The cold air hits my face and make my teeth ache. On the sidewalk, a dusting of snow reveals the patterns of foot traffic, coming and going, that are usually invisible. I walk the same direction as another set of tracks for a few blocks, then they go on straight and I turn.
I push open the red door of a small bohemian cafÃ©, order chai, and wedge myself into a corner booth with my notebook. The room swells with music. On the tiny stage about six feet away, a jazz band untangles a mess of notes that say more about sanguine longing, and bravado, sorrow and wonder, than anything Iâ€™ll be able to write.
It takes me a while to arrive. To stop feeling self conscious: with my long legs in a too small corner. But gradually I do. I let the music alter me the way a photograph changes hue under running water. I let the piano playerâ€™s wild notes dance across my brain, scattering the tension Iâ€™ve felt for daysâ€”and then the trumpeter picks up his horn and plays notes that are plaintive and tremulous and bold and I almost want to cry.
In between sets, when my eyes and my entire body are not wrapped up in the music, I take sips of chai and let my pen work its way across the page. First I write about the room: the heat, the red light spilling over the tables, the people in twos and threes mostly sitting around small tables sipping red wine. Then I sketch. Quick line drawings of chairs and trumpets, the drummers hands, the bass playerâ€™s back. When I write again it is about deeper things that have to do with love and loss, and my words, like my emotions scatter messily across the page.
Being here is somehow dislocating. Iâ€™m suddenly in limbo, not sure who I am. The person I am here in the midst of all this art and energy and verve is not the same person I am at homeâ€”where Iâ€™m somebodyâ€™s mother and dishes invariably need doing.
In the booth next to me two college girls chatter and I love their sloppy, carefree way of pulling together an outfit out of wooly boots, many necklaces and hoop earrings. When did I get so serious about clothing, I wonder? Almost everything I own is practical and understated. My camel colored cable knit sweater and sand washed jeans are boring in this room full of artist types who take risks with what they wear: horn rimmed glasses, hats with sequins, beaded chandelier earrings, plaid scarves and lovely faux fur trimmed coats.
The piano player is wearing a train conductor hat, and it works well with his jaw line. In the lamplight he is handsomeâ€”but more so because of the way his fingers move, pulling beauty and emotion out of black and white keys. I let my words follow the notes he playsâ€”wildly, all over the place. I stop trying to write anything meaningful, and instead write whatever comes to mind, drawing lines between incongruous ideas like the pauses the players take between sets. Gradually, the words I scribble begin translating back and forth between the pieces of me, until I start feeling whole again.
When they take a break, the bass player, the drummer and the pianist go up to the bar and order dark beers in tall glasses. They stand around laughing, sipping their drinks. The place clears out a little an I let my shoulders relax. Opposite me, the trumpeter sits, still playing softly, eyes closed. I listen as he follows phrase, then carries out one string of notes until it becomes a wavering song of keening or rejoicing. He plays so tenderly, so quietly, itâ€™s hard to hear against the ruckus gafaws and rowdy greetings.
More people push through the door, bringing the cold air with them, and as the musicians settle down for one final set before they count their tips in the big metal bowl, I toss my dollars in and leaveâ€”grateful for these moments of heat and wonder and song.