[Editor's note: This is a continuation of yesterday's post from Julie Otsuka, which you can find here.]
Eight years ago, I was occasionally approached by smiling young men in the café asking me if I was Michiko, Yasuko, Fiona, and, once, Saskia. Today, eight years later, I am not so much approached by the smiling young men anymore. I have continued to age at regular eight-year intervals, while the young men have remained eternally young. Just the other day, however, one of them did come up to me and asked if I was Hannah Chang. I told him I was not. Sorry, sorry, he said, and then hurried away. I felt bad, as if, in some odd way, I had disappointed him. But then, when I saw the real Hannah Chang come striding through the door, I realized that I had not.
Eight years ago, I was boorishly propping up my foot on the chair opposite mine because I had sprained my ankle while rushing to meet the new boyfriend. Eight years later, the ankle has healed, the new boyfriend is long gone, and I am more careful about potholes when crossing the street.
Eight years ago, I did not know that in two years I would meet the man in this very café, in fact to whom I would dedicate my second book. He is rarely on time, so nowadays I find myself proceeding, quite happily, at a more leisurely pace. Because, really, what's the rush?
Eight years ago, my favorite time to come to the café was in the late afternoon, right after my mid-day swim. Now, eight years later, I am more of an early evening person. I have stopped swimming (sore shoulder) and now do my workout on land (better workout, but still, I miss the water). By the time I get to the café it is often 6:00 (just in time to hear the cathedral bells ringing) or 6:30 (last call for toast at the sandwich shop). The early evening and late afternoon crowds overlap, so most of the faces are familiar. And after coming here for 16-plus years, I do know most of the other regulars. Still, at the 50th anniversary celebration there were a number of faces I did not recognize. Who were these people, I wondered, and where had they come from? How could I not know who they were? The answer was simple. They were, it was explained to me, morning people. Of course. The morning people! Another parallel universe. And here I had thought we were the only ones.
Eight years ago, I wrote in longhand on loose sheets of white paper with a Waterman fountain pen given to me by my one of my brothers. Though I had become very attached to the Waterman (so perfectly weighted, such a beautiful object, such a pleasure to write with), because I am not always a clear and linear thinker I often found myself crossing out so many lines that the pages became unreadable. So now I write with a mechanical pencil (.5mm lead) and keep my Pink Pearl eraser ever at the ready. My thoughts still need constant tidying, but my pages are a little neater now. At least I can see what I've got. Still, along with the pool and the angels, I miss the Waterman.
Eight years ago, I saw, almost every day, my good friend, N., who was also working on a novel, and whose favorite seat happened to be the seat in front of mine. Over the years, I had practically memorized the back of his head. I knew when he got his hair cut. I knew when he bought a new sweater (winter) or T-shirt (summer). And I always liked knowing he was there. Now, eight years later, N. has published his novel, sold a second collection of stories, written a play, translated the Haggadah, and moved to Brooklyn, as all real writers these days, it seems, must, and the café does not feel quite the same. I miss him. The waitresses miss him. The other regulars miss him. And there is somebody new now sitting in his chair, typing away like a fiend.
Eight years ago, S. was also sitting in the back of the café, drinking tea and working on a novel. B. was sitting in the back of the café, eating chocolate lace cookies and working on a novel. Y. (almond horn) was working on a screenplay (zombies). Z. (coffee, black?), a biography. The humming ethnomusicologist was finishing his dissertation. The philosopher was philosophizing. The composer was composing. And the mathematician was quietly solving for x. Now, eight years later, S. has published her first novel and moved to Brooklyn. B. has published his first novel and moved to Brooklyn. Z. has won the Pulitzer Prize and moved to San Francisco. The screenwriter has sold a TV pilot and moved to L.A. (novelists go to Brooklyn, screenwriters, to L.A., and Pulitzer Prize winners can go wherever they want). And the humming ethnomusicologist has finished his dissertation and is now teaching in Texas. But the philosopher is still here, philosophizing. And the composer is still here, composing. The mathematician who was the mathematician? I can't even remember. The mathematician must be gone. As is the Italian teacher (boyfriend, downtown). The ESL teacher (China). The famous actress (finished her degree at Columbia). The unknown actress (moved back home to Toledo). The two Albanian waitresses (went back to school to get their degrees and have been replaced by their older sister). And my best friend, K., who I used to meet for coffee and hamantaschen every Tuesday evening at nine (moved away to Amish country and got married). And, along with the angels, the pool, the Waterman, and my good friend N., who has gone to Brooklyn to be with the other writers, I miss her.
Eight years ago, the owner's son, whom I have known since he was six, was in his second-to-last year of high school and just beginning to think about college. Eight years later, he has been to college and come home early and is now preparing to take over the café. And he is suddenly all grown up, a young man, still learning the ropes from his father, but very much in charge. He still has the polite, respectful, good manners he had as a child, which even then seemed to belong to an earlier era, to a time when everyone said thank you and please and people did not climb up onto chairs to put their own needs (juice) above those of the group (air). I say hello to him every day now, as I have for years, to his father, and, for the past six months, to his mother, and every evening when I go home after saying good night to the waitresses, to the poet, to the composer, to the philosopher, and to the dishwasher sitting outside beneath the awning in his soiled white apron, enjoying his last cigarette of the day I go home knowing that I will see all these people again, tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow, and that the café has been left in good hands.
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Julie Otsuka is the author of When the Emperor Was Divine. She is a recipient of the Asian American Literary Award, the American Library Association Alex Award, and a Guggenheim fellowship. The Buddha in the Attic is her second novel.
Books mentioned in this post
Julie Otsuka is the author of The Buddha in the Attic