It was one of those warm summer nights approaching the June solstice in Rochester. Lovely, at last. They had come downtown for the jazz festival. The couple appeared to be in their late 60’s, dressed nicely, the man wore linen grey-white slacks, white shirt and tie, the woman a colorful print dress. Neither of them were overweight. The man craned his neck upward to make out the print on the posted menu outside the restaurant. She stood very near him, as if waiting for his decision. He smiled, but upon closer inspection, it may have been something more like a grimace, struggling to see the words that lay behind the glare of the window glass. He made a slight murmur. It may have been “artichokes.”
“So what do you think?” she asked, looking up at his face, just for a moment.
“Argghhh,” she thought she heard him mutter, and then, “I think they should make the print larger.”
“Yes, well, dear,” she said, “can I take a look?”
He stood aside fairly quickly, not wanting to lose his balance, not wanting to bump into anything, like a cute young woman or man who might be standing nearby. “Be my guest.”
“So, let’s see,” she said looking upward, adjusting her glasses to see the menu more clearly. “Looks like it says…artichokes.”
“Yah!” he snorted. And then, “I wonder if they serve that with anything?”
“You’re hoping meat,” she said in a low voice.
“Neat? What is that? Without even cheese?”
They had decided to take a chance, they were early, the first ones to be seated in the dining room. The air conditioning seemed to be stuck at full blast, they had asked for it to be turned down, but so far, no luck. As if the preceding winter had not provided enough of a chill. The waitress could have been their granddaughter’s age, they worried a little about the dainty tattoo near her wrist, didn’t she know that it was a permanent mark?
She said she would be right back, but it felt like that was fifteen minutes ago. As far as they knew, they were completely alone in the place. The restaurant had the feel of an old, small hotel. They had water, served in tall goblets that appeared to be sweating profusely, and warm rolls folded over in a white linen cloth. All was not lost. His fingertips felt the warmth of the rolls through the cloth. He asked her if she wanted one, she did, as did he.
“So here we are,” he said, “breaking bread. Again.”
“What more could one want?”
He hesitated, “the waitress to come back from her smoke break or boyfriend and take our order.”
“You know what you want?”
“I thought maybe the blackened Tilapia.”
“Really?” she said, her voice dropping several degrees of pitch. “Well,” as if appraising him anew after all these years, “an interesting choice.”
“I’m considering the shrimp with creole remoulade.”
“Yes,” he said, as if in a discerning tone, “I understood the word ‘shrimp'”.
An older man came out from the kitchen area, he was wearing a suit coat and tie, and he seemed surprised to see them sitting there. He immediately came over to the table and introduced himself as the manager.
“I am so sorry,” he said in genuine distress, “we’ve had a little personnel issue, I didn’t realize you were waiting. Had you given your order?”
“No,” they answered in unison.
“Apologies again, I will have…your server right out,” saying this mid stride, already halfway back toward what they assumed to be the kitchen area.
The couple looked at each other.
“Personnel issue,” he said.
She raised her slippery goblet, he joined her in the toast, and following the damp clink, she said, “it was the tattoo.”
The waitress who replaced their granddaughter-look-alike, looked nothing like their granddaughter. She had introduced herself as Sofia, late middle age, spoke with an Eastern European accent, was all no-nonsense, and they appreciated this as they were by now really hungry. One other couple had come in. They ordered the pulled pork and fries.
When the dinners arrived, it was difficult to stop looking at the neighbor’s meal with its rich barbeque sauce dripping over the large slice of French bread. She attempted to distract him, she said “we didn’t exactly make for a small carbon footprint here.”
He refocused his attention on her. His fish was ok. It wasn’t meat. She appeared to be enjoying her shrimp—whatever. His forehead raised those ridges of curiosity and expectation that she had so often seen.
“What?” he asked.
“You don’t get Tilapia from Lake Ontario.”
He wasn’t sure where she was going with this. “Not shrimp either.”
“My point.” He still wasn’t getting it. “Took a lot of fuel to bring this meal to the table.”
“Took a lot of hassle. And Sofia is ok but she could shed a few pounds.”
“The shrimp, by the way, is scrumptious.”
“We could have had white hots, I saw a stand near the corner outside.”
“Oh my. Since when did you start using words like that?”
“Small footprint, big hotdogs, juicy.”
She asked him what the doctor had said. They were going to listen to some music tonight, she was the jazz fan, he favored country western but was a good sport. His appointment had been earlier in the afternoon and they hadn’t had much time to talk before leaving the house.
He was toying with something green on his plate, he looked up at her, she said “Endive, no wait, maybe kale, no…Swiss chard.”
“What happened to green beans, corn?”
“They still grow them.” She gave him a moment. “So he said…”
“She’s a she.”
“Oh, the specialist?”
“Well. You go girl.”
“Women of America unite, your time has come.”
“Free at last,” she said, and he smiled, she would miss that smile, she did not want to miss that smile. “So she said…?”
“What they often do: It’s interesting. It’s reasonable to proceed with further studies. We want to be sure what we are treating here.” He hesitated, “she also said I had nice eyes.”
“She did not!”
“Ha! You’ll never know.”
“She had nice eyes though, I’ll tell you, man.”
They were walking slowly arm in arm. They had a little time to kill before the concert. Most of the festival goers wore shorts, jeans, golf shirts. Most of the festival goers seemed to be in a hurry to get to the next event.
He was much taller than she, when he spoke, sometimes it felt like his voice was coming from somewhere far above her head, his voice said “There will be a number of options, depending on what they find, a lot of choices to consider.”
“Mmmm,” she muttered.
A fast moving couple, both engrossed in their own glossy festival programs, nearly collided with them head on, the younger man said “whoa!” and stopped just in time.
The younger woman said to the older wife, both being about the same height, “Going to catch Cedar Walton at 8,” in that confidential, clubby way that festival goers spoke, sharing personal raves, suburban criticisms. Adults at summer camp.
“Enjoy,” said the older wife. “We’re off to see Natalie Cole at Eastman.”
“Oh wow,” said the younger fellow, “heard it was sold out. Have a great concert.” The younger couple scurried away, they did not hear the tall elderly gentleman as he turned a little stiffly, as he said, “have a nice evening.” He knew they hadn’t heard him, his wife knew they hadn’t heard him.
They walked on a few more steps. “Barbara had the same thing,” she said.
“Ed Flanigan’s wife. Oh…oh dear.”
“Ed’s ex wife.”
He stopped in his tracks, they had a couple more blocks to go before they got to the concert hall. “Who is Ed Flanigan?”
“Ed Flanigan,” she said quite forcefully, as if this in itself should jog his memory.
“Oh that Ed Flanigan!”
She looked up at his face, decided to say, “Anyway, she did this macrobiotic thing, didn’t do chemo, turned out great, there are a lot of choices these days.”
“My uncle Bernard often chose whiskey.”
“Worked for him.”
“But not for his wife.”
“She didn’t have the disease.”
“She had him.”
The front doors of the Eastman Theater were in view. Couples, individuals, groups of friends, all streaming in, all expectant. The energy already palpable. A swirl of movement being pulled into a hopeful future, an evening of special moments, the precision of taking these next few steps, joining with all the others. The large music hall was accepting all who entered, devouring them, well ushered into the interior of space.
She felt his arm pulling her closer.
Choices would be made, decisions debated, conclusions reached.
Just before they entered the vortex of the open glass doors, shuffling now to maintain pace with the crowd, she said, “Artichokes.”
“Do they serve that with anything? Wait, does it come with cheese?”
“Just for you.”
“Ah,” he said in a poor imitation of an Eastern European accent, “excellent choice.”