Yesterday, my friend B and I were having a long talk at Chelsea’s Cafe Grumpy. Because it had just rained, we had the backyard to ourselves and were using that rare private outdoor space to discuss topics that basic NYC etiquette prevented us from inflicting upon others: healthy grieving, ethical dating, spiritually conscious fucking, the heteronormative construct known as marriage, the queasy fundamentalism known as atheism. We were going off. If you saw us through a window, you might have concluded we were on a date, and a good one at that. A man and a woman of roughly the same age, talking animatedly, not touching but paying close attention to each other. She in a sheath dress; he in a tweed jacket.
In the middle of our second coffee, a man poked his head into what by then felt like our turf. “Helen?” he called out tentatively and looked at me. Rather than shaking my head, I grinned, and he raised his eyebrows, mistaking my glee at not being Helen for interest. After a beat B began talking again, and the man—who was peaked but not bad-looking, with a lanky frame and a long, pale face that bore the scars of a rough adolescence—disappeared. A bit later, while standing on the bathroom line, I noticed him again, this time looming over a woman placing an order. She was wearing a brown shirt and what we used to call slacks when we were mocking our parents in the ’70s. The outfit was so drab that it took a minute to register her bright face and surprisingly good figure. “You have nothing that is dairy-free that also does not have nuts?” she was saying with a grave, almost scholarly precision as the barrista searched the pastry case.
As my friend and I were leaving, we passed the two of them hunched over a table, she speaking rapidly, he listening with a slight wince. His eyes locked with mine and you didn’t have to be a psychic to read the thought bubble over his head. (I’m not sure if you ever do.) For a minute I felt like saying something—Buddy, the only reason I look like more fun is because I’m not on a date—but instead I smiled again and received my friend’s kisses on the cheek—one, two—before peeling off by myself. I knew that, were we lovers, B’s European affectations might first strike me as wonderful and later as grating, much as my gap-toothed frankness might first intoxicate him and then hold him hostage. As friends, though, we had enjoyed a lovely afternoon. Pity the fool who ever coined as unnecessarily diminishing a phrase as just friends. The rain began again, and my smile widened. I was free to indulge in all the day’s romance—a woman and her umbrella, the wet city streets–with no mythology required. Except, perhaps, for this.