La Rosita, on a commercially nondescript patch of Broadway south of Columbia University, was where she first tried pancakes, her first morning in the country. She came to visit for 3 weeks in February of 2002. Were we dreaming that 3 weeks of Knicks games and sex on the weekends and me cramming to catch up on my coursework Monday night would “clarify” our relationship? And help us make a “decision”? The pancakes were too dry for her. Taiwanese breakfasts have not “internationalized” (ie, Americanized) to the point that sweets is considered normal, though they do use a sweetened soy sauce. She was groggy, not quite believing she was here.
Now it is 2 years later, and I am at La Rosita again, waiting for my classmates. It is a hasty farewell; I don’t know whether anyone will show up. Next week I leave for Taiwan, to try and divine once and for all whether we can be happy together. Or rather, to try and just be happy – if not once and for all, then at least a bit at a time. I sit facing the window in the more homey room made of wood and mirrors. From behind, the Amstel and St. Pauli Girl beer signs are painted black, saving their glow for passersby. In a standup cooler case are cakes and cups of rice pudding; on the wall is a poster: steps to relieve a choking victim. I gaze out at the dark sidewalk, catching people’s faces, but the laughter and exclamations of the waitstaff behind me keeps drawing my eyes up to the shining square hanging in darkness above the pedestrian’s heads.: the screen of the TV hung above the bar behind me, reflected in the glass.
“El General!!” shouts an announcer, and a loose-limbed young Thug in a flowing, military-styled white suit struts down the carpet, grinning this way and that. He is flanked by melon-breasted troops in clingy dresses who preen for the camera.
“Oh, el es de Argentina,” one of the waitresses says. It seems to be a music awards “ceremony.” The other room, where one enters, has a counter and is tiled in white. The bathroom door is controlled by a buzzer behind the cash register. Above the toilet on the wall someone has written, “Bush is bad. He lie.” In that room people tend to eat alone, middle-aged people in sweaters or sweat pants dipping a spoon slowly into their soup, a New York Post folded beside their bowls. In the room where I sit, there is a small family. The father stands up and ruffles the hair of the boy whose head is laid on the table. “Come on, wake up. You can’t sleep here,” says dad, and the boy raises his head, eyes quizzical and puffy. He struggles to his feet and they shuffle out, a small peaceable herd of nudging and tugging. I smile at the thought of I and my old flame in that kind of ordinary intimacy. If only I could relax my mind about it, and let the thought of marriage dwell in such small scenes, rather than balloon up into a great thing, a thing to be ingested all at once.
I discovered my last time here that their toast is delicious dipped into café con leche. The buttery crisp toast takes on the bittersweet coffee, and tiny spots of oil float on the coffee’s surface.
Two classmates eventually pass by the window and, seeing me, come in and order Coronas and say they thought I was going to China. We reminisce about our first year, the bitterness of pressing our noses up against the cloudy pane of ignorance and trying to see through, the loss of freedom that muffled our lives, in New York even, in shades of grey. “Remember that time you biked all the way downtown at like 3 in the morning?” asked Antina.
“Oh yeah,” I said, “I was a different person then.”
“And you were pretty wasted, too!”
“I wish I had done more of that, maybe life wouldn’t have been so tough.” Antina and Tashira gaze fondly on each other, and it warms me. I picture S and I so relaxed in adoration, though I know when we are happy we are as involved in each other as two birds in spring, and every bit as chirpy. It has been a year, almost, since her departure, after a string of stormy nights, tender mornings, changed minds – plus a ripped up Far Side calendar, a severely beaten pillow, and a surreally pleasant dinner at an Italian restaurant on the upper east side only hours before we parted.
“So did you get funding?” I ask Antina.
“Yeah, the Wenner-Gren,” she says, and I congratulate her, genuinely. The Wenner-Gren is quite a coup. A year ago I would’ve been jealous, and ashamed of my own lack as an academic. But a year out of the pressure cooker I am a better person, not giving a shit how I compare to other people. I tell her quite frankly I regret the person I was. Anyhow, I have faith now that someday my gifts will bring forth some good fruit, whether academic or not. The lacerations I subjected myself to over “expectations” over those 3 years are slowly healing. I felt the world a hard place, when I was the one who conspired with the world to make it so.
I wonder if it is a look of sympathy on her face when I tell her I have gotten no funding so far, and I brandish a cheery tone to dismiss it. And it is heartfelt. The liberation from care I feel is worth 20,000 dollars. “I’ll just work a minimum number of hours and research the rest of the time,” I say, “Anyhow, all I care now is getting the degree – funded or not.”
La Rosita is the kind of place that is kind to conversation; it fades back between the words we speak, a comfortable presence. Besides not being drowned in loud music – “mood” apparently being antithetical to the play of human voices – the lack of a concerted effort to make you think you are somewhere else (ie, “atmosphere”) allows the conversation to float comfortably, idly, going where it will like water over gullied ground. How susceptible good conversation is to the pandemonium of “success” brought on by over-eager designers, the heavy-handed elegance of linen and dim lighting (again, atmosphere means lack of light), and the subtle pressure exerted by the bottom line, an anxious vibe that trails the waitstaff like toilet paper on a shoe. One doesn’t realize how delicate good conversation is until one sits in a place like La Rosita whose only decor is commemorative plates from San Juan – and feel the talk blooming comfortably, within the cupped hands of four walls that are neither too close nor too far away.
We part. “Soak up New York in your last month,” I say to Antina.
“I’ll soak up my boyfriend,” she says, and they walk down the hill to Harlem. I come into the Hungarian Pastry Shop, one last time to sit in a place which, like La Rosita, lets human activity happen freely, like music which is not too tightly timed or produced, allowing improvisation and divergences, cacophony or the concentration of two dozen furrowed brows bent over books. And such an unregulated mood is partly collective. Sitting there in the warm light of the wall-mounted lamps one does soak something up, an infectiousness of one kind or another. People do raise eyes from double-spaced pages and the red marking pen to look at one another.
I laugh inside to see kids here, brought invariably by adults hoping they’ll savor it as they do, or did, but at best the kids bubble over excitedly at how yummy the “ishler” is, or wonder what a “goosefoot” might be, like kids sampling a fine wine and oohing over the cool picture on the label. Tonight I sat next to a father and his two boys, well on their way to intellectual overdevelopment, the older one of twelve peering glumly at a book from under shaggy bangs and the younger, still like a child, eagerly feeding on dad’s commanding vocabulary. “I know egregious but not empathetic,” he pipes up smiling, and the only man explains scratchily that it is like sympathetic.
“So sympathetic is like empathetic?” he asks, and the dad nods, and wields more samples of his mastery, “preternatural” among them. The boy swings about a piece of paper stuck on one of those rubbery hands gotten our of gumball machines, the kind which usually end up under a dresser, covered in pubic hair and dust bunnies.
Three women talk in French, and one eyes me. I have dressed well today, a fluke of my laundry schedule and my mom’s Christmas ambition to re-clothe me. Her blond hair is swept back from her forehead and she wears a sweater cut just below the breasts, over a dress, with red clogs. I appreciate her style, and her glance, but am disinterested. Am I more mature, or simply scared too shitless to be attracted to anyone, like a testicle drawn up protectively into the body on a cold day?
When they leave, a melancholy-eyed undergrad with a black hat pulled low over her eyebrows like some ghost of flappers past sits down and takes out a copy of de Bouvouir’s “The Second Sex.” She wears a wide white belt and Samba soccer shoes. Eventually a boy comes, a boy hair curled around his ears, and he sits, dressed in plaid and other low-key statements of style and I watch their hands which do not touch and I hear her laugh loudly, once. I glance over and the hat is off, but the delicate shadowing around her eyes remains, and I think how nice it would have been to be so mature as an undergrad, to be friends with a woman who was “my type” rather than my chicken with its head cut off hormones leading me off in a thousand different directions. I wish I had been mature enough to have known my own “type”! Yes, this is the main point.
“Its 11:30, please bring up your checks,” announces one of the Ethiopian women and I look up, startled at how late it has suddenly gotten. I haven’t touched my Ishler. I’ll take it home and share it with Rob. I stick a dollar in the tip jar and the politicoes and undergrad girls file out.