Her tabletop is obscured by a mountain of papers. Sometimes, as she sits reading them, she will pull a few stones from her purse and pour them from hand to hand, back and forth, for some minutes. She is probably unaware of the chilling effect this ritual has on others. But she is acutely perceptive; perhaps she just doesn’t care.
Her pages are filled with handwritten scrawls. The sentences, which travel across the unruled sheets in nearly straight lines, are swathed in thick highlighting of green, yellow and orange. From six feet away it looks as if Sonia is holding small canvases of abstract art. Rothkos, perhaps.
There is something compelling about Sonia and her papers, and the overflowing grocery bags that sit at her feet, and the mysterious and muddy concoction she drinks in the Starbucks cups, a brew she says eases her stomach condition.
When I look at her, sometimes I see the John Nash character from A Beautiful Mind, the man who had wallpapered his toolshed with hundreds of handwritten notes detailing clandestine plots which existed only in his mind. I wonder if Sonia’s writings map the madness in her.
The other day I was looking across the cafe through my reading glasses, which blur everything more than a couple of feet away. Sometimes I will gaze at the unfocused shapes of unemployed ordering mocha lattes or the amoeba-like heads of the writers leaning into their laptops. Today, the dark shape I was staring at was Sonia.
“What is that tea you have there?” she asks over the table between us.
“Sencha,” I reply, removing my eyeglasses.
“It smells like fresh cut grass.” She blinks a few times. I can’t place her accent.
She asks for my astrological sign, a subject that comes up a lot in Los Angeles. I tell her and she asks me to guess hers.
When I do, and get it right, she grins, “That is amazing!”
But I have an uneasy feeling that any guess would be correct.
Sonia asks me about the writing device on my table, my Neo. The Neo is simply a keyboard with a 4-line LCD window that stores the words you type, which you can then send to your computer. Unlike a computer, the Neo does not try to lure you into cruising the Internet or help you find just the right background song for whatever it is you’re doing. The NEO is a 1965 VW bug to the Mac’s Lexus.
Sonia asks if I’d be kind enough to check the spelling on a few of her pages. As I approach her table I have a sense of privilege, as if I’ve been invited to gaze upon the walls of John Nash’s shed.
I stare at the first page. The writing is childlike. Many letters have been left out of the words but I can make out most of what she’s written. Across the tabletop, I hear the clacking of the stones.
Her story details the many sexual abuses she has suffered at the hands of local police officers and the years she had spent as a sex slave. I avoid looking up, not knowing what to do. Clack, clack, clack. I focus on reading. “He pointed a gun at my v—– and told me I had to … I was locked in a room and starved for a week …They made me …”
She had been poisoned, she writes, which is why she must drink the muddy concoction, and held hostage and abused in horrible ways. She is preparing these notes to send to the L.A. Times.
“When did all this happen?” I ask.
“Five years ago.”
When I ask why she has waited until now, she doesn’t respond. She turns toward the window. In that light, I now see the crescents beneath her eyes, which are not only dark but rich in deep lines. I have the feeling she is both looking and not looking outside.
I make a few more corrections on the pages even as I wonder about leaving my own trail on the sheets.
Dark images fill my mind. I see her doing to me the kinds of things they had done to her, the violent trespasses that have ruined her. After all, I am a man, one of them. When I finally look up, she is staring hard at me. I have an uneasy feeling she knows what I am thinking. A long moment passes.
She reaches for the papers, takes them from me. “Thank you,” she says, with a wan, tired smile.
“Sure, glad to help,” I mumble, rising.
I wonder if her story is true. This is, after all, Los Angeles, where truth is a gray area.
I place my fingertips on my Neo, comforted by the familiarity of the plastic keys. I glance over at Sonia and see something that surprises me: a story of boredom written on her face.
Folded comfortably in a deep leather chair a few feet away is Scott, a bearded forty-something. Sonia smiles invitingly at him. His eyes show surprise. Sonia calls out, her voice alluring and a little breathless, her words drifting right by me as if I were a desert canyon.
“Are you an Aries?”
Scott, who looks like he has time on his hands, perks up. He’s drawn to her form, her smile, the tight workout outfit, her lithe and petite body which has been both a blessing and a curse. She jumps up from her chair, goes over to the chair beside his and asks about his coffee drink and starts to tell him about the history of java. She can no longer drink coffee, she says. A stomach condition.
Suddenly Sonia’s face takes on a far-away look. She is staring beyond Scott, perhaps at the people strolling along the sidewalk outside, perhaps somewhere else, perhaps nowhere at all.