As the taxi drove off I stood and studied the old-fashioned marquee that boasted the name of the Austin Motel. It was suspiciously phallic shaped which seemed inappropriate for a family hotel. I pulled open the glass door and stepped into 1974, a study in paneling and hanging plants. It had a homey, yet Kathy Bates sort of feel to it. A twenty-something guy with short brown hair and a kind face jumped up from behind the chest high counter.
‘Hey,” he greeted me as he put down his magazine.
“Hey,” I casually responded with my business trip persona on full display. I wanted to ask him if he was aware that his marquee was an ill-advised shape.
“How many nights?”
“Just one.” He took my credit card and ran the transaction.
“Up the driveway. Then up those stairs off to the right side. Go left. Down to the middle of the parking lot.”
“Are there restaurants around here that I could get something quick and easy?”
“Plenty,” he said going into a detailed description of every eatery within a mile.
“Great.” I grabbed the handle of my suitcase and turned toward the door. “And is it safe for a woman to walk alone around here at night?”
“Oh sure,” he said.
“Perfect.” I pushed on the door and felt a rush of cool air.
“But don’t hold me to it,” he mumbled.
“Excuse me?” I looked back at him as he handed me the key.
“I mean, no guarantees.”
I wheeled my suitcase across the paved driveway to the side steps and climbed my way up wondering how anyone with any sort of disability would maneuver this. The cool dark quiet of the Tuesday night started to feel too dark and too quiet. My eyes shifted left then right searching for possible attackers in the foliage. If there is one thing my mother taught me, it’s that danger lurks everywhere.
I finally found my room and let myself in. Hmmm. Interesting. Though very clean and oddly comfortable, all of the pieces of furniture had absolutely no business sharing a room together. The rattan couch, the old bed, the grandmother’s dresser, the 30-inch TV and the sponge painting on the plaster walls in disturbing colors. The next time I see a website that boasts a quirky downtown hotel, I’ll understand the lingo.
I unpacked my business attire for the next day and then sat on the edge of the bed. So… here I was, all alone on a Tuesday night in Austin. I glanced around, studied the cracks on the ceiling, and hummed a few bars of Deep in the Heart of Texas.
The night was young, and I was hungry. The problem was that I had never gone to dinner by myself before. I hated the thought of it. Sitting alone, ordering alone, chewing alone. Loserville. But I didn’t want to end my day with a warm beer and a handful of M&M’s like the last trip.
I stood and stared in the mirror over the dresser to give myself a pep-talk, but I was immediately sidetracked into counting my brown spots. One more and I would have an exact replica of the Big Dipper on my lower left jaw.
Oh, for goodness sakes. If I am old enough to bear constellations I should be able to eat alone. I will be bold and conquer this fear. If I am going to travel, I had better get used to it. Maybe I’d run into a lonely astronomer. At the very least I could find take-out.
I spruced up, grabbed my handbag, stuck my keys between my knuckles like Edward Scissorhands and headed out into the night air, striding with my new purposeful walk. If someone was going to mug me, I wouldn’t go down easy.
The receptionist had mentioned an Italian restaurant, Boticelli’s, down a few blocks and across the street. I sized it up from my side of S. Congress. It looked inviting, not too large, with warm colors and good lighting. As I crossed the busy street, I could see it was packed. Great, all the more people to notice my loser status. I gripped the handles of my black leather bag and walked through the front door.
It was exactly my kind of place. Smallish, intimate without being stuffy, great energy and a lot of laughter. People that were living our their ordinary Tuesday night with joy. The white tablecloths announced that the food was serious business, and the waiters were busy.
I stood for an interminable forty-five seconds until a young Asian beauty walked over with a handful of menus.
“Table?” She asked with a smile that held more teeth than average.
“You mean one more?”
“No. Just me. Is that okay? Can we use a table just for one person?” Good one, Susan, like that’s something a bold, self confident woman would ask. Get a grip. And take your keys out of your knuckles this minute.
“ Sure. Here, let why don’t you just take this table right here.”
She sat me at a tiny two-top right next to the hostess stand. It was perfect. A fringe table. On the outskirts of popular.
I sat with my back to the wall so I could study the diners as well as my menu. A handsome waiter with a shock of black hair falling across his forehead approached with a big smile and a basket of warm bread.
“Welcome to Boticelli’s. How are we this evening?”
“We are fine,” I answered.
“Can I get you something to drink?”
“A glass of red wine would be great.”
“Anything in particular?”
“Something bold, chewy.”
“I have just the one,” he said, his eyes narrowing in thought.
“Bring it on.” Oh, and would you mind sitting with me and having a glass, or three?
He returned with a glass of red velvet and placed it before me with a flourish. After a thorough recitation of the menu, I ordered the evening’s special and he was off to the kitchen.
I began to relax and enjoy myself. Between sips of wine, I wrote the scene in my head (all writers do since we can’t help ourselves), concocting all sorts of elaborate story lines to go along with the characters sitting at each table. Soon enough it was a dining room filled with sitcom families complete with over zealous laughter, stoney silences and furtive glances between characters married to other people.
The minute hand on the big clock over the bar ticked away. Where the heck was my food?
I craned my neck to get a glimpse of my waiter somewhere in the room, but he wasn’t there. I poked at the bread basket and picked some imaginary lint off of my napkin. At a table to the right of the bar, a blonde woman, with perfect posture and cold blue eyes stared in my direction. The Stoney Silence table.
I decided to strike a casual yet alluring pose like I was pondering one of the unexplained phenomena of the universe. Gazing off into space I noticed a back door opening and closing. People entering and exiting.
The waiter appeared, “Sorry for the wait, m’am.”
“Oh, no problem,” I said, “I’m in no hurry.” Please bring my food right now so I can gulp it down and leave.
“We didn’t expect to be so busy on a Tuesday. We’re a bit understaffed.”
“Hey, it happens.” Who called in sick?
“Another glass of wine?”
“Well, I guess that would be okay.” Duh.
He refilled my glass as I pulled my trusty notebook from my oversized black travel purse. If I was going to be here awhile I figured I may as well pretend I was working so Miss Frosty over there could stop staring and get back to ignoring her date.
A character at the table to my left, the Brothers and Sisters table, glanced at me as the others began to fight over the bill, and then the snotty social climber with the puffy lips at theHousewives of Austin table in the back corner actually pointed at me and whispered to her recently jilted friend who was considering returning the dress she was wearing since shiny pink did nothing for her.
A blush rose up my neck and the heat settled in my cheeks. I had been revealed. Yes, Ladies and Gentleman I am dining alone and unloved. Please pay your bills and leave me to my pasta.
My food finally arrived as the restaurant began to empty. The ravioli was delicious and warm and the aroma made me close my eyes and drift back to an evening on the Passeggiata in Nervi, Italy when Tim and I had sat at a cafe table under the stars, listening to the pounding surf below as we dined on Ligurian fare. Good food does that, it connects beautiful moments with invisible lines.
A few other loners wandered in and sat at the bar so I decided to finish my wine with them. I hopped on the end stool just as an older gentleman in a plaid shirt with carefully combed grey hair came through the back door and stood at my elbow. He placed his glass on the bar and the bartender filled it with the house chardonnay. They nodded to each other as he turned to leave.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Is there something outside?”
“Live music and a lovely terrace,” he said, his chocolate brown eyes matched his warm smile. “You should come see.”
“Is it all couples?”
“No. You can sit with us if you wish. We are on the bench right up front.”
“Thanks. Maybe I will.”
He walked down the narrow hall and disappeared. I paid the bill, picked up my glass, and headed toward the door. It opened onto a large patio, with tables, and benches and a full stage under the canopy of a towering, ancient oak tree.
An all female band in Bohemian dresses and long curls, sang in harmony, haunting and sweet, to the tables filled with couples. I leaned against a tree off to the side and enjoyed the creative energy of these talented women, girls really, whose eyes twinkled as brightly as the stars through the leaves overhead. The crowd was transfixed. There was beauty in the air floating amongst the notes. I love the unexpected appearance of magic.
I searched for my friend at the bar and there he was on the front bench just like he said he would be, a woman’s head on his shoulder. I wondered what she would do if I sat and put my head on his other shoulder just for laughs.
In this setting I did not feel lonely. I felt proud for taking an ordinary Tuesday and pushing myself past my comfort zone. A night were I could have convinced my middle-aged self that I was too old for this. I was happy that I didn’t spend the evening alone in a hotel room when magic and joy and, yes, some uncomfortable moments were there for the offering right across the street. I wondered how many times I had already done that. Had wasted precious nights on fear.
I am starting to get the hang of this traveling thing. I am wondering what will come next.