The woman in ill fitting snow pants and parka, as if there is such a thing as well-fitting snow pants and parka, clumps of blonde stuck-together hair poking out of her non-hipster cap, you know exactly what she looks like, stares at me from the sagging mid-century couch across the alcove in the café where I have set up my laptop, a scone, a huge cup of expensive coffee described as “an approachable blend with toffee undertones” and have nothing to be responsible for for the next two and one half hours except a new writing project.
These are rare moments of fallow field that we creative types crave like a low level crack addiction. I have abandoned my sleeping family. I am shutting it all out: the office (where for thirty-seven-point-five hours a week I am a highly productive and revenue generating psychiatric nurse practitioner wavering between self-congratulatory sanctimony and mind-numbing compassion fatigue,) shutting out the elderly relatives I should be visiting and the holiday cards that never made it out of their boxes.
The woman with the stuck-together hair, the woman I assume is homeless because she’s so over dressed for the mild day, takes a long pull from her to-go cup and blinks at me over the rim. I am percolating, please don’t look at me, I beg. When she first walked in I felt a flicker of recognition, as I often do when I’m back in my old hometown. This is twenty five years after I worked on the psychiatric crisis team at the big hospital here, many people look familiar. They could not all still be alive. Don’t make me feel guilty. I already loved you once.
I fasten a translucent bubble around myself. My husband jokes about the imaginary neon “do not engage” sign flashing above my head. It usually works, most people with normal social and emotional boundaries understand it, but those have not been my people. Please leave me alone, I’m not working today, I’m so tired. In a box of youthful memorabilia at home I have kept a bright pink pin from some 80s head shop, pre-meme, pre-me-as-clinician. It says “I Get Paid to Talk to People Like You.” I feel absolutely horrible that I think of it this minute. My eyes look up from the computer screen to rest themselves, and catch hers.
She picks up a snow globe and turns it upside down. She had been broadcasting her holiday wishes to a general public, although I was the only one outside of the sleepy barista in the place. I convinced myself she wasn’t talking to me. Please don’t talk to me.
I like the downtown coffee shops when I’m in my hometown, I’m in the middle of reading Patti Smith’s ode to coffee shops, M Train, and I still fancy myself someone who appreciates grittiness. (It’s hard to find grittiness where I live now.) But then I don’t. When the homeless people come in, I worry about the bathrooms. I won’t sit on the mid-century couches. Sometimes in my psychiatric office, in my very non-gritty work environs, I have to isolate the chairs after my patients talk about bed bugs, real or imagined. I owe due diligence to the next patient, call someone official and have the chairs cleaned. Diligence to myself is my due today, I think. I now have one and three quarters hours to sit here and not be responsible to anything.
She sits. I sit. She mutters. The jazzy overhead holiday music drowns her out. You are making me miserable. She’s homeless and I’m miserable? Stop making me confront myself. I just don’t want to talk to anyone this morning. I talk for a living. The irony of this conversation in my head is that now I’m not writing or percolating. My project seems just so much far away drivel.
I smile warmly in her direction without making eye contact. It’s a skill perfected over these years of being a psychiatric practitioner. She eventually gets up and ambles out, down the street, restless. I think I can hear the keys on the lanyard around her neck jingle despite the closed door and too loud music. Come back, let me buy you a latte, let me hug you. I don’t do that, she has keys, after all. To someplace. Something.
I return to my screen. The place has filled up by now.
She comes back. A woman with a festive set of bright red hair extensions seems to be waiting for her. Gives her an aluminum foil wrapped bundle, too big for drugs. Christmas cookies, I figure. They chat for a moment. Her case manager? Good. She has people.
Off she goes again. She’d be offended if I tried to buy her a latte. She has people. I see her round the corner and bum a cigarette from a ponytailed older man who seems to be partnered with another ponytailed older man. They come into the cafe to meet up with an even older ponytailed woman, all three appear related by poor dentition, questionable hair choices and fringed leatherette jackets. I have begun to hate myself even more for judging these people who have now sat down right next to me and are having a much better time of it than I.
My homeless woman comes back inside without the aluminum foil bundle. She nods at the ponytailed group. She has forgotten about me. I do not buy her a latte. Instead I drain what’s left of my approachable blend, start texting my brunch plans and worry about the parking meter.
I’m relieved when there is no parking ticket on my windshield. I turn when I hear the restless jingle. Do I have two dollars? I break my rule to not ever take my wallet out on the street. Why two dollars? I don’t ask, I open my wallet, there are a bunch of fifties intended for my graduate student daughter. I consider giving my homeless woman one of them. Instead I dig around and find a dollar and forty cents. “Have a good one,” I say, smiling too hard.
“You already have,” she says back, shifting from one foot to the next, not quite making eye contact.
Nina Gaby is a psychiatric nurse practitioner and the author of Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women.