Separate Tables

What a desperate pursuit:

A woman across an empty restaurant asks, ‘What are you reading?’

So you flip the book over to reveal its title. You do so reluctantly, as if it’s your pet tarantula that just recently died and you don’t want anyone to know about it – he was your pet, the relationship was a little odd, let’s face it, and how many people could really understand that sort of thing, I mean really understand, even if they wanted to?

‘Very nice,’ she says, craning her neck to read the spine of the novel. And you suddenly realize that you do want people to know about your book, just as you would want them to know about the pet tarantula you had a long time ago – after all, both have been dead for many years and so it only seems right that they be publicly acknowledged. Nothing that deserves to die, you say to yourself now in vain, deserves to be forgotten.

‘What about you?’ you say.

‘Oh, I don’t read,’ she says, putting her book down on the table in what you take to be mock-exasperation. ‘Once you reach a certain income level, well, you just sort of start to pretend. It’s difficult to know what else to do.’ The woman sighs audibly.

‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ you say, happy to change the subject. ‘Have you tried picking up another hobby then, like needlework or something?’

The woman appears to shake her head, but only slightly; and she is a moderately obese Mexican woman, so you really can’t be sure.

‘You could do Pilates. Or you could hang-glide maybe!? Loads of people go hang-gliding.’

She looks away, a little sad maybe, like you’re losing her now.

‘…Hang-gliding Pilates, how about that?’ you hear myself mumble, practically whispering which is all you can do to stifle your sincere enthusiasm about this idea. ‘Not for everyone I guess. How about yachting, have you ever been out on a yacht? I hear its delightful. Nothing but you and the open sea, the wind at your back, the salt in your hair—’.

And just then the most extraordinary thing happens. The moderately obese Mexican woman turns to face you; suddenly serious, she raises her dark sunglasses so that you can see her dark eyes beneath them. She lifts the side of her sweater to reveal a monstrous meandering scar that appears branded on her torso in the shape of an overgrown caterpillar.

‘Is that what I think it is?’ you hear yourself say. The truth is you think it is grotesque, that it appears unnatural, still inflamed maybe, like a secret lab experiment gone terribly wrong. The Frankenstein of dead bugs. An entomologist’s worst nightmare.

‘Did you…Were you…? Was that from a shark attack!?’ You feel yourself start to get a little excited even though you know that you should know better. ‘Was it a deep-water eel, or was it a hammer-head? It looks like it could’ve been a hammer-head. Don’t tell me a Giant Squid did that!?’

She says nothing, she scarcely moves (you think), all the while holding her eyes on you like laser beams are about to come out of them. Finally, she drops her sweater back down and rises from the table, sipping loudly the last of her Fanta from a paper straw.

‘I don’t yacht anymore,’ she says at last. ‘I get sea-sick.’

The moderately obese Mexican woman walks out the door without looking back. A transparent mystery, a sphinx without a secret. You stare out the window a good while after she’s walked all the way past, disappearing around the corner of the building in a hurry like a woman who is interested, above all, in boredom. You know you won’t ever see her again. It’s sad for a moment, when you start to think about it.

You turn back to your book where you left off. It’s a good book, and you’re right in the middle of it. The book is about a man who goes fishing and, after a series of nearly fatal adventures, never seems to come home. You linger over the part where the man manages to stand on top of a whale while fishing for minnows. Sure, it is sort of nuts and a little bit absurd, even for a book, but you read on, engrossed, until you’ve forgotten all over again the room you were in a few moments ago and everyone else who may or may not have been in it with you.

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