I recently ate alone in a café connected to a popular independent bookstore in DC. The white noise of the multiple conversations surrounding me was a deliciously impenetrable ambient word stew, perfect for reading.
A couple sat to my left. Their meals arrived while I looked over the menu. I ordered the butternut squash ravioli stuffed with goat cheese because it came with corn bread. The space between our tables was so narrow that it was more conceptual than physical. A narrow negative space that we would ignore if we were all together: the couple, me, and the two women sitting alone on my right who were talking into their cell phones while they ate.
I opened a book that I’d already started reading, but my eyes moved over the same sentence again and again, its meaning refusing to flow along the usual circuit. I was distracted by the heavy silence between the couple.
Then man spoke first. He told her that the meal proved their maturity. He told her that his final gift to her would be to remember her in a favorable light. He paused now and then and I could tell without looking at him that he was fighting back tears. He told her that even though the divorce was now final, he still wanted her to consider him as a friend she could call if she ever ran into trouble.
She said that she had asked for no mayo on her sandwich. She scraped it off and tried to get the waiter’s attention to ask for spicy mustard. I wondered if she was regretting her order. There was no evidence that she was regretting the divorce.
I pictured her telling him that she needed something more from him. More attention. More warmth. More zing. She repeating the need until it felt like she was nagging him. But still nothing. Maybe a couple of awkward attempts at some overly literal response to the words she'd used to approximate the problem. Then nothing at all. The opposite of the vague something that was beginning to feel selfish and silly.
Then she found herself being drawn toward someone who could fill the lack, the unmet need she’d been repeatedly broadcasting. I imagined him being angry when he found out. He focused on the other man, the betrayal, the sex. And then she realized that he simply wasn’t capable of providing what she'd been struggling to ask from him. She watched from a safe emotional distance as he missed the point entirely. Time went by. Their lawyers negotiated the details. Their careers were both going well. There were no children to complicate matters.
They had a quick hearing in front of a judge. Just a formality. They decided to grab a bite to eat. They were silent when they stood up to leave. Neither of them had any idea what would come next, although they were already tangled up in the details of their jobs, projects they'd started in their new homes, and plans they had made to get together with friends over the weekend.