This is an essay draft, the ideas from a late morning coffee. Verb tense is a small mess. I need to read the whole thing aloud to hear what I want it to sound like. This next school year will very likely be our last in the Middle East and lately I’ve been feeling more afraid than hopeful for change. Also, this summer I’ve been seeing pregnant women, babies and toddler every third step and that’s turned over more thinking about my early motherhood, a time that remains lovely and difficult to remember. Anyway, there might be something to this start. I’ll find out if I go back to it in a month or two.
The online reviewers give Kleines Café 4.3 stars. There’s a note about Kleines being a café locals go to and a picture of a latte in a clear mug so you can see the band of espresso between the whole milk on bottom and the frothed milk on top. That was the latte I ordered after finding the place a couple of blocks off Stephansplatz. I navigated what looks like easy turns following the blue dot on Google maps and then, even with the café in front of me saying Kleines Café with two doors open to its small rooms, I looked at the map and saw the pin dropped maybe fifty meters further and wondered if there were two Kleines Cafes in the same block. Be where you are, I told myself, and stepped into an alcove of a dining room.
I was going to write. When you go somewhere to write, be a little picky about where you sit. I like to sit at the side or back of a room but not with my back to others because the pause between thoughts or paragraphs is a good time to see what people are like. There really isn’t a back or side at Kleines. You go in and you’re in the middle of the whole room wherever you sit. Cracked, cigarette scarred vinyl upholstered benches line either side of the room. A bar with three wood backed swivel stools is where the waiter double checks orders before carrying trays out to the patio tables where most patrons sit. I could have sat outside but the tables and chairs are wood slatted with spindly metal legs standing on cobblestone. I don’t like to write at a wobbly table. I sat near the door at a marble topped table with enough space for my latte, water and notebook if I set the sugar, salt and pepper and ashtray on a chair. There were two more tables on my side and then a few steps down to the toilets and a narrow hall opening to a second room. I don’t know what’s in that second room. Maybe another bar. The kitchen has to be back there somewhere too.
I ordered a latte and opened my notebook. All morning I’d thought about the regret I have, for a couple of years when the kids were little and I wavered, insecure and angry but recognizing those currents and seeking security and peace in God. I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I’m enjoying my kids more now than when they were babies and sometimes I feel bad about that. Some of the new joy is attributable to relative ease of having school age children who tie their shoes, wipe their bottoms, read books and play Lego. And some of the joy stems from a shoot of security I root daily, that I am loved by God. Maybe it was my age or being a new mom, but when the kids were babies I looked at myself and saw this vein of pride that for years had pushed me to seek the approval of others.
Parenting is humbling. And parenting in a social media blitz of links and posts is devastating if you aren’t sure of your own purpose. Even if you are sure. So I opened my notebook to write more about this. I didn’t figure it out. Instead I sort of paralyzed myself playing a highlight reel of my approval seeking ventures.
My daughter strings together nonsensical lyrics, walks through the street pretending she’s a husky, wears polka dot socks with stubby blue leather boots and carries a smartphone made out of a Tic Tac box covered with stickers. I sat in Kleines Café thinking I can’t watch her lose any of that sureness. I thought of my mom too who was my age, thirty-five, when I was a sophomore in high school. What did she see when she watched me walk out the door wearing old corduroys I’d salvaged from St. Vinny’s thrift shop? Did she think I was making it okay? When I was fifteen I had a shell of superiority, not too different from armor most teenagers wear. Now, at thirty-five, I get a little nauseous at the thought like me because it’s a heavy chain to drag through all my places and relationships.
At the table next to me, two women shared the bench, knees touching. They ordered mélange and their cups arrived accompanied by glasses of water. I glanced at them, wondered what kind of old woman I’ll be. One of the women had dark brown dyed hair and wore red nubuk loafers. Her phone interrupted conversation with a siren ringtone. The two women were nearly finished with their coffees when a third arrived, said hello and sat at the table opposite. This woman wore a navy linen knee length dress and the way she sat I could see up her thigh. I wondered what my legs will look like when the skin goes crepe. This woman with shoulder length white silver hair, deep red polish on her nails, and a dress that rode up the thigh when she sat made me want to start wearing dresses. I almost asked her if she ever felt out of place anymore, if she worried her friends across the way hadn’t invited her to Kleines on purpose, if she worried how her legs looked.
When you sit in a café for long enough, even just an hour and a half, you see tables reconfigure. Where a young couple sat (the woman talking straight through eggs, toast, coffee, juice while the man made small noises and gestures to show he followed), now a single woman slouches on the bench next to her giant straw bag. I quit writing about slow change when this woman came in the door because she was so obviously what I might have been if I’d scraped money for a junior year abroad. First thing I recognized was the crippling desire to make clothes say you’re thinking about more important things like poetry. Like, you know I’m rich inside, unmined lines you want me to whisper in your ear, because I’m looking serious drinking a tiny espresso. At first I thought she was wearing an Indian tunic which would have nodded bohemian but she was dressed in small print plaid navy blue men’s pajamas, a pale violet silk scarf at her neck. This is why you look up from your notebook. Because people are interesting creatures. She was up to her elbows in that giant straw bag. She took out a dayplanner, flipped through its blank July pages, and then opened her phone, scrolling for things to add to the dayplanner. She did this for a few minutes.
I just bought a purple dayplanner last week. An eighteen month dayplanner. I bought it for two reasons. One, nostalgia for my old dayplanners that will tell you how many miles I ran June 2008 and times / duration my son breastfed in September 2010, as well as notes on hotels, school schedules, websites and recipes. Two, because it’s an eighteen month dayplanner and by the time I’m writing anything in the neat rectangles of December 2017, I’ll be living in a new country. So the purple dayplanner is a kind of wonder because I don’t know what I’ll be writing in those end pages.
I took a drink of latte and glanced at another woman now at the end of my same bench. She was dressed all black, loose wavy fabrics. She was fat, like an egg with legs. She chatted with the waiter and another woman who went down the narrow stairs to the hidden bar or kitchen. Mostly, this egg woman smoked, slow and steady, her exhalations drifting past me on their way out the door. I smoked two of her five or six cigarettes. But I looked at this woman and thought how nice to stop by the same café every day where the waiter knew you and changed your ashtray and said a few words when he was lining up drinks on a tray.
At this point I gave up entirely thinking about babies and mothering and regret. I wrote not much of anything except description. In high school I had this spiral notebook I labeled Observations and wrote the dumbest, snarkiest stuff in cramped print. Later I started writing vignettes of people and situations I saw, guessed at relationships from eavesdropping, hoping to chance upon a story, but a couple of years ago I adopted another writer’s prompt, Here and now I am… Here and now I am is a quick dive in your physical, mental or metaphorical state. Here and now I am sitting in Kleines Café drinking a latte made with full cream milk. The ceiling is the shade of Dijon in a glass jar. (I really love that image. I couldn’t think what other color to call it). The serious young woman was up to her elbows in her giant straw bag again and this time she took out a gold plastic bag of tobacco and a rolling paper. I watched her put the whole thing together – how much practice to lick and roll and keep the tobacco from peppering your lap? – light it with a match and take such a deep draw she might’ve finished half the cigarette at once. I didn’t care if I was staring. She didn’t glance my way and if she had, I would’ve smiled. And maybe asked about the men’s pajamas. She blew smoke out her nose, forcefully, so it went straight down her chest before wafting away.
When I was that young woman’s age, I remade myself a few times. If I’d gone to Europe for a semester abroad I might have worn men’s dress shirts to a nearby café on the whim I was an artist. Or I might have ended up with a regrettable tattoo, a literary quote that summed up a teeny tiny moment of my then sense of life. Or I might have gotten really, really depressed (as actually became my penchant) and not enjoyed a latte served in three stripes because I’d have been too sad noticing all the brass plates set into sidewalks to remind me three Jews were carted from this building to die in the Holocaust, and then I’d have been too sad thinking I had nothing in the world to be sad about but felt like shit anyway. Then I might have learned to roll my own cigarettes and bought a giant straw bag from a flea market. But I didn’t go to Europe or get a tattoo or roll my own cigarettes. Instead, faced with the prospect of going to Alaska for a summer, I called my mom who was busy raising babies, and then opened the Bible to a random verse that I took as the most passive instruction for decision making, reading “whether to the right or to the left…”
That snippet of a verse haunted me for years until I reread the chapter. The whole prophesy in context isn’t about going to Alaska or staying in Wisconsin to edit road surveys at the Department of Transportation for the summer, but that afternoon in my college dorm room, reading that I’d hear a voice saying “This is the way, walk in it” regardless my next step, I closed my Bible and looked at myself in the mirror and felt very alone. (This is why it’s a terrible idea to fortune cookie your way through the Bible. The verse I chanced on in Isaiah 30 refers to the promise of the Holy Spirit, a present help to believers). Staring at the veins in the marble tabletop at Kleines Café, thinking of my purple dayplanner with a wide open December 2017, I thought how afraid I am of moving to a new country. Rather, not afraid of a new country but terrified of how we choose (are chosen) where to go. I don’t want to be passive, like the girl I was weighing a summer in Alaska wishing her mom or the Bible would say go right or go left. In the end, I didn’t really make a decision about Alaska. I let the offer pass. I’ve thought about Alaska since, because I don’t know what my summer might have held if I’d gone that far north where I’d have worn bells on my morning runs, mornings lit up like noon. How many decisions have I not made like that, just letting the edges go blurry? When I think of my purple dayplanner, I want God to tell me: Go ___. I want to get still, quiet enough I hear. And listen, obey. Of course God will lead wherever we go because he’s a God who redeems. But I’ve given him plenty to redeem already and think it’d be so nice to go left because he says, not because left offers less resistance.
Just as the tables and chairs reconfigure during an hour and a half in a café, so too the mind. When my daughter complains she is bored I tell her boredom is a gift. But I also think of a friend who told me staying home with her infant was too much “navel gazing” time. I think that of my stretch in any café when I’ve got my notebook and pen but no assignment. I write about having a third baby to remedy lingering regret at not feeling ecstatically maternal with the first two or I write about wasting my writing on notebooks that may eventually horrify a reader (my daughter, snooping when she’s fifteen?) or I write about how I wake up in the middle of the night afraid I’ve walked right past where I’m supposed to be which is somewhere behind me now, to the right. And then I start to write about the other women in the café, the one wearing a blue linen dress that shows her papery thigh and the egg-shaped one smoking long cigarettes and the one wearing men’s pajamas. None of it makes me feel better, even the prayers that weave through my lines. I’m sitting in Kleine’s Café, rated 4.3 stars, with an empty cup and no conclusion. This is how it goes. When I leave the air feels good in my lungs. I have impatience in my body, like a tight muscle, and I don’t know what happens tomorrow or whether we turn right or left. I don’t know any of that yet.