So I’m hanging out downtown, minding my own business for the most part. I usually go down there to people watch and eavesdrop on conversations, not that anyone really talks about anything interesting. It’s always some self-absorbed crap; who is sleeping with who, who is dating who’s ex., and other useless gossip. Does anyone really talk about anything with real substance anymore? I don’t know, if they do they don’t hang out here. So yea, I’m downtown drinking some tea at the little overpriced coffee shop that gives people with money a reason to spend it, just observing. Starting to grow bored with the girl next to me telling her friend all about how Trevor and Amanda are totally screwing because Mandy saw him in the mall and he had a hickey, I start gathering my things and finish my tea.
That’s when he appeared. He didn’t walk up, I would have seen him. He was just sort of there. He was an older guy, the years of work, frustration and heartache written into his face like an old novel. He looked into my eyes, giving me the feeling that he was seeing straight through me. A chill ran down my spine and he reached out for my arm to comfort me. Instinctively, I recoiled to avoid contact, but he already had my bicep in his grasp. He let out a slight chuckle as he spoke, “Where are you going, child?” His eyes were a color green I had never seen, like a sea full emeralds, but soft, almost grandfatherly. I looked at him in a way that I’m sure reminded the two gossiping young ladies of a dog with its head tilted to the side. Nervous, I managed to stammer out a stuttered response, “um I was done. I um I have um….” He released my arm, let out a genuine laugh at my uneasy response, ” No child, you are not hearing my question, I asked where are you going?” I looked at him in confusion, “I.. I… I was gonna…. ummm…. maybe the park?… I don’t really know.” I couldn’t believe the words that escaped my lips, why on earth was I even talking to this dude?! Did I seriously just tell a random, creepy old stranger that I, a petite, defenseless woman, was going to a secluded park, alone?
My mind was reeling at the thought of the danger I was placing myself in. He reached out and touched my upper arm again, this time the touch calming me. This sudden comfort with him made my face contort in a manner that can only be described as intense confusion. Who the hell is this dude? My gaze shifted from staring the concrete flooring up to meet his emerald glaze. I started to feel like a cautious toddler, curious but scared of this guy’s mysterious nature. He started to make attempts at comfort, “Never asked for your plans for the day. Now, where are you going?” My frustration escalated, what the hell is this guy talking about? where am I going but don’t tell him my plans? what the hell is that supposed to mean? I ran through my mind searching for an explanation, but only finding confusion. I started replaying my morning. Woke up, fed Rocko breakfast, made coffee…. spilled coffee when Rocko enthusiastically showed his appreciation for breakfast, – “It’s a basic question, one I’m sure you hear daily, but do you ever truly answer it?” said the stranger interrupting my thoughts.
I stood for a few seconds, confused expecting Aston Kutcher to pop out with a camera. Meeting his gaze once again I stated simply, “I don’t understand what you are asking?” My frustration made him chuckle. “I was about your age when he asked me, the old man. What are you like 26, 27? Ah it doesn’t matter anyway. My response was the same confused dribble as you are spouting now.” he answered. He appeared to be simultaneously lost in memories of a time long forgotten, and frustrated at my inability to give an answer. I stood in disbelief at this man’s response, who the fuck does he think he is? I looked around the room, expecting a room full of strangers staring at our awkward conversation like it was a lifetime movie. Instead it was like the man and I were invisible. I started to feel like I was stuck in an episode of ‘The Outer Limits’. Resigning to the fact that I must fell asleep or died, due to the girls boring gossip, my confidence skyrocketed, “and what did he say?” I said in a sort of snotty punk rock way that would have made Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten proud. Obviously not the response he was expecting but amused at my rebuttal, his smile grew, making his entire face glow like a man half his age. “Where are you going? You say this, what 5, 10 maybe more times a day? More so if you have small children, you know? But no one ever really knows, no one ever gives a satisfactory response. It’s not a difficult question, you know. Basic really, if you think about it.” I shook my head, growing more and more frustrated at this loon and his mind games. “So what? What does it matter to you where I’m going or anyone else here is going? What are you trying to say old man? Didn’t they ever tell you not to talk to strangers?” I snapped at him, my voice building in confidence almost shouting the end of my response. He stood firm, not granting me the pleasure of an emotional response. The only change was his smile fading. “What makes someone a stranger? Just because two people haven’t spoken previously, never have they talked about the weather or a sports game or whatever other useless small talk people engage in to avoid the solitary nature of silence? When you first escaped the birth canal, having the bright lights of the delivery room blinding your eyes for the first time, feeling scared of the world you were thrust into, did the fear of these unknown people who were complete strangers to your newborn mind cause you to be scared? No, your mind didn’t worry about ‘strangers’ as a newborn, because the idea of strangers is a learned behavior. We teach our young to be scared of the unknown, instead of the more natural intrigue that our nature predisposed us to! And now you stand in front of a man, a man you call a ‘stranger’, and grow angered due to your own inability to answer the most basic of questions?” He asked making anyone within ear shot convinced he held some sort of knowledge that one can only hope to gain while on this spinning blue ball we call home. I stood dumfounded at his response. His voice grew softer as he continued. “Well, child? It would appear, perhaps, this question reached you before you were ready. Again I will ask, where are you going?” My head shook attempting to shake off his odd statement. I was confused, but intrigued by his response. I didn’t know quite how to respond to him, and began to agree with his assumption that I was not prepared for this at all. Immediate he understood my confusion, his face returned to that of a compassionate grandfather comforting a child faced with a riddle. His hand reached out towards my cheek slowly, in a show of empathy. His thin, brittle hand covered in age spots and scars from a lifetime of manual labor, softly stroked my cheeks to comfort me. Suddenly, I noticed tears unexpectedly streaming from this man’s pained eyes. Suddenly I was overcome with guilt, fearing that I disappointed this man. I was left pondering what all of this was, the guilt shifting to confusion. My thoughts were angry and snotty, ‘Why the hell would I care about disappointing this guy? He’s just another old dude, there’s about 200 more at that old folk’s home around the block.’ The thought I knew was false. He was not a typical old dude, this man was something more, but what? And why is no one at all noticing the weirdness happening over here? Trying to make sense of all the confusion, the thoughts of my over worked mind were interrupted by his answer. “You are not dead, child. I am certainly not here to harm you. I do need you to answer the question though and I will stay until you can give me what I asked of you.” His voice was more matter of fact than comforting, or threatening. It was like he was a cashier asking for coupons.
My blank stare was not the answer he was looking for. Which was made very apparent when he gave his response. “Take your time, I can wait.” I couldn’t tell if he was being impatient or was actually telling me to think it over. I pushed past him tired of whatever the hell this was and eager to get on with the rest of my day. My shoulder hit a handsome young college student in my rush to escape the old man causing him to spill coffee all over the advanced physics textbook in his arms. I mumbled a rather short ‘sorry’, to the kid. As I turned back towards the exit, my mind rang the emergency alarm.
Coincidence is one thing, but this was different. The old man’s curious conversation and my loud response didn’t gain the attention of the crowded coffee shop, the student with the coffee stained physics book should have been able to avoid our collision but he wasn’t. He didn’t even see me, I mean even afterwards, my apology fell on deaf ears. I pushed the door of the shop, sharply, my mind fearing the current situation. Am I dead? Great, I’m like a lost, confused ghost too stupid to even realize I’m no longer alive. I giggled aloud at the thought. I needed a way to test my theory, the logical side of my mind deducted, while the emotional side of my brain issued a full-scale meltdown alert. I noticed the Italian bakery where I stopped once or twice a week for cannoli and the cookies my grandma always gave me when I was a kid. They always talk my ear off in there, my logic thoughts remembered, breaking through the warning alarms from the other side. I quickly headed towards the bakery, the smell of all the treats growing stronger. The sidewalk was unusually busy for that time of day, but still no one seemed to notice me. By the time I reached the shop, I had convinced myself that the creepy guy made me invisible or something. I flung the door of the bakery open, sending the bells into a ringing flurry of noise. The woman behind the counter clutched at her chest, startled by the abrupt noise disrupting her otherwise peaceful day. She squinted at the door, and called nervously in Italian for someone named Salvadore. An older gentleman, covered in flour despite the long white apron that covered his slender figure, emerged from the swinging kitchen doors. They spoke in Italian, while I stood there in silent wonder. They really can’t see me? My mind was left scared and alone. Now what? was the only question my mind could pose, as I turned to leave.
It happened again. The mysterious old man was there, showing himself as suddenly as he did in the coffee shop. He stepped closer, “You are scared, understandable, but I assure you, I have no intentions of hurting you. I do have to demand an answer to my question.” A rather polite way of demanding a response, I thought. The logic side of my mind stopped trying to make sense of the situation. I screamed, finally giving into the panic, “who the hell are you?” His face twisted, sternly telling me to calm down and just tell him what he needs to know. I shook my head in disbelief, my mind was trying to figure out a way out of this encounter. ‘And then what, child, walk around the rest of your life like this?’ he said in a way that reminded me of my father when he was finally tired of dealing with my antics as a child. I began to cry, falling to the floor, in what can only be described as an act of surrender. “And what, exactly, do you think that is going to accomplish? Get up, get up!” he said, pulling me to my feet. Then my small voice spoke through a tear soaked face, “You ask me this question, and I don’t know the answer, hell I don’t think I know the question. You demand a response from me, hold my life hostage and expect all this shit from me. Do you know who I am? No, you don’t know me! I’m not that smart! There’s all these smart kids in this neighborhood, hell there’s a huge fucking school full of them up the block” motioning towards the prestigious university the city was known for, before continuing my plea, “I just don’t know what you want from me!” sobbing too much to be coherent any longer. He squat down in front of me, putting a hand on either side of my face. “My dear, dear, child. You never give yourself credit for any of the amazing and imaginative thoughts contained in that beautiful mind of yours.” He began petting my head like a cat, “The answer is there, you just aren’t allowing yourself to use this mind of yours in the manner it was intended.” His voice was soft, his comforting touch calmed my thoughts.
My voice came as a surprise to both of us when it started speaking. “How are any of us supposed to know where we are going? The end location is inconsequential isn’t it? We are here then there and no matter the location in the world, or universe, or somewhere beyond our understanding, still we remain right here, or right there.” Shocked at my own words, I sat amazed that some part of me did, in fact, understand the man’s question. All this time I had the answer that he was so desperate to hear. “You want to know where I’m going?” I asked the man finally understanding what he wanted. He smiled, knowing that finally my mind was ready, “Yes, my child. Where are you going?” I hugged him tightly as I wiped the tears away from his eyes. A sense of calm washed over me, as this man cried into my shoulder. “I don’t know where I’m going yet, I haven’t gotten there yet. Right now, I’m here, on the floor of this bakery comforting you. Wherever I’m going, I’ll arrive when it’s time. Our journey isn’t quite complete yet. Both of us, still have a long way to go.” My response shocked the man, as I realized he wasn’t aware of the answer, just who he needed to ask. “What?” he stammered his words, for the first time being at a loss. I smiled, “You understand what I’m saying, old man? We got a long trip ahead of us, better go grab some of those cookies.” I suggested jokingly, looking up to see the woman behind the counter watching us in a state of confusion. I stood up and helped the man to his feet. I started to walk to the counter, realizing our presence was finally revealed. The woman shouted something frantically in Italian, terrified of our miraculous appearance. Salvadore rushed out of the kitchen with a large flour smudge across his forehead. My elderly friend and I couldn’t do anything but giggle as the Italian man stood in wonder as to why the woman was having such a fit. She frantically recited some sort of Italian prayer as far away from us that the walls would allow. Salvadore walked to the counter, confused and Frustrated by her behavior, but professional towards us. “What do you want?” his thick accent made it clear he was not ever intended for a position dealing with customers. I glanced to the woman sympathetically, and then looked at my old friend. He ordered a large black and white cookie with the enthusiasm of a small child, as I watched the woman continue her panicked prayers. As he finished telling Salvadore his order, he nudged me to let me know it was my turn. Now very unamused by his employee’s frenzied Italian pleas to God, he made it clear this would be a short encounter. I ordered a few cannoli, as the old man looked shocked at the number of pastries I intended to purchase. I blushed and hurried to explain, “What? They are really good here!” We both giggled like old friends, as we received our treats. He refused to charge us, while too busy attending to the woman who had fainted due to shock.
There we were, this old man and I. In the middle of a crowded city sidewalk standing in front of one another in a quiet understanding. He looked at me, finally breaking the silence, “Yes, Yes, my dear. I believe we did well.” I smiled in agreement, still not understanding what just occurred but very happy it was over. He turned, starting to walk away. “Wait!” I exclaimed, reaching out to grab his shoulder. He stopped but didn’t turn to me. “What now?” I asked. His shoulders sunk into a deep sigh, turning towards me. “Now, my child, now we continue our journey and well….” his voice trailed off. My questioning glance encouraged him to finish his thought. “And we see exactly where we are going.” I chuckled at the strange truth in his statement as my phone began to ring. I looked down, pulling it out of my pocket. As my field of vision returned to where he was standing, I smiled. He had disappeared just as suddenly as he had appeared. “Yea” I said distracted, to whoever was on the other end of the phone call. “Mcfly! It’s 4:30, where the hell are you? I thought we were supposed to be here at 3:30? Why the hell don’t you ever pick up your phone and would it kill you to be on time?” my mother’s voice loud enough to make people passing by giggle at her whiny reprimands. “I’m on my way. I had to stop for some cannoli.” I responded with a smile, knowing how downplayed that answer was. “WHAT?” I slipped the phone back in my pocket, avoiding my mother’s infuriated response. Looking at everything around me, and feeling at peace. The sky was different, my mom’s obnoxious tone was different, the cannoli was different. The confused glances of other pedestrians, wondering why I was in the middle of the sidewalk just looking around was different. The entire city was different! Everything had changed that day. I never really understood what happened, but I think maybe, I understood why.