Monday, February 4, 2013

People Watching

I was on a date the other night. We were having dinner at a cozy Sri Lankan restaurant and I was trying to be date-like –attentive, encouraging and charming. Despite my sincere efforts to focus on the lovely man in front of me I couldn’t help overhear the conversation at the table next to ours.

Woman: Do you think it is time?

Man: I’ve been waiting for this.
Woman: (smiles) Yeah, and…?

Man: I think…garble, garble….
A chair screeched.

I lost the rest of his words. I angled my head to observe the woman’s expressions. Thoughtful, patient, understanding. I sensed disappointment. She was doing an ace job of concealing it.
I looked down at her finger. There was an engagement ring.

I returned to my plate and date in time to catch the final words of his sentence. It had something to do with his childhood tastes for food. Being able to take 2+2 and make 5 (I have always been good at creative math) I made the appropriate comments on the food we were eating. My mind though had been appropriated by the woman at the next table.
What was it time for? Marriage? Maybe it was proving to be too long an engagement.

She seemed like a strong woman with plenty of self-control and perfect manners. Her posture was flawless, her skin alabaster gorgeous, her hair glinting in the evening light. Her eyes were guarded.

What was it time for? Time to tell his kids? Maybe he hadn’t told his daughter from a previous marriage that Daddy was getting married. No, that didn’t seem to fit correctly.

Time to buy a house? It seemed the right market conditions to buy. But how could it be so boring a reason.  
Or maybe it was time to return home to Taiwan? Maybe she wanted to raise their family back home.

What was stopping them for talking more openly? She was cautious. He studiedly careless watching his food a bit too attentively. Both were tip toeing around an issue that seemed bigger than house buying and event management.
What if they were spies, I asked myself? What if they were taking an evening off? (Did spies do that?) What if the engagement ring was a dud? What if it was a listening device? What if it was time to complete the assignment? What was the assignment?

And just like that I was taking notes in my head. Scenarios were flying. I was sketching the color of the man’s tie. The shape of the woman’s engagement ring. My fingers itched to take open up the Notes App on my iPhone and start tapping away but…but I had some sense of etiquette. Plus, I liked my date.

So, with some reluctance, I tuned out the other table’s conversation and returned to my date.
This is a huge occupational hazard of being a writer. You are generally a bad dinner companion, you don’t have any manners as you intrude into other people’s lives –privacy doesn’t feature in your vocabulary– and you have no scruples assigning an innocent couple Cold War sensibilities and assassin-like skills.

We make up stories. That’s what writers do. We get our ideas from the people around us. By eavesdropping. By staring. By peeking. By forgetting our manners.  
My date and I called it an early night. This happens now and then. Maybe it wouldn’t have happened if I had not paid more attention to the guy at the next table than the guy at my table.

I returned home. Pulled out a Lindt chocolate. Booted up my laptop. As I unwrapped the crisp, red wrapping I got over my what ifs. What if I hadn’t stared so much at the couple? What if I hadn’t thought of those stories? What if I didn’t people watch? I opened up Word and typed up an outline for a future WIP. Would my date and I had gone for dessert afterward?
I saved my document and got ready for bed.

I told myself it’s what makes me me. I’m a writer. I people watch. I make up stories. I am not trying to be rude or curious or even judgemental. I like looking at world from a different perspective and discovering a human element, something that would be lost on us otherwise and then being able to share that in the form of a story.
At the end of the evening I watched the couple exit the restaurant –both of them stiff as iron boards. They turned to face each other on the side walk. There was a moment of hesitance. Then, they shook hands. She turned and walked toward the lights. He into the darkness. They weren’t engaged to each other, I realized. Theirs was a story more complicated than spy tales and modern romances. It was an old fashioned love story.

Around me, the restaurant was in the dim light buzzing with activity. My date was paying our bill. I already knew that we’d say good-bye in a similar way to my hero and heroine. No one had noticed. No one had noticed that a heart had been broken. No one had noticed that two people had just said good-bye, most likely, never to see each other again.



  1. Great story, Archana! I am totally guilty of the same thing. I "what if" everything I see and sometimes, it drives people nuts! But moments like these are what feed our imaginations and give us ideas for another story. I hope theirs has a happy ending, as well as yours!

    1. Kim, thanks! I wonder what happened to them... sometimes reality one ups fiction.

  2. A beautiful job of capturing details, Archana... from the man's tie to the woman's soul. You would make a great spy, too, if you didn't have to be sworn to secrecy about your observations :)