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Vin Ordinaire

The Cafe  by Tsuguharu Foujita

The Cafe by Tsuguharu Foujita

She came often to the same café, the somewhat plump middle-aged white woman in the good suits and sensible shoes, and though she varied what she’d order for dinner she always had one glass of the mild yet robust vin ordinaire, which she drained. The food was mediocre. The music on the radio was of the dentist chair variety and too loud. The tables were too close together. The flowers in the vases were simple, daisies and pompoms, and oddly were often wilted by evening. The atmosphere was mock French-Alpine, the waitresses were really French and spoke English well, and the food was prepared in an open kitchen designed to resemble the hearth in a country tavern of the late middle ages. The plants trailing from pots placed along the fake brick walls were plastic. But she came often to this same café, the somewhat plump middle-aged woman in the good suits and sensible shoes, to eat dinner, drink her one glass of vin ordinaire, and dream about the cook.

The cook was Mexican, in her early twenties, with an Indian face and perfectly round arms. She wore a white uniform, the kind that clings to breasts and hips and buttocks, the kind waitresses in cafés and attendants in the hair cutting salon the somewhat plump middle-aged woman in good suits and sensible shoes frequented. Her black braids were pinned into two rolls on either side of her face, kept in place by black netting. When she worked, folding an omelet in a pan, reaching across a counter for a far away item, her breasts moved as if they were stirred by a slight breeze, as if they were alive, like kittens, separate from the body. Her teeth were even and white, and she wore a dark cinnamon lipstick and cheek blush. She moved often, laughed often, talked often, mostly in Spanish to the kitchen staff, and didn’t seem to know that she was beautiful beyond compare and that she was being watched and adored.

The middle-aged woman contemplated the Mexican cook, whom she gave the name Alma, with a longing which she recognized had little to do with sexual passion. Yes, Alma was beautiful, and yes, Willa Revere was falling in love with her, but the falling of love was merely wistful, meditative. For when Willa tried to imagine striking up a conversation with her beloved Alma, she could not do so. She could not imagine being within five feet of the younger woman, feeling the other’s radiant body heat, the aura of living process which surrounded her. Of what would they speak? How would they look upon each other? What would they do next, what other places would they visit? What interchange was possible between them?

Willa could imagine the warm dry Mexican gaze turned upon her, the minimal curiosity, the gentle courtesy, the impersonal smile, and the moment was meaningless. She could not imagine that Alma could even see her. For what would she see? A somewhat plump middle-aged white woman in a good suit with sensible shoes, a creased face, faded hair, intelligent eyes. What was there of interest about this older woman? The cook would look upon her, and answer her timid question, and already her spirit would be turning away, back to her work, the next order to be prepared, back to her fantasies, her boyfriend, perhaps, her dream of a new winter coat with this or that faddish detail, or her worry over a brother’s misdeeds or a mother’s illness.

Willa could not imagine the two women together, two bodies, two voices, two people ready to penetrate each other’s lives. What have I to do with such a woman, Willa thought, or she with me? We are no one together, we both disappear into awkwardness. How could two such bodies make love? How could those perfectly round arms interlace around Willa’s broad back? How could Willa place her sad kisses against such smooth skin? Her knobby hands would burn in the smoky darkness of Alma’s hair. The two bodies contradicted each other, refused to meet, were repelled within the imagination and stayed apart. Willa could imagine only Alma’s lack of comprehension. They might well have been living in two different universes, where they interpenetrated each other’s time experience, but whose molecules could not mingle. Each was a ghost in each other’s world. Willa stayed silent, a woman who dined alone and did not draw attention to herself.

And she continued to gaze with modest adoration upon the working woman, the woman with glowing eyes and quick hands. And though she did not dare to dream, her thoughts wandered of themselves. What if she really were in a French café, Willa thought without noticing she was thinking, and Alma were the cook there, or better still, a waitress, so that she would be forced by circumstance to come right up to the tables. What if she came by me, brushed against my leg, for the tables would be close together, and I would feel her heat as the blood pulsed through her veins, enriching her flesh. What if she came by me several times in an evening?

What if she came by me several times in an evening? And I would be a young student, Willa dreamed, without noticing she was dreaming, I would be a student at the university, or a young art student, a young man recently come to Paris from the provinces. I would be very poor, and very shy. My shirt would be greyed from over-washing, and my jacket threadbare and too thin for the cold weather. My hands would be red and wind-roughened, paint-stained, and I would be ashamed of them, and hide them in my lap when Alma brushed by me. But I would yearn to paint her, to invite her up to my studio, where she would sit by the north window with her olive skin warmed by the indirect light, and my hands, red and coarse, would hold the brushes with great surety.

I would only yearn, for I would be tongue-tied and ashamed of my poverty, the barrenness of my room, and I never would be bold enough to speak to her. I would dream of holding her against my body, my body too thin and gaunt for its big peasant bones; I would dream of pressing her to me, and her flesh would be exuberant, sausage-tight, yet soft, soft, and her laughter would be sweet and warm and dry like the Mexican winds. This I would dream and I would grow red at the thought that she might divine my dreams and laugh at me, or accuse me, and then I would grow pale and my heart would ache.

How could I get to know her, to speak to her, I would agonize. I would observe other young men in the café, the careless, jaunty way they would address her, flirt with her, and the calm, un-self-conscious way she would laugh and brush off their flattery, their insinuations. She would respond to me, I would dream, for she is sensitive, I could win her, if only I could talk to her. I would never have the courage, though, and I would hide behind my glass of wine and my books. She would not be interested in my books, would not try to catch a glimpse of the title, because she would be only a simple woman, interested in the present, wanting to laugh, to dance, to walk in a light rain and be kissed in moonlight.

If only the young student would fall in love with me, Willa mused, I would discuss his books with him, his art, his notions about life and meaning and beauty and truth, we would share cold nights in his garret and the last stale heels of bread for breakfast, and we would live in the present, laughing, dancing, and we would walk in a light rain and would kiss in moonlight.

What more could Alma want? A woman like that, with softly rounded arms and laughter that is warm and dry and perfect? Of whom does she dream? A young woman must want a kind lover, healthy happy children, pretty dresses. Perhaps she too wants to encounter mystery, be delighted by a soul that inhabits an alternate universe. Perhaps she loves a movie actor with tumbled golden hair and a wicked glint in his eye. Perhaps she would steal her grandmother’s jewelry to buy him a solid gold cigarette lighter with his initials.

Willa considered the young cook with a longing that was so hopeless it had become detached, critical, analytic. She saw Alma clearly, as if the younger woman had begun to glow so from the inside that she now was set off from the rest of the world by a trembling halo of light. No, Alma would never become obsessed with another. She was too happy, too busy, so concerned with each moment as it came that she was locked eternally into youth. Her arms always would be round and silken, her manner always would be carefree, she would be gay, sweet-voiced, graceful forever.

In Paris a young artist went mad in his garret. A teacher, remembering the young boy some years later, mentioned casually to a colleague that the boy probably died of loneliness.

A young Mexican cook delighted in reading the poetry of Octavio Paz after work, even if only for ten minutes before she fell asleep. She hated that her clothes always were permeated with the stench of fried food.

Alma will grow old, like me, Willa decided. She will become like me, a dreamer, a story-spinner, thick at the waist, sag-fleshed, tired, obsessed with a story.

Nothing is ever simple. A middle-aged woman sits in a moment forever, falling in love with a young woman who cooks in a café and who never will know or recount any of this. She knows a different story, and perhaps will recount another story in another moment….

* * * * *

Merle Molofsky is a poet, playwright, fiction writer, and psychoanalyst. She also publishes articles in psychoanalytic journals. Her play, “Koolaid,” was produced at the Forum Theater of Lincoln Center in 1971.

Her website is:

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