I stood looking at the sandwich board in the faux french bistro called Ambrosia. The line-up to place lunch orders ran all the way outside the main door, letting the (43 celsius) 104 degree temperatures fan its way inside – I could feel the first drop of sweat appear at the top of my spine. Extreme heat makes me anxious. I looked at my companion, a beautiful older woman, nearing her seventies looking cool and crisp in her matching and impeccably pressed pant suit and perfectly coiffed hair, who had somehow followed me from the elevator of the conference we were both attending to the foyer and now to here.
Even standing in the line-up I wasn’t sure if her intention was for us to lunch together. Her poise and reserve and her general lack of frivolity (of which I have plenty) made it difficult for me to read her. So I stood analyzing the menu, making my way through my food matrix of what I can and can’t eat. Studying menus is like a rubics cube exercise for me and my ailing, finicky stomach so when I finally decided (tortilla soup – hold the chicken and the cheese and potato salad) I looked at my beautiful companion and asked her what she was having. “I can’t decide.” she said. “There’s a lot to choose from, that’s for sure.” I answered. “I think it’s the sun. I’m sure you find it difficult to read the menu too.” “Yes, definitely,” I said lying. “Here I’ll tell you what there is. Quiche with ham and cheese.” “Oh yes that sounds lovely.” “There are two kinds, goat cheese and roasted tomato with a side salad. Or you can have salads, or here let me read the menu.” So I did. From the very beginning to the very end, including dessert. And she looked at me and said, “That was thorough. Thank you. The chalk is so light and the sun has made it difficult. You found that too” “Yes, no worries.’ I said.
And so we waited together in the line-up until she got her quiche and salad and disappeared into the sea of tables. I was still unsure if we were meant to eat together. She never said, I’ll go find us a table. She never waved me down. She just left. And in one of those chance moments of decision-making I decided to follow her. Because I sensed that she was accustomed to being followed. That she was accustomed to paving her own path and that others unquestioningly did as she wanted. Her patrician manner, her still captivating beauty, yielded a kind of power.
So I found her and sat down. And she had waited for me. “Do you want water?” I asked. “Oh yes.” and I got up and wound my way through the crowded restaurant and returned with two waters She still had not touched her food. When she picked up her fork, she nodded as if to say, ok we can start. Let’s begin. And so we did. Her perfectly manicured hands gracefully navigated perfectly cut morsels of food to her mouth. I looked at her face, the slight gap in her teeth reminded me of my own mother. And I wondered who she was, what she was like as a young woman, who her mother was, her family. I could still easily see who she must have been as a young woman. A head turner they would say. A real beauty, others might say or he sure got lucky.
And so our lunch commenced with me asking her questions – where are you from, tell me about your board of trade (of which she was CEO). And so we chatted. She told me how she had moved to this community in rural California. That they had arrived there 23 years ago. That there was a beautiful lake, that it was beautiful and that she had volunteered with the chamber when she arrived and how shortly after, the CEO came to an unfortunate end, and how they had asked her to temporarily replace him. And that 23 years later, she was still there. She told me about the winemakers in her region, and her husband and her two children. All in measured clipped sentences. And then she looked at me and said, “I can barely believe 23 years have passed.” And I understood exactly what she was saying and I simply nodded.
And we continued in silence. I had no plan on asking any more questions – my own personal policy is to stop after 15 – and increasingly I am becoming more comfortable with silence. And to my genuine surprise she began asking questions of me – my work, where I live – and stopped short of 15 but only because she would consider it impolite to be so personal, so intrusive.
And when we were finished she pulled out her compact, fixed her hair, applied fresh lipstick and stood up. I looked at her and said, “I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.” “Melissa” she said. “My name is Melissa” as she held out her hand. “I”m Tessa.” “Pleased to meet you.” she said and walked out of the restaurant.
I gathered my things and went outside shortly after her only to see her standing on the street looking a little bewildered. “I’ve gotten turned around.” she said to me. “Which way do I go?” “That way.” I said pointing. “That way.” “Thank you.” she said. I watched as she walked up the street. Her back straight, head held high, cool as a cucumber even against the raging heat of the day. Melissa. I had just had lunch with Melissa.