“I have a reservation.”
The maitre d’ took a moment before looking up. It had been a soft voice, and soft voices seemed insufficient cause for a hurried or even a respectful response. Now a commanding voice, that would have been different. This hadn’t been one, however, so, he remained looking down just long enough to be sure the rebuke would be noticed.
When he finally did look up, he saw in front of him an elderly man, perhaps in his early 80s, his white, wispy hair neatly combed but a bit too long for current fashion, with the ends slightly curled. He was wearing a dinner jacket that was seriously out of date, and his black bow tie was much larger than was fashionable. All his clothes, however old and quaint, appeared to be freshly pressed and very clean. Out of date, but not tawdry.
The maitre d’ shifted his glance from the man’s clothes to his face. It was a pale face overall, looking as though it rarely saw sunlight, though there were bright red accents on the ridges of his cheekbones. Make up? The maitre d’ wasn’t sure. But it stirred his interest enough so he looked closer.
The man himself was gaunt, and so his angular face matched his spare frame. Even though the suit he was wearing was tailored to a trim cut, it still hung loosely on his body. It appeared the man had lost weight since its purchase; whether this had occurred recently or in the past, the maitre d’ didn’t know. Nor did he care. He felt no curiosity about the man at all, only an innate and, as he studied the man, a gathering sense of disapproval.
“Name?” The maitre d’ interjected just the tone he wanted into the question, not quite dismissive, just bordering on insolent, with the merest rumble of superiority. It was a tone he’d cultivated over time and something he was quite proud of when he was able to put it to use.
The old man didn’t appear to have noticed. “Tarrington. I asked for the table overlooking the terrace; I was promised….” His hopeful voice faded as it trailed off. The man behind the lectern didn’t respond at all, and in fact didn’t appear to have heard him.
After a pause, the maitre d’ slowly raised his eyes from his seating chart and stared at the old man. He took a long moment, and was surprised when his sharp black eyes were met and held by washed-out and somewhat watery gray ones. He hadn’t thought the man would have the fortitude to actually meet his eyes. Just as slowly, he looked back down to his chart. He’d registered the man’s appearance, the lightness in his tone of voice, a certain flamboyance in his hair style, a looseness in his body language, the way he held his hands together across his flat stomach, the three rings on his fingers, the diffidence evident in his manner. The fact he was by himself, a solitary diner.
Several moments passed. The old man turned and looked into the almost deserted dining room.
The voice the maitre d’ used when he spoke again had an added edge of disdain. “I do have your reservation. Dinner for one. I don’t have that table marked on the reservation, sir, and we like to hold it for couples. Perhaps it was our oversight not to write your name on it for this evening, or perhaps you didn’t really mention it?” The black eyes were back up, meeting the gray ones, this time the challenge in them less hidden. The two men’s eyes locked together, and the maitre d’ saw acknowledgement in the old man’s countenance, saw the almost negligible shrinking of the man’s posture. Good, he thought. The man did need to realize where he stood here. He didn’t want to encourage men like him.
Eyes having slowly dropped back to the chart, not looking up, feeling he’d accomplished what was needed in the situation, the maitre d’ said, much in the manner of a high church prelate bestowing a blessing on a commoner, a very low commoner at that, “But I find I am able to seat you. If you will follow me.”
The maitre d’ took a menu and a wine list from behind his lectern and stepped away from it; turning his back on the old man, he strode regally into the dining room.
It was easy for the two men to make their way through the many empty tables. The early hour wasn’t when the prestigious restaurant did most of its business. The maitre d’ led the way along a route so that they walked past the coveted table the old man had requested. The table for two sat in a nook with a wide window behind it opening on a terrace with several dining tables set for alfresco dining; beyond it a manicured lawn fell away gently toward a river in the background, weeping willow trees standing sentinel along both its banks. The table was empty. The maitre d’ passed it without a glance, then slightly picked up his pace, which would have forced the old man into a trot if he was to keep up.
Instead of that, the old man stopped. He was next to the table he had requested. He looked away from the maitre d’, looked at the table, looked out the window. He let his fingers trail over the back of the chair closest to him. He stood there a moment, then turned and found the maitre d’ had his eyes on him. Impatience showing in both his body language and face, the man stood a few tables further into the restaurant, looking back at him, lips pursed, foot tapping.
The old man straightened up and joined him, walking at his own slow pace. When they were together again, the maitre d’ walked to a table at the very back of the restaurant, a table which, separated by a greater distance than the other tables were from each other, somehow seemed to be apart from the rest. Just back and to the side of it were the doors leading to the kitchen. Voices could be heard through them, accompanied by a busy though muted clatter of pans and dishes.
“Will the gentleman be having wine this evening?”
The old man took his seat, then looked up at the maitre d’. “I haven’t decided, but please leave the wine list. That will help me with the decision.” He smiled, a forced smile that didn’t reach his eyes. The maitre d’ ignored it.
Laying the list on the table, the man said, “Very good, sir. I hope at least some of them will not be beyond your price range. Your server this evening will be Thomas. Have a good meal.” So saying and without pausing for a response, the maitre d’ spun on his heel and walked away, his head high, his back straight, his smug smile invisible to the man seated behind him.
The old man picked up the wine list and spent some time looking at it. Then he laid it down and reached for the menu. He felt he was no longer alone and looked up.
Standing at his table was a young man dressed immaculately in highly polished black shoes, sharply creased black trousers, a brilliant white shirt, a black vest and a dark burgundy bow tie. His hair was medium length, shiny black, fashionably styled and cascading down over his ears. He was strikingly handsome, but instead of the bright, welcoming smile the old man could have expected, the young man was frowning.
The two looked at each other for a moment, each seeming to study the other. Mr. Tarrington opened his mouth to speak, but the waiter spoke first.
“I’m very sorry, sir,” the waiter said, his apologetic tone of voice emphasizing the concern evident on his face.
Mr. Tarrington was puzzled, and he didn’t try to hide it. “Young man, I don’t think you’ve done anything to apologize for,” he said. He smiled at the youth to underline his comment, trying to put him at ease.
The waiter fidgeted, looking uncomfortable, then said, “I saw what happened, sir. I was standing in the doorway to the bar, near the front door when you came in. I saw and heard it all.”
Mr. Tarrington took another good look at the young man. How perceptive could he be? What had occurred between himself and the maitre d’ couldn’t have been that obvious to anyone but the two of them.
Mr. Tarrington wasn’t sure what to say. The waiter must have seen his discomfiture, because he immediately softened his look and gave the man a tentative smile. “I heard you say you’d asked for the window table, sir. I know it was reserved for a party eating alone. I saw it on the chart. I would think that was you. Why André wouldn’t give it to you I can only guess. Then I saw you stop there, and I saw the expression on your face when you looked at the table—and outside. I saw your face in profile. I think that table is special to you, and that you wanted to sit there quite badly.”
Mr. Tarrington dropped his eyes from the intense gaze of the young man. “Yes,” he said, softly. “I did. I do. But at my age, I’m used to disappointments. It isn’t really important. Certainly nothing to make a fuss about.”
The waiter didn’t answer that, and when Mr. Tarrington looked up, he saw the waiter was rather intensely studying him. The youth opened his mouth to speak, and Mr. Tarrington saw him hesitate. Mr. Tarrington gave him a wan smile, and said, “There’s no need for you to worry about it. I’ll just eat here and enjoy myself.”
The waiter came to a decision. Mr. Tarrington saw it clearly in his eyes. The young man even stood up a little straighter.
“No,” the waiter said. “No, this isn’t right. You reserved that table. You should have it. André is being André. Please, come with me, sir. I’ll seat you there.”
“Oh.” The old man was taken aback and wasn’t sure what to say. He wasn’t accustomed to people standing up for him, or volunteering to fight his battles for him. He’d stopped fighting them himself a long time ago.
The waiter stepped behind him and took hold of his chair. When Mr. Tarrington didn’t start to slide the chair back, the youth leaned over him from behind and spoke into his ear. “Please, sir,” he said softly. “Let me do this for you.”
Mr. Tarrington turned his head and looked directly into the young man’s face, only inches away. He was immediately captured by the beauty he saw: the handsome features, the perfect skin, the compassion and intelligence in the dark eyes. Feeling a sudden tug on his emotions he hadn’t felt in years, feeling things that he wasn’t sure he was still capable of feeling, he almost unconsciously started pushing the chair backwards in response to the young man’s urging. The young man helped withdraw the chair, and before he realized it, Mr. Tarrington was standing up.
“Just come with me, sir,” the young man said, and briefly put his fingers loosely on Mr. Tarrington’s arm, just enough to encourage the man to begin his slow walk toward the window table.
Mr. Tarrington accepted the chair the boy pulled out for him. When he was seated, he had the best view out the window the table offered. The boy opened and handed him his napkin, smiling at him all the while. Mr. Tarrington couldn’t help but smile back, the boy’s eagerness to please being contagious, making him feel that somehow they were conspirators. But then Mr. Tarrington had a thought.
“But, Thomas—uh, the maitre d’ said your name was Thomas. May I call you that?” When the boy made a half bow, signaling acquiescence, Mr. Tarrington continued his thought. “Won’t you get in trouble? I know how restaurants work. A waiter can’t overrule a maitre d’, especially a young waiter. He’ll be mad at you. You might even get fired!”
The waiter glanced over at the lectern near the front entrance, where he saw André cleaning the menus and placing them in a neat pile, his back to the dining room.
“It’ll be fine. Please don’t concern yourself with André. This is no problem at all. Please don’t worry about it, sir. Now, I’ll get you some water and warm bread fresh from the oven, and, are you interested in any wine this evening?”
Mr. Tarrington smiled up at him. “Are you old enough to serve it to me?” He grinned.
The grin was returned. “I know I look young, but actually, I’m 21. For all of two weeks! So yes, I can serve you wine. I can even tell you what I recommend, although I have to admit, my recommendations are based on what wines other customers tell me are good. I haven’t drunk enough wine to be able to judge them very critically myself, I’m afraid. I imagine you know wines much better than I do, sir.”
Mr. Tarrington was getting lost in the young man’s bright eyes. On impulse, he said, “You’ve been well-trained, but could I ask you a favor? A very big favor?”
“Certainly, sir. What can I do for you?”
Mr. Tarrington laughed. “You can stop calling me ‘sir’! I’d be ever so happy if you’d call me by my name. It would help make this night special for me, something you’ve already done, by the way, with your charm and generosity. But, my name is Carl Tarrington. It would be a great favor if you would call me Carl.”
“All right, if you’ll call me Tom. We’ll both be breaking the rules that way.” Tom laughed, and then the two of them were laughing together.
With his eyes still sparkling with his laughter, Tom asked, “Have you decided on a wine, Carl?”
“I was thinking of champagne. Do you have a suggestion?”
“Yes, I do. Can you tell me what price range you’re thinking of?”
Carl started smiling, and then couldn’t help himself. He began laughing again. Tom stood watching, and his infectious grin broke out.
When he regained his equanimity, Carl apologized. “I’m sorry, Tom, but that just struck me as funny. Your maitre d’ made much the same comment, except his was meant to be rude and to sting. Yours was meant to make me comfortable. Such a contrast, and he’s the one who should show more maturity and professionalism. I much approve of your method.”
Tom bowed his head briefly, and said, “Thank you, Carl. That’s very kind of you.”
Carl nodded back. Then he picked up the wine list and pointed to a wine. Tom glanced at it, then said, “Customers always tell me that is an excellent champagne. Just the barest hint of sweetness, and with an excellent finish. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed with it at all.”
“I’ll have that one, then. Thank you.”
Tom gave a half bow, said he’d be right back, then walked away from the table.
When he was alone, Carl picked up the menu. It was in a rich leather cover with the single word, Morreau’s, embossed in gold leaf on the front. Carl opened it and started looking at the offerings. Should he get just an appetizer and a salad? He didn’t eat as much as he had when younger. Truth be told, he wasn’t much interested at all in food these days, and tended to skip meals, probably too often. The descriptions of the entrees made them sound delicious, however, and if the food was the same quality now as when he used to come to this restaurant, back when he did so regularly, then it would be outstanding. Now, he was used to getting by with much less food, and practically no rich food at all.
He lowered the menu and looked through the window. It was now twilight, the soft and lengthy twilight of late summer. A busboy was on the terrace, lighting candles that floated in large, colored-glass globes on the tables. In the background, small white lights that were strung throughout the willow trees suddenly lit up. It was all just as he remembered it.
A busboy came by, smiled at him, then lit the single tall red candle standing in the middle of his table that was surrounded by a centerpiece of fresh-cut flowers.
As the boy was backing away, Carl said, “Thank you.”
The boy smiled, surprised at being spoken to. “It’s my pleasure, sir. I hope you have a wonderful dinner.”
Tom soon returned with the champagne, an ice bucket and a champagne flute. He showed the
label to Carl, then asked if he’d like it to be opened right then.
Carl looked up at Tom who was smiling warmly at him. Tom was standing so as to best display the bottle. Carl didn’t respond immediately, instead turning for a moment and looking out the window at the romantic sight before him.
He turned back to Tom. “Would you like to know what would be perfect? What would make me really happy, Tom?”
Tom bowed his head slightly, deferentially. “Carl, anything I can do for you, it would give me great pleasure.”
Carl again studied the boy’s face. He saw nothing but sincerity. Somehow, the intonation in the boy’s voice told him the words were genuine, not a canned spiel from a waiter working for a higher tip. “All right, I’ll tell you. What I’d like more than anything. I’d like you to sit down with me and share a glass of champagne. I know, that’s probably impossible, but…well, that would make the evening more than I thought it could possibly be, if you would do me that honor.”
Tom hesitated, and Carl immediately became defensive. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have asked. You’ve already done so much for me. It’s special, just having this table. I won’t embarrass you any more. Yes, why don’t you open the wine now? I’d like to taste it.”
Tom didn’t reply, thinking for a moment while looking at Carl. Then he pushed the bottle into the wine bucket and said, “I’ll be right back. Please give me a moment.”
Carl watched as Tom turned and walked to where André was standing behind his lectern. Tom walked just past it, then spoke to the maitre d’. Where he’d positioned himself, André had to make a half turn to speak to him, and so his back was to Carl. Carl could only see Tom’s face. He saw Tom speaking. He saw André’s back stiffen, and his head shake sharply from side to side. Tom said a few more words, then smiled and walked away into the bar. He immediately reappeared and came back to the table, carrying another champagne flute.
“All right,” he said when he reached the table. “We’re not busy tonight. We rarely are on weekdays in the middle of summer. Customers are on vacations, or barbecuing in their back yards. Some don’t want to venture out of their air-conditioned homes after getting back from work. I guess there are many reasons, but August is always a slow month for us. And so, André said I could have the rest of the night off. The restaurant saves a little money that way, and I can have a glass of wine with you. Everyone comes out ahead.” He smiled brightly at Carl, and took the champagne out of the ice bucket.
Carl started to speak, but Tom held up his hand. “Please, Carl, let me do this first. Then, when I’m done, we can talk.”
With practiced ease, Tom untwisted the wires holding the cork in place, then carefully rotated the bottle, holding the cork still till the pressure in the bottle began helping push it out. Tom draped a clean cloth over the bottle, then held the cork so it popped softly and no wine spurted out. He poured Carl’s flute half full, then gestured at the other glass he’d just set on the table, his eyes meeting Carl’s, his eyebrows rising. Carl nodded, and Tom filled the other glass with an equal amount of the bubbly, pale wine.
Tom lifted his glass, but Carl left his on the table. Instead of picking it up, he said, “Tom, this is so nice of you, but you must sit. We can’t be comfortable either drinking this or talking if you’re still standing. Please. I insist. Be my guest and sit with me.”
Tom again nodded his head, his eyes expressing his thanks. He pulled out the chair across from Carl’s and sat down. Then he looked at the man, waiting for him to speak.
Carl did. “You’re not in trouble, are you?”
Tom laughed. His dark eyes flashed, and again Carl felt the familiar but long-forgotten tug. “No, Carl. No problem at all. This makes my night better, in fact. I get to drink a toast with my new friend, and I don’t have to stand around aimlessly waiting for customers who aren’t coming. So, what are we drinking to? I think you’re celebrating something, and I seem to be helping you do it. What is the occasion?”
Carl looked at him, and his anxiety slipped away. He was sitting at his table, colored and white lights twinkling romantically in the background, an incredibly handsome young man flashing his eyes at him. It was so easy, so incredibly easy, to slip into the romance of the situation.
Softly, looking into Tom’s eyes, he said, “It’s an anniversary, Tom. A happy one. We all have anniversaries in our lives, and at my age, many are now sad. So many people I’ve known have died. That’s what happens when you live to an old age. I decided to stop celebrating those unhappy occasions and now only celebrate the happy ones. It was 50 years ago tonight I first came here with Pat. This restaurant had just opened. And Pat and I’d just been together for a short time, but we both knew the relationship would last. We were young, and were in love, and we sat at this very table.”
As Carl spoke, his voice became more nostalgic, and Tom could see memories being relived. He sat silently, watching as the old man recalled long ago events.
“The maitre d’ back then was far different from the one now. He welcomed the two of us, and he knew; he knew we were a couple. I could see it in his eyes, and those eyes smiled at us.”
Carl hesitated, looking out at the lights outside, but then refocused on Tom, and his voice grew deeper, leaving the past, regaining the present. “You see, Tom, Pat was Patrick, not Patricia. Yes, we were a gay couple. And back then, it was rare that we were accepted so easily as we were in this restaurant.”
Carl was looking for a reaction from Tom. Tom gave him one. He smiled encouragingly, then raised his glass. “I know what we should toast, then. We should toast you and Pat.”
Carl’s face lit up. “Why did I know it wouldn’t bother you that I’m gay? You knew, didn’t you?”
Tom said, “I thought you probably were. I wasn’t sure.”
“And it doesn’t bother you, does it?”
Tom was very serious now. “No, not at all. But will you propose the toast? You know what to say, just what to say and what to celebrate, and I want the toast to be perfect.”
Carl raised his glass, looked at Tom, and said, “To forty-four years of happiness with the kindest, most generous, most gentle and loving man who ever lived. To my Pat.”
Tom leaned forward and clinked his glass gently against Carl’s, and then they both took a sip. Tom set his glass on the table and watched Carl’s eyes glisten. The old man turned to look out the window again, and Tom didn’t interrupt the memories that held him so absorbed.
After a few moments of silence, Carl spoke again, this time not turning to look at Tom but instead keeping his gaze out the window. “Fifty years ago. Fifty. There weren’t all these lights, then. Not that first night. They came later. As a matter of fact, Pat was the one who suggested them to Albert.” Tom smiled. Carl had used the French pronunciation, Al-bear, rather than the English one.
Carl seemed to slip entirely into the memory for a moment, and when he looked up, he smiled at Tom and said, “He always was the more romantic of the two of us. Those lights just represent one example of the way he was, who he was.”
He took another sip of champagne and looked out the window, watching the glimmering trees again as he continued. “We came here often, back then. We became friends with the maitre d’, and discovered he was also part owner of the restaurant. His brother—his name was Pierre—was the head chef, and Albert ran the dining room and the business side. I imagine they’re both retired by now. He was about my age. Pierre was Pat’s. I see the restaurant still has their name. But it was just starting, back then, just as Pat and I were just getting started. The four of us became great friends, maybe because this was one of the few places Pat and I could feel not only safe, but also because we were liked for who we were. We loved coming here.”
Tom broke in then. “Carl, I want to hear about Pat, and about you and Pat. But we should do it over dinner, don’t you think? Why don’t you tell me what you want to eat, and I’ll go put in the order?”
Carl turned back to Tom. “And you’ll join me? You’ll be my guest? I’d be so happy if you would. I’d so like to have dinner with you, and to tell you about Pat and me. Please? It would mean a lot to me. It would make me feel young, having a handsome young man as my dinner companion.” He paused briefly, then said in a softer voice, “I’d like to feel young tonight.”
Tom dropped his head and eyes for a moment, then looked back at Carl. “I’d be honored to have dinner with you, Carl. Please excuse me for a moment.” He got up and walked over and spoke again to André, then came back with a bright smile on his face. When he sat back down, the two men, one very young, one very old, looked at each other, and for some reason not quite understood by either, they both broke out in a laugh at the same time. Carl reached over and put his hand over Tom’s, and Tom then covered Carl’s hand with his free one. They looked at each other for a moment, and then Carl asked, “What’s good here? It’s been years since I was last here. I moved away a while back. Pat and I did. I’ve only recently returned. The menu’s changed.”
They discussed what to eat, and then another waiter came to the table, and they gave him their order. When he had left, Carl took another sip of wine, and Tom joined him. When the glasses were again on the table, Tom said, “Now, tell me about Pat.”
Carl smiled, and his eyes seemed to lose their focus. When he began talking, his voice was softer. “We met when I was thirty. He was a couple of years older. Neither of us had had much experience with other men. Back then, it was different for gay men. You had to hide who you were much more than today, and it was difficult to meet other gay men because of that. We didn’t have the Internet, and there were few gay bars.”
He hesitated, then looked at Tom. “I don’t know that I should talk about this to you. It feels seedy, and I’m not sure….”
Tom smiled encouragingly back at him. “Carl, you’re telling me about Pat. That won’t be seedy, I’m sure. If this is background about how things were then, I want to hear it. It’s about your life back then. I won’t have bad thoughts about you. I won’t. I think this is something you want to say, and I’d like to hear it. So, go ahead. Tell me.”
Carl studied the younger man for a moment, then smiled weakly. “OK. I’ll get through it quickly. You’re right. It’s just background.” He kept his eyes on Tom’s a moment longer, seeking understanding, then returned to what he’d been saying. “Sex tended to be furtive when one could find it, quick and impersonal. About the best one could hope for would be a one-night stand, for the most part. I was young, and full of hormones, and that was all that was available. So that’s what I did, just like others like me. Except I only did it a few times, even though I felt the need so badly to be with another man. But each time it was unsatisfactory. I felt cheap, and that wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted a partner. I wanted someone to love, someone who was my equal socially, financially, emotionally, intellectually, and on top of all that, someone who would love me. Someone I could build a life with.” Carl stopped.
A gentle breeze had come up and the willow branches were swaying, making the lights attached to them dance. Two couples were sitting on the terrace now, cocktails on the tables in front of them, and they were also watching the play of lights. The young men and women were sitting close to their partners, entirely absorbed in each other and the romantic ambience. Both couples were holding hands. Carl was watching them, and his expression was wistful.
He seemed to shiver suddenly, blinked, and then continued. “And then I met Pat. I worked for a school district as a buyer, and so spent a portion of every day talking to salesmen pushing school supplies and equipment. Pat was a salesman working for a large office supply chain. He called on school district buyers, trying to get contracts for everything from pencils to staplers, carbon paper to mimeograph machines.
“Part of what he did was entertaining clients. He had an appointment to see me on a Friday afternoon, and after meeting with him in my office, he invited me and my wife out to dinner that evening. I told him I didn’t have a wife, but would be happy to join him.
“We went to a nice restaurant, and almost immediately we were comfortable with each other. It’s funny how that works. Some salesmen I didn’t click with at all. Most were just men trying to do their jobs. But with Pat, even when he was talking about protractors or blackboard erasers, there was something in his manner that made me like him. There was some sort of chemistry going on between us. We just clicked.
“That feeling held over from our time in my office to our time at dinner, too. I rarely accepted offers like his from salesmen. There was nothing improper about being entertained, but I just wasn’t always comfortable with the men or women who invited me out. I had no interest in spending extra time with them. Pat was different, and I discovered right away how enjoyable it was spending extra time, time outside my job, with him.
“That evening was great. Dinner was fun. We had drinks, and then a bottle of wine with dinner, and somehow, the time just flew by. He stopped being a salesman, I stopped being a buyer, and I just got wrapped up in Pat and being with him, getting to know him on a personal level. We had a very good time, both talking easily with each other without those awkward pauses you sometimes have with people you don’t know well, those times when you’re hunting for something to say to keep the conversation going. When dinner was over, I didn’t want the evening to end. I looked at Pat, and his eyes told me he was feeling the same thing. Pat always had the most expressive eyes.”
Their dinners had come and Tom was slowly eating, but Carl was more wrapped up in his memories and talking about them than in eating. He paused at that point, thinking about Pat’s eyes, perhaps, and smiled an enigmatic smile. Then he continued. “So, when he suggested a nightcap, I happily accepted. He smiled at me, probably at the eagerness in my voice when I said yes, and there was a quality in that smile and in his eyes that suddenly changed everything. I felt something I hadn’t felt before. Whatever that glint in his eyes was, whatever it meant, my thoughts flew to an image of us together in bed, lying in each other’s arms. I hadn’t been thinking of anything like this before. I’d been thinking how nice Pat was, how good looking, how sexy he was, how comfortable we were together, but my thinking hadn’t been any more than that. Now I was thinking sex, and all because of that brief, lambent look in his eyes.
“I smiled back at him, now a little nervous, but in no way afraid or hesitant. He was a bit older than I was and probably more experienced, and my thoughts were suddenly racing. Was he feeling what I was? I had no idea if he was straight or was like me, but he was very good looking, in his early thirties, and wasn’t married. Most men that age were.”
Tom broke in then. “I know gay men are supposed to be able to tell, somehow. If another man is gay. Didn’t you have that ability?”
Carl laughed. “I’ve read about that, but no, it’s never worked for me. Unless what I was feeling right then was what you’re talking about. Because I was getting strong vibes. Not necessarily that he was gay—which, incidentally, wasn’t a word we used that way back then—but that he was finding me just as attractive as I was finding him.
“But anyway, we went to a quiet bar I knew for our nightcap, and suddenly there was tension where there hadn’t been before. Not uncomfortable tension, but excited tension, promising tension. I didn’t really know how to flirt, but he did, and he started flirting with me, subtly and engagingly, and I responded. Probably not very elegantly, or suavely, but I certainly responded.
“We had our drink, and I was on edge, all sorts of tingling going on inside me. I had to calm down. I reminded myself we were still almost strangers; he was older, and he was the host. Too, I never had been very bold. I wasn’t going to make the first move. I didn’t have the courage to do so. What if I’d been misreading all of his signals? What if he was simply being nice, and enjoying my company as much as I was enjoying his, but nothing more than that? Perhaps it was just a fun night out for him and he didn’t have anyone to rush home to, so wasn’t in a hurry to end it. Or, say it was more. Say he had read me and what I was thinking correctly, and planned to do something about it. What if he was trying to seduce me, but only because I was a client and he wanted to make a sale?
“We finished our drinks. He looked at my glass and raised his eyebrows. I didn’t know what to say! I didn’t really want another drink. But I didn’t want the evening to end, either. I dithered and didn’t say anything. He did, however. He looked at me and said, ‘I don’t want any more to drink. What I want is to get to know you better and in other ways than we can in a bar. I’d like you to come back to my apartment with me.’
“Just like that. But it wasn’t sudden, it wasn’t abrupt, it was just a perfect segue from the flirting we’d been doing, and the feelings that had been growing between us all evening. He said it, and laid his hand on mine. I knew what he meant. And I wanted it as badly as he did.”
Tom took the champagne bottle out of the ice bucket and split what remained of it between the two glasses. Carl didn’t notice. He was too deep into his memories.
“We went to his apartment. My heart was beating way too fast. I hadn’t had sex very many times before. The few times I had, I’d been excited then, too. But somehow, this felt different. I’d never connected to those other men like I had with Pat, talking and laughing and then flirting, the chemistry between us so strong. Everything had felt right, all night long. And now we were alone together. This felt like my first time all over again.
“He led me into the living room and we sat down on the couch. He didn’t offer me a drink or anything else. We just sat down, and he took my hand. I can still remember word for word what he said. ‘Carl,’ he said, ‘I feel something special here. I want you to know that I don’t do casual, one-night affairs. I haven’t for several years now. The sex can be fun if you do that, but it makes me feel empty inside. I don’t want to feel empty afterwards. And somehow, with you, I don’t think I will. I don’t think it’ll feel like having sex, I think it’ll feel like making love, and I’ll remember it that way. May I kiss you?’
“My heart was beating like crazy. I wasn’t sure what my voice would sound like, so I didn’t bother to speak. I nodded and edged closer to him. He raised his hands to my shoulders, held them very lightly, and moved forward, his eyes locked onto mine, and he brushed his lips against mine. Only that. The merest brush. Then he pulled back, keeping his eyes fixed.
“I couldn’t take it, that pause! I was the one who moved forward then, and I kissed him back, gently at first, but I was feeling too eager for much of that! My kisses grew increasingly ardent, and then I had my arms around him, and his grip on my shoulders was no longer light. He was holding me as tightly as I was holding him.
“We eventually broke apart. He was still looking at me, but the look now was smoldering. Then, to my surprise, it changed, and, of all things, considering how we were both feeling at that moment, he smiled! He was panting, as was I. I could see the same ardor in his eyes I felt in mine, but, he stopped and he smiled! I was puzzled. ‘What?’ I asked him. ‘I knew this was going to be special,’ he replied. Then he stood up.
“We went into the bedroom. Your first time with someone can be awkward. Neither of you knows how the other will react, what he likes and doesn’t like, what he wants to do and what he doesn’t. There’s some awkwardness due to your simple lack of experience with each other. And we were like that too, I guess. But instead of it being awkward, Pat was able to turn those little things into fun. When I’d try to rush, he’d slow me down. When my passion got too hot, he’d cool it off, but in a way that seemed natural. Everything he did seemed right. He was gentle and caring, and just realizing that changed the entire tempo for me. I was used to sex being frenzied, a rush to completion. For the first time, he showed me how the pleasure could build and build and get better and better.
“When we were done, I started to get up, and he held his arm around me. ‘Stay,’ he said. I wanted nothing more than to sleep there that night, with him. I didn’t argue. I just lay back down, settled my head on his chest and closed my eyes. Then he began talking, and we talked for a long time. Finally, I started to drift off. ‘Hey!’ he said. I raised my head and looked up at him, and he said, ‘You forgot our good-night kiss.’ And we brushed our lips together, slowly and softly and lingeringly, and that, coupled with everything we’d done, and all the gentle words we’d said to each other, and the feelings that I was getting from him and that I was giving back to him—all that gave me the belief there actually was such a thing as heaven on earth.”
Carl stopped. Tom had stopped eating, too, and was just watching Carl. Carl had been looking at Tom but his eyes had been focused on the past, not his companion. Now, Carl became aware again of his dinner companion, and to Tom’s surprise, a blush began to color his cheeks and grew more pronounced as Tom watched. “Oh,” Carl said, “oh! I’m sorry. I forgot myself. You must think me terribly gauche, speaking of such a private moment so openly like that. I’m afraid I got lost in my memory. I’m so sorry. I apologize!”
Tom reached out and placed his hand on Carl’s where it lay on the tablecloth. “That was beautiful, Carl. And this was the perfect place and time to remember it. That wasn’t coarse or ugly at all. It sounded to me like the beginning of love, love expressed in several forms. There was nothing shocking there, nothing inappropriate.” He stopped, and Carl dropped his eyes, still looking ashamed and uncomfortable.
Tom squeezed the man’s hand, then withdrew his own. He looked away and raised his hand for a moment, then returned his attention to Carl. “You’re just getting started, I can tell, and I want to hear more. Now you’ve met Pat, but there’s a lot still to come. I’m very curious about your first night in this restaurant, and the happy times you spent here, and why you moved away, and why you’re back. And, being young and impatient like I am—” Tom got a devilish grin on his face, saying that, and Carl’s heart seemed to skip a beat. “I want to know all about those things right now,” Tom continued. “But I can’t expect to keep you here without a bribe.”
As Carl was opening his mouth to reply, they were interrupted by their waiter, carrying another bottle of champagne. He looked at Tom, and Tom nodded before turning to Carl. “I hope you aren’t offended, but the wine tonight is on the house. When I spoke to André, he insisted. He was ashamed at how he treated you, and wanted to make amends. So the wine won’t be on your check. Nor will my meal; employees get complimentary meals here. I don’t understand it all; it has something to do with payroll and tax deductions and that sort of thing. They tell me the owners deduct the cost of our meals and prefer doing it that way.”
The waiter had poured wine into both their glasses while Tom was speaking. Now he put the bottle in the ice bucket and silently withdrew.
Tom lifted his glass. Carl raised his as well, and Tom said, “I can’t wait to hear the rest. But you should eat; your dinner is getting cold.”
Carl smiled, his glass in the air, and ignored the statement. There was an impish quality to his smile, and it grew when he said, “A second bottle of wine? If I were a bit younger, I might even think, kind sir, that you were trying to get me drunk so you could exercise vile and prurient depravities on my body.” He tapped the lip of his glass against the lip of Tom’s.
Tom laughed, took a sip, then replied, “Why would you have to be younger? You’re a very attractive man, Carl. Age doesn’t stop a man from being sexy. I think a man is sexy if he keeps himself fit and has an air about him of confidence and knowing who he is. He can be especially sexy if he has an intelligent twinkle and a little bit of the devil in his eyes.” Tom paused a moment to create an air of anticipation, then said, “You’re still a very attractive man, Carl.”
Carl looked shocked, and then blushed, something he didn’t remember having done over a personal compliment for years. He opened his mouth to reply, closed it again, then finally asked, “Are you sure you’re only twenty-one? Somehow, you seem much more mature. To use old-fashioned words I don’t hear anymore, you’re debonair and urbane and charming. Young men your age generally aren’t like that.”
Tom had the grace to look embarrassed. “It’s probably just the training they give all us waiters. But I am twenty-one.” He laughed, and his eyes twinkled. “I’d show you my driver’s license, but then I’d have to think you were just trying some artful ploy to learn my address!” He said this in such a disarming manner, and with such gaiety in his face, that it was obvious he was making a joke, and Carl couldn’t possibly take offense at the implication.
The conversation had taken a turn toward banter. Carl suddenly felt like a young man again. When was the last time he’d traded cultivated mots with someone, a very attractive someone at that? He picked up his glass again, and watched as Tom did the same, the smile never leaving the younger man’s face.
Carl was practically purring when he made his reply. “I told you when I was first with Pat that I had no idea how to flirt. You certainly don’t share that disability.”
Tom’s smile got wider. “Oh, you think I’m flirting with you?”
“Why yes, I do, young sir. And I certainly hope I’m right!”
Tom laughed outright, then reached and placed his hand on Carl’s again, and met his eyes. “Good. I was doing it right then. Now, let me hear more about Pat.”
Carl’s smile slowly softened, and his eyes slowly lost their intense focus on Tom’s face. He turned and looked outside again. It was fully dark now, and so the dim candles on the terrace, lighting up their colored globes, cast rainbow splashes on the diners and cream-colored tablecloths. The sparkling lights on the willows in the background swayed gently, shimmering in the light breeze.
“That was my first night with Pat. When I woke up the next morning still in his arms, I’d already fallen for him. We’d spoken some before drifting off to sleep, and everything he’d said had been perfect. He’d told me what he wanted. He was just what I’d been dreaming about: a gentle and beautiful man who cared as much for me as I did for him, and who wanted the same things I did. He wanted one person to love, and for that person to love him back. I hadn’t known it was possible to find another gay man who felt like that, who felt like I did. What he wanted was a different world from brief encounters in public toilets or one-night stands with half-drunk strangers mostly concerned with their own pleasure.
“We made love again that morning. It was the first of many times we made love in the morning. He showed me how to make languid, unrushed love, how to let my passions build and ebb, but mostly he showed me something I’d never experienced before. He showed me what it felt like when you were with someone who was more concerned about your pleasure than his own. That’s what he did that morning. I’ll never forget it. It became something we both did in the years that followed. We took as much enjoyment from pleasing as from being pleased. It allowed us to build a love and an intimacy that at least in my mind very few people will ever be lucky enough to know.”
The waiter came back. Carl hadn’t eaten much. Tom’s plate was empty. Carl told him he was done, and so both their plates were cleared. Carl asked Tom to please have some dessert, and Tom smiled and ordered a crème brulee. Carl asked for an espresso.
“That was the beginning. We just fit, the two of us. We had remarkably similar tastes and histories. We shared college educations, parents we’d never come out to, a realization in our teens we were different: a difference we couldn’t talk to anyone about. We both had friends we hadn’t been able to mention our orientation to, and an emptiness that festered as we moved through our twenties. Now we had each other, and just having someone to talk to, to share our feelings with, to be open and free with—well, it was as though the whole world had opened up to us.
“We’d been together for about a year when this restaurant opened. We were deeply in love, and couldn’t really hide that if anyone looked at us at all. So we were given awkward looks by some, and angry or demeaning scowls by others. But not here. Here it was different. We started coming here a lot, at least once a week, both for the ambience of the restaurant and for the acceptance we felt.
“We got friendly with Albert and Pierre. We began coming in near closing time. We’d have dinner, then they would join us for a nightcap or another bottle of wine, or sometimes two. We could be ourselves when we were with them. We’d hold hands and they’d smile at us. We talked about life and love, about what was happening in the world right then and our own plans and dreams. We also laughed, the four of us. We laughed a lot.”
Carl had a dreamy look in his eyes, and Tom knew he was reliving those moments. When Carl resumed, his voice was stronger. “Albert would look at us with warmth in his eyes, and tease us about our love, too. You can’t do that the way he did unless what you’re teasing about really doesn’t bother you at all. Albert was special. Pat sometimes would pretend to be jealous of Albert, telling me I was falling for him. Well, it was true, I did feel something for Albert, but it was only an attraction, and anyway, Albert was married. I did think Albert was special, but what I felt for him wasn’t anything like the love I felt for Pat. Pat was my man. He was…well, he was everything, my world. That was all there was to it.
“We came here for years. Then, Pat was offered a promotion. In New York City, where the headquarters of the national chain he worked for was located. He was torn up about it because he really wanted that job. But he didn’t want to leave me. So, he didn’t tell me about it. But I knew him better than I knew myself. I knew he was keeping something from me. We didn’t have secrets—that was part of that intimacy I mentioned—but he was keeping one then. So, I wormed it out of him. It wasn’t that hard; I knew just what buttons to push, and I pushed them all. He told me. And I told him to take the job. He said he couldn’t, he wasn’t going to lose me for any job. I told him there was no way in this life that he could lose me, that I’d come with him. And I did. My job was something I’d sacrifice any day of the week for Pat. I went with him and found another job in New York.”
Tom had finished his dessert and, after shaking his head when the waiter looked at the wine bucket, poured the last of the champagne himself into both their glasses. Carl asked for the check off-handedly, and seemed far away now that he’d stopped talking. His air had changed, too, and his face looked sad. Tom very gently said, “And now you’re back here, and dining alone.” He made it a statement rather than a question.
There was a long pause, and then Carl nodded. “Pat died. Nothing dramatic. He simply got old and died. I got old, too, but haven’t died yet. Well, part of me has. I told you what it was like when we first got together, about the whole world opening up to us, now that we had someone to share ourselves with. When Pat died, that’s what died in me, too. I stayed in New York for a while—we had friends there, and our condo—but eventually there was just too much to remind me of what I’d lost, and I wasn’t the same person without Pat that I had been with him. I started becoming depressed. So, I decided to come back here where we’d been so happy when we were young. Where everything didn’t remind me of how old and alone I was.
“Tonight, I came here to celebrate something that was so wonderful for the two of us. Here was where we’d first found complete acceptance as a couple. Where we’d been able to be ourselves, where we could let someone see us together, see we were in love, and share in our joy. That was a happy time, and made even happier by the two men who owned this restaurant.”
He paused, and when he resumed, his voice was stronger, happier. “And that same magic is still here, Tom. Because tonight I’ve had the happiest night I’ve had in a long time. I met you, and I could talk and reminisce and remember all the wonderful times in my life with someone who’s special too.”
Tom grinned, and raised his glass, and they both took their final swallows together.
Tom put his empty glass on the table, then said in a low and sexy voice, “Are you trying to seduce me, Carl. Because that feels like what’s happening here.”
Carl looked at him, looked at his dark eyes and handsome face, and broke out laughing. He laughed hard enough that Tom joined in.
“Tom,” Carl said when he could, “my days of seduction are long past. But for you to say that means a lot to me. It means you think I still could, and nothing could make me happier than to think that possibility still exists. You’ve made me feel young tonight, Tom, and kept me from wallowing in self-pity. You’re a very special young man.”
“I think you’re very special, too, Carl. Very special, and very charming yourself. I’m sorry the night has to end.”
Carl signed the check, added a tip, and then said, “Tom, I feel I’ve cost you some money tonight. You lost the time you’d have been paid for, and your tips. Please, can I pay you for that?”
“Absolutely not, Carl. Absolutely not. I had a wonderful time, I made a new friend, and making it into a financial transaction would spoil that. I value the time we spent much more than money.”
Carl placed his hand on Tom’s, looked into his eyes, and grew wistful. “Maybe we can do this again. I loved being able to simply talk to someone like this. It’s made me feel so good. Do you think we could do that?”
“I’d love that, Carl. What about next Tuesday? That’s a week away and I’ll be off work that night. How about it? A date? Next Tuesday at eight? I’ll meet you here. And I’ll make sure this table is free.”
“Perfect!” Carl laughed, then pushed his chair back. But before standing up, he said, “Next week, we’ll talk about you. You said very little about yourself. I want to know if you have a boyfriend. I want to hear about him.”
Tom rose, and so did Carl. As they were walking toward the door, Tom said, “So you’ve decided I’m gay. You said you can’t tell, but you’ve decided.” He was smiling, so Carl knew he wasn’t offended.
“I think it’s pretty clear, yes. But we’ll talk about it next week.”
“I’m looking forward to it, Carl. Tuesday at eight. A date.”
Carl stopped by the door, turned to Tom, and stuck out his right hand. Tom looked at it, then at Carl, and instead of taking the hand, he enveloped the older man in a hug, and held it for several moments. Then he released him and said, “Next week.”
“Tom! How was dinner tonight? Slow as usual?”
“Slower. Only a few tables tonight.”
“Won’t get much better for a while.”
Tom listened carefully to the voice on the phone. His own voice changed with his next comment; it sobered a bit. “ ‘Spect not. Hey, I wanted to tell you something. I made a decision tonight. André’s got to go.”
His father chuckled. “The first one’s always the hardest. And, I won’t say, ‘I told you so’. But I might be thinking it!”
Tom sighed, a sigh of relief, but did it inaudibly. His father had made a joke. Things were better.
“Well, you know why I kept him. He simply forced my hand tonight.”
“I do know why you kept him. But loyalty only goes so far. Everyone has to earn their stay, every day. Your first loyalty has to be to the restaurant and all the employees who are doing the job.”
“You’re right, Dad. I just didn’t realize he was as bad as he is. I was standing where he didn’t know I could overhear him, and he gave a customer a hard time. I’ve spoken to him before about that, but tonight, he was awful. He’s never been that bad before. Not that I was aware of, at least. And then, tonight, when I spoke to him, when I asked him to go apologize to the customer, offer him a free bottle of wine, André said he wouldn’t lower himself to do that to ‘one of those’. That’s what he said! I almost fired him on the spot, but I didn’t want the drama. It was the last straw, though. I’m going to call him in tomorrow during the day and let him go. No more warnings.”
“You’re the boss, son. I figured you’d have to do that sooner or later.”
“Dad, that’s going to leave me short. The senior staff are all on vacation, so I need someone to fill in until they’re back next month. I’ll probably promote Phillipe. He’s earned it, and he’s great with the customers.”
“Good choice. I remember when he first came to work there. Younger than you are now. He was a real good boy. I’ll be happy for him. His mama would have been so proud if she’d lived to see it.”
“You’re avoiding the issue.”
His father laughed. “I just want to hear you ask.”
Tom had a smile on his face. His father was in a better mood than he’d been in for months. “So you’ll do it?”
“Dad! OK, OK, I’ll ask. Please come back and maitre d’ for me till Phillipe is back. It’ll only be for three weeks.”
“And what does it pay?”
“What’s with you tonight? You sound like yourself again. I was starting to think you’d lost your sense of humor permanently.”
“Tom, I’ve been feeling better lately.” His voice was more serious now. “It’s harder to bounce back when you’re older, so it took a while. I lost your mother and thought my life was over. And I was younger when she died. Then I met Etienne, and fell in love again, and started a new life. Losing him was harder than losing your mother. I had time to prepare for her dying. With Etienne, I wasn’t prepared, and because I was older, I knew I’d never find anyone else.
“And then the loneliness. I wasn’t ready for that. It’s been hard. Oh, I know you do your best so I won’t feel alone and brood, and I appreciate that, but when you’ve lived with someone most of your life, it’s hard, suddenly being by yourself. It’s hard not to share that intimacy any longer, hard when there isn’t anyone to share everything with. I’ve really missed not having someone to hold, and someone to hold me, in bed before falling asleep at night.”
Tom said softly, “I lost him too, Dad. I also lost both of them. I hardly remember losing Mama, and don’t really remember being sad about that. I was too young. But losing Etienne hurt me too. It hurt a lot, but I know it hurt you ten times worse.”
They were both silent, both remembering. Then his father spoke again, and as he spoke, the sadness gradually left his voice. “This last year has been difficult. But I think I’m finally getting past it, and the depression as well. Just the other day, I realized I was noticing things I hadn’t for a long time. Like what the warm sun feels like on my face when I’m sitting outside. Like what hearing kids playing in the park sounds like and how young that makes me feel inside. Like the taste of a croissant fresh out of the oven down at Francois’ bakery. I suddenly became aware I was aware of those, and a lot of other little things.”
“You think it’s because of that medication I asked you to take?”
“Forced me to take? Maybe. Who knows? What I do know is I’m not feeling so gloomy any more, and that’s a good thing.”
“It’s a very good thing, Dad, a very good thing. So, tomorrow night? Your tux still fit you, you think? You’ve lost some weight. I’ll rent one for you if you need it.”
“You don’t really need me tomorrow, do you? I think you’re just trying to get me out of the house. With the business the way it must be right now, you can do it yourself easy. I know you’re filling in where needed. Waiter, bus boy, dishwasher, sous-chef, whatever. Oh, I should be gloating a little, telling you how right I was in making you do all the jobs in the restaurant when you were still a teenager. I still remember you bitching and pouting like a little baby about it, too! Now, when you have to, you can do whatever is needed.”
Tom laughed. “Gloat if you want to. You have the right. I did too; have a right to bitch I mean. It was hard, going to college and still working there. But you know, there’s nothing wrong with ‘hard’. There is when you’re doing it but not so much when you look back at it. And having me do everything, knowing every job—it’s something that you did for me that I’ll be forever grateful for.”
“Well, I knew if you decided to run that place someday, knowing all the jobs would be a good thing.”
“Not just run it, Dad. Own it. I still can’t believe you gave it to me. It’s been a year and it still hasn’t quite sunk in.”
“When Pierre died and I decided to retire, it just made sense. I figured it would be added motivation for you to keep the place going, and”—he stopped to chuckle—“so my name would still be on it. I wasn’t sure you would, you know. Decide to run it, I mean. After all, you’d be giving up the sociology degree you were working toward in college.”
“It wasn’t that difficult a choice. I did love working in the restaurant, growing up, even if I did have to wash dishes.”
“Tom, it was the way you pitched in washing dishes, and busing tables, and all the rest, the smile on your face whatever you were doing, and the way you interacted with everyone, both staff and customers, that caused me not to hesitate in giving it to you. You’re the one I wanted to have it anyway, of course, but the way you acted when you were working there…well, I knew it’d be as successful with you running it as it had been when I was there.”
“I don’t think I was really ready for it, but I’ll always be indebted to you for it.” Tom’s tone of voice changed then, sincerity switching off, banter switching on. “So, your pay, Dad. Minimum wage, I guess. Minus anything you eat, of course.”
“You scoundrel! OK, for that, I’m not coming in till I get my tux altered. It’ll probably be next week sometime.”
“How long does it take to alter a tux? They only have to take it in a little.”
“I don’t know, maybe a week.”
“I want you there Monday, Tuesday at the absolute latest. Otherwise, I’m filling the job with someone else.”
“Whoa, now you’re sounding like a boss. OK, I’ll tell them to rush it. But you’re paying for the tailoring.”
“If it’s done by Monday, it’s a deal.”
“OK, I’ll be in Monday.”
“Good. I’ll see you then.”
“OK, Tom. Give my love to Allison. I don’t know why you don’t marry that girl before she meets someone worthy of her.”
“Dad, stop pushing!” Tom said, chuckling. It was an old argument. “We talk about it. It won’t be long now. I just want to be sure about the restaurant. It’s taking all my time right now. And she wants to get her degree first.”
“Well, time has a way of passing. Don’t wait too long. All right, see you Monday.”
“Good. But hey, come in early. I’ll have to train you, you know.”
“Train me! Why you young…!
Tom was still laughing when he hung up.
Tuesday night was slow, as slow as Tuesday nights in August typically were. Anticipating that, Tom had reduced the working staff. Only the bartender, three busboys, three waiters, a smaller kitchen staff, and of course the maitre d’ were there. The maitre d’ was a very distinguished looking older gentleman with a full head of snowy white hair in an immaculately tailored tuxedo. Where the waiters were wearing their customary black tux trousers, pressed white shirts, black vests and burgundy bow ties, the maitre d’ was wearing the same but with a startlingly white dinner jacket complemented with a burgundy vest and cummerbund.
He wasn’t busy, so spent some time looking around. There were a few people in the bar, and the bartender, a handsome young man he had hired shortly before retiring, was entertaining three young women sitting at the bar, flirting with him. He was decorously flirting back. He saw Albert looking in and winked at him discreetly. Albert almost laughed, but laughing out loud would be undignified behavior indeed for a maitre d’, so he stifled it. However, he did surreptitiously wink back.
Next, he walked through the door behind him out onto the terrace. Here too, only a few couples sat. The air was warm, a perfect night for the terrace. Albert looked to see if all the tables had freshly laundered tablecloths, the pale ones they used outside, whether the napkin folds were perfect, whether the terrace itself was immaculately clean, whether the lawn was freshly mowed and an emerald green. He saw everything was as it should be, as it had been for over 50 years.
He could have been disappointed that there had been no change in the place since he’d left. He could have felt that meant he wasn’t needed. Yet, this wasn’t the emotion he felt. Instead, he felt a deep pride that such a young man as his son could be doing such a remarkable job maintaining the standards he himself had set.
He walked back inside and stepped into the kitchen. The kitchen had been Pierre’s, and he hadn’t meddled. Still, he and Pierre had been brothers, and they had thought alike about running a restaurant. Pierre had run a clean and orderly kitchen. Bustling, for sure, but not frantic, not hectic, just busy. And the staff got along with each other, so it was a good place to work. People who didn’t fit in didn’t last long. The ones who did last generally stayed for years.
Now, he saw the kitchen looked much as it always had. He couldn’t see any dirt, any messes or spills, or any panic in the staff. Just people doing their jobs, people laughing, and the new chef making jokes and voicing encouragements.
Albert smiled at him, got a respectful nod, then left the kitchen, looking at his watch. Almost eight. They could probably close early tonight, maybe at nine. Saving money when possible was the way to stay in business.
He heard the front door open and smiled as he looked up. A single customer, but still a customer. Then he looked again. An older man, but one who looked familiar.
Carl looked back at the maitre d’. Then he did a double take.
A smile, a huge smile, broke out suddenly on both men’s faces.
And then they were hugging. Grandly and with heartfelt emotion, they were hugging, and Carl had to wipe away a tear. They looked at each other, neither knowing just what to say.
Their silence was interrupted. “Gentlemen, I believe your table is ready. I can seat you now.”
Both turned to look at Tom, standing behind the lectern. He too wore a radiant smile, and while they watched, he stretched an arm, palm up, toward the dining room. He led them to the table in the nook, one that bore a placard saying, “Reserved for Very Special Guests,” and seated them.
Albert protested half-heartedly, saying he was working that night, and Tom laughed. “Dad, I knew Carl was coming tonight. I was expecting him, and that’s why I had you come in. You were right: I didn’t really need you as maitre d’. I needed you to have dinner with a special friend of mine. I can handle what you were doing, and everything else since we’re so slow.”
Carl was looking befuddled. “Tom? You called Albert, ‘Dad’? He’s your father?”
Tom smiled at him, then at both of them. “I’m going to leave you two now. You have a lot to talk about. You both have surprises in store for each other. Your dinner is being prepared, and, of course, is on the house tonight. We’re honored to prepare and serve it for you. You’ll just have to wait to see what you’ll be getting. The wine has been arranged, too. If you drink just a little too much of it, I’ve notified the cab company you might be giving them a late call. So everything’s set. Just sit, talk, and enjoy.”
They both looked at him as though they didn’t know what to say. Before leaving them alone, Tom had one last word. “Have a great evening. I’ll join you for an after-dinner drink on the terrace when you’re through here.”
Tom walked away from the table. He entered the kitchen, then snuck around out the back and in through the bar, stopping where he could see the table where they were sitting but where he couldn’t be seen himself. The two were talking animatedly.
He watched as waiters attended to their needs, as cocktails and wine were served. Several small courses were presented to them with appropriate pauses between them so that nothing was rushed, stomachs could adjust, and there was ample opportunity for conversation. Finally a dessert was prepared and flamed in front of them. As they were finishing their meal, Tom reentered the room and asked them to join him on the terrace.
It was a soft and gentle night. At this late hour, they were the only people still on the terrace. Carl and Albert sat next to each other. Tom took a chair across from them. They looked at him, and he looked back. Then, Albert smiled.
“You could have told me.”
“And ruin the surprise? Not likely. I’ve been looking forward to this all week.”
Tom turned to Carl. “I hope you’re not upset with me. I let you believe some things that weren’t true. But my heart was in the right place. I was on your side. And my father’s.”
Carl smiled at him. “Tom, my opinion of you hasn’t changed at all from last week. If anything, it’s even higher now. But I don’t give you all the credit. I know your father. You’re so much like him. We talked about you a little, inside. He said you got your looks from your mother. You have his personality, however. I see that in you now.”
Tom nodded at Carl’s remark, then asked, “I hope you two will join me in a special wine I have opened for you. It’s a 1982 Chateau d'Yquem. I’ve been saving it. It’s to celebrate a special occasion. Carl was celebrating one a week ago. Tonight, I’m hoping to mark another special occasion, one we’ll all think back on ten years from now.”
A waiter came out with a chilled bottle, an ice bucket and three glasses. Also on the tray were three plates, three dessert forks and a slab of aged Roquefort. He poured, left the bottle on the table and the men alone on the terrace.
The temperature was 82 degrees, and there was a very soft breeze occasionally stirring the willows. It also sent its feelers into the colored globes still lit on the terrace tables, causing the candles to drift about and flicker, and the colors from the globes to dance across the off-white tablecloths.
The men picked up their glasses and Tom said, “I’m going to propose a toast. I’m not the most eloquent speaker, but this toast doesn’t come from that part of me anyway. It comes from my heart.” He raised his glass higher, then said, “Here’s to reclaiming friendships, putting loneliness behind us, and most of all to the future, a future filled with happiness and possibilities.”
They all sipped their wine. Albert lifted his hand and laid it on Carl’s. Carl turned his hand over so their palms were touching. He was looking at Albert, and Tom could see exactly what he’d hoped to see in Carl’s eyes. He looked at his father, and saw the same look— and an energy he hadn’t seen since Etienne’s death.
The three of them sipped their wine till it was gone, and talked, and the hour grew late. Tom’s second-in-command stepped out on the terrace and nodded at Tom. Tom nodded back. A few minutes later, the lights in the restaurant were extinguished. The lights in the willows remained, however, and the candles in the globes continued to burn.
When they finally began guttering, the three men were still talking, although there was laughter mixed in, and teasing, with Tom getting the brunt of it and accepting it gracefully. But the two men, in their reminiscing, were focusing mostly on each other. When Tom eventually got up and slipped away, his absence wasn’t noticed. The two old men only had eyes for each other.
Thanks as always to my intrepid editing staff. My writing would be less without your ministrations.