In the first year, Ellen would never have called it people-watching. It was a study, meditation, how she expressed herself, or whatever other bullshit made her feel better at the time. She would sit in lobbies or restaurants, meaning to read or do some homework, only to invariably take more interest in the strangers around her. Sometime during the second year, watching became writing—notes, observations scratched on whatever napkins or scrap paper she could find, until she bought a proper notebook. In year three, she got a cell phone; she took photographs and occasional videos to compliment her notes, and still went unnoticed. By the seventh year, she had filled twenty-two notebooks and eight gigabytes of storage data, and any twinges of guilt that once haunted her were by now totally dead. On July 1, 2014, Ellen sat in the back corner of her favorite coffee shop with coffee she didn’t like and a novel she did not intend to read, and she watched.
By two o’clock, she had documented six strangers, nine orders, and two subconscious quirks, which wasn’t terrible for a Tuesday afternoon in summer. Still, even Ellen could only take so much interest in the familiar girl behind the counter and the elderly couple on the other side of the store, and she almost wished that she had brought a novel that wasn’t shit. She sipped at what little was left of her coffee and wondered how long she could go without being expected to buy another cup.
She was counting the money in her wallet and when she heard a dull electronic beep. Ellen lookedup at the door, tried not to stare, and began to write.
2:04 P.M., male, late teens, 5’10 or ’11, white, blonde, brown eyes, blue t-shirt, white Nikes, black shorts to knees. Unaccompanied.
She clicked her pen and placed it on top of the little notebook, then opened the novel. She glanced at the text for half a minute, and looked up as the boy with yellow hair was giving his order at the front. From the table at the back, Ellen could usually get a solid three-fourths view of the customers’ faces, but she herself was unlikely to be noticed. She stared at her phone for a moment, as if she were texting, and managed to take a nice photograph of the stranger without even looking up.
Her notes for the next ten minutes looked like this:
2:07, boy sits at window seat by entrance w/ caramel macchiato.
2:09, the couple departs.
2:10, boy spills carm mach, saves most of it, goes to desk for napkins.
2:16, he still hasn’t looked this way.
2:17, why hasn’t he looked this way?
By 2:19, Ellen’s cup was clearly empty, and the girl at the desk was giving her looks again. She reluctantly threw her cup in the recycling, and reached for her wallet.
“Hey, uh…” Ellen turned to see the boy in blue standing in front of her. “You ordered a while ago. Like, before me. It looked like your cup was pretty empty when I got here, actually.” Ellen tried to look indifferent, said nothing. “I was just thinking, um, would you want to talk for a while, if I bought your next drink?”
Although she was a bit shaken by his approach, Ellen quickly assumed a smile and did what she always did in situations like this.
“I’m a lesbian,” she lied. The blonde boy smiled.
“That’s what you think this is about?”
Ellen’s smile fell. She had.
“I just like talking to people. What do you usually get?”
She muttered something about cream and decaf, because she hated coffee, but she drank nine cups a day, so it might as well be decaf, and he went up to the counter.
“Here,” he said.
“Uh, thanks.” She stared at the table, lightly fingering the screen of her phone, too shy to speak.
“Shit!” The boy faltered, knocking Ellen’s cup slightly off balance as he put it down. She reached with both hands and caught it just in time, just before realizing her own misstep.
“Shit,” she muttered, but it was too late; the total stranger before her was already browsing through her phone. “What the hell,” she said. She was angry, but didn’t raise her voice too much, for fear of alerting the lone employee.
“Thought so,” he said, turning the screen to face her. Ellen blushed violently as she looked at the photo she had taken a few minutes before.
“Give it back.”
“Fine,” he said, gently placing it on the table between them, “but you promised to talk to me. Can I see your notebook?”
Ellen grabbed her phone and slipped it into her pocket, then snatched the notebook and held it tightly to her stomach. “No,” she said. “No fucking way.”
“Suit yourself,” he said. “I’ve already made my point, anyway.” As he said this, he began playing with his own phone, and at last turned the screen to face his newest friend. The screen displayed a brunette girl in her late teens, holding her phone as if she were texting and glancing at a novel she thought was shitty. Ellen made a choked, trembling sound and said nothing for several moments.
“Now, miss,” he said, “let’s not be hypocritical. I’m guessing you’ve never encountered a person like yourself—or never known it, at least.”
“Like us,” she said. He ignored her.
“To be honest, I’m not sure what interests us so much… I mean, the fact that even reading through my notes can reinspire the sensation so vividly…”
“Notes?” said Ellen.
“Yes,” said the boy, presenting a faded green notebook. “Would you like to read some?” Ellen cautiously reached to touch it, but he pulled back. “Sorry, friend, but subjects aren’t allowed to read.”
“Subjects?” she said. He nodded.
“There’s an entire page devoted to you, dear.” Ellen felt she wanted to vomit, run away, smash her storage drives, and burn twenty-two notebooks all at once. “So,” he continued, “why do you do it?”
“Why do you watch people?”
Ellen chose to believe that something about this conversation was worth persevering, and took a few deep breaths. “I guess I like the knowledge,” she said. “Afterwards, I mean. Looking and relooking over the smallest details of other people’s days, details they themselves don’t remember.” He looked more serious now than before, prompting Ellen to continue. “It’s like, I have thousands of photographs of hundreds of people—any one of them might have died or had a sex change or become a serial killer. But I’ll never know. I just have a few minutes of their lives, the intersections.” Still serious, he nodded.
“Tell me, did you think you were special?” Ellen didn’t know what to say. “I mean, did you think you were alone?” She nodded weakly. “Well, you aren’t. There must be hundreds of us in this city alone, and I’m damn good at finding them. I’ve heard stories that would make you salivate. I know a woman who made a career in mall security, just so she could secretly copy the tapes to her personal storage. I used to know an atheist who attended a Baptist church every Sunday for twenty years just so he could switch classes whenever he wanted a new batch of subjects, and claim that the will of God was guiding his decisions. He was pretty committed. I’m pretty sure they buried him there.” Ellen thought of her computer filled with photographs, her bookshelf filled with notebooks, her brain filled with worthless memories—she thought about all of this, and reached out to touch the arm of the boy in front of her.
“A lesbian, huh?”
“Could you tell that I was lying, too?”
“It occurred to me,” he said, “and now I really have to go.” He stood.
“Wait,” said Ellen. She stood up as well. “Let me give you my—“ The boy shook his head, cutting her off with a gesture of his hand.
“Don’t you see that that would ruin it?” He took out his phone and took a final photograph of the stunned girl at the back of the coffee shop. “This game is about one-time encounters—you called them intersections? I’m stealing that. So, until and unless we intersect again…” He bowed deeply, and bowing said, “At least we’ll remember it.”
With that, he walked out of the coffee shop, and was gone before Ellen could even take a picture.
Jacob Beardsley is a 15-year-old who lives in Virginia Beach, Va., and does not indulge in casual voyeurism. He is currently trying to finish a novel based on this story. Poetry and finished chapters of the novel can be found at his writing website at jakebeardsleywriting.webs.com.