The first thing I notice is the bread. It’s the kind you can look at and know that it’s warm: dotted with raisins and nuts, all bound together in a canvas of soft browns— the colors of mid-October. That’s the first thing. It doesn’t take long, though, for the other details to arrive, darting into my periphery. A blue coat (the powerade-blue kind), a tangled beard (the Dumbledore kind), and twenty ounces of what I assume is coffee. He sets everything down with careful hands, then himself with careful legs. I don’t allow myself to glimpse his face, but I catch the ghost of a curse on his lips as his trusty to-go cup threatens rebellion.
It would be far too easy to go back to Rome, which is sitting on the table in front of me, but the spine seated at the table next to me carries something the one in front of me doesn’t: anticipation. Attention. He’s waiting for a friend. Within a minute, another slice of bread joins the table, this one much lighter, frosted. Vanilla. Most likely. Cake is probably a more apt word.
I don’t note the owner for a while, but the pair begins speaking. The conversation is mostly composed of simple pleasantries, but I’m amused: without discussing it, they’ve cut their treats in half and shared them. The action reminds me of some peaceful, weathered couple, and I begin to wonder just who these men may be.
But Rome is calling, so I shift my eyes, trying to tune out all distinct words. I reduce their conversation to a soft interplay of voices, a mingling of American (Dumbledore) and European (Mr. Cake) accents. Occasionally, though, words slip through.
The man with the cake: “So you do all the cooking? He doesn’t cook?”
“No, I do the cooking. That’s what he expects. I come home and he says ‘So, what’s for supper?’ A lot of the time he won’t eat it, though.”
Yeah, Appius, defiler of women and law in ancient times, why is this housemate so picky? I realize that Rome and coffee-shop conversations don’t mix, so I mark my page and listen for a while.
“I don’t know. It doesn’t make sense. Sometimes I’ll make something he’s had and liked before, and he’ll just say ‘Nah, I don’t want that.’”
Mr. Cake hmms thoughtfully. It sounds almost melodic with the accent.
Normally, I’d dismiss such a conversation as trivial, but I’m intrigued. Who is this man? Who is he cooking for? A roommate? A child? A partner? Why continue doing so when the most effective option seems to be buying pre-made food from the store?
“He likes when I buy the chicken tikka masala.”
“You know that kind?”
“Yes, yes. With the masala wine? That is the best.”
Okay. We’ve reached a solution then, right? This resident, whoever he is, will take chicken tikka. People can live off of chicken tikka for a while. Looks like we’re good. Back to Appius.
“To feel like he’s contributing, he’ll do the dishes.”
“Oh, well that’s nice.”
“Not always. I usually have to redo them.”
“Well, a lot of the time, there’s still food on them. If you ask him to rewash them, though, he won’t do it. So I wrap the dirty ones in paper towels and stick them in a bag. Then I put them out with the next night’s dishes, and he’ll do them.”
“Ahh. I see.”
The problem here? I don’t see. And, as I pretend to read and he describes this human’s inability to properly do laundry or keep the house out of disaster—forcing him to clean up and perform damage control in his coveted time alone—I grow impatient. How could someone choose to live this way? So passively?
This isn’t a fleeting rooming assignment (those with long white beards tend to be past their roommate phase), so what is it? Why stay?
It isn’t for a while that I understand.
It comes in snippets.
“I couldn’t have my house like that. I’d have a nervous breakdown. You probably already have. When do you fix it?”
“I wait until he leaves for church. He goes every Saturday. 3:30.”
“Oh, so he can drive?”
I make the mistake of trying to return to my work.
“Twelve hats. At least. He leaves them everywhere.”
“On the doorknob. On the stairwell. On a grapefruit. He just leaves one in one spot and picks up another one.”
“Well, things tend to go when you get that old, you know? I’d be happy to even function at 95.”
A shrug. Shaking his head.
“Well, you have patience. That’s good.”
“I guess so.”
And then it falls in.
“I guess he’s just dependent. Mom did everything for him.”
“I bet she did. Cooking, laundry, everything. That’s why he relies on you. But he still is able to do some things. He can clean himself, right?”
“Oh, yeah. That’s never a problem. He takes care of that on his own…”
“He does that for you. I bet he does that for you.”
The conversation slips into a thoughtful silence for a while. They eat their bread and cake, and—amidst the sound of plastic forks on paper plates—sympathy, looking for somewhere to sit, asks for a sliver of space in my head.
Of course, I tell him.
He sighs gratefully and sets down his bags.
I begin to think.
It’s his father. The person he’s living with, the one who seems to drive him to his wit’s end. Recently widowed and unable to live alone, the parent returns to the child, and both of their lives change. I’ve seen this situation before, but this seems harder.
Perhaps it’s because—over the course of a conversation that wasn’t meant for me—I’ve watched a man give his life away.
Does anyone want to sacrifice their privacy? Their clean dishes and properly folded clothes and clean home? Does anyone want to cook and disappoint every time, their efforts wasted? Does anyone want to spend their entire day waiting for the moments alone, in which they can pick up the messes and stresses that others have left behind?
Of course not.
But, sometimes, after sixty-two years of marriage, your father loses his wife. You lose your mom. And a nursing home sure as hell isn’t an option.
So, though you don’t want to share your entire world—to become the parent and, somehow, still feel horribly out of control—you do. And you always will. After all, that’s what they did for you.
The topic seems too heavy to leave, but, before I know it, the man with cake and an accent speaks again.
“Do you want to see my apartment?”
“Of course, of course.”
Like breaking out of a reverie.
The pictures begin to scroll.
“You see the balcony?”
“It’s a beautiful view.”
“It is. And the golf course is just over there.”
“That’s lovely. Look at the decorations!”
“You see this one?”
“Ah, yes, the statue—”
“Oh, okay. A lamp. That’s amazing. From China?”
The lamp isn’t from China, but it’s close. And, as this man with balconies and golf courses and almost-chinese lamps regales his companion with stories of travel across Europe and Asia, I wait for the man with a beard and now-cold bread to snap.
I expect frustration, impatience—indignation toward a privileged life so nonchalantly displayed. But there’s nothing.
He continues to stare at each picture in awe, appreciating the beauty and variety of a life that does not belong to him. He smiles, asks for more pictures, congratulates his friend.
His friend whose mother didn’t die. Who doesn’t have to give up his day to care for an aging father. Who can live for himself—and only himself—if he wants to.
I glance at Livy’s The Rise of Rome and an official Yale journal on my table.
In this moment, none of it seems fair.
But nobody else pauses. There’s no time to.
The men finish their food, drain their cups, and rise, slightly stiff.
“So, I guess I have a little more stuff than you, huh?”
“No; you have a lot more stuff than me.”
The words aren’t spiteful. Just simple. Like a smile.
And off they go, the one in the blue jacket sorting out their trash and plastics, and I never see them again.