In a public space, like this café, there was no real privacy. At any moment a person that they didn’t know could view them, sitting there together, sharing their time. If someone made the effort, he could lean over and hear the contents of their conversation. Yet of course nobody did: their conversation wasn’t that special, after all; and anyway, there exists a sort of bubble of inattention, in crowded spaces, where nobody cares about what the people outside of their group are saying.
“Has anyone ever told you that they have no word for ‘goodbye’ on Halepa?” he asked. He stirred his coffee, swirling it around with his spoon, though the cream had long since been fully incorporated.
“Yeah, I’ve heard that.” She held her hands cupped around her hot chocolate. She had yet to take a drink from it, but it was a cold day, and the beverage was warm.
“Did you know that it’s not true?”
They haven’t looked at each other’s faces in several minutes. Her eyes focused on her beverage. His flit between his drink and hers, and then off among the groups of people that surrounded them, near and present and yet undeniably separate from them.
“No, I didn’t,” she said.
“Well, they do have a word for goodbye,” he said. He took a sip from his coffee, and turned his gaze toward the window, which offered a view of the town’s main street. People walked by in pairs and trios and greater collections. Many of them came down from the city for a weekend getaway. “It’s a cognate of ours, actually. That’s not surprising. Languages haven’t diverged that much since the Death.”
“I know that much,” she said, with a hint of old irritation in her voice.
He frowned, looking regretful, though he continued anyway. “They have a word for goodbye, but they don’t like to say it. It’s a special word, to them. They say instead, ‘I will see you soon,’ or ‘until the next time we meet.’ They have a few phrases like that. They’re all effectively euphemisms, like we have for uncomfortable things. Like death.”
“What’s so uncomfortable about goodbye?” she said. Her voice, though always quiet, came out even more hushed.
He paused. “Well, it’s not so much ‘goodbye’ itself that bothers them. It’s a cultural thing, though. To them, ‘goodbye’ is too definite. It’s too much of an ending. They save it for very specific times.”
“Oh?” Her beverage still held her gaze. The marshmallows had dissolved, by now, leaving only a white foam across the top. She looked almost like a statue, as frozen in place as though she had been cast in stone. Only her mouth moved when she spoke. “What times are those?”
He lifted his mug and took a longer drink from it before replying, leaving it nearly empty. As he did, his eyes finally drifted toward her, observing her over the rim. When he set it back down, he turned his head once more to look out of the window. “They say it when they think their time with someone has come to an end. When they believe someone is about to die, or when they think they’re parting for the final time.”
She didn’t answer to this. She just kept staring into her drink. There is no silence, not here, surrounded by the chatter and laughter of the café’s other patrons, but to look at her, one would think that the space should have been dead quiet.
He turned his mug in his hands. His eyes flickered back to her, this time without the protection of the brim of the mug over his face, but she took no notice. “It’s something of a curse word, to the Halepans. If you use it at the wrong time. Foreigners catch a lot of angry looks for using it inappropriately.”
A group of patrons left the shop. Another group entered, smiles on their faces, cheeks blushed pink by the cool autumn air. They removed their gloves and jackets as they searched for a table. In the space of his and her table, only their breath moved them. He has joined, temporarily, into her silent tableau, leaned back in his chair, with one elbow resting on the back, and the fingertips of his hand upon his mug.
“I should get going,” he said, after a while. “I have to be to class soon.”
She nodded, breaking her stillness. He hesitated a moment longer, but he did stand, leaving her in her seat. Her head turned as he moved, and, finally, she raised her eyes to meet his.
“I’ll see you soon,” she said. Her eyes glistened in the warm, low light of the café’s lamps.
He moved to pass her, pausing only to lay a hand on her shoulder for a brief touch. “Goodbye.”
He left the café, and her, sitting there alone surrounded by a crowd of people. She watched her drink until it cooled, then left without drinking it.