“So, what’s keeping you busy?”
“Just work,” I said.
The owner had welcomed me with his usual grin, teeth bared, cheeks pushing his black-rimmed glasses. He’s the sort to treat you like a regular even if it’s his first time seeing you, and it’s been a long while since he’s seen me in his café. I approached the counter and before he spoke I thought of pulling a bigger smile than the one I had.
“You still hike?”
“No, but I’ve been wanting to.”
Behind me was a picture that stretched to the width of a red wall. The owner pointed and mentioned they were up that mountain just the week before. I glanced over my shoulder and said it was my last climb. I have memories of being on the same spot but couldn’t remember which was my last. Much of my memory is that way—vivid yet uncertain, like a pile of undated photographs in a cardboard box.
I looked at the picture again. In it were silhouettes clustered on a small clearing, looking far into the receding sun.
“You guys do day hikes right? That’s a bit fast for my normal pace but I can try and join you sometime.”
“Sure,” I said. “Sometime.”
There were many people that afternoon and the only space I could sit on was a small couch beside the entrance. The logo on the glass door reads Subi Monte, which in a dialect not our own means to climb a mountain. The owner loves the outdoors, and I met him the time my buddies and I took hiking as a sport and a pastime. It felt like a time long past, and it was.
The plan was to sit still and finish The Cellist of Sarajevo. But the quiet tension of a city waiting for the next sniper fire could not hold my attention under siege. Outside the book, a crossfire of voices were shooting from different corners of the crowded room. At my far right, a man was shouting stories people my age hadn’t witnessed but nonetheless knew about. Grade school teachers wearing funny smiles and dull grey uniforms sounded like they were laughing at both the latest gossip and the loud man. My friend Michelle, oblivious to my presence, was making endless calls on her Blackberry while the old man tells the owner about the big, blocky cellphones of an earlier decade. The spoken noise went on while bossa nova notes drowned in the background.
I could not remember the last time I enjoyed the comfort that fiction brings, and it’d been some time since I finished any book. There was work, of course, and other things. But it wasn’t the lack of time nor interest that kept me from reading. I continued buying books, shelving one paperback after another next to a stack of magazines I similarly failed to resist, similarly just skimmed over. The appetite was there—a compulsion I could still rely on. But reading has its toll. It requires a measure of will, a discipline to not drift one’s eyes off the text and onto another title in the shelf, or another story in memory. And I’m always drifting.
That time that I wasn’t reading, I was training my eyes in capturing life with a camera. I will always be in love with words, but sometimes a story is best told with a photograph. Saul Leiter’s picture of an umbrella’d figure standing on the other side of snow-soaked glass can paint a longer narrative than a story in the New Yorker. His photographs of the 1950’s street scene—shot in the cover of windows and canopies like that a Cold War spy—make me dream of moody stories playing along a jazzy tune. But where I was, there was neither fog nor snow to mask the dullness of the city and draw colour into the frame. All the colour was in the chatter around me.
The next evening I found myself sitting again in a loud, crowded space, miles from home, reading without pause for a long while.
This was written a couple years ago when I was supposed to return to my old blog but never got to. Today I found myself hanging out in the same café and, while the interiors have changed and the characters no longer there, the scene was still real in my memory. This is the finished version of that original sketch.