Faces can tell such stories, implicit, haunting. I met a woman last night: a woman who sat in a restaurant with her mother. In this restaurant I am a manager, or more precisely, a dining room supervisor. I neither manage nor supervise, but that is another issue. The woman looked to be in her late forties or possibly early fifties. She was attractive with a lovely smile. I would hope that my assessment of her age would be flattering, but I suspect she would find such concerns ridiculous. They did not have reservations and were seated in the "lounge" at a high-top round table, near the kitchen "line", in the high traffic area of a busy little restaurant on New Year's Eve. I approached the table to say hello, to wish them a happy new year. Smiling, she answered, "Happy New Year. I hope it's better than this last one." Her mother nodded almost imperceptibly and smiled even less perceptibly. In those seconds of encountering the cracked veneer of real life in an environment of plastered phony facades, a dimly lit world of eternal dreams and disappointments tears through the fabric of time and place; one is now perched on a precipice that is either a simulacrum or a second chance.
I've said that all wrong. There was no tear in the fabric of time, whatever that is. But there was a feeling of having fallen asleep for a split second that lasted a thousand years in which I dreamed every possible scenario in every possible sequence, then in every variation of a variation of a variation. No, that's not what happened. I simply stood there and recognized something familiar, some aspect of human emotiveness and felt awkward in my suit and obsequiousness. I mumbled something about some people having had a good year, while others certainly did not. I think I used the phrase, "I could name names, but I won't," to be funny. She, still smiling, though with a hint of having to suffer a fool, said, "Most certainly did not have a good year – a terrible year is more like it. Yes, some prospered, those up here," and she gestured with a flat, horizontal palm held above her shoulder as though showing how tall someone is. I thanked them for "joining us" and said, "Please enjoy your evening," and wished them a happy new year as I walked away, hands clasped behind my back.
I should mention that the woman's mother, if that's who she was – in another scenario I imagined that she was the mother of the younger woman's recently deceased husband; I imagined all kinds of possibilities – was striking as well, though her beauty was more emblematic. She had a face like those in thousands of old black-and-white or sepia-tinted photographs of archetypal matriarchal figures whose faces revealed lives of unbearable loss and suffering, unbearable yet born. It is a face that often appears as a phantom of memory that most often represents a past existing in another dimension. Most likely, this is all hogwash; these were two women, a mother taken out for New Year's Eve by her loving daughter - celebrating, commiserating, contemplating, perhaps capitulating.
The amount and degree of human suffering all around us like molecules unseen, solitary universes within universes, while clutching a tepid cup of coffee as though it is our last, after which it is time to accept the dying of the light, is infinite, has always been, will always be, as long as there is a sentient being to deny it. The poor are not at the intersection where the entrance to the highway begins wiping your windshield or offering you a rose, they are behind or ahead of you in the supermarket or Best Buy or Target. They, like you, have found ways to buy more things that are unneeded, that have been introduced as objects of desire, which we must have to proceed and endure in this time of things. These objects consume our free time – and most of our "working" time, if you're lucky enough to be employed – and keep us from considering the fact that we, you, I don't even exist, at least according to leading neuroscientists.
As I made the rounds in this diminutive dining room - well not like a doll house, just relatively small - we eventually served over 200 "guests." The only ones I can remember are the woman and her mother. It was more than mere empathy that touched me; it was recognition of my own fears and fragility, the slight hold over letting go. The next day, I asked the server who waited on them if she had talked to them and asked what their story was. She said she had talked to them for quite a while and they had also implied to her that the past year had not been so great. They had a story, they definitely had a story, but she could not surmise it.
This happens all the time to me. The last time was in the Times Warner Building; my wife and I were having an early supper at Bouchon Bakery, and though I was listening to M.'s conversation, I was also watching other people – couples, groups -and watching them converse, trying to listen. It is so extremely ordinary, yet unfathomable to me that we are all having, in some way, the same conversation. The topics, the characters and settings change. These words on a page or a screen reach someone and thoughts occur, and it's all the same. It is strangers recognizing something familiar that doesn't really have a name. What emerges is both precious and frightening in its proximity to both eternity and oblivion.