Space. Sometimes, she saw it more, sometimes less. It seemed to disappear when embracing someone she loved. It seemed to reappear when they fought. When drawing people in public spaces, somehow a bridge was built between her and them. A bridge only she could see.
The small café was frequented by students, first tinder dates, pensioners reading newspapers and a small dog. Each of those little stories limited to the square wooden tables, each with a lightbulb above, a table and two chairs below. The girl sat on her chair, sketching absentmindedly. A middle-aged man wearing an expensive suit reading a newspaper sat at the table opposite of hers. They were secluded by a void, 20 centimetres of warm, quiet air between the two wooden tabletops. Each in their own world yet connected through her pencil.
Her eyes followed the warm light falling onto his cheekbones, covered by grey stubbles, causing a dark shadow to settle down under them. His silver hair shimmered slightly, while her pen was looking for the lines of his face in her sketchbook.
“Can I get you something to eat?” the waiter asked. She glanced at her watch.
“I’ll take the Quiche, thank you.”
He had either forgotten or consciously decided to dump her. Her eyes burned as she stared at the paper in front of her without seeing anything. The colours of the café around her shut down their brightness, the smell of coffee no longer tingled her nose. People were laughing but she did not really hear them, it was as if they were miles away. Her insignificance suffocated her.
“Pain is the most private of all experiences. Therefore, it cannot appear in public space,” Hannah Arendt once said; the girl had vehemently argued against it during the lecture.
She was alone, only 20 centimetres apart from breathing lungs like hers. She had her sketchbook and an empty chair in front of her. Nothing else, and the pain was hers and hers alone. Pain did appear in public space – but it severs the sufferer from it. Pain was nothing to be shared with strangers.
The phone of the grey-haired man rang.
She forced herself to continue her sketch. Suddenly the silent statue of his posture started shivering. His jaw was clenched, his knuckles white, his lips pressed together. He hung up, lowered the phone to his lap and just stared, stared and….cried. It was unnatural to see a grown man cry in public.
She decided it would have been ridiculous not to act. She passed a tissue, from one coffee table, one little space, to another; normally never crossed. She consciously used the bridge. His claw-like hands grabbed it with a whispered “thanks”. Nothing more happened.
She decided it would have been ridiculous not to act. Normally never crossed. He looked at her, his eyes glassy, his face full of pain. And suddenly she cried too. Something terrible had just happened to him. Dull colours surrounded them, but in between everything seemed very bright. The tears on their faces were shining, people’s laughter was rebounding.
“My ex-wife just died in a car accident.” His voice didn’t quiver but stood in harsh contrast to his eyes.
“She just died in hospital. I never told her I missed her.”
“I…,” she was looking for the right thing to say. Something comforting. Something meaningless. Something to be said in situations like these.
“It’s all right,” he said. His face regaining its former indifference.
It wasn’t, they both knew.
She couldn’t compare their pain. Yet, they were both suffering from loss. Two strangers crying, words travelling over a bridge.
She decided it would have been ridiculous to act. Public space versus private one of suffering. The void between the two coffee tables was never crossed; the tissue, the conversation – imagined possibilities. Crying was for private spaces. She never found out if someone had died. He never found out she had just been dumped and his pain would have made hers a tiny bit more bearable.
They never talked.
She walked home carrying her pain past laughing mouths of beautiful strangers. But she wondered: What was the point of tears, if not to be seen by others?
“Tears matter,” she mumbled, not knowing whether to herself or to Hannah Arendt in her head. Sometimes they needed to travel, from parliament into people’s heads. Greta’s tears shook the world, no matter if real or fake. So did Obama’s when he cried for the 26 people shot in a school. Public tears can move thousands, yet a man’s and a girl’s in a café moved no one enough to act, not even each other.