by T-net Quiring
Spending late afternoons seated on my usual spot in that café sipping my regular drip coffee, with my back hunched over some novel, was typically me. Imperceptible as my entire wardrobe – of white cotton tees and denim jeans – the only palpable detail to telling days apart from my boring lifestyle was the date and time fixed on the café’s surveillance camera, if they ever had one.
Every day was plain routine; nothing really astounding has ever broken into that. And if one day, something might actually have the potential to – like the café running out of dark roast beans (which was very unlikely) or my favorite spot being taken – I’d still have coffee, sullenly; hoping the following day would be back to normal.
She drove my salivary glands to abnormally overproduce the moment my fussy eyes caught her. She must be stunning. Just about the modeling build, she strode gracefully through the café, with a few heads turning her way. And my head too, pivoted to the same direction. Like a spotlight, my gaze cast at her from the counter until she had settled – on my usual spot.
I retreated, at the guise of the home improvement magazines calling my interest, before turning and settling (unusually gladly) on the adjacent table that afternoon.
Noticing a violin case resting beneath her table (my table), what abruptly came to mind was the powerful dynamics of this little piece of instrument. When I was little, I had hidden a collection of piano instrumentals in a thin compartment in my headboard, which I listen to mostly when I feel sad; the mostly played track being a very sad piano piece, and when a violin engages, that’s when I start to cry. For a strange reason, violins playing had a way of strumming my mood.
That very moment, the violin laid still in its case, but I could hear a cresendo engaging, louder and louder, like battle soundtrack. Or was it just my breathing.
Such beauty as violin girl on my favorite seat was the kind of disruption to my routine I’d gladly take any day.
It was probably in one of my library sessions in the university when I acquired a peculiar exercise of resting my eyes. I was close to two hours of toiling my optic nerves into devouring a two-inch-thick international trade book before realizing they required a recess. After rubbing them with my hands, I found myself staring blankly for ten seconds when my vision gradually wiped into a blur. The steel bookshelves, the mahogany tables, the bright fluorescents and the students walking along the polished floor gradually condensed into a piece of art. What a beautiful abstract masterpiece this is, I told myself, grinning. An attempt to prolong or overdo it though, made one’s eyes crossed. That’s why I perform that amusing habit as discreet as possible.
I realized I was doing the same thing at the café, with the girl on the adjacent table as the centerpiece. Her fair skin over the azure cloth she wore over her shoulders emitted radiance to the warm colors of wood that surrounded her.
With the peculiarity of my interest, and the discreetness it demanded, I learned to keep dignity in perfect shape. Through the powers of lightly tinted glasses, maintaining oblivion and peace to the surrounding was pretty effortless. I reached for my tote bag for a pair, blown the lint that clung on it and put them on casually, anticipating a longer encounter.
If she hadn’t gone to the restroom, I wouldn’t have noticed I was still at the very same page fifteen minutes earlier. Partially coiled at one corner, the poor emaciated piece of paper pleaded for salvation from my rather twitchy fingers.
After another fifteen minutes into my sighting moment, a deep brown shade obstructed out of the blue the whole scenery and, a trembling voice mumbling some spiel snapped me out of focus. Violin girl, somewhat disturbed though, willingly accommodated what seemed like a request and, after a minute or two, handed back a piece of paper and a pen to a service attendant in brown uniform. The bashful attendant thanked her, which she countered with a faint nod and a sophisticated smile. Quite disgusted and reasonably envious of the attendant’s audacity despite his palpable embarrassment, I inhaled intensely as if gathering an equal amount of courage.
Should I or should I not come up to her? With the plain thought of that however, did my heart pound as hard and blood raced up to my face, leaving what I would have imagined a slight rouge on both cheeks. Still, I knew myself better as well as my capabilities; and in this battleground, I have always feared the frontline.
And I wanted to put it (to some extent, if not completely) on my fifth grade teacher – the pious Ms. Rodriquez – who willingly gave me an uncalled for speech the whole recess one afternoon. I didn’t even get to have a bite from my sandwich when she came surveying the canteen. And when she caught sight of me, summoned me with a quick fierce look.
It was remarkable though how I didn’t recall a streak of anxiety or hesitation when I had handed a classmate – the very first girl I felt attracted to – a cluster of tiny yellow flowers which I myself picked from the school garden that had the sign “Do not pick the flowers.”
Nevertheless the word lesbian was plainly a word to me then. And out of sheer innocence, I did not even come close to the thought that maybe, just maybe, that could be well-associated to my actions. What was clear as day to me then was this – she had the cutest smile in class, and her hair smelled sweet.
Derisive enough, Ms. Rodriguez’ gargantuan concern was my “coarse upbringing,” and which she vehemently commented as “very inappropriate of a young woman.” She believed (as imperative as hearing mass every Sunday), that if I ought to shy away from my impulses, only then can I mature into a decent and refined lady just like every other normal girl. But I was not like every normal girl.
Ms. Rodriguez’ words – like tiny dandelion shafts – had fled into the air, to wilt very soon. But the girl’s reflexes – frightened by Ms. Rodriguez’ disdainful eyes, stomped on the flowers-hard until its yellow color had lost it to the grayish dry soil, and never spoke a word to me ever since – were its seeds that flew along with the shaft, to root itself into the ground to sprout into a thriving plant.
I surveyed the café. A bunch of service attendants in brown uniform, pompous middle-aged men in black suits who would come and go, yuppies like myself, buying time enjoying, far from the worries of mortgages and meager pay checks painted on the faces of parents among the pedestrians outside, dashing their way home managing grocery bags on both hands. Looking at everyone outside and inside the café, I realized Ms. Rodriguez was far from where I was.
But the truth was there could be other cynical individuals – other Ms. Rodriguezes of my adulthood. In the same manner, they would persistently persuade me (and to some extent, with a scathing force) to conform to the shape of some container, which I knew beforehand would not fit – and it was not hard to tell; I knew it since the fifth grade.
A decade and a half had gone and I have forgotten how to approach women; I had friends, but when there was one who would make me feel uneasy to be around with, one who would disturb the spontaneity of my thoughts, I would walk away.
I did not want any of those acquaintances culminating in disgust and hate, just as the very first girl in fifth grade. For that very reason, I became a runner, and a loser in the end, as always. I have not dared that side of the road again; its ambiguity and fragileness daunted me. For me, unfolding its intricacy was venturing a murky abyss, all the while risking the odds of never finding a way out. Out of pure logic and prudence, I learned the ways of loving them from afar.
It was the moist on my glasses that prompted me to take them off. After all, such beauty as violin girl merited a view from my bare eyes; and when I did, she met mine and smiled that sophisticated smile. My reflexes recuperated so slow at that enchanting encounter, that as soon as I managed a meek smile (which she surely missed), I did nothing but watch as she departed the café.
Suddenly, the sight of the familiar azure cloth lying on where she had sat caught my peripheral vision and seemingly promoted my recovery from her spell. On my attempt to run off and look for her, she was nowhere to be found; disappeared into the busy traffic outside the café.
Half an hour later, I hoped the service attendant in brown uniform was right about the information. I searched my pocket for the piece of paper where he had written the address, probing if it was not a mistake after all, and held the paper in mid-air beneath the establishment that read the same letters, only in a flickering light signage. Hesitant though, I entered the door and looked for an inconspicuous spot and tried to study the place.
Measuring up to my usual café, this one had a classier feel to it. And just because it was a jazz café and a semi-bar hybrid, people were rather in a mood for company, unlike my usual where people drank coffee individually. In the new place, there was no sense of urgency whatsoever in them – the politely cheerful attendants, the merry folks and the jazz music – and it seemed a pretty good time for everyone. I haven’t been to this side of the city before.
I figured she would have been a waitress here, for her to sign with this café’s address in that customer survey form earlier. But the waitresses’ faces didn’t look anything close. She wouldn’t be the manager though; she looked much younger than that, and pretty laid-back.
Fifteen minutes of searching the place with my eyes and there was not a single sign of violin girl. In the café this afternoon she wore a gray buttoned-down blouse and a pair of leggings which suited well her slender built, and which I could not find at all. I stood up, giving the place another search and if still no sign of violin girl, I would come home in grief, with a conclusion that if all these were some practical joke, it was either the service attendant in brown uniform or, violin girl who had put me into, well, indirectly.
Situated in a corner, I scanned the room in anxious determination (for the last time) from left to right, making sure I was not missing a head. After all, the place was meant for a hundred people or less. Just as the crowd gave an applause, a lady in a gray shimmering cocktail dress stood up from a table nearest the stage – violin girl – transformed from an immortal subject in one of my mind masterpieces, to this woman on a pedestal to whom everyone was expressing their admiration.
My search was over and that alone seemed to merit some contentment; but instead, it suddenly struck a deep sadness and frustration. Violin girl ascended to this pedestal which is profoundly hard for my reach.
Defeated and intimidated in every way possible (even more so, because in the café this afternoon, there already existed a thin glass wall in between of which I could not penetrate, and now this pedestal where she is mounted) I was determined to leave this very beautiful sight.
So there I was, walking away just like that. Though as she stroked the strings with her bow, the music it had created was insidiously captivating that it pulled me gently back to my seat. She played with such earnestness so that once again, the crowd and everything that surrounded her that moment melted into nothingness, as she and her music filled the entire room with their enchanting symphony.
Before she could finish her last piece, which was a beautiful jazz rendition of a familiar ballad, I motioned an attendant for a receipt. Even though the tea I ordered had gone cold untouched, I left more than twice the amount on my bill, on agreeable terms with a service attendant (again) – that was, to hand over something that was the violinist’s.
And I kept telling myself over and over before leaving that I ought to be content about the fact that even though I was not adequately bold to have asked for her and had personally returned the shawl, she would have been glad to have that thing back.
I almost had my feet on the rug outside the door when a high-pitched voice called my attention and I had to turn my head to validate.
“I haven’t got to say thanks?”
I felt my face flush and shook my head, bashful enough to be offered a drink, but then nodded repeatedly to retract my reply. My heart pounded the hardest and I couldn’t gather myself to believe she was sitting next to me drinking cocktails. The violin’s sound of battle was resonating in my ears.
On the sight of the shawl, then clung around both her elbows, did I reclaim my tongue to speak. I mentioned the survey form in the café and tried to be spontaneous as possible, though there was a slight tingle in my throat the way I spoke. My eyes avoided hers, not that there was some insincerity to what I was saying, but plainly because staring at her and at the same time grasping for words were not like those office work easy to manage multi-tasking on.
Concentrating on the cloth, I contemplated on how it might have been important to her or, that it might have been from someone important. After all, she seemed thrilled having it back.
Sensing the tension exuded by the unnaturalness in my loquacity, she lightheartedly took over. About the shawl, she admittedly told me that there was nothing special about it and that she bought it (cheaply) herself in a local store around the bend. And with that, I put on a sheepish grin – which she, jokingly, proposed a toast for (For my absurdness? Well I couldn’t care more, as long as we were sharing something, even as mundane as a toast).
Sitting face to face with her, I had the advantage of examining a beautiful spectacle at such close encounter. The longer I looked at her, the more I got used to, with less and less anxiety. She had prominent cheekbones, which added exuberance when she smiled or laughed over my ludicrous interests.
The lights were being dimmed, and other establishments had flipped their door signs that read “open.” Being with her was as gripping as a good book; you don’t realize how many minutes or hours had passed; you just continue reading on, all the while savoring the euphoric moments. And when it ends, there is a nostalgic desire to go back to the very first page.
Chairs were being turned over on the tables while a stocky lady was motioning the cleaner guy on our side of the room. The ostensibly prying lady suddenly reminded me of my neighbor in grade school.
It was one sunny afternoon when I came home with blood running down my knee and a series of scratches through one elbow. My neighbor, who always had the reputation of interfering with other people’s business, came through our door, calling out for my mother who had been working in the kitchen.
After I told Mama how I tripped from a rock and fell on a rough ground while catching grasshoppers, my neighbor babbled on disappointingly things such as why I wanted grasshoppers when all the other girls my age were contented in dressing up paper dolls inside the house. Applying antiseptic to my wounds, Mama patted on my head replying casually to my neighbor something about how she didn’t mind my interests being different, as long as they made me happy. Kidding aside, there was also a part where Mama told her about how I didn’t had a slight interest in joining the school band who gracefully marched in town parades in short skirts, so I wouldn’t really mind a pair of scarred legs.
The stocky lady in the bar motioned for the two of us to leave. But I never wanted to let her go. Even if Mama was not here anymore, her words reverberated from my head to my chest, as if lighting a torch of audacity, clearing out little voices telling me otherwise.
“I’ll be at the café same time tomorrow. I, I was wondering if maybe,” I fumbled “you would come.”
She shook her head and when she left, she put a smile on. At least I tried; and that alone entailed a lot of guts.
The following afternoon, I sat in my usual café, in my usual seat (though I couldn’t be sure whether that was comforting). I sipped on my regular drip coffee, partly thinking about her and how my second attempt to persuade a girl had ended, yet in vain.
I flipped open my book, where it took me to the coiled page from yesterday. As if trying to reverse the damage, I lightly pressed on the corner to flatten it back to its original form. But whenever I opened it, it would take me to the very same page. And I figured it would never be the same again.
After half an hour, I cupped my hands around my mug for the little warmth left of it. I tried to rest my eyes – my peculiar way – wishing it had the same power to recreate everything around me.
Just as everything started to melt away into the monotonous creation they were about to transform into, a vision of a girl with prominent cheekbones was getting clearer and clearer into the background. She carried what seemed like a violin case in one hand – and was smiling that sophisticated smile.
Editor’s Note on Violin Girl:
Violin Girl is not T-net Quiring’s first work to appear in Eastlit. Her previous published pieces are:
- Struck appeared in Eastlit July 2013.