I am at the start of the line
and the hush in the cafeteria is like the muffled
dawn after a long night of snow.
We enter into silence with all the awkwardness
of travelers in a foreign country
who know they have no other choice
but to surrender
to a language that is not their own.
The most social among us try
to catch someone’s fleeting glance
or to meet smile with smile,
while others avoid
the eyes of those they have laughed with
only yesterday, when speech was
such a common thing it could be taken
for granted, like the air or atoms.
But in this other world of nontalk
the slightest sound becomes subversive —
a shoe scuffing against the floor,
the silvery crash of a dropped fork.
The most experienced retreatants move
as if walking under water
and I feel myself slowing down just watching them.
In this state of — what? — grace? wonder? mind?
I find myself
standing in front of the pizza counter
and the curly-haired young man who has waited on me before
asks me what I want
and I can’t tell him.
To let go of words is harder than I expected —
it’s the boat that comes unmoored
and drifts away as I watch from the pier
grasping for ropes that are out of reach.
But something fires a light in his deep-set eyes
like stars that are struck alive
in the dark harbor of the sky,
and with the devotion of a Buddhist priest
setting out offering bowls, he places
his bowls in a neat row before me —
tomato sauce, cheeses, mushrooms, spinach, oregano —
and I point and nod yes to the ones I want.
Suddenly, the young man is in retreat with me
as we give up words for the deeper miracle
of meeting halfway to dance
on an unfamiliar shore.
When he brings the finished pizza to me
he lowers his eyes modestly
and his smile opens as gently as petals
surprising the spring.