“Do you ever feel like your life is set to autopilot? Like you’re sleepwalking through the day, your body coasting along as your muscle memory guides you to its destination?”
It’s May 5, two days before my birthday, and another Saturday morning at a favourite neighbourhood cafe. My friend is reading me questions from a quiz in one of those wellness magazines she’s recently started buying. It’s a welcome change to the Financial Review she usually carries around in her oversized tote bag, the one that cost her two pay checks and never seems to leave her side like a loyal designer pooch. The quiz is multiple choice, and before my friend has a chance to run through the A-B-C-D options I tell her that most days I find myself standing on a platform, waiting for a train, but can’t remember walking to the station. It’s as though I closed my front door, waved to my cat through the window, and teleported myself there.
My friend looks at me and frowns, closes the magazine and throws it back into her tote bag. Clearly this isn’t the response she was hoping for. My head starts to throb and my body aches on the inside from too much rich food and red wine the night before. I pick up the menu and search for something sweet. No coconut chia pudding just isn’t going to cut it today, what I really need is a plate of blueberry pancakes drizzled in maple syrup. I realise that I’ve said this out loud when my friend asks “hungover much?” in that same sarcastic tone she reserves for her younger siblings. I make a stupid face and she laughs, and tells me she “fancies some French toast”, which isn’t on the menu, however I know she’s in the middle of what she calls a major dalliance with Paul, the handsome chef from Marseille.
As my friend wanders off to find her beau I look around the room at all the things that make this my favourite cafe. The circa 1940’s Danish bureau where the staff go to collect menus, cutlery and navy blue napkins. The enormous Fiddle Leaf plant that stands proudly in the corner, its top leaves verdant green and almost touching the ceiling. And the owner walking the room, sitting down with regulars to help finish their crossword puzzles, rewarding them with free cookies as they pay and leave.
Then I see her, a woman sitting alone at a table by the window, reading what looks like a copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Tender is the Night’. I remember the last time I read that book I was in my twenties and living in a tiny flat in West London, with no responsibilities or plans other than where to go for drinks on a Friday night, or which European city to travel to on my next holiday. The woman’s nails are painted a vivid, almost Yves Klein blue, and her lips ruby red, leaving stains on her coffee cup in the shape of a smile. As a waiter takes her order and calls it out to the kitchen I realise the woman is seated at table number 5… table number 5 on Saturday May 5. Now my sister who’s into numerology would tell you that this is a sign, that whenever the number 5 presents itself to you in life, a number that craves curiosity, freedom and change, you should follow it and see where it takes you.
When I get home later that afternoon I scan my bookshelf for my copy of Tender is the Night. As I open it, a photograph of myself standing in front of the Tate Modern in London falls out and onto the floor. I pick it up and written on the back in blue ink are the words “Great day – May 5”. I flip it over again and smile at my much younger self, who seems like a stranger to me now, however someone I would like to get to know again.
In this moment, in my living room on Saturday May 5, my life is no longer set to autopilot, and I know exactly what I need to do.
Image: photograph by @theresamarx for Vogue Portugal.