Coffee cups clink on their saucers as the bitter-smelling steam rises and dances among the swirling cigarette smoke overhead. It is surprisingly quiet for a room packed with people, but you can still hear waitresses taking orders, women whispering behind their newspapers, men swapping sport scores and work stories … and the gentle scrawling of pencil on paper coming from the corner, where leaning against the neglected jukebox is a silent observer.
She envies them in a way, their security and comfort in places like this that are so familiar that conversations and moments of silence mingle together easily into an intimate hum. She finds their naiveté endearing, how things so feeble as high school football could mean the world, while the real world -– with its pain and its hatred and its diversity –- could sail past without even a flicker of their attention. How freeing it must be to live like that, she thinks, existing in only one realm, in one element, in the one and only home you’ve ever known and needed.
Deep down she knows that she could easily have all of that. She could have the assurance and the purity. She was raised here. She had lived here her whole life, just like all of the patrons sitting before her. It was the desire to have more that set her apart. The agonizing seclusion of a person with a dream that is far bigger than her meandering existence should ever permit. It was a paradox: a limbo between wanting to fit in and wanting desperately to break out. She wants to travel, she wants to create art and have ideas that would be completely useless here. No, not useless, but ignored. She feels … above it all. Even as she sits among these people, effortlessly blending into the woodwork, she feels unengaged and uninvolved.
Maybe what she thinks is envy is really a form of deluded pity. She watches them like an adult watching children. She covets their youthful indulgence, but could never bring herself to go down to their level and play in the mud.
Her pencil stops writing because it is in complete disgust at its own condescension. She is comparing her hometown to mud? How dare she presume what these people think, how they feel, what they want. Maybe someone among this crowd drinking their black Folgers and eating their curly fries imagines a different life, just like she does. Maybe, like her, they shut their eyes and let the diner, the town, the whole world dissolve beneath them and gather again in a different configuration. Paris, a café in Montmartre. The mechanic at the counter is now an artist; his grease-smudged fingers now show traces of grease paint. The widow in the front booth becomes a bourgeois heiress, slumming it with the artist and vagrants. Here, she doesn’t just blend in. She fits. She belongs here among these bohemians, and in her mind’s eye she desperately searches for that familiar face that proves she’s not alone. Today is not the day.
As she opens her eyes she accepts the fact that she thinks far too much. She knows her aimless scrawling amounts to nothing but analytical rambling. Yet she comes here every week and watches this little diner. She is Jane Goodall and the daily diner inhabitants are Gorillas in the Appalachian Mist.
She is fortunate that she can think this much, this clearly … fortunate to have grown up here. Maybe big dreams don’t come from a big existence. This town is the furtive soil she needed to grow. Now she’s a vine weaving itself out over the garden wall. But no matter how big she grows or how much she blooms, her roots will not change. Someday she will truly be in that Montmartre café. Anyone else is free to come along.
Her glass of water is empty. Her toothpick is gnawed down to a stub. Her paper is full and her pencil is dull, so she stands to leave. She’s observed enough for today. She breathes in deep, inhaling the bitter coffee steam and the cigarette smoke, and she knows it will smell exactly the same in Paris.