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!

We Want Tone

This is me making use of an overheard conversation. I made up names (I didn’t know the names of the women anyway) and kept my notebook open as I wrote the following scene. I pulled a few direct quotes, but allowed the characters their own syntax too. This is the challenging part of fictionalizing overheard dialogue. You’re tempted to stick to the original, but straying allows better practice at writing dialogue. Combine characters, switch genders, cut chunks, add new lines, give verbal tics.

This exercise (scene? vignette? flash fiction?) prompted an idea. I want to see what happens when I remove the “___ says” and leave it largely to the reader to sort who says what. Can I write a piece that is only unattributed dialogue? I just want to see what it looks like. That said, the following is riddled with “___ says.”


Kelly leaves the gym she works at still dressed in the dark spandex tights and moisture-wicking shirt she put on that morning. She’s late to meet two prospective clients. They’re already at the coffee shop, sitting in the back. Jill nudges an iced latte across the table. “Skim, because I didn’t know what you preferred,” Jill says. Kelly shrugs, takes a drink. “Thank you.” She pulls her tablet from her tote bag and swipes the screen, opens a new note.

Jill and Abi

“I really need this,” says Jill, “I feel like a box after two kids. No waist. Look at this.” She half stands and runs her palms rib cage to hips. She sits and laughs. “Forty-eight kilos, but I want a waist again. I do crunches and I can see a little cut, but…”

“We want tone,” Abi says.

Kelly types Tone under their names. “Aside from your waist, any particular part of the body you want to tone?”

“I want a butt,” Jill says, “I used to dance. Watch me, when we start doing squats and lunges, my thighs will be like, so big. But I want a butt too. Like yours.”

Kelly has glutes. “Squats will give you a butt.”

“I have a butt,” Abi says, “And a belly.” She takes handfuls of her stomach rolls and laughs. “I’m mostly in this for health. Change, you know. She suggested it.”

“I really need a routine. I need to workout,” Jill says.


Kelly types. She looks up and smiles at each woman in turn. “I think I can help. We can meet two or three times a week. We will work with bodyweight movements and exercise first and progress to small weights.”

“How long is a session?” Abi asks.

“One hour.”

“I’m gonna die after ten minutes. Watch me, I’ll be like, begging to stop,” says Jill.

“You’ll be fine,” Kelly says.

“Do you do any nutritional consultation?” Abi asks.

“We can talk about food. Protein is important when you are exercising.”

“We saw your grilled chicken on Instagram,” Jill says.

“Yeah, we were looking you up. You eat really healthy,” says Abi.

Kelly isn’t surprised they looked her up. “I can give you a few recipes.”

“I love veg. Love love love veg,” Jill says, “Just so expensive here. I buy a lot of frozen. Steam it so the nutrients don’t leech.”

“I prefer raw,” Kelly says, “But, yeah, expensive. Especially organic.”

“Oh my God,” Jill says, “I bought a little tray of organic blueberries at Sultan and paid like twenty-three dollars. Not really, but at least eight or nine. Kids ate them like candy.”

“I can’t afford everything organic. Some things. I buy organic granola,” says Abi.

“I heard co-ops are good for produce,” Kelly says.

“Yes, totally. Go to co-ops,” Jill says.

“I started making green smoothies,” says Abi, “With kale.”

“Mmm,” says Kelly, “Good start to the day.”

“Great start. I eat a couple eggs too.”

“That’s good.”

“I thought egg was bad,” Jill says.

“No. Good,” says Kelly.

Jill laughs. “They’ll be bad again. I read that leeks can cause cancer. Everything is bad.”

“Except booze,” Abi says and the two friends laugh. “You should see her drink,” Abi says. Jill holds up her hands and says, “Guilty. Which is why we need you. I so need this.”

“Right,” says Kelly, “So let’s figure out what works for us. You need mats. I’ll set up a routine you can do with or without shoes.”

“Stinky feet!” Jill pokes Abi.

“It helps if we have room big enough to stretch your arms out side to side and not touch. I work with some clients who move their furniture for sessions. Is that okay?”

“Sure. Yeah. We need this. Look, I have no waist!” Jill half stands again. “I mean, I weigh forty-eight kilos and that means nothing if I’m not healthy.”

“Having a waist doesn’t mean you’re healthy,” Kelly says.

“So I get healthy and get a waist.”

“Sure, that can happen.”

“And a butt.”

“And a butt.”

“I just want to get in shape,” Abi says. She pulls her phone from her bag and opens the calendar. “I can do Saturdays.”

“Saturdays work,” Jill says, “And Mondays, I think.”

“What time?”

“Evening. Sevenish?”

Kelly types Nutrition. She checks her calendar. “Seven or seven-thirty works. You’ll go to bed tired.”

“I need more sleep. Maybe this will help,” Abi says.

“Probably will. Do you want a third session or just two?”

Jill and Abi look at one another. “I really need this,” Jill says. Abi shrugs. Jill looks at Kelly. “Can you squeeze a third in?”

“Wednesdays are open.”

“Okay. I’m so excited. You’ll see, my body just – muscle memory. I’m gonna die but I’ll look good.” Jill finishes her iced latte.

Kelly types Gonna Die. She closes her tablet, stands. Her shirt says Strong Is The New Sexy and Jill loves this. “I hadn’t even noticed,” Jill says, “I was looking at your arms and thinking how big your biceps are. Didn’t even read the shirt.”

“Hope for me,” Abi says.

Kelly smiles, holds up her empty coffee. “Thanks for this. I’ll see you ladies Saturday at seven.”

“Awesome. I’ll text directions,” Jill says.

“Awesome,” says Kelly.

Make Use

I went for coffee this afternoon, scanned the paper, and took out my notebook. One hour. That’s my usual writing rule when I’m at a coffee shop. Anything, but write it for one hour. I had a couple starts in the notebook but couldn’t think past the conversation three women were having at the next table.

This happens sometimes. Often, I can bury in my own head. But sometimes the next table over is worth transcribing. I write verbatim. I can’t catch everything, but I get enough. I write in list form, a new line for a new speaker. If you glanced at my notebook you might think I was drafting a poem.

I wanted to quit listening. I could have moved tables. But I sat there, hating the compulsion I felt to write this inane conversation about fitness and eating. They sucked down iced lattes and said organic every third word and wondered if leeks could give you cancer. They were meeting to sort out personal training: two of the women wanted the third to train them. “I really need this,” was a repeat phrase, as was, “I can eat anything and not gain weight. I’ve tried” from the most svelte who also said of her height and weight, “These numbers don’t mean anything if I’m not healthy.”

But those numbers meant enough she kept bringing them up. I thought I might point that out and ask if she’d swap shells with another woman present, all of us conventionally less pretty that her. I got judge-y. I thought maybe I should go, or at least quit writing it down.

But I couldn’t stop. They talked about Facebook, creeps at the gym, men who messaged them (the chunky friend doesn’t get this kind of harassment from strangers and the thinner one said, “You don’t want. It gets old”). They talked about bodies adapting to fasts, green smoothies, and the expense of raw vegetables. One of them admitted hating the little fat on her son and bemoaned the loss of a childhood like hers, when kids played outside until the streetlights came on. It was a ranging conversation dominated by the gorgeous woman with an inbox full of messages from gym creeps and finally circling back to how great it will be to start working out again.

They left. I looked over what I had. Two pages of lines pulled from a thirty minute conversation. I thought of Raymond Carver’s line: Make use.

Sunday Night

Make use of the things around you.
This light rain
Outside the window, for one.
This cigarette between my fingers,
These feet on the couch.
The faint sound of rock-and-roll,
The red Ferrari in my head.
The woman bumping
Drunkenly around in the kitchen . . .
Put it all in,
Make use.

I will, Raymond.