Thursday, January 29, 2009

Some enchanted evening

I met a man tonight. In a restaurant. He offered to pay my bill.

It's the same restaurant I've blogged about before, nothing fancy or exotic. I love their beer-battered scallops. How can a place in the mountains serve such great scallops? Better than the Jersey shore.

So, here I am, first arrival of the dinner crowd. I have my pick of the place and choose one of my favorite booths - the one in the far corner where I usually sit facing the wall and thinking how much one of the hanging black-and-white photos looks like my son-in-law. Tonight, however, I decide to be social and sit facing the incoming patrons.

A large party arrives, very chatty, and seat themselves way up front near the windows. I order a glass of red wine and my scallops. Soon, a gent comes in and chooses the booth right in front of me. I'm reading the paper and pretending not to notice that he has now sat down facing me rather than sitting on the opposite side of his booth. Heh. This is something that usually annoys me, having another solitary diner facing in my direction. Tonight, though, I'm feasting on those juicy scallops and chilling out with Merlot. Life is good.

Suddenly, I hear someone talking to me. I look up and see a smiling face who is asking what I'm having. He wants to be friendly. I suggest the scallops. He says he loves seafood but he's allergic to scallops. I recommend the night's special, baked haddock. We are starting a conversation about ten feet apart and speaking over the booth. Quite odd, but the wine has kicked in and I'm mellow. He has already ordered a Heineken. I suddenly have the urge to raise my wine glass (above the rim of the booth) and say "cheers" but I refrain. As we eat in our separate booths, we continue to make eye contact and chat a bit. He's a bit hard of hearing and certainly older than I. But he really wants to talk to me.

It's been a while since I've done small talk with a stranger. I find, though, that I don't mind revealing bits of information as his words invite a response. We start with the weather. Doesn't everyone? He has a snow blower and I have been busy shoveling. He offers to clear my sidewalk when it snows again. Oh, boy. He was in the navy almost 20 years, traveled all over the world. And now I'm thinking, where have I heard this before? Is this the guy who was the lunch partner of "Stas"? Holy Hannah! Maybe I misread their dialogue after all. He seems quite interested in me.

He orders his fish; I order my dessert. He inquires about my "husband"; I give him the lowdown on my non-marital status. He shares that he was recently widowed after 40 years of marriage. And his eyes fill up with tears as he talks about his late wife and his stepson who is an architect in Maine (who designed something for the elder Bush). Funny how spontaneous conversations can reveal so much. He owns three apartments, was born and raised in town, and regrets that he never kept a journal or picture album of all his years in the navy. He doesn't have a computer but he does have an adopted grandson. I share that my son's a doctor and my daughter lives nearby with her little girls. He tells me that I don't look old enough to be a grandmother. This is as close as I've gotten to a date in years. He wants to pay for my meal, says it would give him pleasure. I defer but let him write down his name and phone number. He wants me to phone him at the next snowfall. Now this guy was in the navy during the Korean war and married over 40 years, maybe even a part of "the greatest generation" but, still, there is something sweet and kind about him. I listen to his story and I think that touches him. Two lonely diners. I finish my dessert sitting across from him in his booth. No harm done. He knows where I work and shyly mentions that he might drop in sometime. I get up and he stands to help me into my coat.

As I leave the restaurant, I am chuckling. A chance encounter, a man who has lost a partner whom he obviously loved very much. He wanted to talk to me. I responded. Nothing more, nothing less.

And, yet, why do I feel so much more alive and buoyant as I walk over the ice and snow to my empty apartment?