“Well, let’s have lunch. Everything looks better after lunch.”
— Winston Churchill, supposedly, after he was informed that the Nazis had flattened Coventry.
It’s a cold, bleak, dark-gray rainy day, and I’m in a cold, bleak, dark-gray rainy mood. My mind is racing with cynical thoughts, both political and very personal, faster than I can keep up. I think I should try to write all this down: some timely and coherent response to all the sound and fury over the 9/11 “anniversary.” I end up spilling my guts and a lot of tears to the shrink instead.
I leave the shrink’s office, now empty of tears and words. It’s raining harder and I’m feeling lightheaded with hunger, if not experiencing it as actual appetite, which is a tad worrisome. Whatever feeble pretense I’ve had for doing anything “productive” is no longer even an issue. The only real question for the rest of the day is where, what and when do I eat?
At first I’m tempted to skip the whole ordeal and just go home; nothing really appeals to me and I’m also worried about my dwindling funds.
But I reconsider: I’m downtown, I’ve got nothing in the fridge, I’m not up for grocery shopping, there’s no decent takeout, and if I go back to Queens and sit in front of the computer there is an excellent chance I will continue not eating and eventually make myself sick.
I end up stepping into this little seafood joint I’d been to a few times in the past, though not for a good long while. It’s not cheap, especially for lunch, but I’m cold and I’m hungry and it’s right here and they have soup and well, oh hell.
It’s jumping, I forgot they’re always busy. They seat me at the counter, in a high near-backless stool, with my back to the door, and there’s a draft. Should I just get up and leave? Should I stay? There’s already a place setting and some water and I’m starting to go into endless second-guessing mode. All right, I finally say to the guy, give me a bowl of clam chowder and then I’ll see. And a Coke, sure. Caffeine and sugar: exactly what I need right now, I try to convince myself.
The door keeps opening and closing. It’s not real warm and I’m fidgeting. I have one mental eye on my wallet and am thinking maybe I’ll just scarf down the chowder and push on. Just then a small woman comes and takes the stool next to me, the only empty one in the place. She greets the counter guy like a long-lost friend and exchanges hellos and pleasantries with a few other customers as well.
“The cod, yes, you know what I want. And, I don’t see it on the menu, but do they have any more of that wonderful asparagus? If not, sure, the green beans will be fine. And you know how I like my fish: almost wiggling.”
I am drifting when my chowder eventually comes. It’s white and rich and smooth and just dusted with flecks of green chive and black pepper. And very, very hot. I don’t like very, very hot, I think. I stare at it and poke it with the spoon, waiting for it to cool a bit. As I do so, I register that the woman at the next stool is speaking to me:
“Isn’t that a beautiful soup?” she says.
I turn a little and really look at her for the first time. Damn, that was heartfelt.
My first impulse is to offer her a spoonful–I was raised in the firm tradition of exchanging “bites” and sharing in restaurants, at least among family and friends. Still, I reconsider. It’s a touch awkward and overly intimate with a stranger, and especially with soup; I only have one spoon. I just smile and say “Yes, it is.”
The woman chats away with someone sitting catty-corner to her. I am warming up a bit. I eat some of the soup.
As I nibble on some of the tender pink and white bits-clam and bacon and potato- I cross-associate, as often happens, to a random book I’ve read at one point or another: The Little House Cookbook. My thoughts return specifically to the part where they described Laura Ingalls Wilder’s ecstasy upon tasting oyster soup for the first time; what a rich and exotic treat that must have been for a not-rich girl on the landlocked prairie, not so very far into the Industrial Revolution.
I have never had oyster soup, I think, idly.
The woman is now just sitting there, and, on impulse, I ask her, “Have you ever had oyster soup?”
It’s a bit disconcerting, but not fatally so. “Yes?” the woman says, a bit quizzically. Then, on safer ground, “Oh, the soup at Grand Central Oyster Bar is delicious, too. All their food. I just love that place.”
I wanted to press her, explain that I was trying to find out whether oyster soup, in fact, tasted substantially different from clam chowder, but I relent. That’s okay. We chat a bit about Grand Central, which I think I have been in once, and some other restaurants, other wonderful foodstuffs. I mention my yearning for Maine-style lobster rolls- hot with butter, as opposed to the cold and mayo’d deal they serve at this place. The counter guy comes back just as I’m finishing this reverie; behind him, someone is just getting a plate of fried oysters.
Blessedly decisive—a rarity for me, I ask the guy for an oyster po’boy, no tartar. The woman beams. Excellent choice. I’m beginning to feel a bit better.
I excuse myself and go to the bathroom. When I return, my sandwich is there, and the woman is already slicing into her fish with fat, green asparagus on the side; I guess they did have them today. The asparagus looks wonderful. I eyeball Mount Fried and fret a bit over whether this was a good idea digestion-wise; I’m not ill but I’m still somehow not quite…right. I haven’t really been for a while, feels like.
The woman swallows her mouthful and says,
“You were gone so long, I kept looking at those oysters, and, well…””
“You were thinking about just…taking them?” I raise an eyebrow.
She grins, a little mischievously.
I grin back. “Would you like one now?”
“Oh, no, no.” Then, “I come here all the time. It’s wonderful.”
I eat some oysters. We both ruminate for a bit.
Eventually the woman catches me eyeballing her asparagus and offers me a spear.
“Trade you for an oyster?” I say.
She grins even more widely; there is a shyness as well as genuine delight at the idea. “Yes!”
We quickly make the swap. The asparagus really is good. It occurs to me that I haven’t been eating nearly enough green vegetables lately. It also occurs to me that if I had regular magical access to vegetables that tasted that good, I might eat them more often. It also occurs to me that I am being unnecessarily self-pitying and to just knock it off, for heaven’s sake.
She moans a little as her teeth sink into the oyster.
Somehow we’re all now chatting away, she and I and the two men sitting catty-corner, with an occasional hail and well-mannered holler to someone entering or leaving. I forget what we all talk about, but it always comes back to the food: what we’re eating, what we’ve eaten, what we will eat, what we’d like to eat. The counter guy brings one of the men a piece of blueberry pie with a slab of ice cream on it. My seatmate swoons a bit. We discuss, with increasing animation, the desserts at this place. Have I ever had their chocolate mousse? Do I remember? Do I! Too bad it’s such a huge portion. Who could ever finish it? Well, I think I actually did, once, but continue mumbling anyway.
Sometime between then and the men’s departure (whereupon the woman says to the counter guy, “you know, I thought at first they were father and son, but I think they might be…together?” I laugh out loud at her innocence. They might be; the meal I’ve just eaten might have been somewhat high in cholesterol), the woman makes me an offer:
“What do you say we split a chocolate mousse?”
“Oh!” I exclaim. “Ohhh. Hmm.” The truth is, I’d mentally written off dessert, or really any more food again ever, but I’m weak-willed, and moreover I’m rather charmed.
But she then backpedals a bit, perhaps sensing my own hesitation: “Should we? What do you think? We don’t have to. You did eat more than I did.” I raise my eyebrows at that one, but she acts like she doesn’t see. “It is a very big portion… ? But maybe they can put it on two plates, really that’s just a half-portion. That’s not so much. What do you think?”
I become serious. “Well. It’s true: two plates means we each get half. And we’ll each have our own spoon, so that effectively divides it in half again. Also, it’s raining out, and that halves it again.”
She laughs kindly.
“So, what do you think? I’ll leave it up to you.” That shy, mischievous grin again.
I say, “You want to, don’t you?”
Grin becomes giggle, and I seal the deal: “And besides, I’ve never shared chocolate mousse with a stranger.”
Enchantment, clapped hands. We summon the counter guy, who is by now an old friend. Guess what we’ve decided to do?
I figure this might be a good time to introduce myself, and do so. She has a name, too, turns out. Who knew.
It arrives. There is a moment of silence followed by many soft, happy little noises. Grunting and cooing and…seriously, this stuff is divine. Later, when the chef comes out (“Oh, I want you to meet ___, he’s my favorite person here, a lovely man and such a wonderful cook), he informs me that it’s not butter or cream, it’s butter and cream. The chocolate is so intense it’s barely even sweet. Yup, that’s fresh whipped cream on that, too.
My accomplice is coming pretty close to Meg Ryan’s legendary scene in When Harry Met Sally. Fortunately I am already having what she’s having. I tell her, “I really like how much you enjoy your food.”
She doesn’t blush, but instead swallows, and announces, “Eating is wonderful.”
“Yes,” I concur.
“And it’s such a privilege. Look at how lucky we are. Sitting here. Eating chocolate mousse. With all that’s going on in the world.”
About a thousand feelings rise up, flutter around, and subside again somewhere beneath the oysters. I simply say again, quietly, “Yes.”This is a New York I had not quite forgotten about, but hadn’t really been in my consciousness for a while, either.
We stop with about one and a half tablespoons left. My companion, my comrade-in-eating, insists that I take it home. I suggest that maybe it makes more sense for her to take it, since I’m going all the way back to Queens and she so obviously lives in the neighborhood.
She is quite firm: she couldn’t possibly. I can have it later tonight! Although, I did have a lot of lunch, she says, again. “Thanks, I needed the reminder,” I say, a tad drily. She laughs.
The place is winding down for the afternoon, and so are we. We settle our bills and say our farewells. See you again, we say. Perhaps, though we know it’s really not likely.
She goes off into the rain; I head back to the restroom first. At the entrance to the bathroom, on the wall, there is something I hadn’t noticed last time: some sort of menu or flyer for some event the place had evidently sponsored or been a part of once, though I am not sure what exactly: a charity of some sort, perhaps. What I’d missed last time now stares at me in resoundingly big, bold letters:
FOR MORE LIFE
Barbara Labinger has an MFA in playwriting from the Yale School of Drama. She has had her dramatic work staged, read, and occasionally self-directed at the Yale Cabaret Theatre, New Dramatists, and WOW Cafe Theatre in New York City. Previous journalistic publication includes the New Haven Advocate. Labinger now lives in San Francisco, where she continues to write and work toward a license in counseling psychology.