The girl at the next table this morning had a copy of Wings of the Dove, a Penguin edition with a yellow USED sticker on the spine. This was downtown, in a small coffee shop adjacent to two of the new boutique hotels. Very early, and only a handful of people on the street. She was dressed as one might expect (or hope) for a Sunday morning, in a mix of last night's clothes and a few things obviously pulled from the backpack by her chair. I sat over my own cappuccino and tried to read her semiotics.
Some things are easy. Alone at a coffee shop near trendy hotels so early on a Sunday morning is an easy call. Not with a regular boyfriend, or they'd have come down together. Not with friends who'd come into the city--- same reason. The book is an identifer: the yellow sticker comes from the university bookstore. That it's a later Henry James novel says something about her major and how far along she is at university. What says more is that she had it in the backpack. The backpack itself is another undergraduate marker, as well as place for a change of clothes. She was planning on staying the night, and the novel reinforces that. Walking alone through the hotel lobby at seven in the morning in last night's cashmere pullover and a pair of wrinkled olive-drab chino shorts, shouldering the backpack, she was striking a pose. Sitting over coffee with Wings of the Dove, she was elaborating on that: the literary girl on a morning-after, a girl who'd brought a serious novel to read after leaving her gentleman companion sleeping back in the hotel room.
Harder to get a read on whomever she was with. He could simply be an out-of-town boyfriend, but then, why wasn't he staying at her rooms rather than hotel? If they'd rented a room as a romantic gesture, why wasn't he with her? She wouldn't bring the backpack if she planned to go back up to a hotel room. For my own very obvious reasons, I'd like to believe the sleeping companion back in the room was significantly older. Someone she'd met and spent the night with before. Someone she was keeping as a secret-- after all, she isn't letting him walk her home, or even to a taxi . Out-of-town, obviously. Moneyed enough to afford the room. Married...not necessarily. Would there be money involved? Again, not necessarily, though I remain attracted to the idea of the envelope left for her on a table (hotel stationery, I'd think) with the bills inside. She might not be doing it to help with tuition. It might simply be her way of proving to herself that she could do what girls in novels and films do.
Of course, there are now two strands of stories being told here. The girl at the next table reading Henry James is telling her own story. The backpack, the book, the choice of Sunday morning-after clothes are all parts of the story she's telling the city around her, and telling herself as well. I'm telling a story for her, too, even though I know that I'm re-fashioning her tale. My instant hope is that the man sleeping back in the room is at least twice her age, and probably more. I have to hope that, if I'm ever to imagine her leaving my own rooms on a Sunday morning. I think about the envelope with cash because I like the idea of a lovely undergraduate girl who'd do that as a kind of performance art piece, or as a tale she could embellish and tell to half-shocked friends in later years.
We tell stories about the people we see; we invent lives for the ghosts who pass us by. That's actually a small trope in Zalman King films, in Wild Orchid and Delta of Venus. The main characters sit in a restaurant or walk through early-morning Parisian streets and build up imagined love lives for strangers.
Tell me, then--- how do you read strangers? What stories do you tell about strangers on the street, about the couple or the solitary lovely girl at the next table? What are the stories you want to live inside yourselves?