It’s one of the subtle joys of the City, to sit in a coffee shop eight inches from a couple having an animated conversation in an exotic language. I don’t speak a word of this Asian dialect. The tone does not require translation. He starts slowly, gets louder. His inflection sharpens. She responds with vague incredulity, then retreats. They finished eating a long time ago. The empty brown paper lunch bag was pushed to the side of the table before I sat down.
For a moment his tone softens and his left hand reaches across the small square oak table. He touches her jacket. Her voice is contralto, sotto voce, like the upper range of a bassoon and when I glance over she is lovely. She tilts her face, hides in her long hair. Once jet black, it’s been bleached and dyed a flattering shade of chestnut. Her chin is up and strong. Her lips are full. She is young, perhaps nineteen or twenty. He starts up again, his White Sox cap covering his eyes, his own chin down. He pounds the table with the side of his hand. He talks for a few minutes non-stop and then shoves a used straw into their shared trash bag.
They lapse into silence. For the fourth or fifth time. I half expect coaches to emerge from opposing corners to daub their brows. She comes back on the offensive. A few well placed words. He is pushed back into his chair from their force. He makes a gesture of empty arms, shrugs. There’s one word that I understand. “OK,” he says, and it sounds as though he proposes some kind of solution. Fast words, but there is no power in them. She’s noncommittal, one hand on top of her once-hot, now-empty paper coffee cup. Tapping. Recrossing the knees of her Levis.
They’ve been at it for forty five minutes. Long enough for me to finish an iced mocha, go back up and order some Tuscan bean soup. Long enough for the crowd at the Brooklyn Bagel Co. to turn over twice except for the two die-hards on laptops, guys here for the free wi-fi at the countertop, their faces ten inches from the acid green colored wall.
Considering the ebb and flow, the intensity, it’s remarkable that this young Asian couple lapse into normal tones, a baseline tenderness. He puts his hand on his chin and looks out the window while she makes a point, her finger pressing on the table again. Again. Again. Whatever the problem, it’s not going to be solved by any spoken word. It stands a chance of being solved by another language altogether.