I hope this letter finds you well—in fact, I hope it finds you more than well, because as you know, or maybe you can guess, I have a great fondness for you, although of course only in the form of friendship (the strictest possible form of friendship, you see) with no strings attached and with plenty of healthy platonic feeling all the way around, as they say.
Of course, people are human beings, after all, and have feelings they wouldn’t dare utter to anyone, let alone write down. But besides any feelings I may or may not have beyond the platonic, strictest friendship (in every sense of the word “friendship” and “strict”), I am writing to you (as a friend, but also as a customer of your supermarket) just to make your acquaintance in a formal way, and to ask you if you would like to meet me on Saturday for coffee, perhaps (and maybe a donut, if I may be so bold as to suggest), where we can talk about ourselves—in a strictly cashier-customer way, at first, and then perhaps eventually graduate to acquaintanceship and then to formal friendship, in the strictest handshaking-only sense, if you wish.
Besides asking you for coffee, I’d like to tell you about my past two evenings, which were funny, to say the least, but also interesting, in a way. Last night I thought I saw that man who was in the supermarket the other night, the one who yelled at you, after he wandered in and wanted to pay for a beer even though he was a dollar short. I was there, about to get on line, when he saw the manager coming and stormed away. I’d had my jar of peanut butter on me, and I held it from the lid side, just in case, but it turns out it wasn’t necessary for me to step in. I remember how shaken up you looked after that, and that you rang me up with trembling hands, and that you only nodded a little when I said “bye” to you, and that you didn’t even see me stop and look back at you from the electronic door, watching you for a moment as you stood wringing your hands, rubbing your left palm over your right knuckles over and over.
The incident stuck with me, I have to admit, because I saw that man last night in the street, and now tonight, after these past two evenings, with much to tell you, I’ve decided to be bold and invite you on Saturday for coffee at the Dunkin’ Donuts at 14th and Union Square, at 11:00 a.m. I will be at there at 10:30, well in advance of your possible arrival, so that there will be no chance of my missing you in case you’re early, and I certainly hope to see you there. I will save you a proper seat, one that could not possibly give you splinters, and maybe there will be time for us to sit and talk and eat and drink and wipe our mouths with napkins. If you don’t show up, I will not blame you in the least but chalk it up to a case of bad fate, and sadly, I would then have to shop at a rival supermarket—to keep my embarrassment at bay, so to speak.
This particular Dunkin’ Donuts, by the way, is a nice establishment, with improved wood tables recently installed, and an excellent selection of donuts and coffee. It is right near my job at Borders on 11th and Broadway. I stack and organize books, I’m sure I’ve told you in passing (when buying some macaroni and cheese one late afternoon, I believe). So perhaps, if you accept my invitation, we can more easily talk, because I will have introduced myself already in this letter, so we can talk about you, who I am eager to hear about—as a friend, of course.
I’m sure you must guess that I have been fond of you from afar for quite some time. Or maybe you have no idea. I don’t know. But in any event, I remember one afternoon a few weeks ago you asked me why I come to the supermarket every night to shop. You wanted to know, in fact, why I didn’t just shop for a whole week of food in one day, why I always buy things here and there every night and only come over to your line, even if it’s long. You were very inquisitive, very observant, I noticed, and with some amusement on my part (though I certainly wasn’t laughing at you, by any means) I told you that I just live from meal to meal. You laughed, I well remember, but I knew you didn’t believe me because your eyebrows knit in a skewed way, which was actually very cute—platonically speaking.
“She is a such a nice girl,” I said aloud to myself later in the elevator on the way to my apartment, although I waited until the elevator doors closed on me, of course.
Yesterday afternoon I shopped at your market, as usual, bought my spaghetti with Ragu, thanked you for my change, and left, all too-shyly, I must say with great chagrin. I felt your hand ever so lightly touch my palm as you gave me my change, and I sighed with a little regret, longing very dearly, I admit with a blush, for a full and hearty handshake.
But all blushing to one side, I ventured out that evening to see a play on 10th Street and First Avenue. Since I have a love for all kinds of performance art, especially on TV, but also in theaters, I thought I’d take in a random play at this small independent theater and see how it was. I even pretended I was a critic on the way, stopping first to get a slice of pizza at Rose’s pizzeria.
The play had an odd title. Marionettes and Donkeys or something like that.
“It’s experimental theater,” explained the ticket girl after I paid and stared with
screwed-up eyes at the hand bill.
I seated myself near the back of the theater, and it filled up pretty quickly, I must say. The whole place suddenly darkened, including the stage, for a very long time before one spotlight right in the middle lit up to a woman sitting on a barrel with no clothes on at all, so to speak. She was sad about something or other (maybe the barrel was uncomfortable), but I didn’t hear anything she said. I looked at the other spectators, and they seemed so serious and wrapped up in what she was saying, but in great contrast I was wrapped up in the fact that I’d seen her around the neighborhood. She’d often had several little kids with her, and I’d seen her with them in Rose’s. So as she talked to herself sadly on stage, I pictured her sitting in the pizza place with those kids—except in the same state of undress she was in at the moment—and I predicted that every time I saw her in the future I’d have to look away from her to keep from looking at her. So I got up. I found the exit, walked the long dark hallway, passed the ticket girl, and went out into civilization again, as they say.
I must tell you, that kind of theater is not my type of tea, so to speak, and it’s lucky—I think now with a slight grin—that I didn’t ask you to that play instead of to Dunkin’ Donuts on Saturday. Not to worry, though. It is a safe bet that the workers there will be fully clothed on Saturday and there will be no chance of embarrassment, unless of course you don’t come—in which case I will be embarrassed all by myself instead of both of us embarrassed in the presence of unclothed workers.
Anyway, my adventures weren’t over yet, as if this wasn’t enough. I walked aimlessly around for a while, just thinking and wishing I had my six dollars back. Then on 8th Street, I saw a crowd gathered around a fight between two guys around my age (twenty-eight, by the way). One of them was easily beating the other because he had wrestled him to the ground and was punching his head again and again. But as soon as he ran off, the loser got up, pulling a knife out of his back pocket, and I recognized him as the same guy who’d yelled at you in the supermarket. I saw the blade already opened and I backed up along with everyone else. It made my heart jump because at first I didn’t know which way he was going to run, toward me and the others for watching, or after the guy who beat him up. Luckily he went after the guy who beat him up, disappearing down 3rd Avenue. Meanwhile, I made a bee-line, as they say, in the opposite direction, and wound up at Theresa’s Coffee Shop on First Ave.
It was late at night and crowded, so the only place to sit was on a stool at the counter, and some young woman served me. All I wanted was coffee, and I sat with my chin in my hand watching her set the cup down, then pour the coffee (expertly, without spilling any, I might add). I watched her hands slowly pour, and I frowned deeply, I must say, because they made me think of your hands. They were the opposite, you see. Her hands were beautiful, long and slender and smooth, but like pictures of perfect hands a person can see just anywhere. But your hands are slightly rounder and smaller, and they move almost nervously when you work. I remembered how you were wringing them after that crazy man left.
Sometimes, with just a series of glances, really, when I’m waiting on line, I’ve watched your hands when they were punching numbers, or just resting quietly at your sides, and I’ve thought, Well, those are her hands and no one else’s hands, and that’s why they’re so beautiful. I’d recognize your hands anywhere, I’m willing to bet, even in a foreign country, years from now.
So, sitting at the counter, drinking coffee, just for the first few sips, really, I thought of your hands, because they (and you too) seemed like some great treasure that I wanted to protect, somehow. And so I was frowning (with longing, so to speak).
Now, I feel greatly disappointed to say, I couldn’t possibly send this letter to you, because of the mention of your hands, which is a highly personal topic, I’m sure you’d agree. If you were to read this, you may even wish to slap my face with the very hands I just told you were beautiful. So I can’t send this. Anyway, I’m willing to wager that your own manager, the guy with the mustache and beard, would probably not even pass this letter along to you, but would open it and read it himself instead, and then he and all the cashiers and the meat people would have a good laugh over it and know who I am, and I’d be the joke of the supermarket—much to my chagrin.
Bad enough that I mentioned Marionettes and Donkeys and then made that awful joke about the indecent Dunkin’ Donuts workers, but then I foolishly told you that the very man who yelled at you went after someone with a knife! Then of course musing about your hands was the worst of all. I’m ready to toss this letter right out the window, but then again someone might read it—or worse, mail it to you.
But I’ll finish this anyway, writing the rest of it as if to you, in a manner of speaking, and streak through it and probably say more stupid things, like maybe insult your grandmother or something, which wouldn’t be hard. To do, I mean…For me to do…
Anyway, tonight I went out again, this time to a Laurel and Hardy festival on Irving Place, not far from that Dunkin’ Donuts which used to be the setting of our possible friendly meeting but now is just another overpriced donut shop.
There was supposed to be a party and then a showing of some of their films. I’ve always loved those two because they are extremely funny, as well as nice guys, I can tell. So I went. But when I got there, I realized that everyone else was either dressed up as Laurel, or as Hardy, and I was in my jeans and t-shirt, as usual. I stood there smiling at everyone, in a fake way, and then one of the Laurels came up to me and pretended to knock into me, the way Laurel would, and I smiled about it, but I could see that his eyes were mean, not like Laurel’s eyes would have been—all innocent and nice and clumsy. This fellow’s eyes weren’t nice at all, so I looked away from him, but he came over to me anyway, like he was mad at me, and showed me his left fist which he held close to my jaw, pretending he was going to punch me. Meanwhile I stared at it, frozen, with a half-smile planted on my face. Then he punched me suddenly in the jaw with the other fist, which came out of nowhere, a light punch, just a tap, really, but with enough force so that my head snapped back a little. Then he ran off (not the way Laurel would run) laughing at me (not like Laurel would laugh either).
I wanted to leave right there, but the movies were starting, so I took a seat around all the other Laurels and Hardys. Soon I found myself cheering up because the real ones on the screen were so funny and I loved them. They were so innocent, you see, and they always got themselves hurt, but then they were always all right soon afterward. I laughed so hard at some parts, I was crying. Everyone else was laughing too, and I even forgot about that mean Laurel that hit me, except for daydreams of poking him in the eye with one finger.
I walked along St. Mark’s Place on the way home. There was some game going on along the sidewalk, and people had stopped to watch. One guy kept moving around three cups with a little pea under one of them, and he called for the audience to put down twenty dollars to try their luck. A few people put down twenties, and one guy guessed right and won all the money. A woman and a man near the cup mover were the losers and they were pretty unhappy, but they congratulated the winner and threw down fresh twenties. Well, the same guy guessed right and won again. I could tell where the shell was by looking, just as well as he could, so I moved up and put a twenty down too. The man spun the cups, and when he stopped, I knew the pea was in the middle cup and turned it over, but nothing was under it. My heart jumped as he scooped up my money, and I immediately turned around and walked away, numb, feeling the crowd’s eyes on me.
Walking slowly along First Avenue, I remembered those dealer’s hands spinning the cups. Those other people in the audience, the winner and the losers, were in on it with him, I realized with great humiliation, and I closed my eyes for a few steps. In my mind I saw the unmoving left fist of the mean Laurel before his hidden fist bopped me.
I passed by your supermarket and peeked inside. You were behind the register. No one was on line, and you stood there almost perfectly still. I’d only glanced in for a second, but then doubled back and peered in again before heading home. That was when the idea came to me to write you this letter.
But I won’t send it. My visit to the theater was supposed to be a funny story, but lasting two minutes at Marionettes and Donkeys wasn’t funny after all. The fight was supposed to be an exciting story (without my stupidly mentioning the knife wielder’s identity). The Laurel and Hardy story was supposed to be funny, too, originally, before I realized what a rotten creep that fake Laurel was. And when I first thought of telling you the shell game story, I was going to say that some other sucker lost his money.
Worst of all, I had no idea I was going to go on and on about your hands (that just came out), or add now that when I was riding the elevator to my apartment tonight I couldn’t stop remembering how they rested lonely and delicate on the register counter, so to speak, or that when I first hatched the idea of writing to you honestly and sincerely, I suddenly felt free and happy, all the way up to the nineteenth floor.
That feeling is gone now. I couldn’t send this in a million years. Instead maybe I will tear it up and send something short and simple—handwritten—like one of those party invitations that kids send to other kids for birthdays, with the where and the when and the RSVP written in a column. Or better yet, come to think of it, if I really want that free and happy feeling back, maybe tomorrow afternoon I will send my own self to you. I won’t say much at all, if I can help it—just breathe and say hi, spill out the where and the when, and take my RSVP like a man, as they say.