I gave in to the truth: the guru of environmental sustainability was pooped. I’d led three workshops and given a speech at this conference in Pittsburgh, spoken keynotes and opined on panels in five different cities in the previous four weeks. I ‘d hugged fat and trim enthusiasts, was dealt a deck of business cards and advice, and nodded with interest to recommendations of seven books I would never read. It’s not that I’m a flat-out hypocrite; it’s just that the arc of my genuine interest hits earth before everyone else’s has played out. At the beginning of each event I’d pumped up on adrenaline like Johnny the Wad Holmes, and delivered as convincing a show. Tonight I was not half-baked but done.
For the last two days I’d skipped the food at the lunch events. Once because I was giving the speech and don't load up before I put out. Once because I’d had enough of any dish prepared for four hundred. As I walked down the darkened Pittsburgh street to the small hotel I’d chosen to escape elevator conversations about straw-bale houses and tidal power, my head told me I should eat, and my body rumbled confirmation of the parliamentary nomination. Why couldn’t they just hand me a take out baggie of the banquet I had skipped, so I could eat in the hotel in my boxers, watching anything on TV, as I called my wife to whine. A full bodied red whine with wooden overtones. Practically there, at the hotel—right, I must get some kind of food.
Pittsburgh. I see where they got the name. Depressing. Nothing open. A Wendys, no thank you. A drug store with a welcome gauntlet of unrecyclable bags of snacks. Hopeless. The hotel lobby—not even the little convenience store with half day-old soggy tuna wraps. I saw the concierge, and headed his way for his nutritional guidance, and he looked up from his copy of Mother Jones to my question. He was surprisingly young for the job, but just the right age and attitude to be reading Mother Jones. Another glance showed his hairless chin was at odds with the older set of his eyes and the uniform; his age seemed almost indeterminate. I don’t usually notice people this carefully—why did I bother?
I thought about making a snarky comment about his magazine, but simply cut to, “Can you recommend a place nearby to grab a decent dinner? I'm wiped out, and want something near and quiet.”
He paused, sizing me up as he might a stranger he was about to hustle at pool. “Would you like something a little different than usual?”
“Like Sri Lankan? Sure, if it’s good.”
He looked at me hard and said, “I mean different, but not the food.” He waited. Images of his notion of different flashed through my mind—anarchist coffee shops or vegan ambiance with ferns and large dogs with bandanna collars. He asked, “Do you wish you wrote more poetry?”
Not quite sure how to answer this question, I paused. How to handle this odd moment? I had no interest in making friends with this fellow, but it was a harmless question, albeit irrelevant to the beer and pasta I had in mind. I debated; he waited. Maybe twenty seconds passed, awkward for me, seemingly not for him. I offered a deal, “I’ll answer that if you'll tell me where I can eat.”
“That’s the point. I am going to recommend a place to eat based on the answer.”
“What if I had asked where I could buy a newspaper?”
“Fair enough. Yes, I do wish I were writing more poetry. I used to write pretty often. Now I hardly ever do, and it’s one of those things I know I should do but don’t get to. Ever, anymore.”
“I thought so. Yeah, you want to go to Café Rejuve.” He told me how to get there. And as I turned to go, he said, “A tip—think about what you want as you walk there, and try to order it as exactly as you can.” I repeated it to myself as I turned to the revolving door. Now I need guidance on how to order in a restaurant? Pittsburgh. “What you want … exactly as you can.” I have gotten old.
The walking directions were straightforward enough, two lefts and a right. “The landmarks of progress” were obvious he’d said; what was obvious was that he was reading too many badly printed manifestos. A barber pole at the first left turn, a pink building at the second. I couldn't miss the final right apparently, there was a stone arch over the street covered in carvings that commemorated some historical event the young man could not recall. About halfway down the block on the left, I’d find the Café Rejuve with a very small sign that was easy to miss. Out front, he said, there was always something that would catch my attention and mean something to me if I were looking. That’s what he said. He had to have made that one up; no one would have written that. He said they changed what it was every day, but it always worked, somehow.
Left and left, barber and pink, easily found. I couldn't miss the arch, but I couldn't tell what it celebrated either. Some giant symbol that couldn't be read in the dim streetlight green. The Spanish-American War perhaps. Some famous mining accomplishment or accident? No tidy plaque to tell me what it meant, no hint in the street name. No name at all for this street as far as I could see.
"Think about what you want as you walk." I wanted comfort food. Why is comfort food usually beige? Must be the associations with mother's milk. And I wanted to know what this arch was about. I looked back after passing through. For a moment I thought I saw the word "home" on the top of the arch, and those carvings looked like people doing domestic things. I stopped and blinked, walked back toward the arch and saw I had been imagining things; the surface had the same vaguely military images.
Onward. Shortly, I should pass an old-fashioned drug store with a fountain counter with stools on my left and the Café was just after that. Look for the whatever-it-would-be out front.
There was the drug store, very Norman Rockwell. I glanced down the block. The occasional streetlights gave up; it got dark down there. Maybe a dead end. I scanned the doorways beyond the drug store, looking for whatever I was looking for. There was something incongruous. An old-fashioned wooden and wicker wheelchair out on the street. I stood in front of it. It was backed up against a wall with a door bearing a small wooden sign saying Rejuvenation in small letters and Café in larger. There was a small, odd Mardi Gras mask on the seat of the wheelchair. But beside being only half sized for a human face, the mask had an outer layer peeling off the upper half in a roll to reveal a younger maskface forehead and larger eye underneath. I puzzled about the wheelchair connection. Indeed, there had been a peculiar experience with a wheelchair when I arrived at the Pittsburgh airport the day before.
I was to be picked up by the conference host, but had no idea what she looked like or where we were supposed to meet. I left the security area and looked for a sign—some pleasant looking lady in Land’s End wear holding up a little notice with my name or the title of the conference. Nothing. So I conjured a look for my face that said, "If you are looking for someone, and you are not exactly sure what he looks like, he is me." This look raised my eyebrows in a cheerful expectant welcome. A man came over. He asked me if I wanted a limo, cheap. No; and nobody else responded to the offering of me. I went to the baggage claim area, still wearing my "this is who you are looking for face." I was getting wary glances from middle aged women. A strange little man in cowboy boots handed me an anti-abortion brochure, calling me brother—this is what an open invitation gets you, I thought. I proceeded out onto the street, maybe she was waiting in a car. New security measures—no car can park. There were a few people waiting. I stood looking around, with the eyebrows of my facial mask beginning to tire and twitch slightly in the rictus of anticipation—the cheerful grimace was souring with touches of irritation. I felt a bump on the back of my ankles. I turned to see an empty wheelchair had rolled into me. No one claiming it, or even connected to it. It just rolled up behind me and nudged me in the Achilles’ tendons. I took the mysterious hint, relaxed my face, and sat in it. Immediately a station wagon pulled up to me, and a chatty woman in all black jeans, sweater and jacket, bounded out with apologies, greeted me by name, swept me into the car, relieved that I could walk, and off we went.
The wooden Café door was old and heavy. As I grabbed the brass ring and turned it, I had no sense of what I’d find inside. I guess I held expectations because I was surprised at the old fashioned look. Not antiquated as in “filled with antiques,” but like an old New Yorky place, with a pressed tin ceiling fourteen feet above, dark green walls, wooden wainscoting. Something familiar and comforting, like a private club or a movie scene where witty quips are exchanged and nothing serious can go wrong. Tall plants here and there, and porthole windows on the swinging kitchen doors.
The Café had a smallish a central room with four or five tables, some semi-private nooks open to the main room, and one private room without a door. Instead of a welcoming host or hostess, a wooden sign recommended “Sit where you like.” I chose a nook separated from the not-so-grand central area by a low wall just right for resting an arm. There was only one place setting at the table. That's probably why I picked it. But I picked a seat that looked into the main room. I moved the place setting in front of me before I looked up, right at the only other patrons in the place. They were a fiftysomething couple scrunched next to one another on one side of a small square table, touching hands between slow bites of food, not saying a word. They sometimes forked bits off the other’s plate. They looked Edward Hopperesque; that is, if he had been an optimist—quiet as they were, they were radiantly happy. I didn't want to stare at them all night, so I moved back to the seat of the original place setting and switched the setting back. I sneaked a peek at them; they hadn't noticed a thing. The new angle of my gaze fell toward the large green wall with a painting of some Greek myth I couldn’t place.
My waitress appeared suddenly. Actually, she had approached so quietly, she was there when I turned my head back from the frightened Athenian youth fleeing his voluptuous goddess. She was in her early twenties. Fresh skin, kohl darkened eyes and short hair bleached at the spikey ends but with the roots showing dark all around, giving her a blond cartoon halo. She wore the residue of a dark lipstick that made her mouth match the maroon T-shirt with a beige “JUVE” written over the heart. Her voice turned out to be husky, and everything about her said ready and relaxed.
“Welcome,” she said and smiled showing two rows of baby teeth. Small, perfect, but spaced slightly apart. Corn kernels. She flipped my drinking glass rightside up, like a cowgirl who liked to spin her gun, and began filling it in the same gesture. “I’m glad you’re here. I will be your server tonight. You haven't been here before, have you? It's kind of obvious.”
“No.” I said. “I'm from out of town. How is it obvious?”
“Let me count the ways. Doesn't matter. I hope you find something familiar about your meal here. Some people do. I did.” She told me a friend had mentioned this place to her a couple of years ago, and she came for dinner. Sat at this very table. But facing the other way, she moved because she couldn’t bear to see the Greek guy running so scared. So she had faced the center, and basically never left. “So I assume you don't know how to order here?”
I do know how to order in restaurants. I looked to the table for a menu, any prop to help me get started without complete reliance on her. No help at all. A blank white table cloth with one setting of no-nonsense stainless steelware.
“I can probably figure it out with a little help.”
“That's my job. Here's where we start.” She slightly pulled herself up in the characteristic way wait-people do before they perform their script of specials. And she said, “What is it that you really want?”
I blinked in uncertainty.
“There’s no menus. Actually, menus are limiting, if you think about it. Mostly menus are there for the convenience of the business, and you get used to choosing from what they offer, what makes money for them. Like a clothing store. It’s backwards here. You create the occasion you want.”
“I can order anything?”
“There are always limits, but we try.”
“What if I ordered baby snails marinated in yak butter?”
“Is that what you would really like?”
“No, but what if I did?”
A pause. I pinned her with a look that said “gotcha.” She pulled out the chair opposite me and plopped down, took a breath, and said, “Is this the conversation you really want? I’ll mean I’ll do it, but maybe we can cut the crap and get to the fun part, which is creating your dinner?”
“I'm just curious how it works. I don't understand.”
“I know you don’t. People have to learn about this place. By the way, your meal got a lot better the moment you admitted you didn’t understand.” I glanced to the Hopper couple, what was that they were eating? Couldn’t see; no clue.
“It must be a real scene in the kitchen.”
“What goes on behind the scenes is always amazing isn't it? Creating what someone really wants is a privilege. In most places, people out front don't really care what is going on in there. They care about the result. I'm fascinated by what goes on inside; that’s why I like this place so much. To tell you the truth, I’m not even all that concerned about how much you like the meal.”
She explained, “Don't worry, we'll do our best. Around here the processes involved are as important as the meal. We make sure we are having a good time even as we create something nice for you. But honestly, we don’t really care that much about whether you like us. You’ll come back, but it will be because of the whole experience, not just the grub. I mean you are paying for the whole experience, and it started when you walked through the arch and began dealing with different questions in your head, like what is a frigging wheelchair doing out there. But isn't it amazing how that works? Anyway, if it’s OK with you, let's get you started by going back a step to square one. Who's doing the ordering?”
I thought for a moment. And recalled a private mantra from the years when I was her age: Relax and just go with it. “Sure, my name is …”
She interrupted. “No, I don't care about your name. To get what you really want, you need to know who is ordering; I don't.”
I opened my mouth to speak, noticing the physical move that went with it, a slight rearing up to declaim an opinion, the way I had done all afternoon. I paused before I said I know exactly who I am young lady. I decided not to say it. Because I didn't exactly. The oddness of it all. I vaguely sensed what she was asking.
“That's better,” she said. Her mouth twitched sideways. What an appealing parenthesis wrinkle on her cheek beside her smile—where did that parenthesis close? She was leading me. I waited. To see what would happen next. After a silence I said, “I'm sorry to be taking so much time.”
“Don't do that,” she said. “That is what this place is about. That is our version of good service. And hey, it might get me a hell of a tip. So, who is starting to appear in this restaurant to order this alleged dinner?”
I didn't quite grasp what she was inviting, but I began to be willing to reach for it. The moment I relaxed into the game, I felt the rush of maleness I feel when sliding into flirtation mode. But this wasn't flirty. It was sexy but without the sex. The word erotic shot through my head. This was fun; she was amazing for a kid, and looking more beautiful each time I glanced at her. “You know, I said, about six guys came in here with me tonight.”
“This is not news.”
“You know these guys?”
“I’m sure I have met some. And you probably have a few surprises left in you. Which is the one you want to order your evening.”
“Who have you met before?”
“Well, I don't want to limit your options. But there is probably a high schooler who is trying to be cool about this weird conversation with a girl with good breasts who is young enough to be his daughter. I mean, that is confusing. And I am sure there is a twenty-three-year-old guy on the make who is figuring how this could turn into sex. There is also this grownup business person—I mean look at you—who is trying to figure out how not to look like a doofus and thinking he needs to get home to call his wife. But, I don't know, I don’t think any of them really wants to have a meal here tonight.”
I felt pretty obvious. I remembered that smart women know and see these guys all the time, and perennially hope to speak to someone else. “I don't suppose there is any chance of success if I go with the 23 year old thing?”
“A lot of men like that. You using a binary definition of success?”
“Irrelevant. It’s your dinner. You can effectively miss the whole experience hoping for something implausible but fun that might happen after, or you can have the dinner. What I want is for you to get the dinner you really want.”
“You’re ducking the 23-year-old's question.”
“That's because I think someone else is having this conversation.”
That stopped me. She was right. I went quiet and fiddled with the fork for no good reason, and glanced at the Greek guy in the painting, now my buddy.
“Let me give you a tip. It is eros, not sex in this place. Go with that. So let's get back to that dinner order. Hey, let’s try this.” She sounded just like an excited sixth grade teacher. “When you get a vague feel of the real person who might be talking to me when you step outside your geekdom and hormones, what kind of food comes to mind?”
I began scanning foods to see if they buzzed with the vaguely familiar sense of who I was trying to be. Fruit? Not substantial enough. Meat? Too muscular. Forget vegetables. Nothing seemed quite right.
“I see an earnest young man trying to get this right. I like him, and I appreciate his seriousness, but can I make a suggestion?”
“Sure.” Finally a little active help from her.
“Lighten fucking up. This is supposed to be fun. Not frivolous, but fun—I mean how far wrong can you go?”
“Well, I could miss the chance of a lifetime.”
“The management is flattered. Come on, you have endless chances for this in your lifetime. For you, practice play. I think eros will take you closer tonight than getting laid or getting it right.”
“How do you recommend I do that?”
“Oh you mean you want to hear one of tonight's specials?”
I smiled and nodded expectantly.
“Blank your mind. Can you do that? Not like meditating, just go zero. When you are there, assign your brain to come up with "favorite foods" and see what comes up. Or another special is to put all your attention in your taste buds see what they have in mind. Or just make your best guess of what kind of food some hungry part of you wants. Any of those work for you?”
“Too many ideas. They could all work.”
“Sorry. I sometimes get carried away with the specials. Pick any one and try it.”
I took a deep breath and instead of thinking up foods that another part of my brain would veto for one reason or another, I waited to see what would come all by itself without thinking I tried to go blank and see what appeared. It was taking some time. The thought “How about cheese soufflé?” popped into mind. I set the suggestion aside; I had thought that up; it hadn’t really just popped. I just waited. Nothing quite came. I opened my eyes and looked at her in apology.
“No,” she said. “This is going great.”
I waited, trying to keep a hopeful attitude that any moment an answer would appear. I relaxed. Immediately a warm loaf of herbed bread appeared in mind. My eyes flew open and right into hers. She was excited for me. “Bread. That’s all I know so far. Hot wheat bread with herbs in it. Crusty.”
She stood up and wrote it down on a little pad, just like a normal waitress. And waited for me to go on.
This time I knew better what to do. Just do nothing. It didn't come quickly. Some kind of spicy tomato soup. “Gazpacho, that’s it.” Where the heck did that come from? I haven't had gazpacho in years. She nodded, jotted it down and urged me on.
I began to get into the game. I had a feel of it, the sense that I could order anything. I looked at her. She was almost laughing. We beamed at each other. She crooned, “Yep, that’s it. Fantastic.” Her skin was so young and smooth, while her eyes … green I noticed. I took in the beauty mark by her mouth. "Yes, it is fake,” she said. “I move it around; I am still trying to find the best spot for it. Go back to your meal.”
My hands rose to my face and cupped both sides like I was holding a melon. There was a dopey grin on my face as I closed my eyes again. Spinach ravioli with lots of roasted garlic in olive oil and Parmesan. And a glass of Chianti Classico from Tuscany. My eyes opened, and I almost ordered it. No, wait; close eyes: that couldn’t be right. Broiled weakfish in lemon garlic. No. Pad Thai with shrimp. No. The rush of possibilities baffled me. Everything that popped to mind seemed perfect. My eyes flew open to meet hers.
“Don't worry, it's good,” she said. “Come up with lots of good answers, and then pick the one that seems like the best right now.”
One hand moved from my face. The other clamped over my chin with an index finger over my mouth, a thin tape to keep it closed 'til I knew—my left hand, and I usually gesture with my right. There was a more determined look on my face, as I decided to choose.
She leaned down and whispered in my ear. “And best of all, it doesn't matter a bit.”
I snorted an appreciation. And knew. “Let's go with that spinach ravioli and the Chianti Classico. Show no mercy with the garlic. Doesn't seem like I will be doing much kissing tonight.”
“You never know with a man who can order a meal like that. We can see about dessert after.” She snapped her pad into her pocket like a pistol in a holder, theatrically spun 110 degrees on the ball of one foot, stopped herself at the right angle and walked straight to the porthole doors and through into the kitchen. What was it like in there? Did the chef roll his eyes in horror? Did they laugh at the requests? How could they have every ingredient? It was impossible that they could produce anything anyone could imagine. Don't worry about that she had said. What’s her name? And I sat there, staring at the green wall, in a kind of stupor, with a silly half grin, for some time. Minutes, maybe more than five. I noticed the still life of the square table. Sharp white tablecloth with place setting and male hand. Everything was crisply defined, the silverware casting tiny shadows, the plain white plate, except the hand, which had a blurriness because it wasn’t quite still. There were twitches of impatience. I looked at that hand. Getting wrinkled. I disappeared into thoughts of age and skin and veins and hearts opening and stopping.
Impossibly, she appeared from the kitchen with a loaf of bread in a basket. And a glass of red wine. I smelled the herbs before the basket hit the table. “Nope, I'm not going to tell you how,” she said. “Your dinner begins.” And she started to move off.
“Will you sit with me while I eat?”
“No way. That way you would never have the meal.” She started her spin to go move but I stopped her with, “Maybe you don't realize that the exchanges with you are what is exciting here. More than the food.”
“Well, of course that’s true so far. You haven't eaten anything for Christsakes! But this was all preparation for you to participate in something tangible, an experience that uses your taste buds and mouth and hands. Use the energy you have been pouring on me on your food and see what happens. You know what I mean. It will serve you much better in the long run. Think of it as a doggy bag.” And she bounced off, pleased with herself.
I looked at the bread. And the wine. What is the best way to go about this eating? No, I am not supposed to worry about that. Go back to the way I was thinking when I ordered the ravioli. I glanced at the painting and coached myself not to flee the goddess. “Just smell for a while,” came the clue. Foreplay. I put my focus in my nose. I could connect to the herb bread from this thirty-inch distance but not the wine. Wine first, I thought; I could use a drink. I began a slow nose-led approach to the wine. I stopped at twelve inches—still no smell. Lower the sensor slowly. Wait, something at about eight. Slower. Getting a stronger sense at six. My eyes closed and the approach slipped into very slow motion. A wash of Italian memories at three. Barely moving forward now. By the time my nose got to the rim, I was past Italy into the voluptuousness of the smell. I hung there, nose now over the rim, drinking it in. Waves of physical pleasure arose and images flashed and passed. Until my neck began to crick. I opened my eyes and sat back up, sneaking a peek to make sure the happy Hoppers weren't watching. They had been. They smiled, nodded and hooked pinkies on the table at my glance.
I reached for the glass. How to pick it up? I rehearsed various ways with my hand a few inches away from the globe of the glass. Which would feel the best? To hold it by the stem, the sides, maybe the curve of the bottom? Finally, so slowly, I reached my hand under the bowl, opening for the stem between my third and fourth fingers, in a slow underhand Klingon salute. And sliding the stem between those two fingers, I lifted my hand so slowly to cup the bowl of the wineglass. I heard something like a breath, and glanced up. It was the waitress watching from beside the kitchen door. She nodded, gave me a thumbs up sign, mock-wiped her brow, and back into the kitchen smiling, mouthing the word “wow.” It was good for me too. I felt tipsy.
The elastic connection between nose and wine pulled my hand toward my mouth. And I allowed the glass to rest in its rightful place on lower lip, placing my nose in the ideal position to follow the action in my mouth. A red wine glass has a perfect design I noticed for the first time in my life. I realized my nose felt jealous at the enormity of the pleasure the mouth was about to have. Too bad, life is just like that sometimes. I tipped the glass for a good-sized sip. Like some rush of an intravenous drug, it filled my mouth but it rocked my whole body. I followed the journey of that sensation; the idiotic terms I had always disdained flipped through my mind: oaky, earthy, ironic finish. I followed the diminuendo which lasted longer than that on the Beatles’ A Day in the Life. One sip was enough for now. I slowly set the glass down, and had to rest. And laughed to myself at the size of the experience compared to the amount of input. Small sip, big ride. I nearly dozed in afterglow. And a mischievous voice in me said “bread.”
I knew what I wanted to do. Did I dare? I glanced around—this I did not want to have the waitress watch. The coast was clear. I reached out and picked up the small loaf, with my left hand again I noted. My right hand joined over it. I wanted to fondle it. In modesty, I lowered the action below the exposure of the table top, toward my lap. And there I held and felt and gently squeezed this unsuspecting but entirely willing oval. I brought it up for smelling. And without thinking tore off an end and bit in. The chewing came autonomically as I tried and failed to follow the flavors. I had swallowed before I knew it. A little disappointed in myself, I organized my next bite with a plan for how best to do it. Smaller, better grasp of what was going on. One more, a smaller bite, too small it turned out; things were becoming less fun, too intentional. This was a meal not a project. Down went the loaf and up came the glass in a wash of reversion to pleasure. It worked. Except that the sensation was less intense, a return visit to Tuscany rather than the first. Almost sad the way that works in us; how quickly the newness wears off.
I decided to play with complication. A piece of bread in one hand, the glass in the other, I would play with combination. Bread, bite, and sip of wine. Pretty good rush, but I preferred the separate tastes, in a sense I lost each in going for both. It was the wine I wanted. So I settled in for a series of tastings to try to ease into each sip to attend to nuances of difference and enjoy each, even though they would lack the intensity of newness. The series was entirely absorbing. My eyes were closed, and I don’t know how long it lasted. I sensed something and opened my eyes directly into the rapt gaze of the waitress beside me. “How are you doing?“
All I could do was quietly laugh. She joined me in the laugh.
“I am not feeling all that hungry anymore,” I said. “It has been pretty intense over here. I am kind of played out. Maybe I overdid it.”
She said, “You’re not that old. You can do it again when the pasta arrives.
I had taken two bites of bread and half a glass of wine and felt full. “Not a bad weight loss plan, is it?” See how it goes with the ravioli, which will be right along.” And she slid off. I closed my eyes to rest. I almost dozed. I heard the other couple leaving their table. I watched them move out holding hands, still side by side, still unspeaking; they nodded to me as they passed. I smelled the wine just for fun—a little different if one is not planning to taste. I just sat. And then I began to prepare myself for the ravioli experience.
The preparation began as I tried to conjure up the tastes I was anticipating. I thought of sautéed garlic and tried to experience the taste. Almost. Almost. The consistency of biting into a ravioli (raviolum or raviolo?). My teeth could almost feel it. I rehearsed a whole bite cycle, from first sight, through smell, through fork, spear, lift, approach, mouth, tongue, bite, flavor, chew and more chew, and swallows one, two and three. Aftertaste. I noted that I don't attend to the swallow. So I practiced it.
My server appeared in the kitchen door with a dish in her hand. She struck a pose I had seen before somewhere, one knee bent, dish out front steaming, the lower half of her body turned one way, the upper half slightly the other, hand on one hip She held it looking at me. Of course. It was a stripper's appearance pose. A laugh burst out of me. She nodded a slight acknowledgement, smiled, dropped the pose, and walked to me like an old friend bringing good news. She set the plate in front of me and sat down. We two stared at the steaming dish that looked just the way I had expected. We glanced up at the same time, and she said, “Isn't it amazing. I just love this job. If it’s OK with you, I would like to stay for the first bite. Do you mind?”
“Well,” I said “how about this. I don't really want you sitting there observing me. Makes it like a performance; it might make me overact what is really happening. How about if you sit right beside me close. Like shoulder to shoulder, thigh to thigh?”
She considered the offer. Her head waggled a little as she held a debate in herself. She closed her eyes and got still. "No sneaky plan. Just sit by me. No thighs."
She nodded and moved right into position. I slid my chair a little to my right to make space, and she moved a chair next to me. She then scooched a little over the edge of the chair toward me saying, "A little thigh will be OK; I think you can handle it." The body connection was so good I forgot about the food. I smelled some residue of perfume from her, and some lingering unidentifiable kitchen smells. I kept my attention on her even as my eyes stayed on the food. In her huskiest voice she said, “Woah. I guess that's a distraction. If I were your mom, I’d say ‘your food is getting cold.’ Let me to scootch over a few inches. Or maybe I should go?”
“It depends on who is having dinner,” I said. We were still both staring at the food. “One guy wants you closer, and says the hell with the pasta. He is older than 23, and is enjoying everything about you. He wants you to sit on his lap and let him feed you ravioli and touch light kisses between each one. But the guy who ordered this dinner wants to eat a little and then talk with you about the experience.”
“So who is having dinner?" She looked up from the food to my face, saying, "that's not to say he gets exactly what he wants.”
“I know.” I pointed at the painting. “Don't flee the goddess. And eros." I turned to her open look and said, "Here is what I want. I want you to move a couple of inches away. And we’ll each eat one raviolus at the same time, and go through the whole experience together, but focused inside the mouth. I was going to feed you that ravioli, and I would love to do that, but it is another guy; so you have to use the spoon and take your own bite. Is that all right with you?”
“A solution worthy of Solomon. Who was a pretty sensuous singer in his own right. Are you ready?”
I nodded, and she shifted a few inches away. She didn't move her chair I noticed; she just reclaimed her scooch to sit squarely on it. She had been overbalanced toward me I realized. This generosity hit me hard, and made my chest feel full and warm and grateful. I slid a glance toward her, and she looked so young, the first time I saw her as a girl. She was clearly excited to try. She had my spoon in hand, was poised and grinning. She said, “I am not an expert at this or anything. I might not even be as good as you, from what I have been able to observe. But let's see what happens.”
I wanted to embrace her. To thank her, to hold all that she holds. To grab the body of that honesty and openness. But I put all that impulse into the opportunity at hand. I said, “You’re right, I am naturally gifted at this. Let me tell you, first you have to relax your mouth like this.” And I blew air through my flapping lips 'til she laughed and joined me. “Take a deep breath.” And we took one together. “Load your weapon.” She scooped one raviola on top, and I told her take one from underneath, which would be warmer. I speared one, and we paused to glance at each other. We took another breath. Kind of nodded and raised our hands for the bite.
She closed her eyes as she chewed. I didn't and sneaked a peek at her. She looked serious. We waited some seconds, and turned at each other. “What do you think?” I asked. She answered, “I think I need another dose of evidence.”
So we did it again. Same sequence, same pause. “Different,” she said. “Better the second time,” I said, and she agreed. We went for another bite. I told her to wait. I took a sip of wine. Fantastic, as I expected. I offered it to her. “Drinking on the job?” she responded. “What would the management say?” “There is a management here? Seems pretty loose to me,” I said. She answered in mock outrage, “Someone’s got to buy the food and pay the serfs.” She watched me laugh, quite pleased with herself. She watched the moment fade, waited, and added, “I know that look in your eyes, wanting to figure this place out. Shutup, and manage your meal instead.” She grabbed the wine glass and took a tiny sip, poised for another pasta bite, and indicated I should do the same. I bit, and noticed she didn’t.
When I swallowed, she stood up and said, “Can you be trusted to do this by yourself?” In a gentlemanly moment, I said, “When you depart, you remove the greatest pleasure, but you leave many others behind.” She quipped, “Aren’t you the charmer when you are halfway fed.” And left.
I did return to the food, and with greater focus than when she sat beside me. But it was more fun, even if more complex, when she was there. Newness. I thought of my wife. The thousands of times we had eaten together. But I had never had this clarity of the different pleasures of tasting along with or in concert with someone else. Should I tell her about the experience of this meal, or just bring home the greater attention? She was married to a bunch of guys, although the 23-year-old had pretty much moved out. Who did she want to have dinner with tomorrow night? Who wanted to sit down with her?
These questions pulled part of my attention from the remaining five ravioli. I experimented with dual attention—do nothing but taste while eating, but think about home in between. I couldn’t manage it; the tasting was not strong enough to hold my mind anymore. I missed that full sensual attention, and wanted it back. I looked up with a start. There she was—how did she manage to appear so silently?
“I kind of lost it,” I confessed.
“No big deal; the meal is over when it’s over. Forget dessert. I can see you already left. So let’s wrap up this little caper elegantly.”
“What do I owe you?”
“You know that better than I do. What do you think the bill should be?”
“I don't know the prices.”
“But you know what the experience was worth better than anyone else.”
“I don't know how to value it in dollars. And don't we pay for the food, service and tax in restaurants?”
“No, we pay for the experience. We take credit cards but not checks, by the way. Or cash, but you might not have enough.”
“Oh? You’re expecting a small fortune? What do people usually pay for this treatment?”
“I have noticed it seems to depend on whether the people think they will be able to sustain some of what they got after the intestine has finished.”
“Can people sustain it?”
“A few can. Most need brush up courses, and repeat customers keep us in business.”
“I am going to give you a hundred bucks.”
“I don't know. It feels about right.”
“Great, that will work.”
As I stood up, she said “I am going to give you dessert anyway.” She came around to me. She put a hand on my heart. Then she put her arms around me and pulled me close but not tight and whispered, “breathe with me.” We took about three deep breaths together, and she gently kissed my cheek and stepped back. I was transported to some peaceful intimate place. “Beats the flan every time,” she said as walked to the kitchen, doing a strange little Charlie Chaplin hop as she disappeared behind the door.
I put down one hundred twenty five in bills, and thought “What an expensive dessert.” As I left the Café, I glanced at the wheelchair outside; the little mask was gone. I looked to the left and the right. I could see the road continued on the left; it wasn't a dead end at all. I turned right to head back to the hotel.
I revisited the landmarks from the other side. The arch at the end of the block looked inviting. Up close it was all subtle color and shape; and who cared what the hell it signified—it was so good to have a carved arch in the middle of a rectangular city. I took my two right turns and saw the hotel up ahead.
Would the concierge still be on duty? I wanted to check in with him. As I stepped into the lobby, I could see his desk was empty. But his magazine was face down and open. The front desk lady told me he would be right back. I sat beside his station, and did a quick inventory of my states of mind. All systems still buzzing and none showing signs of return to norms.
“How was your meal?” he asked. He had managed to sneak up on me too. “What did you get?”
“Have you eaten there?”
“A few times. It is a little pricey for my style.”
“Couldn’t you have paid just what you could afford?” I asked. And I had the sinking feeling that maybe I had been taken, maybe most people get a menu and a different experience altogether. It made sense—how could a place like that stay in business? And the gazpacho. I never got it. I didn't even get what I ordered. Was I had?
He said, “Yeah, I could have left them just a twenty, I guess, but that wasn’t what I got.” I asked him what he got. He hesitated. I said, “Something like writing poetry more often?” He nodded an appreciation.
“My scene is that I have this job, and it’s OK. And I have these other parts of me that need the time I give to the job. And I have a lot of anger about the way the country is. What I get in Rejuve is different each time, but it is about not worrying about all those things. Be here now, and all that. Which is fine, but it’s like an irresponsible holiday to me. It is fine to really dig the food, but with people starving, and there is a lot I want to do in the world, that scene doesn’t quite sit right for me.”
I took his hand in my left hand on top of the desk. I had never done that to a man before. It seemed big. He didn’t pull away. “I am an old fart, a geek who fears getting ripped off, and an A- husband—but there has been grade inflation because of weak competition. Choose well, and almost any thing you intentionally decide is good to do.” I released his hand.
He asked, “What is it that you do for a living?”
“I am an environmentalist. But that's no longer good enough for the mess we have created. I call myself a consultant in sustainability.” We both nodded in agreement of that last word. “That’s what you become if you date Mother Jones for a really long time.” I shifted position to leave.
“Let’s skip the hug at the end of the meal, OK? Yeah, I got that too. Always makes me double the tip.”
“Does one tip the concierge in Pittsburgh?”
“One certainly does. Maybe you already did.”