There are four of us at this table, each eating lunch, all strangers to the other. It started with one woman. Who knows how many people sat down and coexisted with her until they were finished eating or had to get to class. Then me:
“I found you a seat,” the cafeteria worker says. “There’s another woman here, is that okay?”
I nod. And, upon reaching the table, he asks the woman too if it’s alright that I sit. She says nothing, so I assume she nods as the guy pulls out my seat. He gets me a fork and napkin then asks my name, realizing that he’d assisted me on-and-off for over a year, but never knew how to address me.
“Lily,” I tell him. “And yours?”
“Ernest.” Then we part.
As I sit there, eating and scrambling to finish a reading for class, another girl joins us, the only sound of entrance being the slight squeak of her chair. Had she made some sign to the original table occupant?
As we each sit here, doing our own thing, and thinking our own thoughts, I am struck by how separate we all are though we’re mere feet a part.
The new girl speaks softly. Oh, does she know the other one? But then I realize that she’s dictating, very likely to her phone. Now she reads work aloud. Perhaps an essay?
“Can I sit here,” a soft, slightly accented voice asks to my right. I nod slightly. But she doesn’t move.
“Oh yeah, sure.” I hear the shift in the second girl’s voice, from muffled to clear, as she lifts her head from her work.
I too look up and find the place before me empty. Where had the first woman gone? How had I missed her departure?
That’s when it struck me. It’s something I’ve always known, even discussed. But as I sat there, it really sank in: we pass hundreds, even thousands of people each day; all of us in different stages of life, together but apart. Coexisting. So I start writing. Continuing to live my separate life as I sit at a table with two strangers. The three of us together, but mentally alone.
I scrape together the remaining scraps of my curry chicken and naan—there was Indian food in the cafeteria today—and eat while I begin to pack away my things.
“Excuse me, did you drop your phone? Something fell?” I turn back to the table. It was the second girl.
“No, my phone’s in my pocket.” Then, after a pause. “But do you know what fell?”
“Um, I think its a wallet. I picked it up.”
I put my garbage down and hold out my hand. She passes it to me. It was the wallet part of my phone case.
“Thanks,” I breathe, the relief in my voice evident. “That would not have been fun.”
“No it wouldn’t.” I think the words are sincere, but her tone feels dismissive.
“Thanks again.” If she responds I don’t hear, as I pick my garbage up and turn away.
At last, I’ve interacted, and while I appreciate still having my wallet, the exchange was so lackluster. But I feel like that’s a common theme. So many of us no longer care about the person before us, only the virtual one in our hands. I’m no different, walking around constantly with an earpiece in my ear, making sure I catch every message as voiceover reads it to me.