The Buffer Zone

January 3, 2021

It was hard for me to figure out how to start writing this without it being abrupt but also without it becoming the archetypal beginning of a chronological story, so I decided not to figure it out.

I’m sitting in the outdoor area of a Starbucks, the closest to my house that is offering some degree of seating during this ungodly pandemic. A few days ago, I came here to buy my little sister a beverage as a way to calm her from some sort of anxiety attack that originated from her tenacious unwillingness to do 4th grade math. That day, the energy in this seating area was buoyant and full of life. The chairs were filled with people jovially conversing over coffee and reading their books and typing on their laptops. This scenario, though quotidian, was one I had not witnessed in a while, given that everything is closed due to the epidemic. It was refreshing to see.

This afternoon, I came here with intention of integrating myself into that same ambience in hopes that it would spark my productivity, but when I arrived, I was the only one here. Regardless, I picked up my pre-ordered cappuccino and sat outside while reading a book. I know there are several higher-priority activities I could be completing with this time and change in atmosphere, like creative writing as I am now, or tirelessly searching for a job I don’t even want just to satisfy the people who expect me to get one, but reading a book is the most effortless task that still rewards me with a feeling of accomplishment. The words are already written, after all. The pages are tangible, just begging to be sifted through. All I have to do is unconsciously move my eyes and use my brain.

In the end, reading turns out to be more edifying than I made it out to be, as it is the work of literary genius Haruki Murakami that helps inspire me to write this now. As always, action drives inspiration, not the other way around. This is an incongruity I first heard only recently, and am just now beginning to wrap my head around.

While I am reading, a girl pulls up into the parking space in front of me and sits two tables away. Whether she chose this seat as a discretion to show regard for social distancing rules, or simply because it seemed like the most appealing spot, I do not know. Regardless, I am content with her seating accommodations. I’m relieved to no longer be the loner sitting by themselves at a deserted Starbucks, yet have the advantage that my newfound company is not being too invasive. This pretty much sums up my approach towards life, as the inexorable member of society that I am.

I immediately identify with the girl when she pulls out a journal and begins to write. Such a conventional activity, yet for some reason, it is so enthralling to me that she’s doing this. I suppose it isn’t often that I see people journaling, perhaps because doing so insinuates a necessity for intimacy between the writer and the paper; thus, people tend to do it in private. Or maybe people don’t even do it as much as I think. Perhaps journaling isn’t second nature to everyone like it is to me, or like fashion designing is to Nutmeg.

For a moment, a split second, I wonder if this girl is writing about me. What a silly thing to consider, that she might have driven all the way here, picked up her pre-ordered coffee, sat down at what seemed like her designated table, pulled out a journal – all the while showing a sense of complete determination as to what she came here to do, and at the last minute decided to write about the stranger sitting a few feet away.

There is no way that girl is writing about me. But perhaps I allowed myself to briefly wonder so because, the other day by the pool, I was overcome by a sudden wave of inspiration that led me to pull out my phone and begin writing about the lady sitting next to me. I didn’t plan on doing such a thing when I first laid down to tan. I didn’t know she would be there. But I did so regardless. And that lady could’ve thought of my rapid typing back then, like I’m thinking of the girl’s journaling now, that there was no way I was writing about her.

Or perhaps I only wondered this because, given the pool scenario and the present scenario, sitting down next to a random person and feeling a sudden urge to write about it with no preexisting intention of doing so is clearly something I would do. Who’s to say others aren’t like that, too?

And to stretch this literature-driven inception even further, I am now realizing as I type this, that here I am, quite literally writing about the girl who I considered might be writing about me. And she could very well be thinking to herself, there’s no way that girl is writing about me as well. Can you imagine if such a thing were actually occurring? If we were both writing about each other and how unlikely it is that we’re writing about each other? If this were happening, it would be one of those little occurrences that reinforce my belief in the existence of a spiritual universe – the one invisible to the naked eye – that explains how such coincidences can possibly transpire.

Everything in this world is so intricately connected.

I am not sure how much time has gone by of me reading before a Black (AP Style recently implemented a new rule that requires “Black” in racial contexts to be capitalized) man sits at the table next to mine and pulls out his laptop. He is closer to me than the girl, but I don’t mind the proximity too much, as he is still about six feet away. (At this moment, I forgot how to say cercanía in English, so I had to search up the translation to come upon the word “proximity.” There are definitely some cons to being fully bilingual).

When I finish reading, I pull out a protein bar from my backpack as I observe the cars passing by on the street. This scenario reminds me of that Headspace video that explains how, in order to not become enveloped by your thoughts while meditating, you should visualize them as cars passing by you on the highway, thus allowing you to remove yourself from them and their associated emotions.

I immediately notice how the bar tastes much more flavorful when I’m not distracted while eating it. I can fully taste the essence of chocolate in my mouth, and feel this rectangular-shaped food’s compact texture crumbling between my teeth. I’ve eaten these plenty of times yet it tastes like something I’ve never tried, and in a way is still oddly familiar. Similar to when you get a feeling of déjà vu; you know it’s an entirely new moment in your life, one you’ve never experienced in the past, yet you have a faint feeling, something calling your name off in the distance, telling you you’ve lived it before.

As I eat, I begin to behold the environment around me, starting with the gas station to my left. I see a 4 and a 2 perfectly aligned next to each other, indicating the gas pump numbers. I briefly wonder why gas pumps have to be numerated. “To call each thing by its right name,” said Chris McCandless, ridding himself of his Alexander Supertramp alias as he read this line from Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago.

I acknowledge the 42 and smile on the inside, knowing it’s a sign from the universe to remind me it’s watching out for me; that it has my back. This has become somewhat of a motif in my life: seeing a 42 and smiling on the inside. I’ve recently become accustomed to rejoicing in the presence of this number as opposed to perceiving it as an eerie omen.

I read the word “Chevron.” What a silly name for a gas station. Or for anything, really. Do people just sit there, come up with some random concoction of letters that form a word, then decide to name their company after it? A FedEx truck drives by. Two Honda’s are parked right in front of me. Now these names make more sense. One is an abbreviation for Federal Express, a sensical name for a shipping company. The other, I believe, means something in the language of its Asian manufacturer, whichever that is. But Chevron? Perhaps Chevron means something too, and I’m just too ignorant to know it.

For a brief moment, my attentiveness to the world around me starts to feel surreal. As I serve as the mediator between these two unrelated people, and the buffer zone between the fast-paced highway and the stagnant coffee shop, I feel as though I might not really exist. It reminds me of how I felt the other day (was it yesterday? I’m not sure… it’s easy to lose track of time during quarantine) when I finished reading my daily dose of Murakami and took a sip of my water cup. For an instant, a split second, I thought it was strange how I had reached for the cup, drank out of it, and placed it back on the windowsill without consciously having to tell myself to do so. Of course, we conduct this activity every second of every day. Our brains fire signals to our bodies telling them to perform an action at a pace faster than the speed of light. Yet in that instant, that very course of action had become observable to me. Brain tells arm to move, arm moves. Brain tells throat to swallow, throat swallows. I am not sure why this happened during such a mundane moment. Perhaps Murakami’s dreamlike literature is making me more observant of the world around me. Imagine if we could mentally keep record of all these little instants of our lives and the thoughts that accompany them. I guess the reason why we can’t is because it’d drive us to insanity. Memory capacity is finite, after all.

It is in the midst of me momentarily contemplating my potential nonexistence that I am reminded of my inevitable visibility, when the Black man interrupts my train of thought.

“Ma’am?!” he asks, in a very loud, abrupt tone. 

“Yes?” I respond, with a slight air of irritation in my voice. 

“What time do they close? Do you know?”

“8,” I say. I had searched this up earlier to know how much time I’d have to ‘be productive’ if I came.

“And the bathrooms, we can’t use them right?”

I shake my head no.

I am not usually this rude to strangers who boldly approach me. I pride myself in being one of those people that is overly friendly just to make others feel comfortable. But maybe I was standoffish because the man interrupted my thought process (not that the meaning of “Chevron” is important to think about, or that I truly felt I didn’t exist for longer than a nanosecond). Or perhaps I was irritated because he sat too close to me to begin with. Or because his shrilly tone was so disruptive to my deep (and unorganized) contemplations. Or because he expected me to know things about this coffee shop, when I could very well have been just as misinformed a customer as he was. Or maybe it was because I’d had a slight migraine that whole time, and a slight migraine is worse than a pounding migraine. You momentarily forget it’s there, and then it comes back to remind you, like a tiny rock stuck in your shoe that you’re too lazy to get rid of, yet demands your undivided attention until you finally set it free.

We humans are so easily irritable.

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