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  • Zuhra Al Yarabi

Café Chronicles: The Man Who Reads

New York City. One of the largest and most populous metropolises within the United States of America. The epicenter of arts, architecture, fine dining, chic boutiques, and picturesque parks. Like numerous metropolitan areas, its residents experience or witness crimes ranging from petit larceny to homicide. Naturally, the city establishes and promotes social and personal measures to counteract and protect its residents from the adverse effects of the latter situations. So, of course, I established my own basic measures: avoid walking alone in secluded areas and constantly remind myself that I do not have to stop for a stranger.

It was a typical sunny afternoon with a calm and cool breeze.

I was at my go-to café sipping a matcha latte and reading After Dark by Murakami. Suddenly, a man, who appeared to be in his late 50s or mid-60s approached me and exclaimed, "That's a good book! I think I've read that book before. What's it about?" Just a side note, the exact question he asked was slightly odd. Automatically, I started assessing the situation and the question addressed to me. I gave him the benefit of the doubt and replied, "I'm not quite sure, but all I know is that I'm curious about the sister who hasn't woken up for a while now." After he put his order in, he came to the table I was sitting by and began asking questions. He seemed genuinely intrigued, and most importantly, his approach did not come across as ill-intentioned. So, I carried the conversation further. He later warmly offered some of his books and explained, "I have some books I'd like to give you! I live in the same building as the café, I can just drop them off whenever you're here." I shyly said, "Oh no that's okay, you don't have to!" But he insisted, so I eventually let the 'tug of war' go and thought to myself, "That's nice, let's see how this unfolds...I wonder what books I'll receive."

I honestly was not quite sure how to feel about the interaction. There I was, faced by a man who appeared relatively kind yet simultaneously off-putting based on some of his demeanors. So, of course, I texted a few people and told them what had happened. As expected, I got mixed reactions, but they all fell towards the end of "he seems harmless and not a creep."

Another day, another visit to the café.

I sat by a long rectangular wooden table. It had a bench seat on one side and two circular seats on the opposite end. One of the short ends of the table was pushed to the wall, leaving three sides of the table vacant for others to occupy. I sat on the side of the bench next to the wall facing the door. Moments later, I looked up to take my eyes off the book for a second, and just like that, we met again. We exchanged a friendly smile then he proceeded to place his order. At this point, I started on a different book, to which he exclaimed, "Of course, she's reading!" I laughed and said, "Yes, I wonder what journey I'll go through with this one." After placing his order, he walked towards me and sat beside me. I usually do not mind sharing the bench with someone else despite it being an intimately tight space. However, I gradually noticed feelings of discomfort and unease at his presence. He started moving closer, not that he was not close enough to begin with, to the point where his face was a few inches from mine. He occasionally dabbed on my shoulder in reaction to certain remarks, similar to when you and a friend are talking and erupt into laughter like chuckling seals. As our conversation continued to progress, I kept asking myself, "Am I overthinking this? Is he really close, or am I exaggerating? Ugh, why am I feeling uncomfortable?" Two other customers who sat in front of us confirmed my suspicions. Over the last three years in New York, something noticeable about its people is that they will mind their business until something calls for attention. So, the glances I received from those customers suggested that my boundaries were, indeed, crossed. I was ready to leave, but lo and behold, I was stuck. I was literally squeezed between a wall and this man next to me. That small fraction of time of feeling stuck felt so discomforting. Slightly raising my voice and not wanting to sound rude, "Ha-ha, I'm stuck. Could you please stand up?" I grabbed my belongings, said my awkward goodbyes, and left the café.

Fast forward to a few weeks after that incident, solo dates at the café started to feel a little different. I was on constant alert with a fixed goal in mind: I had to avoid him. I even found myself in a loop trying to figure out whether I was overreacting, if there was a generational cultural gap, or if there was an actual crossing of my boundaries. I also wondered if people are unaware, unfamiliar, or refuse to take in the recent societal elements associated with consent and touch. It is hard as it is to show my outgoing and extroverted side when I often hear the negative experiences women go through when interacting with strangers. I guess my hope is that people pay attention to how they can come across to others. An invitation to have a conversation does not automatically translate to consent to touch.

Written by Zuhra Al Yarabi

Edited by Emiru Okada

Graphics by Emily Mogami

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