When I was a child, my family had one inviolate ritual. Every Friday night my father took my mother and me to the same Italian restaurant, and while the world changed around us, he ordered chicken cacciatore.
Man on the moon? Chicken cacciatore.
Nixon resigned? Chicken cacciatore.
Who shot J.R.? Chicken cacciatore.
Even when his parents died at age 99 and 106 respectively, if it was Friday, then it was chicken cacciatore.
It was on a lark early one recent Friday evening of my own that I decided to go to my favorite local Italian restaurant and fill my belly with warm food versus the stuff I eat at home.
It smelled so good as I entered. Italian food will always be my comfort food, and it brought a sense of home to my soul. It didn’t last long.
The hostess seated me at a table for two by the kitchen door, the least preferable table there is, and the server removed the excess silverware without comment.
Unawares to me, in her eyes, the lesser of the two social evils I presented to other diners was appearing to dine alone versus being “stood up.” Still clueless, I placed my order. Chicken parmigiana with a glass of a good red wine.
“Chick parm” as its called on the East Coast, was handed directly from God’s hand to Adam and Eve. I have no scriptural reference to cite, but I have no doubt. How else could so perfect a dish been created? Yes, I like “chick parm.” A lot.
As my eyes glanced through the room, the eyes of others glanced back at me and then quickly away; they acted as if caught red-handed in an act of unsocial voyeurism. Two painful facts suddenly grabbed for my attention; only couples occupied the other tables, and I was the youngest diner in the room by at least 20 years.
I had unintentionally strayed into the restaurant during the dreaded early-bird hour.
A sense of intense social awkwardness shook me. I thought if the place started filling up and my table was needed, I could change my order “to go” and look like a Good Samaritan. In fact, I considered doing it anyway. To reinforce my discomfort, the other wait staff passing my table did not make eye contact.
Soon, a nice older couple finished their dinner, and on the their way out, the woman wished me a “pleasant evening.” It was a welcomed gesture for her to acknowledge me, but I recognized it as an act of pity.
A man my age dining alone was obviously a sign that something is “wrong”, but appearances can be deceiving, as they were this night.
I am a widower at age 54, and I am never alone. I tow behind me a cast iron, heart-shaped vault on a long chain wherever I go. In this vault is my every memory and feeling from all the years with my soulmate. Some days the vault is crushing in its weight, other days, light as a feather, but I promise you I am not alone.
On this night, I decided to ignore my “social pariah” status and open the vault. The memories bathed me in Italian dinners from so many places and the adventures that made them special. I again felt her touch, the smell of her perfume and how my heartbeats raced when she first kissed me.
I embraced the amazing aroma of that place on Federal Hill and the pizza as thick as a mattress we got across the street. I relived the time in New Haven when the guy at the next table kept referring to “Mr. Tony Bennett” as if he was a personal friend of the singer, and the love we made later.
I felt the frustrations we had at finding a decent Italian joint in town until we bumped into this place, and every meal in-between.
If I appeared as a social misfit to the other diners before, they must have thought of me as completely insane as I smiled into my wine, and even laughed quietly.
If life is shadows and light, then I was standing in the brightest of places. I was basking in a love that did not die when I held her face in my hands as she took her last breath, and never will. I was as far as a soul can get from that place we call alone. I was again with her, and more importantly, she was with me.
I experienced a profound solitude so filled with feelings that I was barely aware of anyone else’s presence. Ironically, the other diners were alone as compared to the single man at the table by the kitchen door. I was time traveling, surrounded by a love so perfect that I am convinced no one else has felt it before, and never will.
I was restored.
And just like my father, I now have a Friday night ritual in an Italian restaurant. I spend time with her every week at our table by the kitchen door. The early-bird diners and wait staff expect me, and are kind enough to let me be as I smile and laugh into my wine.
They pity the sad, silly, single man who orders the same dinner every Friday night, how lonely he must be.
If they only knew…