He Sat Across From Me

An essay from Starbucks. Sit long enough and an essay comes along, I suppose. As I drafted this I thought about tense. I kept the conversation past but I use present tense at points. I like writing conversations in present – that’s why I decided to write this one in past, for the practice, and to see what it feels like after.


This young man sat across from me. He asked, as he pulled the chair from the table, and I nodded as he sat, folded and unfolded his arms across his chest, dropped his hands to his lap. He looked at me directly and said he liked my hair. He thought my hair was beautiful. My husband thinks my hair is beautiful. He tells me he loves the color. The day this young man sat across from me I wore my hair down. Maybe it can be beautiful. This young man introduced himself with an English name, Sean. I asked why he came over to me. 

You look interesting, he said, And a little – cute. 

On the table between us was my notebook and a novel I was reading and my iced latte. If Sean dipped his head he could have sipped from my straw. I moved the glass closer to me. I said thank you. Then I looked at him. Smooth skin, sparse whiskers at his chin and cheeks. A good haircut. Slender arms, tapered fingers. How old are you, I asked. 

How old do you think I am?
I’m not playing that game.
He told me he is over twenty. I said, Well, I am much older.
That doesn’t bother me. 

I rested my elbows on the table so he could see my rings and he nodded at my hand. What is the story of that ring, he asked.
The story is I’m married, I said.
He nodded. Are you a teacher here?
I nodded.
Where? At an international school?
Yes, at an international school. When I said the name of the school he knew it, knew people who went there. I asked about his schooling, what he was studying now.
What Trump learned before he became president.
I played nice. Business?
Sean nodded.
What kind of business are you interested in? Like, do you want to manage a business, start your own? What will you do?
I want to be like Elon Musk. I want to work with space travel.

He was disappointed when I told him he is the second young man in as many months here who has expressed interest in working with space travel. The first was a graduate I talked with about his future plans, for an alumni post on the school website. Sean, I wanted to say, get over it. A lot of boys want to build a rocket or fund a rocket or ride in a rocket. Sean, I wanted to say, I am being respectful to you but this whole conversation will go nowhere and you’ll walk away feeling a little dumb. Not because I make you feel dumb but because you’ll realize you just spun a fantasy into halting conversation. Sean, I wanted to say, I am not mean enough to tell you to fuck off.

Really, what were my plans for the fifteen minutes he sat across from me? I was midway through a dark thought. I had already regretted wearing eyeliner and mascara when I hadn’t brought a make-up bag for touch ups. Before Sean sat across from me I pulled a long breath through my nose and told myself not to cry, just get through the day without crying in public. Later, in bed with my husband, I said that if an older man had sat across from me, I might have been flattered. Instead I wondered if this was a joke, or a dare. The Starbucks was full of students, clustered around an open text or gossiping or snapping photos of their drinks. 

Sean rubbed his chin. It is only fair I ask you how old you are, he said, since you asked me.
I’m thirty-eight.
You don’t look thirty-eight.

I wanted to say, I feel thirty-eight. I do not feel twenty-nine or twenty-five, or any other elastic age. I feel very thirty-eight. I may be exactly halfway through my life, I wanted to say, or nearer to dead than that. But Sean did not betray surprise. He repeated that age did not matter to him. 

When I was twenty I started running again after a year or so of eating Chinese take out and drinking beer. One of my first runs was eight miles and I nearly threw up. I just made myself keep running around the lake eight loops. When I was twenty I was a double major in English and history, with a minor in writing, but I’d drop the history major two or three classes short, swapped for education methods courses. When I was twenty I started going to the Lincoln Hills juvenile correction facility to lead poetry writing workshops with troubled, criminal boys who were not allowed to say last names. When I was twenty I thought I would write poetry forever. 

I am writing poetry forever. I think how to write all of this, and before I string a sentence, I float in phrases and dashes, poetry enough.

I waited for Sean to decide our conversation was through. He asked how I liked it in Seoul. He asked what I thought of the culture. We talked about school. I said that I taught in South America and the Middle East before, and that people are people. I said I liked it here. We talked about the pressure people feel here, the students to earn a grade, the parents to raise whatever kind of child, the professional expectations. I wondered if Sean thought about failing at his space venture. I wondered if failure could be trend here. Fail forward. Fail fast, fail often. But I did not ask. I did not feel like extending our conversation. Instead I wanted to return to my own dark thought, or read the novel still open between Sean and me.

As abruptly as Sean sat down, he stood. He thanked me for my time. I said it was nice to meet him and wished him a good rest of the day. He took the stairs up and after his legs were gone from view I stared at the space he’d just been, the empty chair. I wanted to turn to ask the young women nearby did they see that, hear that? What was that? I was thinking about failure or flattery and couldn’t concentrate on the novel. The day was hot but I wasn’t out in it. When I was twenty there was a man at least ten years older than me. He smelled like cigarettes and read my poetry. We sat next to one another and if he ever guessed I wanted to taste the cigarettes on his tongue he was too kind to say.


Twenty-three of thirty-nine. 1111 words!

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