Outside Looking In

12 Dec 2019

(This short story was written sometime in the 1990s when I took a one-week residential course on creative writing in Scotland)  

Has your life ever been changed by a cigarette butt on a plate? John stubbed his cigarette in his salad and it changed my life.

The night started innocently enough. I was rushing about Greenwich Village in Manhattan looking for a restaurant with a big torch in front of a wrought iron signpost. “You won’t miss it,” I was told. And I didn’t, even in my hurry for I was late. The restaurant was painted black to blend in with the bleak November night, or perhaps to evoke the mood of the midnight ride of Paul Revere. In 1775, Paul Revere was ordered by the Connecticut militiamen to light a torch as soon as he spotted the coming of the British soldiers: One if by Land, Two if by Sea. It was now the name of the restaurant where I heard a meal could cost you a month’s salary.

As I rushed in, I could hear the notes from the theme song of Casablanca. A man in a dinner jacket swayed with the rhythm of the music as he played at the grand piano positioned prominently at the mezzanine. Through bouquets of unseasonal flowers and reflected candle lights in the full room, I could see my Korean friend Nan-Yeong and her date at the far end corner. She was waving at me annoyingly.

“You’re late again, as usual,” she said, and, by way of introduction to her friend, added, “Dalisay is from the Philippines. One of the first things people do there is to throw away their watches.”

I murmured an apology and was grateful when the sound of laughter filling the room drowned out my own voice. With a flourish of one hand, Nan-Yeong dismissed my explanations. She was already introducing her Man-of-the-Month, not that I hadn’t heard about him before.

“Isn’t John with you?” she asked.

“No,” I suddenly felt the urge to tell Nan-Yeong about my phone conversation with John that night, but of course I couldn’t, not with her friend there. John had called just as I was leaving to let me know that he couldn’t after all invite me for Thanksgiving dinner at his parents’ home in The Hamptons.

“You don’t understand my mother, Dalli,” he had explained. “She is terribly old fashioned. And Uncle Edward will be there. You remember I was telling you he might be appointed Attorney General? We’ll be talking pretty boring stuff—politics, you know, that sort of thing. You wouldn’t be interested.”

“But John,” I pleaded. “ I so much look forward to Thanksgiving. You told me just to give your mother a bit more time to get used to the idea, and that I could come this year. I won’t be in anybody’s way, honest. Listen, we’ve been together for five years—that’s a pretty long time, don’t you think?”

“Oh, Dalli, don’t be such an old nag.”

I had bitten my lip, and trying to sound casual, had asked, “You remember we’re supposed to meet Nan-Yeong tonight? Are you still coming?”

“Shit, I forgot. I’m still at work. I‘ll finish what I’m doing here and will join you later. Okay?” As I thought back, I again felt a lump in my throat. To distract myself, I looked towards the main entrance. I didn’t see John, but I saw three men and a woman walk in. Two of the men and the woman were elegantly dressed, Hispanic-looking, could be from Puerto Rico, I thought. I was back at the game I was fond of playing when in public places—looking at strangers, the way they walked, the way they dressed, the way they spoke and gesticulated. I would guess where they came from and what they did for a living. No, not quite Puerto Rico, I thought. But it was really the third man, who was Southeast Asian, who caught my curiosity.

The maitre’d was escorting the group to the table next to ours and, with John’s seat empty, the third man sat almost directly opposite me. He was tiny by Western standards, about 5’4.” He wore a dark suit with wide lapels which had long since gone out of fashion. It was also a couple of sizes too large for him so that he had to fold the sleeves to use his arms. I was particularly struck by his face. It wasn’t an old face, the skin was taut, but deeply lined, burnt dark brown, as though weathered from having spent countless days under the blazing sun. Though now scrubbed clean, blackened streaks appeared on one cheek and on his chin, looking like oil marks which refused to be washed away. His hands with their protruding veins looked strong and large, unusually large for his size.

“. . . . when we were having coffee at the 5th floor at Saks,” Nan-Yeong was addressing me.

“Oh yes,” I answered. I had heard the whole story before. Sabry Habib was an “oil tycoon from the Middle East” who zoomed into Manhattan every now and then, and who occupied, “a whole floor at the Waldorf.” He was also almost three times her age, was married, although “oh, so very unhappily,” and had five grown children. Nan-Yeong had met him two weeks earlier, supposedly bumping into him as he was getting out of the elevator at Saks. Now that I finally met him, he was no big thing. In fact, he was squat and dumpy-looking. No big thundery voice but thin and wimpy, not at all what you might expect of an oil tycoon.

My attention was again drawn into the chatter from our neighboring table. The Asian man paid no attention to this chatter, nor indeed was he included in the conversation. Yet, he didn’t seem to mind it at all. It was as though he had expected it. Through it all, he stared impassively in front of him, looking particularly nowhere. His arms were folded across his chest, probably to keep his long sleeves from covering his hands. I had assumed he was lost in his own thoughts, but soon tiny beads of perspiration appeared around his forehead.

My entrecote came. “Your duck looks delicious!” I said turning to the tycoon, but he wasn’t interested in his food. Like a dog, his eyes were following Nan-Yeong’s feline movements—another victim of her sense of style.

Nan Yeong and I both worked at the United Nations on 1st and 42nd Street. We were two of some 30 young women recruited to work for a year or two as tour guides, taking visitors around the UN Headquarters, ushering dignitaries during UN functions, and performing such other activities. We were all supposed to be personable, conversant in at least two, preferably more UN languages. Although diverse, with the UN policy of assigning each member country an informal quota, many of us shared the same dream-—that of meeting an “interesting” man--a diplomat perhaps, or a senior executive of a large multinational company.

Presently, the waiter came to serve the food at the next table. The Asian man ordered very little, but regarded the arrival of his meal with a sense of relief. He proceeded to eat quickly, holding with his fingers the leg of pheasant as he bit into it, until he noticed the look on the faces of his companions. Putting down his pheasant, he was at the point of wiping his mouth and hands with the sleeve of his coat when he remembered his napkin.

Before I could do any more guessing game, John arrived.

“I’ve already had something to eat at the office,” he said, but called the waiter anyway. “Maybe I can have a salad or something. Sorry I’m late, had to finish a brief.”

John was an associate in a large corporate law firm in midtown Manhattan. He hoped that if he did well in this case, he stood a chance of being made partner next year although he was only 31. After all, he and the managing partner both came from Columbia University Law School, and his dad knew a couple of the senior partners. John’s family belonged, alright. He was now describing his case. “I had hoped we didn’t have to go to litigation, but I’m not worried because we have a very strong case.” He lit a cigarette and puffed contentedly, blowing the smoke in concentric circles.

I gazed at him, the way I usually did when I thought he wouldn’t notice. I stared at his even profile and the golden wavy locks of hair which constantly fell across his forehead. I looked at his strong chin and watched the way his right hand cut the air whenever he wanted to make a point. Even Nan-Yeong envied me for having John. “Someday, he’ll be a very important man, Dalli. You wait and see,” Nan-Yeong had confidently declared.

“John,” I was solicitous. “You did promise to give up smoking.”

“Ugh, this Dalli is really an old nag,” John looked at me meaningfully. “Okay, okay. Gosh, this feels good,” getting his last drag from the cigarette. “Jesus, I’m bushed.”

With that, he flicked the ashes onto his untouched salad, and stuck his half-smoked cigarette in the lettuce leaves. The salad dressing quickly snuffed the dying embers. In slow motion, as though it had acquired a life of its own, it oozed and flowed around and underneath the lettuce leaves--white against spots of dark grey on a bed of green.

I so desperately wanted the Asian man not to have seen that, imagining him wanting to ask for a doggie bag for his wife and kids back home. But as I peeped over John’s shoulder, I saw he was gone. The now vacant table was being cleaned up. Nobody except me seemed to have noticed.

My relief was soon replaced by disappointment for never having known who the man was, or where he came from, or indeed, why he was there with the people he was with. I remembered as clearly as though I had left home only the day before. His face was the type of face I used to see in our sugar plantation in the Philippines, the impassive look in his eyes an old familiar look. His companions’ faces were the faces of mestizo Spanish hacienderos. A farm hand relating to his amos was an oft-repeated scene of my childhood.

A window in my mind flung open and I saw a wretched little town in a life lived long ago. I had dreamt of getting out of that town, of that place with its pancake plains of sugar cane plantations as far as the eye could see, unremittingly monotonous, dulling my senses and numbing my mind. I had wanted to get out of that medieval society where everyone had their proper place in the hierarchy of things, everyone acting their roles like puppets on strings, where each generation was condemned to follow their parents’ footsteps. I had wanted to get out of that never-ending scene of misery and poverty. I had wanted to forget the blank look on peasant faces as they stared at us inside our Pontiac during a visit to the hacienda, when my father would stop briefly so he could talk to the incargado.

When I was 16, I did just that, first leaving for Manila, and as soon as I could, flying to America--the land of self-realization, the land of Johns with their blue eyes and blond hairs, the land of restaurants decorated with unseasonal flowers.

“Dalli,” John’s voice was coming from far away. “You haven’t been listening to a word I said.” “Huh?” I looked squarely at his face and saw the face of a stranger. I looked at Nan-Yeong and her friend and where there was a romantic glow of candlelight shining on them, I could only see shadows.

The naked light, unfiltered by the blinding brightness of my dreams, welled up from deep inside me. John and I, I and John. The sound of his name no longer felt like a beckoning call to home.


Paul Hoffarth

18.01.2020 06:10

How interesting that you can idolise a person in your mind and how fast an impression can be changed in mere minutes or seconds.