"City: millions of people being lonely together." -Thoreau
I met Lisa browsing through the pashminas at an unnamed shop in the middle of Chinatown. She was looking for something pastel, I was looking for a particular jewel-tone shade of jade. We met in the manner that I usually meet people: by tripping over the edge of my shoelace (sometimes it's my shadow) and stumbling into her.
I was sorry, of course, and social courtesy dictated that she should say that it was all right, things like that happen, which she did, but she said it in a way that somehow sounded like she meant it. This was probably because my hand, outflung to keep myself from falling flat on my face, knocked down the row of pashminas that she'd been looking at, but was too short to reach. She plucked the lavender one with the silky flower embroidery off of the pile as I was gathering the plasticed packages up and shoving them back onto the shelf.
"Thanks," she smiled, looking up at me through her short brown pageboy cut. "I was looking for that."
I found the jade pashmina amongst those that I had knocked off and somehow arranged the remainder of the abused shawls on the shelf in such a manner that they didn't fall off within the five minutes that it took for me to get through the small-scale mob surrounding the cash register, pay for the pashmina that I wouldn't use until December, and walk out into Chinatown still fumbling in my purse for my sunglasses.
Lisa stood outside of the pashmina shop, looking at a street artist who was painting names onto white cardboard signs, each letter half a rainbow and edged with a dragon or a dolphin or a bird making a hasty getaway through the pollution into the clear air that it hoped lay somewhere over the skyscrapers. I gestured towards the artist. "He's one of the better ones," I said.
A pigeon fluttered over to the side of the hot dog stand, where some tourist had dropped a few bites of a bun rather than take the three steps over to the trash can. "They're all over the city. But this one, when he paints the birds, they look like they're really alive."
"You like birds?"
She must have seen me looking at the pigeon. "They're neat, the way that they can just flap their wings and fly away from everything."
"You want picture?" the street artist interrupted, looking at us. "Five dollar."
Lisa looked at me. "Sure," I said, stepping closer to the table. I pointed at a demo picture done in shades of clear hard greens and brassy yellows, emblazoned with pictures of dragons. "That one, please."
"Caitlin. My daughter," I explained to Lisa, lest she call me Caitlin by mistake.
The artist was done in a matter of minutes. I traded him a faded five for the thin piece of cardboard, holding it as gingerly as I would a real dragon. He turned his attention to Lisa. "You want picture?"
"Please," she said, shrugging her handbag into one hand. "The blue one. With the seagull."
"Lisa." She pronounced the name with an acute sensitivity to the presences of the vowels, not fading over them or bastardizing the 'a' into 'uh' like almost every accent in the country would have. She placed four crisp singles, three quarters, two dimes, and five grungy pennies onto the table, then frowned at the quarters. While the artist finished painting the shadow of the seagull onto the space between the 'i' and the 's', she searched her cream-colored handbag for coins, finally coming up with one that I guessed would have had to have been minted in 1681 and recently uncovered in an archaeological dig. She replaced the quarter on the top of her coin pile with this one and placed the rejected quarter into a zippered pocket on the inside of her bag.
"My niece collects the state quarters," she explained unnecessarily, accepting her own sheet of cardboard from the street artist. "She keeps accidentally spending her Georgias."
I didn't realize that she was following me down the street until I hit a stop sign and found her beside me. "Where are you headed?"
"I don't know yet," she said. She laughed embarrassedly. "I haven't been in New York City for a few years, not since my aunt moved to Boston. I don't really know where I'm going."
"Looking for something in particular?"
"Not really." Her stomach grumbled, and she flushed. "Pardon me."
"Well, I know a nice bagel place right outside Chinatown, if you're interested."
She laughed a little. "That sounds like a good idea right now."
Over coffee and hot toasted bagels (mine was cinnamon raisin, while Lisa was partial to egg) with thick cream cheese melting off the sides onto our fingers, we discussed the only common ground we knew we had: birds. "I'm not a birdwatcher or anything," I said. "But I like birds. I like it when I see them outside my window in the morning, just sitting on my window ledge like it's perfectly normal to see a woman in nothing but a T-shirt staring at them like they've got five heads."
"I like seagulls," Lisa said.
"Do you live on the beach?"
"I used to when I was little. I love the water. It's so-" She stopped.
"Never mind. It sounds foolish."
"Well, you're talking to a fool who stares at birds."
She laughed. "A fool in a T-shirt exchanging the morning news with the pigeons."
"Nah, I think they like to listen to the radio. My daughter doesn't appreciate my music, but they do."
"So why do you love the water?"
"I don't know. It just- it comes in for a little bit and then goes back out again. It can always leave the shore and go back to where it came from." She giggled a little, an odd sound from a woman in a skirt suit with crow's-feet starting to form at the corners of her eyes. "It sounds silly, I know."
"I think I understand you."
"It's like birds. They can always fly away."
"Do you wish you could fly away too?"
"I don't know. I love the city. But there are so many people, you know what I mean? Everyone's just another face on the subway. Sometimes I want to go somewhere where everyone knows my name."
Lisa nodded. "My – what would you call your ex-husband's mother? Your ex-mother-in-law?"
"I guess so."
"Well, she used to say something sort of like that. You should always go home in the end, because your family's the only ones who know your name."
I wiped my cream cheese coated fingers on a napkin and swallowed the rest of my coffee. "What about old Aunt Mildred who can't even remember her own name?"
Lisa shrugged. "I guess she's the exception that proves the rule. Although in English class, we always used to say that the exception proved that no rule was infallible."
"No family is either. They all break up in the end, don't they?"
She nodded slowly. "Yes, they do."
Lisa checked her watch. "Well, I've got to go pick up the girls from school and take them over to their father's. It was nice meeting you."
"Nice meeting you too, Lisa."
It wasn't until she left the deli that I realized that I'd never given her my name.