At the Kaphenia, pt. 2 (A short story)

Drawing of a typewriter“What I don’t get,” said Pelagia, “is why life has to be so hard.” She prolonged the word “so” and pronounced “hard” emphatically.

It was a Tuesday, but she was at The Kaphenia, to catch up on her studies. She placed her bag on the chair and a textbook on the table and settled down on her seat. She brushed her hair aside and drew a long breath.

“Having a bad day?” I said. She didn’t answer.

She drank from her bottled water, took down her glasses and rubbed her eyes.

“Do you find life easy?” she said.

“Not in the least,” I said. “Is this about school?”

“Not just school, but everything. Life, everything. I’ve just begun Med School, and already I am overwhelmed.”

“They say the toughest years in Med School are the first two.”

“You have no idea. Actually, it’s hard from day one until the day you retire. But it’s not just that, it’s everything else. Life.” She drew another breath. “I live with my sister at home, and she has five kids. Imagine that, five kids running around the apartment with only my sister, mother, brother, and a yaya to look after them. That’s not enough manpower. I mean, to take care of five kids you need an army of people. Don’t get me wrong, I love kids, they’re adorable, but… I help out occasionally. But I have too little time to spare. My energy is already spent by the time I get home from school. Then, I look after the kids for a while, do a few chores, talk to the rest of the family, and so on. Before I know it, I have too little time left for studying. That’s why I am seldom home early. I stay at the library or at fast food restaurants with my block mates. My life is hard, but I guess that’s nothing compared to what my sister is going through. Without a husband and a steady income to depend on, she can barely keep her wits together. I’m sorry for unloading on you like this. Thank you for listening. I feel better now.”

“Would you like some tea?”

“Yes, please.”

She took out her notebooks and pencil case. She played with the marker with her fingers. I took the cup of tea to her, placed it beside her books.

“Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

I went back to my counter and tied the aphron around my waist. I finished washing the rest of the cups and saucers from the sink and dried my hands. I then cleaned the portafilters and jotted down something on my ledger. There was a couple sitting next to the window; they appeared lost in each of their books. I had lined the walls of the cafe with bookcases filled with books, and I had arranged them according to genre. My business idea started out as a bookshop, but since I’m fond of coffee, I added the cafe months later. The books are for sale, but anyone can browse them for free. Sales are usually slow during office hours.

“How’s life?” Pelagia said.

“Same as always,” I said.

“I envy you.” She was now flashing a tired smile. “I envy your lifestyle. This kind of life can’t be hard. I mean, you’re doing what you love. You’re not trapped in some office cubicle from 8 to 5. Your time is more flexible. You are your own boss.”

I chuckled. “It’s not as easy and ideal as it sounds.”

“Oh? If I had a choice, I would want to have my own business. Be my own boss. Hire my own people. Do the things I really love. Read books. Sell books. Sell coffee.”

“You wouldn’t become a doctor.”

“I wouldn’t become a doctor.”

“Would that make you happy? Would life be easier for you that way?”

“Yes, definitely.”

I smiled and shrugged my shoulders. I didn’t know what to say.

She closed her book and finished the tea. She gazed at the open window absentmindedly. A few cars whizzed by as if in a hurry. Traffic was still light.

She stood up and went to the counter. “Can I have more of this?” she said.

“Oh, sorry, I forgot to leave the pot with you. Let me get it. It’s okay, you can go back to your seat.”

“It’s okay, no problem. I wanted to stretch my legs anyway.”

I poured more tea on her cup.

“So why do you think life has to be hard like this?”

I laughed. “You’re still thinking about it.”

“Of course.”

“I don’t know. Maybe life would be boring without trials.”

“I can deal with boredom.”

“Life wouldn’t be colorful, exciting, or at the very least, interesting.”

“I don’t think life has to be those in order to be easy.”

“So you want life to be easy, then?”

“Of course.” She laughed and tapped my wrist. “That makes me sound so lazy.”

“If you had any power to change your life right now in an instant, what kind of life would you like to have?”

“I already told you, this kind of life. Have my own cafe and book shop, serve people coffee, read books, talk about ideas with friends, meet different kinds of people, travel occasionally, and so on.”

“It’ll be an exciting and novel idea at first, but eventually it will wear off, and you will have to face the tediousness of it all.”

“You’re so cynical today. Maybe you’d like to have a sip of what you’ve served me.”

I laughed.

“You can give this business to me,” she said. “Then I’ll quit school.”

“I’m not sure you’d really want that. You’ll have to deal with financial difficulties. You’ll have to deal with exorbitant taxes, red tape, and corrupt government minions. Often, the money you’ll make is not enough to break even.”

The lady near the window looked up from her novel.

“I’m sorry,” I said, in a hushed voice.

“No, I’m sorry. I didn’t know things are like that with you.” She reached out and touched my hand.

“It’s okay. I’m okay.”

“I’ll pay you double for this tea.”

“No, don’t do that.”

“I insist.”

“No, that’s bad business.”

“How? Allow me this, at least this one time.” She smiled.

I felt so embarrassed.

“One answer to your question might be,” I said after a while, “that trials help build our character. Perhaps the purpose of life is not for us to be comfortable, but for us to become particular kinds of individuals, men and women who have good characters.”

“Why do you say that? It seems but natural for us to want life to be less strenuous and painful. We have this tendency to want things to be smooth and easy. I mean, wouldn’t you feel happy if you’re life were easier and more comfortable?”

“Like I said, eventually, you’ll get bored to death. I guess at a superficial level, we’re happy when things are easy. But pain and struggles give our life more meaning and depth.”

“I don’t know. For me, life is more meaningful when you’re just sitting around in a cafe all day, reading a book, and drinking tea. Where did you get this stuff?”

“It’s not commercial tea. I bought it in Carbon. They sell the tea leaves by kilos.”

“Show me where. Can you take me there one of these days?”

“Sure, whenever you’re not busy.”

“I must get back to my books. Time to roll the stone up hill like Sisyphus.”

I took the pot and followed her to her table.

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