Open your mind for a bit. Close your eyes for a few seconds and clear it, when the slate is blank, read on.
We are lucky to get a seat at the café, even if it is outside on the sidewalk that is busy with people walking to and fro in not much more than their damp bathing suits and simple cover-ups. For a beach day, there has been no relief from the oppressive heat. There is no sea breeze today to make us stop, close our eyes, and appreciate the day. After making our way to the minuscule little table in the corner by the large pot with the wilting flowers and the parched, cracked dirt, we take a seat on the flimsy metal café chairs. As I do I adjust my short cotton dress so that the edge of it gets pulled tight under my thighs, covering them completely. The last thing I want is to feel the burn of the narrow metal seat planks as I sit down. Later on I will be grateful to not have the pattern of the seat imprinted in red relief on the backs of my thighs. My friend, who is as overcome by the sweltering heat as I am, pushes her sunglasses up a bit on the bridge of her nose to no avail, it seems that the beading perspiration collecting on her face acts like a slide for her glasses. It only takes a moment, but we are finally adjusted and begin to notice the rest of the cast of characters sharing this blisteringly hot afternoon along with us. We watch them in silence, exhausted from the draining heat. I wipe my forehead with the back of my hand as I begin to watch the people walking by us on the sidewalk - the mother, casually cocking her head back to tell her oldest child to keep up with the rest of the family, catches my eye just barely, but just enough for her to feel the discomfort of my opinionated gaze. The young couple awkwardly walking hand in hand, shoots a glance at my friend as they sense she is watching them. Despite the heat their sweaty hands remain interlocked. There are the others around us, also in a drained state. We keep staring at them as well, even if it does make them shift a bit in their seats. It is hot. Very hot. Even though my friend has her coolest dress on, a gauzy white shift, I can still see the sweat trickle from the nape of her neck down leaving a moist stain at the edge of the neckline of her dress.
It has been hot all day. Where is the waiter? Why is it that nobody has anything but a napkin and cutlery on their tables? No food, no tall glasses perspiring in this heat. Voices are muffled, the searing heat seems to dominate, making it all but impossible to focus on anything else but the suffocating heat. I look down at my hands, my wedding band seems to be choking my ring finger as my hands have become swollen in the sweltering heat.
I force a hard swallow. I need water, a cool... a cool... my eyelids close as if in slow motion as I sense a wrinkling of the flesh in the space between my eyes. Where is that waiter? I struggle to lift my heavy eyelids, my friend turns away from me, craning her neck to see something. In the moment I closed my eyes, something happened, something changed. Looking around me, I begin to notice that everyone is aware of the change. The people in the street have stopped walking, mid-pace, as if to silence the noises their bodies were making as they walked. My eyes fix on the dying plants in the pot at my side, I strain to hear what the people are listening for. Wait.
I hear it. An ever so slight tinkling of tiny bells in the distance coming closer to where we are. I look up. People are checking their thoughts by looking at the others around them, hoping to lock a glance in affirmation, they realize that everybody else also hears the sounds of the little bells.
The sounds of tinkling bells become louder. I stretch my neck over the table to see where the sound of the bells is coming from. The people on the street seem to be crowding around in a tight mass. Like a pouring of molten sugar on a marble slab, they move towards the front of the café, as they solidify to a stop, I begin to make out what they are all staring at. It is a girl on a bicycle, more like a cyclo, the kind I saw during my time in Vietnam. Her diminutive size propels her cyclo without effort as the people in the street part, like cupped hands opening to embrace her, to give her space. The bells' tinkling comes to a stop as her feet stop pushing forward on the petals. Instinctively, her feet seem to move half a revolution backwards as the cyclo settles into a dip in the street.
As my eyes scan her cyclo I forget about the crowd in the street, the people sitting around me, the dying flowers, my friend. I forget about everything. I get up, side step the dead flowers and move closer to the girl and her cyclo. The ice blue colored cyclo has me mesmerized. I notice that the sounds of the twinkling bells came from a row of round silver balls hanging from the sun shade of her cyclo, each ball intricately carved in patterns so delicate that they bely the heaviness of the silver they are carved from. As the girl slips off her little seat, she walks to the front of her cyclo. In the passenger seat she has a wooden box, with carvings that match the silver bells. The entire box is affixed to the cyclo seat with a long leather strap that she has strategically knotted around the box to ensure it's placement firmly in the cyclo seat. I can not take my eyes off the box as her nimble fingers seem to undo all the knots without effort.
As she lifts the lid of the box, I notice the interior is lined in metal, and inside their is an icy waft of air that is encircling a smaller silver box within. Her hands gently pick up the silver box. I can see that it, too, is carved. She slides one end of the little silver box back and seems to lock it into place. With one hand she holds the silver box, with the other she dislodges from the lid of the wooden box what looks like an ornately carved silver grater. She turns and faces the crowd gathered around. Her eyes seem to be smiling. She brings the silver box up against her midriff and flips the open end of it onto the the grater. She looks up once more, her eyes wide open, she catches my stare. There is a moment, there, where she seemed to know my thoughts. Without taking her eyes off of mine, she draws in a deep breath and then bringing her full lips into position as if to whistle, she lets her breath out, slowly as if letting out a memory and a dream all at once, in the direction of the little silver bells. They begin, again, to make their tinkling sounds.
As the bells' sweet sounds continue to ring in almost a song, they dominate the moment she begins to use her grater. She seems to be shaving ice into round slivers the size of large half dollar coins. As the slivers come through the grater they begin to fall to the ground. Before they reach the hot pavement she blows one more breath towards her silver bells and it is as if her breath intermingles with the sounds of the bells and lifts the slices of ice so as to make them waft up. The people, as I am, are in a trance. As the slices move up to eye level, we can see that they are a light lemon yellow in color, cut like doilies. As I study them closer, I notice that their patterns mimic the designs on the silver bells and on the handle of the grater. The girl begins to dance around the crowd, grating as she goes, the ethereal fabric from her shirt seems to be floating in the air behind her. I look around and we are in a sea of glistening lemon colored slices floating in the air.
A child reaches out to one of the slices. With his little fingers he holds on to it, looks at it with an intense gaze and then without any further question pops it into his mouth. His eyes close, as his head drops back, his lips form into a wide smile. His mother follows suit. Before long it seems everybody is reaching out to grasp a ice slice of their own. I can not resist.
As I reach for one, I notice the sharp coldness on my finger tips. Before I let it melt, I, too, pop it into my mouth. The ice, cool, lemon sensation fills me. My eyelids close as if in slow motion as I sense a wrinkling of the flesh in the space between my eyes. I can no longer feel the exhausting heat. I am no longer feeling the searing sun, my perspiration has stopped. I feel a coolness about me, a breeze filled with relief. All the discomfort I was feeling before is gone.
I open my eyes. My friend is looking at me from across the table, her hand is pushing her sunglasses on up to the top of her head, pulling back her hair. She has an inquisitive look in her eyes. I am, once again in my seat. The sounds come back to the surface, I hear laughter and conversations. I can tell that the people around me are enjoying their afternoon at this sidewalk café as they drink their cold drinks and nibble on their food. The waiters flit about. Where? Where is she? I wonder. The crowds in the street seemed to have dispersed. I look around me. What just happened?
A waiter interrupts my thoughts by asking "Can I get you ladies a nice cool lemonade to drink? It is the specialty of the house. We call it Lemon Ice." I find myself responding to him as my eyes still search the street for the girl with her carved silver grater and her cyclo. I am taken aback by the vibrancy of the beautiful, colorful flowers in the pot near our table, just as this is happening, something catches my attention ... I focus in on somebody waving to me from across the street. I briefly look back up at the waiter, "Yes, Yes," I say to him, as soon as he acknowledges what I have said, I turn to look back at the street. I find myself scanning the street for her, but I cannot find her. Without looking back at him again I say, "Yes a little Lemon Ice would be nice."