There is a baby a few feet behind her. His cries pierce through the symphony of spoons and forks scraping against plates. There is a man talking loudly on his cellphone, something about an art deal that went sour. She can hear a pair of women gossiping about her from a faraway table. They comment on her shoes, how they’re too high, how they’d have bought a pair in a different color. They speculate about why she’s alone. She shifts uncomfortably in her seat.
“Phone call from an unregistered number,” an electronic woman speaks from her purse. She fishes out her phone and taps lightly on the screen. The voice of a man from a thousand miles away patches through crystal clear.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t be there.”
She smiles. His voice feels like soft fur across the fleshy part of her thigh. It’s not right but it feels nice. He talks about Cleveland, about how it’s not what he imagined it would be. He talks about the airport, how the people look funny, how the shops feel alien to him. He talked about how slowly time seemed to pass over there and how he longed for nothing than to have her by his side.
“I got you a little something.”
She inhales sharply. Perhaps he did remember after all.
“I know I shouldn’t. At least not after the last time.”
Her eyes stay transfixed on the window. He reminded her of what happened, how the wounds have not mended, how it pains her to not know where they stand.
“Anyway, I wish you’d talk to me. I really am sorry.”
She sighs. It is all she could give him. Any more would be indulging. Any less and she’d explode.
“Are you seeing anyone new?” he asks. She waits for the line to click, certain he’d soon tire of speaking to the wall she’d put up.
“I wish you had remembered,” she says after he ends the call. She stands, her napkin falls to the floor but she does not pick it up. She walks towards the sounds of the bar and lightly touches the arm of one of the waiters.
“The middle table,” she commands. “It’s her birthday. I want a cake – strawberry, not chocolate. I’d also like for you to sing her a song. Do this when she asks for the check.” She slips a horizontally-folded fiver with a handshake and walks slowly back to her table.
Her food arrives and she eats slowly and carefully. The meat tastes sinewy. Its juices tickle her taste buds. She tastes a bit of the potatoes. They are mushy and overcooked. She listens to the hollow sound of her swallowing, of food making its way down. Do they sound the same way while I digest? she wonders as the sounds of the restaurant fade away.
The women have stopped talking about her. The baby has stopped crying. The man on the phone has left. She listens as new people take their places in booths and tables around the restaurant. People coming, people going, nobody stays long enough to enjoy their food anymore.
When she is finished eating, she hears the familiar sound of tambourines coming from the kitchen. People stop talking as several waiters slowly approach her table.
They sing Happy Birthday, their voices loud and off-key. She smiles politely, her eyes resting lazily on the flowers on the table. One voice particularly stood out. She imagines him to be stout and sweaty with long curly hair. The song ends on a sustained, happy note as the lead waiter wishes her a final happy birthday.
“Thank you,” she says quietly. He hands her the check. She pulls out three vertically-folded bills from her purse and slides them into the leather holder. She takes a final sip of water, puts her book in her purse and maps out her exit route.
“Is she?” one of the gossiping women asks.
“Dakota,” she calls out and her golden retriever springs up from his rest. She clicks her tongue and he pops out from under the table. He walks slowly, guiding her out of the restaurant and onto the street.
The October wind was a little chilly but her nape burned feverishly from the restaurant’s collective gaze. She walks calmly, confidently, her heels making loud clacking noises on the pavement. He had asked her if she was seeing anyone new. She smiles an empty smile, wondering if he understood the irony.
♫: Rachael Yamagata | Answering The Door (2008)