1.The beginning is simple enough: I find myself in the park due to a sudden urge to go to the museum. My restlessness always translates itself into such abruptimpulses. So, I find myself on the steps of the museum at an absurdly early hour. It is closed, of course. Everything is closed at this time of day. I consider my options. I could return to the apartment. Carolina will be there soon enough to make my coffee and breakfast. However, the sky is clear and I decide to walk on. It is spring – and early enough in the day to find some moments of peace before the city’s traffic starts up. I pass a café I’ve never seen before, and decide to check if they are open.
2.I try the door; it opens. I enter, and take a seat. I see a woman standing behind the bar. She wears a white shirt, a long black apron tied tight about her waist. ‘Cafecito, por favor’. When she serves me I notice her hands for the first time, in many more times to come. It becomes a habit. I spend every morning at the café, at the same table, served always by the same woman. She is the only person working there at this hour. I wake myself up every day at five. It becomes automatic, no need for an alarm. I throw on clothes, and head out. I even go to the museum. I stand on the steps, look up at the door – it is always closed of course. I observe the building for a few moments, and walk on.
3.This first morning I order my coffee in Spanish, and every morning afterwards I do the same. I find myself each day in the café at an hour when no one I know is about. The moment anyone else enters the café, I leave. The rest of my day continues as before. I go home. I shower. I change into something more appropriate. Carolina has my breakfast prepared, as ever.
4.In the past, I was a famous surgeon. I had inherited a good mind, and after some years of training in Oxford, England, I qualified as a surgeon, only to turn my hand to facelifts and other plastic surgery treatments to make women look different than they were supposed to look. I considered myself very clever indeed. The waitress asks me what I do for a living. I laugh. I’m an old man. I’m retired. She persists. She wants to know. This is not a conversation I want to have. I enjoy being a stranger. I like this woman knowing nothing of my life, or who I am. I would like to keep it that way.
5.But it’s the first sign of interest she has shown me, and it would be rude not to respond. It’s hard to explain. I pause before speaking. I can say anything. I can say I was a poet. I was a road sweeper. I was a baker. I was an architect. She’ll never know. So I just tell her I was a surgeon. I am not more specific than that. I think it will end there, our chat, but she assumes I was a general surgeon, and goes on to tell me about the man who saved her brother’s life when she was eight, at the time her father disappeared. Her eyes are warm as she relates this tale, nonetheless. Then suddenly, she shakes my hand, and I’m not surprised to feel the scar tissue on her hands. I noticed it the very first moment I met her.
6.‘I’m Beatriz’, she says. After this brief talk, our mornings continue. The days are warm. Then one day, she sits down right across from me. She lights a cigarette. ‘I am tired of these people saying: “This is what I want. This is not what I want. What is this? This is not what I ordered. Get the manager”, all the time! These rich folks– they throw their money at you. They never look you in the eye. They like to assume that you are stupid. Maybe it’s more fun that way.’ She gives me that smile. ‘These people…,’ she says, and sighs. I don’t know how to respond.
7.My hand is trembling; I spill my coffee. ‘Stupid,’ I say. ‘I’m so sorry.’ ‘They have been working hard, these hands. Give them a break,’ she says. She takes my hand between her palms. I feel her scars again. I have been so used to unravelling women all my life, constantly imagining them into something other than they are. The realness of this unmodified woman strikes me like a blow. It feels like the first time I interact with a human being.
8.The next day, an old customer of mine, a woman called Irene, enters the café. She immediately sits down at my table. She claims she spotted me long ago already, but couldn’t place me in those ‘ghastly clothes’. She says. ‘Look at you! I can’t believe you thought you’d get away with this beggar’s attire of yours!’ Now it’s impossible to pretend that I don’t know her.
9.Beatriz approaches. I try not to say more than I need, although the damage is done. I order two coffees, in Spanish. She walks away. I watch her shoulders become small, like those of a child. I try to resist having a conversation with Irene, but it is impossible to just sit there and say nothing. If Beatriz were hiding in the kitchen, she would hear every word. ‘So, Alfredo Martinez is dead. Such a handsome man once. But he looked awful in his coffin. He’d better seen you before he passed away!’ She said. ‘I’m no longer able, as perhaps you know – my hands…,’ I say. ‘Don’t you try to tell me that they’ve lost their touch! We all know who has the magician’s fingers!’ I cannot help but laugh a bit together with her. She leaves ahead of me, with promises of drinks, very soon.
10.I linger on in the café, not sure what it is that I am waiting for. Beatriz has left the bill on the table. There is no further need for her to appear. I know she will not. I leave the precise amount on the bill, no more, no less, in small change. I walk out of the door, without looking back. I feel a strong sense of melancholy, as I realize that I really do belong to the group of ‘these people’ Beatriz loathes so much, and Irene belongs to as well. I always have.
11.Pay attention. This is important: She is not beautiful. Her face is not symmetrical. As a rule of thumb beauty requires symmetry, and as with so many people, the two sides of her face don’t match. In fact, there is a kind of heaviness to the right side of her face, as if it were somehow more susceptible – to what . . . gravity, grief? A smoker. Indeed, we have smoked together. It is a passion we share. I know that she has smoked for some years, from the traces of lines on her upper lip; again, on the right. She has green eyes; I may not have mentioned. She has dark hair. It is of medium length, and most often tied back. She is moderately tall. Lines are visible on her forehead, revealing that she is in her late thirties. She has a small waist. She has scarred hands.