The restaurant is dark-walled and dimly lit with stained glass chandeliers that give it a medieval vibe. I half expect to see the waiters pouring wine into goblets rather than the ordinary stemware that sparkle on tables between diners. I don’t care for this place. It feels dense and drafty, like a painted cave. But I am here for work so I take a seat where the hostess leads me and I ask for water, no ice. I am waiting for my interviewee to arrive, skimming my notes, inhaling the sweet gusts of yeast rolls that ripple from food trays as waiters and waitresses whiz past me. When he calls out, I do not instantly know he is talking to me. His voice is jarring, like a blow horn at the library.
“You’re beautiful,” he says. And this immediately makes me rigid. There has never been a time when a stranger said these words and they resonated with me. They tend to come with boozy breath and busy hands. Or they tumble from a passing car across the intersection, landing on my sweaty backside as I jog on a sunny afternoon. In any case, I am alarmed, sometimes afraid — depending on the circumstances. Not flattered nor grateful. So I try to ignore him. But he keeps talking.
“I come here a lot,” he says. I notice he struggles with his words like they are too big for his mouth and so he rolls them over and chews them down before discarding them. I feel silly now because I realize he might not be a predator. Maybe, but probably not. Still, I am not ready to give him prolonged eye contact but I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. I see his sneakers planted squarely in front of his wheels — his motorized wheelchair, which is pulled up to a large mahogany table in the center of the restaurant. We are too far from each other to chat comfortably, but there is no way I am getting closer. He continues his small talk as my eyes scan the bulk of him — from his food-stained velcro sneakers to his misbuttoned, big-and-tall polo. He dwarfs the four-seater in front of him and his arms are plump as festival turkey legs.
People stare at him. The ones who sit behind him can get away with it, but those who sit beside him or in front of him can only side-stare. I see them lean in, eyes dialing in as if to pick up the frequency of his voice. And then they smirk because he is odd, too odd for dining in this place where waiters wear black aprons and prices aren’t listed on the menu.
“Your mother raised you well,” he says. “I can tell because no elbows on the table.” My hands are in my lap, a gesture that suddenly embarrasses me. He continues to tell me about etiquette, about the rules he learned from his mother — how he loved her so. “She died two years ago. Heart trouble and diabetes. Bad neuropathy…”
I am not someone who does this — impromptu friendships. I prefer the safety and semi-anonymity of social media. Which reminds me to take out my phone like most of the diners in this place whose faces are glowing behind tiny screens. Two older women are taking pictures on the patio, their phones cocked above their huddled bodies, their lips offering kisses to the camera, to people who are not their husbands. The men I assume are theirs sit aloof and scan their menus at a table where frothy beers shine golden in dewy glasses.
A teen boy and his mother sit at a high-top. She is small and her feet dangle from the leather seat, limp as cooked pasta. She stares out the window as he taps his phone screen with spastic thumbs. A waitress leans against a wall near the bar and smirks at something she sees on her phone.
Six minutes until my interviewee is scheduled to arrive. I go downstream and get swept into the undertow of memes, pics, and conversations with online friends when I hear the man start in again. He is talking about his grandmother now.
“She would be 112 if she were alive,” he says.
I nod. I want to fill these moments with conversation, but I’d rather do it with the strangers who exist behind my five-inch screen. I can’t say why. I can’t say why anyone in this painted cave prefers the techno gleam of a phone to the warmth of human contact. I simply want to bide my time until my interviewee arrives and I have to smile, look engaged, formulate questions, take notes and do my job.
He opens his mouth like a hungry bird and lifts up a wobbling spoonful of mashed potatoes, half swallows, then says, “Anyway, sorry to bother you.”
I consider telling him about my grandfather—a postman. When he died people wrote letters and we read them at his funeral. He was charismatic, they said. He knew the names of people’s children, their dogs, their cats, their cousins who stayed too long. No one gawked at him in restaurants, but neither did they carry phones back then.
I think of all this but I don’t say any of it because I am still glued to my screen and someone from Canada is asking which beaches I frequent in Florida.
Rica Lewis is a senior staff writer for an award-winning magazine in Florida. Her essays have appeared on Huffington Post, Elephant Journal, Motherwell, Open Thought Vortex and more. She’s currently penning her memoir on single motherhood, post-divorce. You can find her on Twitter @ricawrites.