The Middle Distance 12.13.13: Small Talk About Christmas

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6min 00sec
Credit Sean Cayton

The snow has finally stopped falling after four days of constant icy drizzle, but sidewalks are still packed with a three-inch sheet of frozen, thawed and refrozen precipitation. Pedestrians tread carefully, especially along sidewalks that have gone un-shoveled or in shady corridors where the sun rarely reaches the ground. It’s Christmas time in the city.

A new coffee shop has opened on a popular and convenient corner, attracting a prosperous looking crowd who can afford the stiff price of a hand-made cup of imported joe. Inside, the atmosphere is warm and bustling. Patrons gaze at their electronic devices, then at one another, then back .

From the end of the central, long communal table, conversations swirl about in all directions, impossible to ignore and easy to overhear in this tight acoustic space. To the right, a table of well-dressed business people, a few of them in their 30s, the others a decade younger, all huddle intently toward the woman directing their conversation. She is dressed in black and her sleek haircut, sturdy shoes and multi-pocketed courier bag, along with her clipped gestures, speak no nonsense.

To the left, a couple of scruffy looking tech guys compare notes on a web video they are putting together for a client. Slightly beyond them, two women sip hot chocolate and recount recent adventures in their love lives.

Small talk about Christmas shopping and travel plans spans the time until food is served.

The woman in black has asked one of the younger men at her table a question about his first year out of college. “I’m basically trying to appease my parents for the next few months,” he says, drawing a big laugh. He glances down at his lap. Relief spreads across his face, a slow thaw. She manages the laughter like a seasoned performer, delivering her next line at the crest of the pause: “So what do you want to do with your life?” In this buzzing place where hearing yourself think is near impossible, where Burl Ives’ “Holly Jolly Christmas” blares over Bose speakers, a bubble of silence descends over the table and all eyes turn to the smiling 20-something as he swallows a bite of sandwich.

The tech guys to the left indulge in a glass of red wine with their salads. One of them has recently traveled abroad to a place that exhausted and thrilled him and made him appreciative of creature comforts when he returned home. The other looks preoccupied as he listens to his lunch partner’s travel tales. They briefly discuss their client and the video they are making and the preoccupied one says: “I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about what I want to do with my life and if this is it. I know I’m good at it, but I don’t know if it means anything.” His tablemate asks a few thoughtful questions and leans in. “It’s just,” says the preoccupied one, “I’ve been doubting my faith and that changes everything.”

Behind them, the two women are sipping tomato bisque while one recounts her date last weekend, arranged on an internet match site. “It was OK,” she says, “really fine. But I felt like I was on display, being sized up. It would be so much easier if I could just find someone I’ve known all my life to love, somebody who knows me, you know?” The other woman nods and looks stricken. She knows the feeling.

Outside, cars and trucks accelerate through blackened slush and shoppers stand back from the curb to avoid being splashed. Clouds part and overlap, allowing the sun to peek through then hardening the sky. To the west, the mountain that normally dominates every view is still shrouded by clouds as it has been for days. The flattened landscape leaves everyone disoriented, knowing something big is missing.

The woman in black leans forward and chooses her words carefully. “After my mother died,” she says, “I let a lot of things slip. I wasn’t focused. My mind was somewhere else.” Everyone around the table nods as if they recognize this common problem.

The tech guys lock eyes across their table and the traveler says: “They remember once upon a time when they had something they were living for. I try to guide them back to that.”

The two women hug goodbye and pull on their coats and scarves. Dishes clatter, a stiff wind blows through the open front door, and Bing Crosby croons over the rumble of conversations, dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones he used to know.

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.