There’s this guy I’ve recently noticed at my favorite coffee shop. He’s there when I arrive and he’s still there when I leave, every time I’ve been there lately. The last time my writing partner and I were there together we had a conversation about him, curious, wondering, about his story. My first guess is, he was once a soldier, obvious by a few distinguishing accessories he always carries with him. My second guess is, he’s witnessed something traumatic, obvious by the weight of the air around him.
He sits at the same corner table, a battered notebook in front of him, furious scribbles bleeding out across the pages. It wouldn’t take a sharp observer long to recognize he’s haunted. By so many ghosts. Pouring them out each day over page after page after page. We’ve never spoken. I’m not sure he ever even looks up at those around him. His focus is always intent upon his pages, and the bleeding out of ink.
Tonight though, was different. I’m by myself tonight, scribbling away at my own ghosts. I noticed him stand from the corner of my eye. As he walked across the room to throw something away in the trash can near my table, he looked up. And on instinct, I smiled at him. A smile and a nod. Even being the introvert I am, it’s just one of those Texas things you do when you make eye contact with a stranger in passing. It’s ingrained in us. I can’t help it. But the truth is, I wanted to smile at him. I wanted him to know, I see.
It was clear in those few seconds in passing, he struggled to reciprocate. The smile he returned was nervous and heavy, his eyes shadowed, like the stories he carried had become too much, like he was daring me to run away screaming. A heart damaged. Walking wounded. Burned by a fire the naked eye can’t see.
I’m not normally moved by strangers. I’m notorious for getting lost in my own head most of the time and people blur past me unnoticed, as we all go about our respective business. But this guy, him, I saw. I made the decision to look up, to get out of my own head and pay attention. And now I can’t stop thinking about him. I can’t shake this feeling that his burdens might be undoing him and though the circumstances are most certainly different, I know what that feels like. I can’t shake this feeling that even though his posture screams “keep away”, he’s lonely, and I know what that feels like too. Now, he is haunting me.
It crossed my mind to sit down beside him, to trade a cup of coffee and a kind word for a piece of his story. But he already had a cup of coffee. And the set of his shoulders, curled tight and protective over his words, told me my offer wouldn’t be welcome. Maybe he just doesn’t want to be completely alone, and that’s why he’s chosen this place for his thoughts. And maybe, though surrounded by so many possible conversations, his words are meant for those battered pages only, because that is all that he can bear…
So, I ’ll sit here wondering from afar, curious and haunted by his sadness, sending up a silent prayer for the burden of the ghosts he carries. I’ll sit here in peace, sharing the space in respectful quiet. And I’ll smile when he passes by, wishing that he might find hope there or somewhere, anywhere at all.
He left before me tonight and his eyes found mine for the second time as he walked out. I smiled and he smiled. And maybe it was just my own irrational hope clouding my vision, but this smile didn’t feel as heavy as the one before.
We’re all walking wounded, carrying ghosts. We’re all bleeding stories of either hope or madness, or some irrational combination of both. And the truth is, we all have a story to tell. We all want to be seen, to be understood, to be loved.
I haven’t always been good at looking up, at paying attention to other wounds, but I’m getting better and better. I’m glad I looked up tonight. I’m glad I smiled. Because, maybe all this soldier needed, in the middle of his heavy story was a smile and a nod from a stranger, to remind him he matters. To remind him of hope. Maybe, that’s where redemption begins…in those slivers of hope.