A few nights ago I witnessed something that truly resonated with me. I’ve been mulling it over the past few days, trying to figure out exactly what it meant.
An elderly woman is sitting in the restaurant at a booth for two. She sits there, gazing intently at the front door waiting for her companion to come. She empties her water glass, and I promptly refill it. She restlessly pushes her bread and butter plate around on the table, furrowing and un-furrowing her anxious napkin. Her water glass empties, and is refilled again. She is of the generation before cell phones were used to negotiate awkward lapses of stimulation, so there she sits, un-stimulated staring down the door with ever increasing fury. Her lips change as the minutes pass, from a politely optimistic smile, slowly drooping downwards through her neutral mask, and then settling into a disappointed scowl. All of this witnessed, not as an evening that dragged on second after second, minute after minute as it surely must have been for her, but as life-slide snapshots every time I was in her vicinity or at her table. Her evening was compressed into a mere twenty minutes of my time– but I witnessed it all.
Finally her date arrives, sweating in his haste and muttering apologies. Forty five minutes late.
He sits. Her water glass is refilled for the third time, as his is filled for the first.
They speak, not in the happy tones of a couple united, but the angry barking tones of people misunderstood; two opposing forces negotiating the terms for the evening.
They order. “I’m depressed” she says as I’m walking away. I feel the hairs on the back of my neck rise up.
I drop off the food. The conversation has not lightened or progressed. He says something trying to be funny. The joke misses its mark, or is deliberately deflected.
“…You don’t understand, I’m really depressed.”
They eat. I clear some plates and refill their waters.
“… you just don’t understand.” She sighs, exacerbated. He sighs too, either out of sympathy or his own frustrations. This upsets her more.
She asks for me to call her a taxi. He’s still eating. She must have seen the confusion on my face. “It’s just for me.” She says. He winces, as if she just struck him. He orders more food, either out of defiance, or perhaps as a clever ploy to make her stay. She leaves anyway.
When I return to the table she is gone. He has switched seats, now sitting in her spot eating alone. Slowly, deliberately he cuts his food. Slowly, deliberately, he pierces each piece and lifts it to his mouth. Slowly and deliberately, he chews each bite as he sits there in silence. His gaze never leaves the empty chair across from him and the heavy weight her absence creates.
The night goes on and I am distracted by other tables.
I return to him as the restaurant is dying down. His table has been cleared. He sits there in silence. His face, unhappy and beaten as he stares at the empty chair across from him. His silver eyebrows drooping from his forehead matching his sullen frown. He has taken no pleasure in his food, no pleasure in the date, no pleasure in the night.
His coffee cup is cleared. The check sits on his table, the restaurant’s way of trying to politely nudge him on his way. Still he sits in broken silence. He has no phone to thumb through, no book to read, just him and the empty chair across from him. The staff watches him distantly. What is he still doing here? A broken man, on the remnants of a broken date, someone who should have cut his losses and slunk home the moment she left without him. A sad lonely man who disappointed the woman he loves. Or perhaps a man suffering deliberately because he wants to understand. A man determined to understand what she felt– so he forces himself to feel it. The anxious disappointing start of her evening becomes the tapering disappointing ending of his.
He was the one left sitting.
…and if he gets the chance, I don’t think he’ll ever be late again.