There’s a man who sits alone in the corner both of the 24-hour diner where I work. He’s there when I clock in and never leaves before I clock out. I’ve never seen him with a companion, which is probably how he likes it seeing how he always wear a look of distraction and preoccupation on his face. His face is worn as if from a mixture of too much sun and too much sadness. He stares into his cup of black coffee with such intense thought that you’d think he was trying to keep it warm with some sort of telepathic power.
It doesn’t work of course. He rarely drinks from the cup before it becomes lukewarm. His face gives away the fact he finds the taste unappealing, but he never asks for a new cup. He just sits, content to be in a world of silence and solitude. Most of the other waitresses don’t find the time to check on him or refresh his cup, but there’s something about him that keeps me going back to the corner booth to check in. I rarely get much of a response when I ask if he’d like a refill, but tonight is different.
“Would you mind terribly sitting with me for a moment?” His polite tone and soft words take me by surprise. I was awaiting a slow nod and a possible, “Please”, to my offer to bring out a fresh coffee. Nothing more.
I look around the place and see only one other patron who is emptying his pockets to find change for a tip. Being that it’s a slow night and my curiosity about this familiar stranger is overwhelming my thoughts, I smile and scoot into the booth across from him. We sit in silence for a moment, both of us keeping our gazes anywhere but in the other’s eyes.
“Do you know what it’s like to be lonely?” He asks, bringing his gaze from his coffee up to meet mine. His eyes look as if he’s been crying, but I’ve been watching him for hours and have not seen a single tear. His look exudes an innocence and patience that reminds me of a young child, waiting for an answer to one of the world’s unanswerable questions.
I nod my head slowly, as I decide to respond honestly. “Yes. I guess I do, sir”. Of course I do. Who doesn’t? Loneliness is one of those ironic realities of life; being lonely is something that can unite humanity.
“Yes. Yes, I figured as much.” The man said in a somber tone. He seemed hurt by my admission, but he also seemed to understand and respect it. “How do you cope with that loneliness, my dear? If you don’t mind me asking.”
And weirdly enough, I don’t. I welcome his candid questions in a way I don’t usually when asked about personal issues. I am twiddling my thumbs below the laminate table as I search for my answer.
“Well, honestly? I’ve never really thought about it before. I don’t think I do. Cope with it, I mean. It’s a part of me, sure, but it’s not a part I want to dwell on.” I look up from my lap to see if my answer has satisfied the inquisitive old man. From what I can tell it has. And it leads him to another question.
“And you are truly okay with ignoring a part of yourself – your being – just to miss out on the pain?” His words hit me hard this time. I have never thought of not dealing with my past as ignoring a part of who I am.
And in that moment I see her. The little girl I’ve tried to suppress for so long, looking up at me, full of loneliness. Not just the loneliness she – I – felt as a child, but the loneliness of being abandoned by herself for so many years. My heart breaks as I begin to remember what it felt like to be that little girl, alone, watching Daddy pack up, telling me I will always be his little girl, even though I know that’s not true. I feel a tear fall down my cheek. I wipe it away as quickly as I can.
“No, I’m not okay with it. It’s not something I’ve ever gave much consideration to. That’s all. I’ve known loneliness for a long time now. I figured it was better to accept it and leave it be rather than deal with the hurt.” I am amazed by this stranger’s ability to strip away any reservations I have about sharing such personal information. It’s frightening and freeing at the same time.
“You are stronger than you think, my child. I have known loneliness, too. There are different ways to live with loneliness. You can bury deep within your heart in a place nobody can touch it – sometimes not even you – and you can let it sit and grow until it numbs a part of your soul. Or you can acknowledge the pain. Bring it to the forefront and make it matter. The second choice may be more difficult at first, but I have come to learn it is the only real way to live. Denial is a facade that denies our spirit of the love and life it deserves.”
He looks at me calmly and serenely. I can feel him inexplicably linked to my life, as if I recited my autobiography from across the booth. He knows my loneliness and my regret. He can’t, but he does.
“You are so much more than you let yourself believe, my dear. Take that loneliness, acknowledge it, and set it free. When you find the strength and reassurance you need, that loneliness will fade into a memory, and that memory will serve as a lesson.” He watches me and produces a warm and comforting smile. “Would you mind terribly getting me a fresh cup of coffee, please? Black would do just fine.”
I am surprised by the sudden switch in conversation, but I automatically nod and begin shuffling out of the booth, grabbing his cup on my way. With one last glance back before I head to the counter, I see his teary eyed gaze from his tired, warm eyes still on me.
When I return to the table, my new friend, or perhaps therapist, is gone. All that remains is money for his bill, a generous tip, and a faded old photograph with the top right corner torn off. As I carefully set down the cup near the edge of the table, trading it for the aged photo, I feel a tear in the same spot as earlier, but I do not wipe it away. I am too busy looking at my father throwing a very young me up in the air. It was just after I scored my first soccer goal. I was four. I could never forget that day. And on the back of the picture is a phone number. My father’s. And beneath the number, a message, written in a fragile script.
“Let the loneliness fade. Be free.”