The late morning sun streaks through the glass doors, unobstructed by curtains or blinds. I just spent the better part of forty minutes in a subway car. I applaud whoever constructed the transportation system and commend them for figuring out the intricacies. The people behind transit overlooked something though. Each time I descend a flight of stairs underground, the stale and musty air attacks my nostrils. This stubborn odor numbs my sense of smell for the duration of the ride. Stepping out into the clean, fresh Toronto air is like a welcome embrace.
I’m at a café while my nose recovers from the unfortunate assault I face twice a day. I haven’t fallen in love with any other place on campus. The space can accommodate several patrons without feeling cramped. A low murmur is about as loud as it gets. The friendly ambiance transforms the place into a second home. At first, I thought I only ate here out of convenience or because I fear foreign environments. But that isn’t the case at all.
The artificial lighting inside is just right, not too dim and not too bright. I can see people clearly without having to shade my eyes from the light or squint because it’s too dark. On some tables sit a laptop or tablet. On others rest a smartphone. All these devices provide more illumination but mar the purpose of a café in the first place. People are interconnected via technology yet divided because of it.
A MacBook lights up the face of a girl with well-defined cheekbones. Her thin fingers dance over the keyboard. As her long nails strike a key, an audible and satisfying tap reaches my ears. I have to wonder if her ears are tuned into the sounds whirling around her. An older woman finishes her meal. She trades the piece of metal in her hand for a napkin. The clang of a fork meets an empty plate littered with crumbs. In my peripheral vision, I see a black blur. The legs of a chair scrape against the floor as a heavyset man moves to sit down.
Decked in black from a leather jacket to his dark washed jeans, the gentleman doesn’t plop down onto the chair like an exhausted kid would. Instead the older man takes his time. Despite his size, he moves with more grace than I could ever muster. Only when he reaches into his messenger bag do I notice that it is slung over his shoulder. The strap brushes his full beard as he goes to lift it over his head. Moments later, I study his hand holding the stylus like a pen. The device in his other hand is larger than most phones but too small to be a tablet. His face transforms into an image of concentration.
Another teenager with a fading tan sits across the room at another table. His tablet lies on one side. Sheets of paper sprawl in front of him. It seems as though both are vying for space on the square surface. The tablet stays on, notifications fighting to catch his eye. The dark pencil marks on the white paper jump off each page. He alternates between both mediums, his eyes flitting up and left at the screen, then down and right at the sheets. The boy keeps this rhythm going as if his body has been attuned to music only he can hear.
Further away, another student plugs into his laptop via earphones. He’s disconnected from the world around him and immersed in another. I only catch a fleeting glimpse as I pass by. The screen streams a video, scenes whiz by. Something only he can see elicits a grin from him. The corners of his dark eyes crinkle into half moons. His teeth remind me of clouds on a clear day. I wonder what he’s watching, but he is so absorbed in the fabricated world playing out in front of him that I avoid asking.
My eyes scan the room, landing on a brunette in the corner. An iPad perches precariously in her lap. Her neck is curved forward, her eyes downcast. She doesn’t touch the screen except to drag one finger across at regular intervals. The buzz of the café doesn’t seem to bother her. A group of friends gather on the other side of the room, ready to trade gossip. Still, she doesn’t look up to take in her surroundings or the people around her. The story woven between the words keeps her occupied. Her table is bare. The seats at her place are empty. It’s an open invitation, but no one accepts the offer.
Three girls and two guys huddle around two square tables pushed together. Two girls and one guy share the padded seats running along the curve of the wall. They exchange smiles and chuckles easily. I’m more than a little envious. The group remains mindful of other people in the room as they speak in hushed voices, but the friends aren’t distracted by any happenings in the café either. A girl with long, dark hair jumpstarts the conversation, all eyes turning towards her. The friends fixate their attention on her until she finishes. Even their bodies remain still. The two other girls don’t move a muscle except the ones in their mouth, the corners of their lips tugging upwards. The guys barely fidget. It’s like they are the only people in this room. I don’t know how all five of them can tune out everyone else and focus on each other, but nothing breaks the spell they’ve casted.
Three chairs form a triangular formation around another table that waits for its patrons. The plastic forks lie on top of each napkin, pointing forward. An elderly woman approaches the table first. She shrugs off her fur coat and drapes it across the chair. Her first instinct isn’t to reach into her purse or pull something out from the pocket of her jeans. It allows her eyes to soak in the real world like a sponge in water. I can only imagine what she sees that I don’t.
Two other ladies wait in the middle of the line. The woman on the right wears round-framed glasses with shaded lenses. Her curly gray hair covers the two earpieces of her glasses. Beside her stands a shorter, thinner lady. After they place their order, they wait again. The seniors never stare down or away, only at each other. When one woman ends her sentence, her friend begins another. I don’t think they ever cut the other person off. A younger female working at the café sets two trays down on the counter. The one wearing glasses goes for the tray with a plate of small sandwiches on it at the same time her friend takes the bowl of salad. The two women walk together at the same pace. Right foot first followed by the left. Eventually, they join the older woman at the table for three. My mind drifts, making up a story about how they all met. I shake my head to clear it. A part of their story is playing right out in front of me and I’m not paying full attention. The past is gone but the present is here.
At some point, I find myself looking down. It takes me a moment to realize I’m scanning the dashboard of my blog on a phone. My stomach feels uneasy as if I’m about to give a presentation in front of the class. I don’t feel like scrolling any further so I stand up, sling my bag over my shoulder, and walk out the café.
The late morning has shifted into the early afternoon. Something tells me it won’t rain today, which I’m grateful for. I feel the warmth of the sun’s rays splash across my cold face, and I immediately feel refreshed. My body starts to inhale the outside air like I’m just learning to breathe for the first time. Even though my head turns in the direction of the St. George subway station, I walk in the other direction. For some reason a smile plays on my lips.
I glance at my rose-gold watch, watching the tiny hand tick away. I still have another class, but I’m in no hurry. I have enough time to make a real connection with someone who could use it as much as I do.