Did you ever notice how people pop in and out of your life only to pop back in again? Well, if truth be known, maybe it’s me doing the popping as I have lived in quite a few different cities and states these many years. I can remember a time when people use to keep Christmas card lists and the position of your name on that list often determined your importance in their lives. Now, if we’re lucky we might rate as many as one hundred and fortyfour characters in a text message, if we rate a text message at all. I think twitter has replaced the Christmas card list. But I’m not adept at social media and don’t really care to be. Call me extremely old school, but I much prefer to use a good fountain pen and good bond paper to convey my sentiments to others. But I digress. This year I found myself going back to a small city where I worked and lived fifteen years ago, back when land lines were still common and the cell phone was on the verge of overwhelming the population with it’s seductive attraction of ring tones, texting, and smart phone upgrades. Out of habit, I avoid these things as much as possible. I don’t care for all this instant social media, reminds me too much of that cup of asian noodles cuisine, bland and full of empty calories.
The other day I ran into Paul, a friend I had known well back in the day, so to speak. I was in a delicatessen on Fifth Street and main, an old haunt of mine and marveling that, thank god, some things don’t change. They make a good pastrami and swiss on rye, like Jason’s in Denver. Paul was sitting at a table with a couple of people when he spotted me. I was in line and in the act of paying for my meal when he came up and clapped me on the shoulder. I was briefly taken aback, he had changed somewhat from the last time I saw him. “Hey, Bill, god, it’s been ages since I last saw you. Come over to my table for a moment.” There was that little boy excitement in his voice. I followed with my tray and sat down. “Bill, this is Frank, he’s the accountant for our group. And this is John, one of the engineers on our current project. Dave here is the project manager.” Well the hand shaking and all that nodding of heads and so forth, the lull in conversation was apparent. “Well, Paul, it’s been a long time. But I see you’re eating with your team so don’t let me interrupt.” The other three individuals demurred and Paul said, “We’ve got to get back to work in a few minutes. I don’t suppose you have my number?” I said not and Paul wrote it down on one of his business cards. “I’ll call you tomorrow, maybe we can step out for dinner one night this week.” I gave Paul my business card with my number, a land line. For me some things never change.
Paul called the next afternoon, “Bill, how ya doin? Look, things are hectic here and I don’ mean to be rude. Would Sunday work for you?” “Sure Paul, Sunday’s just fine. I’m a little busy myself at the moment.” “Ok, then see you at Rue Madeleine about four.” “Yep, I’ll be there.” With that, he hung up and I resumed what I was doing. The rest of the week went well enough, no problems to speak of, but one never knows in advance in my business. Saturday passed in an uneventful way as I reacquainted myself with the city and did a little shopping for the apartment. On Sunday morning I read the paper, an old habit of mine in this age of instant electronic information transfer. Newspapers aren’t what they used to be. I remember that San Francisco used to have two really good newspapers before they declined in readership. Then they merged, laid off a number of press operators and writers, the kiss of death for most newspapers. Competitors keep you honest and lean as a general rule. After a light lunch I was sitting in the wingback chair, I always have a wingback chair in my living room or study, I was thinking of Natalie, Paul’s girlfriend fifteen years ago. I did not hear much about her after I left for the coast, always assumed they’d marry and raise a couple of children. That was the plan as Paul use to tell me. She was a blonde with green eyes, wore her hair short in that Goldie Hawn way, almost impish like. It certainly matched her personality, a bit bubbly and giggly like a young girl. But there was a serious side to her when she chose to show it. She worked in an art gallery then and could be very intense with discussing some artist or trend. She had been in her senior year as an art history major when Paul met her. He was completing his MBA. I always though they got on very well, hand in glove, so to speak. Well, life is like that, I suppose.
Rue Madeleine is a small French restaurant that has survived because it chose to concentrate on the idea of Bonne Femme cooking. The owner had set menus for each day except Monday, when the restaurant was closed. If one has been to France and eaten in the small town or village restaurants, then this is your place. Good basic food cooked to perfection. Unless one is a regular it is difficult to get reservations less than a month in advance. That’s where I met Paul and Natalie. They had come for dinner and no table was vacant. I was dining alone and I saw the commotion from my table. At a signal from me, the owner sat them at my table and made his apologies. But there it was, a situation that by chance became fortuitous. We emerged as friends and frequented each others company. As I walked through the door I half expected to see Paul and Natalie sitting at one of the tables waiting for me. The owner looked at me as if to say, ‘Sorry, we are full. You must make a reservation.’ I cleared the matter up. “Emile, I’m dining with Mr Burke this afternoon. Has he arrived?” “Mr Lynn, could it be you after all this time?” Emile had that surprised but pleased look on his face and in his voice. “Yes, I’m back and will reclaim my regular status.” “Ah, good. Yes, Mr Burke is here. Right this way.” The table was the one we had always favored, in a quieter part of the room by one of the windows. Paul motioned for me to sit. “I’ve ordered a bottle of chardonnay to start, if you don’t mind.” He knew I wouldn’t, his tone was confidant.
Over an order of crab pate and crudities Paul brought me up to date. He and Natalie had a falling out. ” I just never understood, Natalie accused me of having an affair with a woman at work, said she was calling everything off. Well, what could I do but agree? I mean, you know how I felt about her. I’d do anything to make her happy, protect her. So I gave her some space and waited. Perhaps she would come to see it was all untrue about me. Bill, I swear I carried a torch for her for years, just hoping she’d come back, change her mind. Then two years later she moved to the northeast; Boston, New York, wherever, I’m not sure. Then two years ago she was here at the university art museum doing an installation. By then I was married to a wonderful woman. You’ll meet Beth Wednesday. She says she wants cook you a good meal. She likes to cook.” Paul was grinning as he regaled me with the wifely qualities that Beth possessed. I thought he was trying a little too hard to convince himself. I asked, “Paul, so what did you and Natalie talk about when she came to town?” He looked at me as if I had hit him between the eyes, hard. “Yeah, I should have known I couldn’t fool you or myself. I love Beth, I really do. But I’ll always love Natalie a little more. It’s just how I feel, feel for Natalie. God forgive me my sins.” “He will, Paul, he will. I was trying to console him. You know, I am looking forward to meeting Beth, I bet she’s all you say she is.”