Sunlight in a Cafeteria and the collision of worlds

On the first Tuesday of November, I walk into the YUAG with a single purpose: to find an object that would captivate me enough to spend my afternoon immersed in it. I wander through sculptures, artifacts, and paintings from different eras, but I ultimately find myself where I expected: the section dedicated to modern and contemporary art.

Once on the gallery’s third floor, I enter the first room on the left, which was almost empty. It doesn’t take me long to become engrossed in a subtly dramatic scene. A man and a woman sat in a nearly deserted cafeteria, each at a different table, engrossed in their own activities. The woman, seated by a large window overlooking the street, had her attention fixed on her hands. The man sat in the shadows, smoking, facing the window and the woman. There were no other patrons or waitstaff in sight, and the view out the window hinted that the scene was set in a city. Both the man and the woman appeared aware of each other’s presence but hesitated to acknowledge it. I think they deliberately refrained from making eye contact, choosing to maintain a distance. Sunlight in a Cafeteria by Edward Hopper is what I read.

This scene leaves me with a cascade of questions. What had these two individuals experienced before finding themselves in the cafeteria? Who were they beyond “the woman” and “the man” at this moment? Did they have families, love stories, and personal aspirations? It was clear that they had arrived at the cafeteria from different paths. They not only likely took different modes of transportation but also navigated distinct life events—childhood, adolescence, early losses, and first loves. All these stories remained hidden beneath their measured and reserved actions. Two worlds seemed ready to be unveiled, yet, at the same time, they appeared to be very distant and separate.

Suddenly, an elderly woman enters the gallery room. Our gazes briefly intersect, and my inquisitive mood now extends to this new presence. What mistakes has she made? How many times has she loved? What are her passions, her dearest memories, her university experiences? I may not have the answers, but I’m aware that they exist, concealed beyond her wrinkles, her gray hair, and the multiple layers of clothing she wears, hidden by the invisible barrier that our gazes barely threaten to break.

I recognize a parallel between the painting and the scene unfolding in this room. The lady and I are strangers, never having crossed paths in our lives, leading vastly different existences. Yet, at this moment, we are in such close proximity.

Suddenly, the cafeteria window in the painting reminds me that there’s a world beyond this stream of consciousness in this gallery room. The depth and complexity I speculate in the lady’s character also reside in the guard who greeted me at the entrance, as well as in every person who walks this university, this continent, and this planet. It doesn’t require an exchange of glances to recognize this truth.

Beyond our immediate surroundings, there are numerous stories unfurling in every passing moment. A child learning to ride a bicycle, a student aspiring to be a doctor, a young man losing himself in the night, a family forming and struggling to thrive, a traveling salesman, a hidden love, a noble gesture never disclosed, an irreplaceable adventure—all these stories may exist in every stranger with whom I’ve exchanged fleeting glances. To each of them, I too am merely a stranger, a secondary character in the radiant narrative of their own lives.

Now, the lady in the room stands in front of the very same painting and starts appreciating it. I ponder what’s on her mind, but despite my suspicion, whatever lies beyond the boundaries of our encounter remains fiercely inaccessible to me. The fleeting exchange of glances is perhaps the closest I will ever be. This realization brings to mind a recurring sentiment. 

I come to understand that the world has never been within my grasp. It has forever eluded me, and each day, I barely brush against fragments of it. How can I expect to comprehend the essence of the universe, to strive to understand the depths of human nature when there exist countless realms I’ll never encounter? I am merely the traveler of my own tale, journeying in my small carriage, in my limited singularity, hidden amidst the vast expanses of existence. We are fragments of the unknown, raindrops in a storm, ashes in an ashtray, grains of sand in an endless desert. We are fleeting sparks in someone else’s life, trapped in this amalgamation of parallel worlds, entwined with alien and inaccessible emotions.

At first glance, one might perceive this detachment as something terrifying, but it can also be viewed as a facet that adds depth to life: the painting may depict two individuals in a cafe, choosing not to acknowledge each other’s presence, but it can also represent the dramatic collision between two intricate worlds, delicately caressing the prospect of connection, whispering about the formation of an entirely new bridge between them.

Returning to the painting: a man and a woman, with an undeniable tension between them. I reflect on how many friendships have originated in such a way, how many unbreakable bonds trace their origins back to the avoidance of recognizing the other, and how many stories have commenced in a desolate cafeteria. Similarly, I ponder how many bridges have been erected in places where no one would have dared to breach the invisible social barriers, where connections were unforeseen. How many of these events are transpiring at this very moment?

It’s through this complexity, this confrontation with the infinite and profound existence, that I’m awestruck by the remarkable potential for human connection. Thinking of my friends and loved ones, I can’t help but wonder: among the countless worlds within this boundless amalgam of emotions, why did we collide? Why us? More questions arise: why did we exchange glances in that cafe? Why did we cross paths within the same building, in the same class, or in the same late-night stroll? You can call it chance, destiny, a higher force, or probability, but you cannot deny that it’s a staggering phenomenon—an unparalleled collision between two worlds. It’s the creation of a bridge to an unknown ocean, an adventure marked by novelty, intimacy, and the personal. It’s your gateway to the inaccessible.

This is why meeting new people is so beautiful, perhaps one of the most captivating phenomena we can encounter. 

However, it’s not solely about friendship. The man and woman in the cafeteria, for instance, may never engage in conversation or even glance at each other again. Yet there exists a profound interaction, a connection between two intricate individuals that serves as a poignant reminder of the transient nature of our existence. It can, perhaps, be the most vital encounter with the abyss, a powerful reminder that we are here, as alive as anyone else.

You don’t necessarily need to pinpoint its utility for this complexity to hold significance. Perhaps you only have to appreciate it for what it is, and in doing that, you might find incomparable value. For me, this profound wonderment helps me cherish my connections, see them as beautiful collisions between intricate worlds, forge stronger bonds, stay more present, and reconnect with the vastness of everything that exists.

I recollect my childhood moments of gazing at the moon. I was always fascinated by the thought of how many other people were looking at the moon with me. I didn’t yearn to connect with them on a psychic or spiritual level; I was simply in awe of the grandeur of being alive. Now, every time I contemplate the inherent complexity of the universe, I feel like a child once more, becoming fixated on whatever captivates me.

The guard asks me to head to the exit because the gallery is closing. It might be the only time our lives intersect, and I find myself wondering what his evening will entail. I bid farewell to the scene in the cafeteria and think about how much I want to return one day to recollect this afternoon.

Once outside, the initial reddish hues of the sunset invite me to take a stroll. I pass a man playing the guitar, a group of friends laughing their way through a conversation, and a couple walking their dog. A bustling dining hall stands to my right. I know that within its walls, there exist thousands of stories and myriad emotions. I sit and contemplate how wonderful a painting capturing that moment would be, and I lament my lack of painting skills.

The chimes of Harkness Tower remind me that it’s time for dinner. With each chime, I’m aware that thousands of new interactions unfold within this university and this city, making everything even more intricate and increasingly beyond my reach.

New Haven and the university begin to take on a different hue. Cars continue to pass by, and I decide to set off on another walk around campus.

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