He sat by the window sipping on his beer, slowly and methodically eating the Palomilla that he ordered each week. He was a regular at El Meson, a Cuban restaurant in Rice Village. He came at precisely four thirty on Thursday afternoons and chose the same table every time. Invariably the other patrons who came and went while he leisurely enjoyed his fare were somewhat startled to see him because at first glance he appeared to be the image of Ernest Hemingway come back to life. His white hair curled down the back of his neck and met his trimmed white beard at his chin. He always wore a straw hat and casual clothing that was stylish, but a bit rumpled as though he was on permanent vacation on some Caribbean Island. He fit right in to the quirkiness of the area and the restaurant itself.
She had her own table set at a ninety degree angle several feet away from his. She too came to El Meson each Thursday, usually arriving just before he did. She tried different things on the menu, one day eating tapas and drinking wine, another enjoying only flan and coffee. She was elegantly prim and proper and confident. Her white hair was smooth and carefully coiffed as if she had just come from a comb out with her hairdresser. She was dressed in a pair of black slacks with a sharp crease and a soft pink blouse that accentuated her slender build. She too looked like somebody, but not in the same sense as the man. She had the appearance of someone important, someone who wielded power in the city. She might have known the Bush family when they were still alive. She undoubtedly traveled in the same circles as the rich and powerful.
He always left first in a slow kind of hurry, making a bit of a scene about the cost of valet parking. His ritual complete he went home to his books of which there were hundreds crammed into the townhouse that had been his refuge for years. He had once been a distinguished professor of history at Rice University, but now he was mostly retired. Sometimes he offered a course at the Glasscock School of Continuing Education and enjoyed the same kind of admiration from the adults that his graduate students had once showered on him. He had lost interest in his career when his wife was diagnosed with stage four cancer. For months his days and nights had been dedicated to her recovery, only the miracle for which he had prayed never came. She left him bereft and unanchored, filled with a longing for his world to just stop. His life became a series of routines that gave him just enough purpose to stay alive. Going to El Meson each Thursday was part of his therapy. Sitting at the same table and eating the same thing provided him with a small touch of meaning.
The woman who sat across from him always tarried at her table, taking tiny bites and sips so small that her food and drink seemed without end. She was in no hurry to leave. Going home meant being in that grand home that she and her husband had built together. He had been a doctor and she was a lawyer. They had worked hard and realized a dream to have a fine home in West University Place, one of the premier neighborhoods of Houston. They had beautiful children who succeeded at everything that they tried, including careers that took them to locales far away. Their’s had once been a gathering place of great minds. Now she was lonely in her little mansion, in no mood for empty conversations and grand parties. Without the laughter of her children and the presence of her husband she felt empty in her house. She coped by finding excuses to stay away as late as possible. There was nothing there for her anymore, at least not since her husband and died suddenly from a heart attack. El Meson was reassuring and warm for her. There she took comfort in the comical boar’s head that hung above the bar and the sameness of the place.
The seasons came and went and both of them arrived without fail at their self appointed times each Thursday. The waiters came to know them without speaking to them because they made it clear that they did not wish to talk. They were Thursday afternoon fixtures, expected guests with unofficially reserved tables, two lonely people sitting near one another never exchanging glances or greetings. They performed their rituals as though they had been carefully choreographed and rehearsed, and then went their individual ways until Thursday came again.
She arrived that Thursday like clockwork and the waiter dutifully showed her to the table that had become hers by right of routine. She ordered a glass of iced tea and said that she needed more time to decide what to eat. She sat patiently sipping on her drink showing no emotion as four thirty came and went. He had not arrived and the clock kept ticking away. A slight touch of worry showed on her face, but she said nothing other than letting the waiter know that she was still not ready to order her dinner. As the hands of the clock neared five she did her best to hide the panic that was rising in her chest. “Where was he?” she wondered.
A commotion at the door caused her to turn in her chair. There he was groomed and looking dapper in a suit. The hat that he always wore was missing and his hair was trimmed and groomed. She saw that he was quite handsome, an observation that had not escaped her notice even when he was in a somewhat disheveled state. She was relieved that he had finally arrived but also a bit uncharacteristically nervous. She turned back in her chair and did her best to resume her usual state of composure. She laughed inside at how ridiculous it had been for her to worry about him for he was, after all, a complete stranger.
As she lifted her glass of tea to take another sip he stopped at her table and pointed to the chair that sat across from her. “May I?” he cautiously inquired as he began to slowly lower himself into the seat. “Of course!” she smiled and her face lit up the room.
(Indulge me in this bit of fiction. I heard about a local author who just published a book of short stories featuring different areas of Houston. I thought of how much I would enjoy doing something similar and then I encountered two incredibly interesting looking individuals as I ate dinner at El Meson in the Rice Village. I was not able to get them out of my mind and had to create a little story for them before returning to my usual style of writing. I hope you enjoyed this little journey into my imagination as much as I did.)