Last week, I went to Borders to study for my neurobiology and my molecular & cellular bio final exams.
(As an aside, nothing has made me mentally curse over the past few weeks as much as thoughts of neurobiology do: Friggin’ hell! I understand that NPB stands for Neurobiology, Physiology, and Behavior, but, friggin’ hell, maybe I’d actually understand it if it were less physiology and more behavior. So, once again, friggin’ hell, man! Alright, I’ll stop. Moving along now.)
I walk into the Borders cafe, a bit chagrined to find all the tiny, individual tables taken. The only one that looks nearly empty is the long, rectangular table in the center of the cafe, occupied only at one corner by a mother and her small daughter. I approach them from the opposite end of the table and smile. “Mind if I sit here?”
The mother shakes her head. “It’s a bit too big for just us.” The daughter, sitting in her mother’s lap, regards me wide-eyed.
I smile my thanks and drop my messenger bag on the floor, place my discman and headphones a bit more carefully atop the table, and pull out a chair at the corner diagonally across from them.
“I saw my daddy today!” the little girl tells me as I sit down. “And he brought me this juice!”
The little girl is Asian, although her mother apparently is not. The daughter has lots of shiny black hair and huge, dark eyes, and she’s gulping down an Odwalla Superfood beverage, holding the opening of the plastic bottle right up against her mouth in the manner that little kids are wont to do, so that her mouth is totally surrounded by a large green-black ring. In a word: Adorable. I suppress a smile.
“Is the juice good?” I ask with genuine interest, since it looks reallyâ€¦well, greenish-black, and I’m trying not to wince at the color. She nods enthusiastically.
She points outside in the direction of the parking garage. “We came down here in the elevator!” And then, with characteristic forthrightness: “How old are you?”
“I’m 24. How old are you?”
“Four. No, four and a half.”
“Not yet,” laughs her mother.
A stranger sits down across from me, smiling politely at us before delving into his book.
The little girl watches him curiously “Do you know him?” she asks me. “Does he know you?”
I shake my head, while her mother speaks softly into her ear.
“How old is he?”
“Maybe not everyone wants to say how old they are,” says her mother.
I take my books out of my bag and spread them out in front of me while the little girl watches. “How did you tie up your hair?” she asks, pointing at my headwrap.
“Well,” I say, accustomed to hearing this question often, “I doubled my hair up in a pony-tail, and then I tied a bandanna around it, and then I just wrapped this other big scarf around my head.”
“Can you show me?”
Her mother tries to shush her. “It probably takes a lot of time, and I don’t think she would want to take off her scarf and re-do it all here.”
“I can tie up my hair,” the little girl murmurs. “I can tie my hair around my hair, too.” She gathers her hair in front of her and starts braiding it. I’m smiling to myself, because this is the most talkative, articulate four year old I have ever met. And also because she is sitting in her mother’s lap with her back against her mother’s stomach, and her mother seems to have no idea of the large black ring around her daughter’s mouth.
As I pick my sweater off the table and drape it across the back of my chair (never underestimate the speed with which my fingernails turn blue in air conditioned environments), the little girl remarks, “You look different without your coat.”
“I do? How?”
She shrugs. Her mother smiles and correctly points out, “She wasn’t wearing her coat when she came in.”
“Yes, she was!”
As they get up to leave (the mother finally noticing and trying in vain to wipe the black circle off her daughter’s mouth), I turn around in my chair to say goodbye. While passing by my chair, the little girl gravely sticks out her hand, and I shake it just as solemnly. “I’m Yasmine. What’s your name?”
“Bye, Lily! It was nice talking to you.”
Only after she is out the door do I realize I could have added, “We both have flower names!” But maybe that would have been overdoing it. After all, I do laughingly refer to my own as a “generic flower name” often enough.
I find a small table of my own and move my stuff over, but now that Lily and her entertaining chatter are gone, I’m bored already. I watch everyone else around me, in an effort to distract myself from studying, and cringe at the too many girls under twelve who sashay about in their ruffled mini skirts. My blend of pity and irritation is soon alleviated by my amusement at the old man gravely reading “eBay for Dummies” across the room, and the South Asian boys next to me fervently discussing the merits of “Nintendo Power.”
I look up for a split second, and the woman sitting with her back to me at the next table is perusing a book whose pages address concerns such as “Flaking Eyeshadow” and “Bleeding Lipstick.” I want to say, “Buddy, eyeshadow is fun, but seriously, makeup is not worth all that drama if you have to read a whole book about it,” but decide to leave her to her reading.
When I get bored of biology in all its various forms, I wander over to check out the real books, because we all know textbooks don’t count. The Calvin and Hobbes compilations hold my interest the longest. I stand there and laugh, speedily flipping through the pages – like I used to with those mini animation booklets we made in elementary school – then drag the books back to my table, against my better academic-oriented judgment. “I’ve got nothing but consonants!” continuously exclaims Calvin in outrage, spelling three-letter words as Hobbes condescendingly put far more elaborate tongue-twisters. It reminds me of all the times I’ve played Literati over at Yahoo! games with Chai & Co., and whined about not having any vowels at my disposal.
A middle-aged gentleman leans over my table on his way out and says, “Thank you for brightening my lunch,” then turns and scuttles away before I can even think to formulate a proper reply. I don’t know why exactly he was thanking me, unless, knowing me, I had probably smiled absently in his direction whenever I turned my head to scrutinize the local Persian artist’s paintings hanging on the wall just behind his table. I laugh silently at how I am The Most Oblivious Person In The World™ (yes, it merits capital letters and a trademark symbol, it’s that bad), and am reminded of H#3 and his habit of shamelessly flirting with every girl at our workplace. One morning, I walked over to his cubicle to grab some paperwork and greeted him with my standard, “How goes it, buddy?”
“Better now,” he said smoothly.
“Oh,” I said with concern. “Were you not feeling well?”
His winsome smile slipped away, replaced by a wide-eyed, incredulous, “ohmygod she totally didn’t get it” look. Meanwhile, I wandered off obliviously, and then laughed out loud when it finally hit me while I was sitting at my desk, a good hour or so later.
I listen to Amos Lee on my headphones while consuming ice-blended chocolate drinks and a raspberry latte. Two years later, and I sadly still don’t know the difference between espressos and mochas and lattes and whatnot.
As I am leaving Borders at the end of the day, I catch a flash of movement out of the corner of my eye, and turn to see a little boy running by, exclaiming in wide-eyed awe, “Dad, I SAW BUTTERFLIES!” My wide grin comes naturally, as does the irrepressible laugh that follows. The other cafe people look up with vague interest, then return to their magazines and coffees and books and muted conversations.
Those were the best parts of my day: Lily and Calvin and The Butterfly Boy.