Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Alice's restaurant.

Alice had always liked seeing him with his daughter, even though his wife was always there, too. She watched him and his family from across the restaurant in a booth that she alone occupied. She folded clammy hands above a mildly stained tablecloth, her thumbs twiddling to the adult contemporary playing over the in-house PA as she tried to dig into the recesses of her pop culture cortex and recall the name of the now-anonymous pop singer sirening through tinny speakers. A late-1980s birthday meant that the current crop of early-90s almost-oldies had fallen only upon Alice's infant ears, and the artists associated with these songs were unfamiliar in both name and work, so she resigned herself to pleasant toe-tapping as she tried to read their lips.

She put on a play of their conversation in her head.

"What are you gonna get, Daddy?" she'd coo in a voice that sounded much younger than the ten years old that she actually was.

But Alice couldn't think of how he'd reply. She was certain it'd be something as dry as that bottle of Riesling they'd snuck into in his office on campus (and quickly polished off) before they went to his British lit class. That day was different, too--somehow, the glowing cloud of the wine combined with the Ian McEwan novel the class was discussing congealed into a small buffer of about twenty feet of distance that pushed her to sit in the back row. She watched him then, too, running his thin fingers through feathered gray hair, pacing slim legs across green carpet, using words she'd never heard before.

Their waitress, a cute girl in her early 20s with red hair pulled up into an uncomfortably tight-looking bun and teeth like brand new bars of white soap, approached their table and Alice tried to sift their orders from within the ambient din of the restaurant's other occupants. She could've sworn she heard "beef stroganoff," but that didn't sound right. Too mainstream. Whenever they went out to eat, he always got something classy, like braised ossubuco on orzo or pan-seared tuna with a lemon artichoke cream sauce. Something that betrayed his suburban Cleveland upbringing and state school education and well-disguised midwestern accent, something that helped him play the role of Upper Class Intellectual he'd taken to like religion. He'd put on his reading glasses to examine the wine list and pick something just expensive enough to make her blush and the French pronunciation of it would drip off of his tongue and she'd wonder how much longer it would be before they wouldn't have to be so quiet anymore.

It had been months now for them, and Alice knew his body language well enough that, even from across the restaurant, it was clear that this was their weekly dinner. Even though he and his wife were separated, even though he had moved out and let them have the house, they all met once a week to go have a nice, quiet meal at the restaurant where they had first met before they got married, the first place they took their daughter to, the place where they had all of their birthday parties, wedding anniversaries, everything else. He had told Alice all about their modified version of Stay-Together-For-The-Kid, what with the weekly dinner and occasional carpools to work.

He had ditched a department meeting one afternoon to meet Alice at the motel he had been staying at. It was a cheap place that rented by the hour on what passed for a bad side of town, but she had liked the danger, the covert-ops feeling to the whole thing. He had even left a cryptic post-it note on her desk in the small corner of the English department where she worked, where they had fallen in the love that he was putting his career on the line for. At the motel, they had drank a bottle of pinot that he said he had been saving.

"It was going to be for a special occasion," he said, extracting the cork and taking a sniff of its red side, "but every second with you is a special occasion." She smiled, drank two glasses in quick succession, and they made tipsy love until the sun had gone down.

The rumbling whirr of the window-side air conditioner matched his light snore and provided a soundtrack to their quiet refractory. She looked around the room and was impressed with how well he kept his living space, even one as temporary and transitional as a motel room in a part of town she hadn't even known to exist. Fresh towels hung from plastic rods, single-use soaps lying unwrapped on the upper lip of an immaculate off-ivory sink.

He stirred in his sleep and rolled from his back to his side, facing away from her. She watched the salt-and-pepper hairs on his neck and began to count them like sheep, ignoring the salt and noting only the pepper. She began to see constellations in them, finding nothing she could recognize but seeing patterns all the same. Her deep concentration was shaken by his phone waking to screeching life, brightening the room like a lantern and its banshee cry made him shoot up straight to waking, grab the phone, examine the name on it, and ignore the call. The room fell back to jarring stillness and he planted his feet on the floor, but not before turning back, planting a kiss on her forehead, and brushing stray strands of her cabernet hair behind the ears of which she'd always felt so self-conscious.

He slid quickly into his pleated slacks and threw his arms inside the sleeves of his poorly-ironed oxford, gliding his feet into weathered loafers and rising to his feet.

"Sorry, I've got to pick up my daughter from ballet practice," he said, buttoning his shirt. "Her mother's not very good at, well, being a mother."

"Or a wife," Alice said, snapping wrinkles out of her blouse before putting it back on. It was still dark in the room, and her hands were guided only by the familiarity of this situation, the repetition that had come from her re-dressing in the pitch black of a motel room.

And watching the three of them from across the restaurant, she was so angry that his wife would pretend to be such a wonderful mother and affectionate wife in public. Of course it was easy to look loving and caring when you're out in public at a restaurant this nice, but he had told her what it was really like for them before he'd moved out. She was dishonest and distant and self-centered, never once considering anyone's needs above her own selfish wants.

Alice didn't know how she could be so ungrateful. She had married and started a family with this amazing man, this appreciator of art and beauty, who could recite Dante in the original Italian and quote paragraphs of Thomas Hardy at a time and who didn't know what sleeve tattoos were (Alice had explained it to him with an adoring laugh). She didn't know how she could treat him like that, being the stereotypical frigid housewife. His wife clearly didn't understand how amazing he was, this hauntingly poetic soul who always walked with soft steps and spoke with softer words.

Her gaze was interrupted by her own waiter coming around for the fourth time. "Have you had a chance to look at the menu yet?" he said.

"Yes," Alice said, "but I don't know. And I'm waiting for someone, too."

"Okay," the waiter said, barely managing to suppress his indignation. "So still just the water for now, then?"

"Yes," she said, and the waiter forced a smile and walked away while she put her eyes back to the corner booth across the restaurant. She couldn't afford to eat here and she wondered if the waiter could tell. But she kept watching the three of them in the corner: father, mother, and daughter setting aside the discord so visible to the naked eye.

Alice certainly felt bad for him, but she felt worse for his daughter. He was an adult and could handle it, but she was a ten-year-old girl that had clearly been so manipulated by her harpy mother that she'd listen to anything she was told. The lies and the missed appointments and the broken promises and the unattended dance recitals. It was all just so...sad, really. Sad and cruel, to bring a life into the world like that through the love and romance of a decent man and then throw both relationships straight to hell. It just made her so angry.

And seeing the three of them across the restaurant, watching him bounce his daughter on his knee while his wife looked on with faux-adoration, brought her blood to a slow boil. She wasn't going to sit by anymore: something needed to be done. She took the final sip of her water, put on her coat, and began the steady walk over to the booth on the other side, her feet still not used to the heels she had started wearing to appear more mature.

His daughter was the first to see her. Like most children would do, she simply looked away, oblivious. His wife was the next, but she just kept on grinning that half-hearted smirk at her daughter. He was last, and his eyes briefly squinted in shock before he readjusted them, turning his head toward her and throwing a surprised smile on his lips.

"Hello, Alice," he said, more composed than she had anticipated him being. "What are you doing here?"

"Yeah," Alice said, "I was just sitting across the way and saw you and just wanted to say--"

"Alice, this is my wife, Marie," he said, gesturing toward the elegant woman sitting across the table from them, "and our daughter, Nora."

While she had seen Marie before--faculty and staff dinners, last year's Christmas party, her dropping him off in the morning--and while she knew she was beautiful, Alice was taken aback at just how beautiful she was. She was 48, two years younger than her husband, but she could've easily told people she was in her late 20s and not been called a liar. She and Marie had the same color hair, too, Alice noticed, but Marie's was natural and much longer, thick tangles of burgundy briar that hung from her head in a way that obviously and unfairly required minimal upkeep. Her face had wrinkles, but where you'd find worry lines on other women her age, Alice saw only dignified crow's feet, tiny slits that looked like stretched-out dimples. She had aged as gracefully as a 1940s movie star.

"Alice, your student? The one who works in the department?" Marie asked with a smile, extending a delicate hand. "I've heard all about you."

"Oh, really," Alice said, folding her arms and ignoring Marie's gesture. "Do tell."

"Well," Marie paused, looking confusedly to her husband, "he's just said great things about your work. And he's really enjoyed having you in his class."

Alice's eyebrows furrowed and she could feel her face go flush. She looked at him, saw him staring at the table, took a short breath, and unfolded her arms, giving Marie's hand a gentle shake.

"Marie, of course," Alice said, retracting her hand and summoning a smile of her own. "I've heard all about you, too. So nice to finally meet you." A lock of her hair fell into her eyes and she brushed it back behind her ear.

"Would you like to join us?" Marie asked, waving toward the open spot next to her. "We were just about to get some dessert."

"No," Alice said, "no thank you. I was just on my way out." She looked back at him. "Lots of reading tonight for class tomorrow, right, Professor?"

He nodded. "Hope I didn't overload you."

"Don't worry," Alice said, "I won't tell." She said goodbye to Marie and Nora and began the walk to the exit.

"She seems like a sweet girl," Marie said, her volume decreasing with each of Alice's steps diminishing her earshot. "Maybe we should have her over for dinner sometime. Does she have a boyfriend?"

Alice left the building before she heard him reply. The last thing she saw was Nora laughing at something her father said.

She had always liked seeing him with his daughter.

1 comment:

Meg said...

I think this one has a lot of complexity to it. We should talk.