Like every Sunday lunch before, Claudia was late. She was not crazy late, but late enough for me to recall those Sundays. Her elastic time sense was never a big deal to me. Once she showed, time took care of itself. And it wasn’t like I had anywhere else to be.
Ignoring the mint tea on our table, I waited. And waited. I was a waiting expert. I was the World Heavyweight Waiting Champion. Not as skilled in this department was the guy who served me the tea.
“Can I start you out with a salad while you wait?” the guy said. In a starched blue button down, he was nervous. Maybe this was because I was the only patron in his Indian café. Maybe he thought I would leave. Or, maybe my calm discomforted him. I could lounge here all day long. My server didn’t get this. He sidled. He hovered. He adjusted what had to be a hairpiece. He filled my water every time I took a sip. I told him, “Nah, I’m good. No salad.”
He did not know I was the champion.
It was twenty-five minutes, maybe half an hour. I was beginning to think that nothing at all was wrong. I was beginning to think that my server’s regard had shifted to pity. To give him something to do, I said, “You know what, I’ll have a couple of samosas.”
My man and his rug gave me a look that said, “Are you sure? It’s been half an hour. Your ass is getting stood up.”
“Extra crispy,” I said.
Claudia showed in time for the samosas. Silver hoops and a purple silk scarf framed the face of a world-class hustler. She did not hustle with malice. Claudia is lovely. She is a kind woman who calls me ‘amazing’ and tells me that she loves me. She tells me that I have potential. We’ve been together for six years. Today’s lunch is to settle the fact that, apparently, my potential has not been realized. I have expired.
“Hey.” Claudia said. She closed her umbrella and brushed some hair aside. Hustler or not, she’s pretty dope.
“Hey yourself,” I said. I smiled. Rugman was back. He smiled wider. He looked happy for me.
“Sorry I’m late.”
She said this every time. Six years of sorry. Rugman interjected.
“Oh, it’s no problem, welcome.”
He pulled out her chair, already hustled. The samosas didn’t look all that crispy.
“I think we’ll have those salads now,” I said.
Rugman left. Claudia sat and looked at me with a mama’s brow. I was not convinced.
“How are you?” she asked.
“I’m straight. Living.”
She sat back and looked at the menu. “So, how is this place?”
I surveyed all the empty tables, the paintings with veils and elephants. Shiny mirrors enhanced the café’s light. A freestanding blackboard listed specials. The veggie combo was $6.95.
“I hear it’s good,” I said. “And, if I may say, a tough reservation to get.”
The joke made her tear up. Not from laughter. I was wrong to think a public place would be best.
Claudia gathered herself. She sat up straight.
“We don’t have to do this,” I said.
“Yes we do. I’m starving.”
This joke was worse, but I gave up a chuckle. Rugman was back with the salads. He had a pencil and pad at the ready. This pissed me off.
“You really need to write our orders down? No one’s here.”
Rugman played through. He said, “Do you know what you want?”
“Brother, that’s a loaded question for this table.”
The hustler came to Rugman’s aid.
“Sir, why don’t you give us a little while longer?”
“Yes, of course.”
Once he was out of earshot, Claudia said, “I do know what I want.”
“Well then why did you just ask that man for a minute?”
“You know what I mean.”
“Yes. You know what you want. You want to go dancing.”
“Don’t be like that.”
“Like what.” I was chewing lettuce.
“Yeah, being dismissive is a bad idea.”
Claudia checked her phone. I looked to see if the rain had stopped. Grilled cooking oil vapored its way over.
“I don’t get you,” she said.
“You could get me if you wanted to.”
“I mean, you want these lifelong things. You say you want them from me. But then, you don’t consider me.”
“Claud, you showed up here thirty minutes late.”
“That’s not the same thing.”
“You’re right. Because you’ve always been thirty minutes late.”
“Yeah, and, that should tell you something.”
“Don’t worry,” I said.
“I don’t want what you want.”
“Don’t you want to be released? To go get what you want? Tomorrow’s not promised.”
“Especially for someone my age, right?”
Claudia hadn’t touched her food or tea. I was getting full.
“Well, yeah,” she said. “I think your age is a factor here.”
“Remember when you promised not to leave me, Claud?”
“I’m not leaving. I’m changing.”
“Don’t say that.”
“Such disrespect. After all this time, Christ.”
“Stop saying that.”
She teared up again. I wanted to hold her. I also wanted to hit her. But not like that time two years ago. Claudia had never held that against me. I started shaking.
“You’re right,” I said.
“I want to release you.”
“That’s not what I said.”
Claudia wiped her eyes and took a sip of tea. She bit her samosa. It crunched.
“This is good,” she said.
“It is,” I said. “It has potential.”
Without knowing what happened to Rugman, I got up from the table.
I placed a twenty under my water. I brushed the same bit of her hair aside, kissed her temple and took a close look behind me walking past the shiny mirrors.
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