It was during a rainy September day of my final year of university that I came upon a coffee shop nestled in a bustling alley of Beijing. The building itself was nothing conspicuous, a simple building with its name written in large block letters. Unlike the surrounding shops, it supported a more modern look, with a transparent glass front that also seemed to double as a window. One glance through this window revealed the interior of the coffeeshop: people eating, working, or simply talking to one another. There was nothing particularly interesting about all of this, yet its charming simplicity attracted my interest and drew me inside.
The coffeeshop was not particularly busy—only half of the tables were occupied, and I was pleased to find an open table by the window. The aroma of coffee and pudding lingered heavily in the air, which had a tangible crispness to it. I placed my umbrella at my feet, not caring that it was dripping water all over the marble tiles, and quickly checked my bag to make sure that it had not gotten wet—to my relief, all of my sketches were dry. I ordered a plate of taro pudding and spread the violin plans over the table, examining the works of the greats—Guarneri, Amati, Stradivari—and comparing them to mine. I then proceeded to make alterations and changes to my sketches. It was an arduous process, but it made me happy in ways that my studies couldn’t.
I wasn’t sure when she arrived, but sometime during my work I realized that someone was sitting in the seat across from mine. I lifted my head and glanced at the person sitting across from me. Her face was hidden behind her notebook, where she was fervently writing, but I could see that her hair had been carefully tied into a neat bun, and she wore a pumpkin colored sweater that complemented the autumnal tones of the city. The whipped cream of her coffee had dissolved into brown and white mush, but I was afraid to disturb her, so I lowered my head and continued my sketches.
We continued like this for a long time—neither of us speaking, just working to the patter of rain against the window, but my steady momentum was broken by the ping of an incoming call. The sudden noise caused me to jump, and my sketch flew off the table onto the floor in front of her feet. As the woman answered her call in a hushed voice, she handed my sketch to me. I looked at her fingers—pale, slim, and calloused.
I returned to the coffeeshop the next afternoon and found that she was already sitting at the table by the window with two plates of taro pudding. She gestured towards the seat across from her and smiled as I sat down.
“You’re a musician,” I stated, matter of factly, as she pushed a plate of pudding in front of me.
“That would be incorrect,” she answered matter of factly. “I’m a trauma surgeon.”
A trauma surgeon—I could see that. Her fingers were slim and precise, fitting for someone in such a detail-oriented field.
“But you’re not entirely wrong.” The woman took a bite of her pudding and gestured for me to do the same. I tried the pudding, which was not too sweet like most and melted in my mouth. “I compose.”
“What time does a surgeon have to compose?”
“Plenty.” She took another bite and leaned forward, placing her head between her hands. “Tell me, what does a violin maker do at a coffeeshop?”
“Plenty." I passed my sketches to her, watching as she scanned my work. She had a pleasant face, pale and smooth, with rosy lips and cheeks, but dark circles stood starkly under her eyes, which were bloodshot. She looked tired, as if she hadn’t slept in days. I watched expectantly, analyzing her reaction, but her expression betrayed no thoughts that might have crossed her mind.
After a while, she looked up and asked, “Have you worked on it for long?”
I shook my head no.
She contemplated this for a moment, then handed my sketches back to me. “So, this is what you do? You make violins for a living?”
I laughed and shook my head. “Not even close. I’m in university—medical school.” I held up my hands. “Everyone says I have surgeon’s hands.”
“Really?” She grabbed my hand, comparing it to hers with a vigilant eye. “They don’t look like surgeon’s hands to me.” She let go of my hand. “You look old. Final year?”
I gave a curt nod. “I haven’t decided where to apply for graduate school yet. I’m thinking of studying abroad.” I peered out the window—the skies had cleared, and the sun shone brightly over the busy pedestrians going about their lives. “I think it would be nice to get out of here.”
I looked up; she was quiet, pensive in thought. I bit my lip nervously—I had a habit of scaring off strangers—and sighed in relief when she gave me a small smile. “I'd like to leave too. There’s too much in this world for me to squander my youth in an operating room,” she mused.
I took a bite of pudding.
And that encounter marked the beginning of one of the many cycles in my life: I headed to the coffeeshop after class, and she would be there or she would not—shifts were unpredictable. We would chat for a while and then dissolve into our own activities. My friends, who were not really anything but mere acquaintances, noticed a change in my demeanor and asked if I was in love, a question in which my reply was no. They claimed that I daydreamed in class, and my focus slipped often. I supposed this was true, but not for the reasons they zealously claimed.
Although I was not in love, talking with her brought a strange sensation of peace and happiness. She listened with open ears, quiet and attentive, and didn't probe for further details, nor make close-minded judgements about me. I found that I could confide anything in her, and she treated me as an equal, never looking down on me because I was a student and she a professional. Rather than a romantic interest, she served more as a mentor and close friend. It was with her I could escape the stressful, judgmental climate of society and work peacefully.
Despite the hours we spent together, we knew shockingly little about each other. I knew this: she was a trauma surgeon; and she knew this: I was a medical student in my final year. Strangely enough, this was enough to carry our conversations and develop a close friendship. Neither of us ever pressed each other for more information—we were content just to be in each other’s presence and acknowledged the invisible border between us: she had her life, and I mine. Like perpendicular lines, they only intersected as this one point.
“I hate my job,” she told me one day. Her hair was disheveled, a stark contrast from her typically immaculate buns, and her eyes were red and bloodshot. She had ordered a cup of steaming black coffee. She glanced at me expectantly. “You know what I mean?”
“I wouldn't,” I said truthfully.
“It's the same damn thing every day—wake up; head to the hospital; spend hours trapped between four green walls; someone’s life dangling in my fingertips; leave. Rinse, recycle, repeat. Medicine should be a noble thing. Imagine this: you save hundreds of lives in your work, yet you don't give a damn about any of them. They walk out of the operating room—or they don't—and you will never see them again. And you couldn't care less; you are only counting the hours until you can go meet a stupid medical student at a coffeeshop. And you sit there, watching him travel the same exact path. But you keep going, because being a surgeon pays a hell lot. Does this make you a bad surgeon? Yes. A surgeon who's in it for the money should not be a surgeon at all.”
She paused. “Now do you understand?”
I thought for a moment. “It's not my choice."
“What's not your choice?”
“This,” I gestured at the city outside. “I don't want to be here, but what choice do I have? It's either this or I waste away in some unknown village in Guangdong, a village so small you can't even find it on a map-”
“Ah.” She smiles triumphantly. “I always knew you weren't from here. You don’t have that Beijing accent that peppers everyone’s speech.”
I glared at her.
“I'm in it for the money too,” I admitted. “Being a surgeon pays in ways that whittling wood doesn’t. I’m not stupid—luthiers rarely get enough money to feed their family, much less make a considerable living. It’s one of those fields where either you make it big, or you don’t make it at all. Medicine is a steady job; you’ll always have money at your hands and a bed to sleep in. The world needs doctors, not violin makers.”
She took a large sip of her coffee and scoffed. “I’ll tell you where medicine gets you: a lifeless, dull operating room in Beijing. I think you're better off rotting away in that town of yours.” She stirred her coffee and looked me in the eyes. “The world is a materialistic place—everyone’s in it for the money.”
I laughed and looked outside. Leaves—red, orange, yellow—drifted in the air, and the air was sticky and humid, like ice cream melting on a hot summer day. Pedestrians hustled through the streets in their sweaters and coats, their cheeks pink from the bracing wind. They walked with their hands in their pockets, cupped around a mug of coffee, dangling freely by their sides. Some walked briskly, their footsteps determined, with a clear destination in mind. Some walked with an air of carefreeness and ease, their footsteps light and relaxed, as if they were an extension of the wet breeze that swept through the city.
“What are you thinking about?” she mused, following my gaze.
Everyone in this city walked with a purpose. What was my purpose?
And that was the question that haunted me through my days: what was my purpose? Did I even have one? University was quiet, monotone; my friends, who had grown distant, drifted away into their own circles, and I was left to my own devices.
“My uncle’s funeral was Saturday,” I told her as she slid into her seat. For once, I had arrived before she did.
“I’m sorry about that,” she said.
I gave her a weak smile. “There’s nothing to be sorry about. You didn’t know him nor could you have done anything about it.” I took a sip of the soup, which was scalding hot, and continued. “But then, I didn't know him either. Don’t you think it’s weird sometimes—how one moment one is smiling and happy, and then they’re lying in a coffin, dead?”
“It was a small funeral—he was a sort of recluse. Not many people were there, just family. I’m not sure why I was there; I’ve never met him in my entire life, but I bawled like a baby. Do you know what the funny thing is? I couldn’t have cared less about his death. He had never been a presence in my life, and life continued as it did after that funeral. We went home, and it was as if he had never existed. It only took four hours for my tears to dry and wonder what I would have for dinner. Isn’t that weird?”
“I don’t think it’s weird,” she replied. “I think it’s human nature. Funerals mean to inspire melancholy and despair, even for those you don’t give a damn about.” She turned her gaze to me. “I’m afraid that’s how life works.”
She left for Europe on a volunteer mission that December. I would not see her for a long two months.
I was pleasantly surprised to find, when she returned in March, that she had not changed. Of course, she brought stories of her exploits in Europe with her, but her carefree nature remained the same. I also noticed that her eyes were no longer bloodshot—something I hadn’t paid attention to since October. Spring arrived in Beijing, and in the way that life works, life changed.
In the six months I had found the coffeeshop, surprisingly not one of my classmates ever showed up. This quaint little building was something entirely mine, isolated from my troubles. It became a haven of mine, a place where I could disappear and be my own person, free from the chains of society. It was due to this mindset that I began to live two lives: that of the university and that of the coffeeshop. But I quickly realized that these two worlds could not possibly continue to coexist as they did, and it was inevitable that this parallel would soon crumble like peanut candy under my fingers.
The last time I saw her, I could sense we both had something to say. Tension hung thickly in the air, complemented by an awkward silence and the tap-tap-tap of rain against the window. “You go first,” I told her.
“Such a gentleman,” she said, smiling. “I’m getting promoted to Tokyo.”
“Wow, really? Good job.”
“Nothing new, I guess—same old, same old. I wake up, go to the operating room, come home, and get called back in the middle of my sleep. It’s all a cycle.” She took a bite of her tiramisu cake. “You?”
“I applied to a few universities in the States. I got my acceptance letters yesterday. ”
“I’ll be attending Johns Hopkins in the fall.”
“Johns Hopkins? Nice.”
I gave a strained smile. “I suppose. The campus is really quite beautiful.”
“What a cosmopolitan. Baltimore is a beautiful city. I think you’ll like it. Quite a change of pace from Beijing or your rice village.”
I leaned back in my chair, staring at the city I would likely never return to “So where does that leave us?”
“We’re moving in opposite directions—opposite sides of the world.”
“10,877 kilometers,” she quipped.
“What a distance to travel.”
She smiled ruefully. “A wise man once told me that absence makes the heart grow fonder, a wise man once told me.”
And that April, we went our separate ways, traveling in opposite directions. I did not expect to see her again, and I did not hope to. I had never asked for her contact information, and I didn’t even have her name. When she left for Tokyo, she swept up all traces of herself and took them with her. Like a butterfly, she had briefly touched my life and then vanished into oblivion, leaving only the lingering taste of nostalgia.
Sometimes I wonder if she ever existed at all.