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Original Essays

In the Café

by Julie Otsuka
  1. When the Emperor Was Divine
    $6.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

I have been going to the same café every day for years. On a perfect day, I usually arrive in the late afternoon, right after my mid-day swim. After swimming is my favorite time to write. The endorphins are flowing, my brain feels calm, and my body — pleasantly spent — is prepared to sit for hours.

My favorite seat in the café is in the far corner in the back, right beneath the painting of the angels. I have been sitting at that table, in that corner, beneath those angels, for at least eight years. For a good number of those years, before New York went non-smoking, that corner was dark and smoky. Now it is simply dark (there are lamps, but the bulbs are inexplicably dim). I wrote my first novel in that corner and it feels like good luck. If someone is sitting at my table — and someone often is — I usually sit nearby and wait until they leave, and then I make my move. I claim my seat and set up shop. I take out my manuscript, my pen, my pencil, my eraser, and place them on the table beside my coffee and croissant. On the narrow wooden ledge beneath the dim lamp, I line up my three water glasses (after swimming, must hydrate). Beside my water glasses, I place my small spiral notebook (pink plastic cover, pale pink pages, very girly, made in Japan), in which I jot down errant thoughts, some having to do with writing, and others not.

Three recent entries from the pink notebook:
—husband grieving, thinking of wife #1?
—daughter leaves skipping?
—drugstore: ibuprofin, ace bandage

The first two entries refer to the novel I am currently working on, the third to my ankle, which I recently sprained while rushing home from the café to see the new boyfriend. Was it worth it? (The rush, the sprain, the guy.) Only time will tell. My hunch is that it was. As for the ankle, these days, whenever I am in the café, I prop it up, boorishly, on the chair opposite mine, to give it a rest. It seems to be healing nicely.

Before I began sitting in the corner beneath the painting of the angels, I sat in the opposite corner, at the table beneath the exhaust fan. When I was sitting beneath the exhaust fan, I was not happy (I had come to New York to be a painter, I had failed, I had decided to sit out the rest of my life in a dark corner with a book, and read) and did not want to speak to anyone. I kept my head down and my thoughts to myself. I sat quietly reading in that corner for two years until one day, the man at the next table leaned over and asked me what it was I was reading. I was reading, I remember, The Lover, by Marguerite Duras. The man (now married, a wife, two children, a house in the country) is long gone, but the book remains a favorite.

I stayed with the man from the next table for two years, and while I was with him I began, for the first time in my life, to write. Little throwaway vignettes, at first, to amuse myself, and him. I wrote only at home (tiny studio apartment, Upper West Side, one fork, one spoon, one knife, a toaster). I wrote because I liked to, and because my stories made him laugh. I wrote because I could. Strangely enough, writing came to me much more easily than painting ever did. Perhaps I had finally found my medium.

The first time I got up my nerve to write in the café, I felt painfully self-conscious. There was something slightly horrifying about writing (such a private act) in public. But, of course, nobody even noticed. I blended right in. Everyone else, too, I noticed, was writing. Now I was just one of the gang. Another furious scribbler.

Actually, I write very slowly, and with a Waterman fountain pen given to me by my brother. The fountain pen is something I never would have bought for myself (too showy), but now that I have it, I love it, and cannot imagine a life without it. Because I am slow, it can take me days or even weeks to come up with a good paragraph. What I like about working in a public place is that there is constant drama all around me — a nice distraction during slow times. I have seen, over the years, countless people falling in and out of love at the café. I have seen people slowly lose their minds. I have seen people cheating on their spouses. I have witnessed many a blind first date. I myself have been approached by several handsome, smiling young men (whose dates most likely described themselves as being small, dark-haired, and Asian) asking me if I was: Michiko, Yasuko, Fiona, and once, my favorite, Saskia (Saskia Wang? Saskia Watanabe?). Sadly, of course, the answer to their questions was always no. I was not she. I would never be she. I was just me. But oh, how I longed to be Saskia.

Because I have been coming to the café for so many years, I know — if not by name, then by face — almost all of the other late-afternoon regulars (the morning regulars, I have heard, are a different crew altogether, quieter and more contemplative, in a word, more grown-up, while the late-night regulars are rowdy and loud). Some of them are writers. Some are composers. Several are writing screenplays. There is a mathematician among us. There is a philosopher. A poet. An ethnomusicologist who constantly hums. I find their presence terribly comforting. I have my favorite table-sharing buddies — other regulars beside whom I can work silently, and well. I like that we can simply nod to one another in silent greeting in lieu of saying hello. No need for formalities. A tip of the head will do, and then on with the work.

Sometimes, usually in the late afternoon, right before sundown, there will come a magical moment in the day when the café goes utterly silent. I will look up from whatever it is I am writing and see a sea of bowed heads all around me. Everyone is deeply, urgently, immersed in their own private worlds and I am suddenly aware of how lucky I am. I am sitting in my favorite corner in the world. I am writing beneath the angels. I am surrounded by other people like myself, quiet people with pens who are content to sit around for days, for weeks, for years, just making stuff up. spacer

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