Early this morning was lovely—clear, bright, and cool enough to merit a light sweater—so I kept wandering after I fetched my Americano. The old Italians were beatifically sipping espressos on their stoops; the neighborhood dogs seemed especially glad to be alive; even the Polish ladies managed thin smiles. It was so lovely that I felt unexpectedly melancholy about being on my own. No family with whom to somersault into the day, no strong arm through which to link my own. So I did what I always do when I feel blue: I wandered some more.
After a bit I stumbled upon a bagel place I’d never noticed before. As soon as I entered I knew it’d been a misstep. Junky mid-’90s music was blaring; the countermen looked like they’d gone from clubbing to schmearing with nary a wink of sleep. I ordered anyway. As a New Yorker, I consider it my civic responsibility to monitor all iterations of the city’s signature baked good.
Ahead of me in line stood an older couple who looked even more nonplussed than I felt. Both were clad head to toe in cheerful pastels that clashed boldly with their sour expressions, and the obvious care they’d taken with their clothing–neatly pressed and perfectly matched, right down to their socks–seemed obstinate rather than fastidious. Overall a fascinating fuck-you lurked in all that Sunday finery. When I leaned in to catch their conversation, though, they clammed right up, so I had to content myself with sneaking tiny looks at them as I inspected the shrilly tinted doughnuts on display. The man’s eyebrows and mustache were so bushy and grey they inhabited a century of their own, and she wore a pout so pronounced that the effect was more of a sulking bulldog than of the coquette she once might have been. Both sported the ornery bulk of people who weren’t going to modify their diets no matter how they’d been advised. I imagined they’d been together for at least 50 years, if only because they were too stubborn to part ways.
When they got to the register they found plenty to say. How could there be no hazelnut coffee? French vanilla was no substitute. Forget the coffee. Well, maybe just two small coffees with cream and sweet ‘n’ low. Only sugar? No sweetener at all, then. Oh, just one sugar. And make those large coffees. For Pete’s sake, that order of a dozen hot bagels meant freshly baked, not toasted. And scratch the coffee. It really doesn’t look very fresh. That was cream cheese, by the way, not butter. And an egg on the side, not an egg bagel!
Eventually they made their way to the door, muttering and clutching their bags of bagels and no coffee, thank you very much. The joint lightened up immediately upon their departure. “Wow,” I said aloud, and the cashier perked up with a small, shy smile. “I know, right?” He pushed my order at me and, when I pulled out my wallet, shook his head and rolled his eyes in his manager’s direction. Banging his head to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and scratching idly at a lottery card, the dude appeared oblivious to the world. I smiled too and mouthed a thank-you.
Outside, the couple was still bundling themselves into their 2013 Oldsmobile, gleaming and scratch-free. I could just imagine them fussing all the way out to Long Island: cursing the prices at the gas station and the traffic on the expressway; grousing that their grown son’s children didn’t appreciate the bagels they’d gone out of their way to fetch; incensed that there were no parking spots upon their return home. It would never end. I’d been visited by ghosts like them before, as cantankerous and nitpicky as they’d likely been when they were alive.
The ruin of Sundays past rushed right through me just then: the endless waiting on grownups who’d hijacked my day with their grownup agendas; the cacophony of our extended family’s brawls; the nattering of other kids (and, later, other adults) who wouldn’t let me read my book in peace and quiet.The mornings wasted while I tried to revive an already-dead romance or, worse, make chitchat with a lover who never should have spent the night. I shuddered: Memory can be the worst sort of time travel.
And then I breathed, which really is the best way to return to any given moment. The world was whirling all about me: the birds chirp-chirp-chirping their first conference of the day, the wind still gentle and young. I breathed again, and offered up gratitude for the only life I had, the life I’d chosen, really. It was a life that, though sometimes lonely, was still all mine to share when and only when I pleased. And then I wrote to you.