6 min read | 1,443 words
At the front of the restaurant’s patio a group of eight parents with half as many kids in tow have three or maybe four tables pushed together. All the grownups are smiling and laughing, only taking a break from laughing (but not smiling) intermittently to loosely scold the kids, who keep playing on the patio instead of sitting in their chairs no matter how many times the grownups tell them to stop playing on the patio and start sitting in their chairs.
One of the grownups is a sailor, which I don’t notice until he stands up to go inside but once he’s up it’s obvious because he’s wearing Navy khakis, and I wonder if he’s supposed to be dining and drinking in public in uniform but it doesn’t really matter because what am I actually going to say or do about it I think to myself after I see his ribbon rack.
Way above my pay grade I decide, which is another way of saying it’s not really any of my business and even if it were it wouldn’t count because I used to dine and drink in public in uniform too, and no one ever said or did anything to me about it and my ribbon rack definitely never looked like his.
RJ pulls up and walks over and sits down and the kids are excited and I put away my book, which is Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and which I wasn’t really reading anyway. The book is good but my mind can’t focus because it’s too busy thinking about how we should do this more often but can’t because we’re leaving soon and RJ’s not coming with us.
And then I think maybe the kids and I can do this more often after The Move but with my mom and Ron or with my Dad and Amy or with Morgan and Jes or with just each other instead.
And then I think about how that all sounds nice but none of those withs will be the same because none of those withs are with RJ; dad. Maybe I can FaceTime him in, I think.
There’s a middle-aged couple at the table to my left and the guy keeps looking at me in a way that makes me feel weird like maybe even though I’m just sitting at the table I’m doing something wrong.
He’s white and the woman is Asian and they remind me of the Vietnam vets I know who tell stories about leaving for the war as boys and coming back men with wives and I wonder if this guy’s a Vietnam vet and if the woman is his wife, a prize he brought home from the war, and I think about how if that’s true then maybe it explains why she looks so unhappy but then again maybe it’s because her husband keeps looking at me and not her.
And then I think maybe she’s not actually unhappy and I only see it in her because I’m trying to ignore it in myself. Maybe that’s the thing the man sees me doing wrong that makes him keep looking at me.
After I look at them, the could-be war-prize bride and her could-be veteran husband, I look around at the other people on the patio, like the couple to my right whose clumsy attempts at flirtation keep being interrupted by business calls that don’t seem to bother the woman, who’s working on three different glasses of wine at the same time.
And like the unusually tall lady a few tables over who has terrible posture that I wonder if is a product of her height or just a self-consciousness about it.
And then I wonder what we look like to everyone else.
I know I only see of them what they show us and that they only see of us what we show them, and what we show them is the mirage of an ordinary family enjoying each other’s company during an ordinary mid-week dinner al fresco on the last day of a stretch of nice weather.
What we don’t show them is that this is our family’s last dinner together before The Move and we aren’t happy about it at all but we’re doing our best to be happy for this moment and for each other and for our un-ordinary, fucked-up little family.
I turn my attention back to our table and silently watch the kids color their menus and listen as they argue over whether or not the salsa is good (it is) and spicy (it is). I keep pulling out my phone to take another photo and sometimes the other people on the patio turn to look and I imagine they’re thinking I’m an annoying millennial who can’t live in the moment and maybe right now that’s true. But only kind of. And only because these photos are my desperate attempt to balance living in the moment with preserving it, to freeze just a sliver of the time we have left together. And they will, I hope, be gifts to my kids that they can look at to remember a fun evening with mom and dad before mom took them far away from dad.
I’m not really hungry so I vacillate on my order, undecided between the ultimate quesadillas and the beef fajitas with no beans, extra rice, but for one not two because since she decided to leave without warning or explanation there’s no longer reason to order anything for two.
So I wait to order until I can’t put it off any longer, until I’ve pointed at everyone else at the table to order before me. But now it’s my turn so I open my mouth and what comes out is I’ll have the steak fajitas please. I remember to say But for one not two, which is pointless because that’s obvious but I forget to say No beans, extra rice until the food comes out a little while later. I’m worried I’m being rude but our server, who is good at smiling, just smiles and says Don’t worry about it honey and takes the bowl with the beans and the rice back inside.
I feel weird being here without her even though this place was never “our” place, because even though this place was never “our” place the only times either of us have ever been here were with each other. And now I’m here without her which makes me feel like I’m somehow betraying her, which makes me feel guilty, which makes me feel defeated all over again.
Even after I get a new bowl with no beans but extra rice I can’t eat so I don’t. Instead I keep my attention on our table, on my kids with their dad, watching and listening and pulling out my phone to take one more photo, to freeze one more moment, because I don’t want to do anything that takes away from being right here, from preserving right now, not even eat.
The kids have moved from coloring their menus and arguing over the salsa to mostly playing with and not eating their food, especially Madden, who ordered tacos that he empties onto his plate and mixes around but doesn’t (and won’t) eat. After however long it takes RJ to finish his platter of tacos and two oversized margaritas it’s time for us all to go.
RJ asks our server Can I have the check please and Madden asks her Can I have a box please and I ask RJ Do you want to split it and then say Thank you for dinner when he says No, I’ve got it.
She comes back, our server, and hands Madden a box for his tacos that he didn’t (and won’t) eat and he says Thank you and she smiles and tells him You’re welcome baby as RJ hands her the tray that has the signed receipt clipped to it and then she says Y’all come back and see us again.
RJ and me, we look at each other with a knowing glance and I stay quiet on purpose and count to ten in my head to keep from crying but then realize ten is the number of days till The Move, which will take the kids and me away and leave RJ behind, and now I have to work even harder to not cry, to not crumble, while RJ says back to our server with a smile on his face that hides the tears in his eyes, I will.