It must have been my birthday or some special occasion, because my school uniform of short-sleeved white shirt and half-length battleship gray pants was complimented by 70s-style platform shoes that were all the rage at the time, and saved for special occasions. Foregoing articulate sound, I put my courage into my well-adorned feet and sprinted towards school. In the middle of that mighty dash, I was wondering if she had taken notice, if not of me running by, then at least of my impressive footwear. But I was too terrified to turn around and look back and let her know I was doing all that just for her benefit. I made it to school well in time, though I don’t think my efforts did much for Marie, because at the next Sunday school class, I saw that suddenly, out of nowhere, she had a boyfriend! I’m not sure how that made me feel, though I think I didn’t share any more bubblegum, and I probably found another fascinating girl to render me mute. Years later, when I was no longer religious and quite as terrified of young women, I saw Marie in the neighborhood and wondered what it was that had attracted me to her back then.
The background chatter of other patrons in the Starbucks pulls me out of my journey in time. I’ve been at Starbucks for more than twenty minutes now and I decide to step out and take a walk through Grand Central Station before I head back to work. A woman sees me getting up, and rushes towards my seat, food tray in hand. She has a napkin that says Alonzi. I look at the line by the counter, and most people have food trays, though a couple of them are holding coffee cups. Maybe Starbucks has teamed up with another company at this location. Or maybe this used to be a Starbucks – because I was sure I saw the sign outside. I decide to double-check on the way out. I look up – the sign says Alonzi. Starbucks is next door and has been for all the time I was sitting there. I’m not sure what to make of this, but I feel like I was in a time warp, traveling to an alternate reality that abruptly ceased to exist. I head to Grand Central, and I’m glad to see that it’s still there.
© 2013 Marlon de Souza. All rights reserved.