If you were with me on my birthday a year ago, you’d know that I spent an hour of it at Greenline Apothecary in Providence.
Of course, you wouldn’t know this, because I was there alone. It was my first time there, and I wanted the experience of sitting in a vintage setting, drinking a milkshake, and feeling that strange mixture of attention and ennui that comes with getting a year older.
My phone was in my pocket, and while I enjoyed my milkshake, I would feel it buzz. Well wishes. Congratulations. Miss you. Love you. Hope you have a great day.
As I sat at the counter, the couple next to me talked about what they’d do once summer was over. I’ll apologize now for telling you what I could gather from their story, and I’d apologize to them too, but I never got their names.
This was before I was writing about people in Providence — those who stay for a while and those who are only passing through.
As best I can tell, this couple was the latter. The man was in his late-40s to early-50s, and the woman looked to be in her early 40s, and she was wearing multiple rings on multiple fingers. Her purse was the kind that looks like it cost a fortune, but I’m never good at pricing anything, so I could be wrong. The man had on a white button-down and brown pants, but his jacket was the kind fathers used to wear on sitcoms if they were playing therapists.
It’s been a while since I’ve thought of them, so forgive me if I get anything wrong, but then again, I guess you wouldn’t know what I’d gotten wrong, now would you?
Have you ever seen someone at a crossroads?
It’s a term people use a lot. Not as much as they used to, because none of us are really at a crossroads now, and at the same time, all of us are. A whole bunch of people standing in the middle of everything wondering which way to go or whether staying put is the right thing to do.
The thing about being at a crossroads, as an observer looking at someone in the position, is that you know it immediately, even if you don’t know you know it.
These two were at a crossroads.
Outside, the day was hanging on the way it does in summer, when you almost wish it would let go, because of how soft the light is as it disappears. So fragile it makes you nervous.
The man had his hand over the woman’s hand, and he was moving her various rings around in circles. It felt like such a tender thing to do, and I felt a little bad watching them, but I heard her voice catch when she talked about “going home.”
“It won’t be so bad,” he said to her, “Two more years there, and that’s it. We’re done. Then we can come back here. We can go wherever we want. We never have to be anywhere.”
She was shaking her head the way you do when you think you might cry, but you’re also upset at the fact that you’re not already crying.
“I’ll be back in a month,” he went on. “You can come out the month after that. In January, we’ll get you moved out there, and then it’ll be — what? Nothing. A few more months. That’s it. It’ll go by so fast.”
Greenline Apothecary is a lovely place, but it didn’t occur to me until that moment that these two were out of place. Not just there specifically, but in Providence. In Rhode Island. In this time and at that time of day. In this season.
They were New Yorkers out of a wonderful, 1980s romantic drama, sitting at a bar, being filmed by someone who would frame them perfectly. Sidney Lumet maybe, or Neil Jordan. There was something tense about the whole thing, but the tension was an external factor, not something between the two of them.
Between them there was only that fragility that was coming in from the outside. The night reluctant to arrive. The warmth that would rather be heat. The summer that felt too fast, too wonderful, too ordinary.
Have you ever heard someone promise another person that it isn’t over, and as soon as you hear it, you know it’s over? And you know it’s over in spite of them saying it, and also because of it. Because they put it to words. They said it out loud. They had to deny it or their heart would break, and the denial becomes the creation.
“It’s not over,” he said, “It’s not over.”
I listened to him say it a few more times, and then the woman looked over at me, and I met her gaze. It seemed dishonest not to. It seemed like a more grievous sin to pretend I hadn’t been listening.
She did something unexpected. She smiled at me. Just a short smile. Brief. The man didn’t notice. He was still looking down at those rings. Turning them around. Like he was trying to solve an ancient puzzle. Match things up and something will open — a door — and you’ll move onto the next thing — whatever that is.
I left a minute later, and on my way out, I sent the woman a short smile of my own. I felt compelled to say something to her, to the both of them, but there was nothing a stranger could say. Or anyone, for that matter.
A year demands another year. A summer demands a fall. A lie demands the truth.
You can exist for a while in another time if you like, but eventually, the sun goes down, and you’re reminded that it’ll be another night.
Whether you want it to be, or not.