Saturday 6 June 2020

'Medium in Strength' by Leonie Rowland

The restaurant is designed so that everyone eats alone. Single-seat booths are lined up in a row, and when people sit down they find an open shutter in front of them. Inside the shutter there is a corridor, and on the other side of the corridor there is another row of booths. When your order arrives, they close the shutter, and you are left alone to eat.

I eat like this a couple of times a week. Tonight, in the booth opposite me, there is a man. I can’t see his face, but he is dressed in a smart shirt with odd buttons. I wonder if he sewed them on himself or if he asked his girlfriend to do it. He is making marks on his order sheet with a small pencil. I can see from the way he is holding it that he would be good at sewing. I try to guess what he is choosing by consulting my own menu: I have ticked a box on the left-hand side and ordered a strong soup, but he has ticked a box in the middle of the page, meaning his soup will be medium in strength. I can cope with that.

I know how hard mealtimes like this can be, but his loneliness makes mine seem smaller, and I am happy we have found common ground. I wonder if he has noticed my hands. I stretch them a little closer to the shutter. I went to get my nails painted with a colleague last week, and in a moment of clarity, I asked the woman to draw tiny cats on my index fingers. Now the clarity has lifted, and I am using the same hands to make a first impression. I think he is too far away to see the cats, but I can’t be sure. I try to hide my index fingers under the acceptable ones, but they mangle together and make my hands look like claws. I retrieve them. It is truly unfortunate, but they are safer in my lap.

When he rings the bell to place his order, I do the same. My view of his chest is momentarily obscured, and I am aware that once they bring our ramen, I will not see him again. If there were no walls forming the corridor that separates us, I could cross the space in two large steps. I could stand up, cast my stool aside with elegant purpose and walk, claws and all, to his section of the restaurant. ‘I have abandoned my ramen for you,’ I could say. I could ask if he enjoys eating alone.

This is us: a love story played out in hand gestures. And this is it: a closing shutter and a bowl of steaming noodles.

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