A couple of weeks ago, in an out-of-town restaurant, I noticed a familiar looking man. It was several minutes before the realization that it was a case of mistaken identity. Even so, I glanced now and then, marvelling at the resemblance.
Since then, the writer side of my brain orbited into the ‘what if’ mode...
I watch him chew his steak. His mouth moves rhythmically in a dawdling fashion. I look away. I glance back, unsure. He is fifty pounds heavier. His hair is white.
With a blank look in my direction, he wipes the thin line of his mouth with a paper napkin. I see him push his chair away from the table.
Oh, here he comes. Fingering the hair away from my face, I attempt a spiritedly youthful expression. My smile fades as he walks past.
Then I notice. A terrible limp. What could have happened? Maybe he fell skiing, or mountain climbing. Maybe he stumbled on a hiking trail and rolled down an embankment. How long did he lay there waiting for someone to find him?
Behind me, I hear the whoosh of the washroom door.
The waitress returns with coffee. I eye my half-eaten chicken sandwich and vinegar soaked fries. Holding the red plastic bottle on an angle, I squirt another generous amount on the side of my plate and then just a bit more. The saltshaker is in my hand when the sound of the opening washroom door alerts me of his return.
I steal another glance. Hmmm, it does look like him. My eyes travel down to his work boots. Forty years ago he dressed to impress. God’s gift to women.
‘Just my bill,’ I respond, when the waitress presents the dessert menu. I return my gaze to the next row of tables. No longer concerned about being obvious, I blatantly stare, willing him to notice me.
I remember how agile he looked on the basketball court. The jersey, the shorts. He played football for a short period. I picture the unfastened strap of his helmet dangling. The stains on the knees of his pants. The wide padded shoulders. I smile recalling my crush. He was popular then and very good-looking.
School dances meant hopeful adolescents with teasing smiles. The memories flood back. The smell of waxed floors, the clang of the locker doors, the annoying shrillness of the bell.
I dredge a limp French fry through the ketchup and curl it inside my mouth. I reach for another. My recollections of school continue with thoughts of scurrying to class, books occasionally sliding out from under my arm and landing with a smack.
The sound of his chair scraping the floor ends the reverie. He is pulling on his ball cap and shrugging into his jacket. Before leaving, he tosses some money on the table.
I check my bill and rummage through my purse counting out the appropriate amount. Snatching my sweater off the chair, I hurry to the exit. Oblivious to the rain, my eyes scan to the left and right.
He is crossing the parking lot when I spot him. If not for the limp, I would be too late. He is about to climb into a truck with slatted steel sides. The strident squeal and grunt of pigs is voluble.
Hello, I call out. He turns. Up close, I see that his eyes are not blue. They are brown. His features are all wrong. What can I do for you, he burred in an Irish brogue.
Disconcerted, I take a step back. Could you tell me the time, please? With his face wizened into a puzzled expression, he obliges. Already in retreat, I call thank you over my shoulder.
The back of my neck burns with the imagined scrutiny of the stranger. I pick my way across the puddle-riddled parking lot to my car. Red-faced I slide behind the wheel.