You first overhear and then look at the middle-aged couple at the corner table debating which Tennessee Williams play won an award in 1948. He’s overbearing, clad in dont-give-a-damn sweats and a crimson-colored shirt with purple stains that look like bruises over blood, like escalating injuries, only in reverse. Narrow-framed glasses pressed tight against the bridge of his nose give him an eagle’s stare, only more fearless. She’s timid, the independence of her lumberjack’s shirt and blue jeans demoted by her surrendering eyes and unkempt hair. She’s hiding behind a newspaper, trying to avoid the forthcoming argument she’s sure to lose. Together they look like a wreck, a pair of beached souls on the shores of Empty Vows.
The air feels cool in the old coffee house, similar to an empty church. The old silver-tin ceiling is high and the blades of the cooling fan rest, stalled by the oncoming Midwest winter. She’s so close. Your subject. Your classmate. The table lamp casts a light across her face as she skims the pages of a women’s magazine. You think how she should be posing in it for an ad for vodka or kitchenware.
“There’s nothing wrong with my pencils,” you finally tell her. “I just can’t seem to keep them sharpened.”
“So it’s bad?” she asks, her eyes glued to a page.
“Not bad. Just not a very close likeness of you. It’s almost like a caricature. And a bad one at that.”
“So it is bad?”
“Sorta.” Now you think how bad, how awkward, it is to express yourself both verbally and through drawings. If you could get it right, either way, maybe she’ll notice you. You pause to study an oil painting on the wall. It’s a local effort of someone’s dog with shaggy fur streaked in chaotic blue tones.
She continues reading. Draw her portrait. Don’t draw her portrait. You realize she doesn’t care one way or the other. She’s not interested in seeing what you’ve done so far. And its just as well, as you don’t have the gift. The technique. The methodology. But most of all, you don’t have the nerve.
“Is my hair okay like this? Paul can’t stand it when it’s in a ponytail.”
Again with Paul. It’s always ‘Paul this’ and ‘Paul that’. He’s never been in your and her third-hour Psychology class. He’s not even in the coffee house but her thoughts of him are.
“Sure,” you finally say.
You think how stupid this Paul, whom you’ve never seen, must be to critize her perfectly stunning appearance. Even now you find her too adorable with her light-pink baggy sweatpants and over-sized white jersey with the big red 8 on the front. She wears frumpy well enough to attend the opera. And yes, you like her hair. Dark brown. Up or down. Paul’s an idiot, you conclude.
The man from the corner table wanders by. Distracted, you look up at him.
“Oh,” he says, just as someone behind the counter shouts ‘Capacino!’. “You’re just drawing.”
“Usually you college kids are writing about us.”
“Us. The rest of us who like to go out for a cup of coffee without having to worry about you ‘literary geniuses’ mocking and misrepresenting us.”
“I see. Well, I’m not writing. Not today.”
“Might be better if you were. That’s a terrible likeness of your girlfriend.”
“He’s not my boyfriend,” she’s quick to announce.
Pissed, you tell him, “Mind your own business.”
“What did you say?”
You think about starting to stand.
You and the man look at her. She has that way about her. That way that either stops men from doing something stupid or pushes them to act with resolve.
Your eyes catch those of the man’s wife’s, who quickly looks away, not wanting to get involved.
There’s a kind of standoff, hollow and safely on this side of do-nothing. The man smiles at your non-girlfriend and smirks at you and then goes back to his table.
You feel warm now. The air in the room is near boiling. Or is it just the teapot in your head about ready to blow? Minutes pass as you continue jotting with strokes of irritation while she pages through the magazine like Grace Kelly in Rear Window.
“I gotta get going,” she suddenly tells you while picking up her backpack. “Paul should be home now. Are you going to be okay?”
You pretend you don’t know what the hell she’s talking about and shrug your shoulders and tell her, “Yeah.”
“See ya tomorrow,” she says as she walks away with your balls slung over her shoulder. “And sharpen those pencils.”
You look at the drawing. It’s terrible. Especially the ponytail, you now realize. You start to draw lines down from the top and side of her head and over her brown eyes, sculpted nose and full lips. You quickly draw more lines down and then start to draw more lines just as quickly across those until she finally has no face and all that’s left are crashing lines the shape of a big dark brown X.
You avoid eye contact with the man at the corner table and, instead, look at the dark evening outside the window and the lights from street lamps and passing headlights. She’s been gone only a minute but you miss seeing her already.