I am sitting alone eating a plate of Thai green curry and reading Paul Auster’s Ghosts when I look up and take fresh note of my surroundings. I come here often. The waitress gives a friendly laugh every time I walk in: always with a book, always orders the same thing. But today there’s something exotic in the quotidian details of it all – the décor, the people, my own presence here, the ritual of meals in public places.
Immediately to my left is a pair of software engineers, one with a light brown beard and a gray and white Hawaiian shirt; the other in a green polo, with dark hair and a large nose. They’re excitedly talking in a language nominally English but composed of acronyms and nonsense terms, pronouncing judgment on the skills of colleagues and the quality of products the functions of which are to me incomprehensible.
In a booth to my right a young woman sits with a friend or coworker. She’s wearing black Chuck Taylors and jeans and her tightly curled red hair is tied in a knot on top of her head. She looks down, smiling, and closes her eyes while pretending to brush crumbs from the table – a gesture intended to illustrate something in their conversation. She and her companion leave. Their place is taken by two south Asians, a man and a woman. He’s tall and broad in a button down shirt, no tie. She’s slim, wearing khakis and a tapering blouse with vertical pink stripes. They smile and laugh. They’re in love, I think. But then a second man arrives, wearing an office badge that matches theirs. We were beginning to think you wouldn’t make it, they tell him. I pay my bill and leave.
I sit in the hot car with the windows down and read for another five minutes. An enormous black bug flies into the automobile and buzzes at my face, moving in sharp aggressive jags. I open the door to give it a wider egress and it shoots away. A group of businessmen passes, laughing. To my left a man steps out of a car and yells something in Mandarin or Cantonese. Two twenty-something hipsters glance at me as they walk by. An older woman in a purple pants-suit talks on her cell phone while carrying a to-go bag from the Salvadoran taqueria. I start up my car and drive down the lane. Bristling with redwoods, the ridges of the Santa Cruz Mountains rise to the west. A ragged strip of ocean fog hangs above. I drive faster. I roll up one window and the fluctuating air pressure in the car makes a staccato thumping in my ears.
Idea for a story: Single, middle-aged man living in Silicon Valley, present day, works for a cremation and burial services company, making cold calls. His sense of dislocation, his incomprehension of the lives of the technology workers and others around him.
I sleepily park the car. I make a brief walk around the deserted buildings near my office, the former campus of a forgotten software company. The poplars are finally in leaf, shimmering. The fat roses are white and yellow, the grass lush and well kept despite the fact that the buildings have been tenantless for years. I stretch out on a bench under a maple. There is a fountain purling to my right. I close my eyes, which begin to itch and water – allergies. When I open them halfway the slow shifting of the maple boughs and their rippling leaves above me seem to dance in mathematical patterns like swirling tiles in a cheap cardboard kaleidoscope bought for a child.