From WHICHISWHICH, a book of short stories.
One evening an attractive young couple caught my attention. They were white-collar types, well groomed and nicely dressed. I could see right away they were lovers. It was all over their faces. They always took a window booth and held hands across the table, charming each other, sparkling, talking about everything. I saw them only occasionally over a period of months, but as time passed I noticed a marked change in their responses to each other. The voltage had ebbed and the courtship had obviously run its course. Her stomach had swelled. Sadly now his hands were lost from hers. Their conversation became lackluster, narrowed to the business of marriage. She seemed always to be searching his eyes. What had been a sweet intimacy of two had become the business of running a household. The dad had become boorish and egotistic, but the mom's facial expressions and mannerisms had won me over. I had become a secret admirer. She and I had come to acknowledge each other with a nod and a discreet smile.
The last time I saw them was on a Monday evening. They let the hostess seat them at a table in the middle of the room. The mom was carrying an infant and a carpet bag that held the entire industry she needed to attend to the child. She had put on a little weight.
The restaurant was busy. The kitchen had reached a sizzling pitch. Waitresses were rushing about, scribbling orders, and setting up side dishes. The din of bussed china and human chatter filled the room. It was Milton's pandemonium with all the quack and clatter of a crowded, popular restaurant.
The infant remained sound asleep until the bus boy ravaged their table like Kublai Khan taking a village. The mom winced and pressed her little bundle to her, patting it gently. The baby became squirmy, refusing its pacifier. The mom coddled it, whispered to it, bounced it a little, rocked it a little, all to no avail. Dad read the sports page. I wondered why did he bring them in here? He had once been so attentive, so full of her.
He was so sweetly in love with this wonderful young woman whose eyes saw nothing but him. Now he sat with a barrier between them. A mom and her child sat abandoned in a busy restaurant. The baby was telegraphing its mother's feelings. She didn’t want to be there. I knew it as sure as if a voice had spoken in my ear.
And then, the same voice, a bit louder, said, “Wouldn't you say?”
I hadn't noticed the young woman who had been seated at the table next to mine. She, too, had been watching the mom. Actually, I think every woman in the room and most of the men were tuned in. I said, “Wouldn't I say what?”
“The wee one,” she said. “Mom's a bit low. It's telegraphing mom's feelings.”
“Oh, yes,” I said.
We watched as the waitress stopped for a few words with the mom who pulled a baby bottle from her bag of tricks. The waitress rushed off with it.
The girl beside me said, “And look at dear old dad, will you? Himself and his holy sports scores. His woman knows the score, alright.”
“I know,” I said. “I've been watching them eat here since they met. Mom's knight in shining armor has become Sir Mediocre. I feel sorry for her. She's stuck with an absentee husband and a kid on her hip.”
She said, “Oh, there's no need to feel sorry. Moms are resourceful. This one's a survivor, she is.”
An interesting point of view, I thought. She was awfully sure of herself. She was nice looking, too. She was as brunette as you can get, but she had the annoying features of piercing blue eyes that meant business while the rest of her face seemed amused. Her name was Aran Finney – she shook my hand politely – and she was twenty-two, a professional nanny with a family here in South Pas. She like to call it 'South Pas'. And, yes, to answer my question, she had come from Ireland. It was some kind of exchange program that left my head as soon as she explained it.
It was my turn. “I'm Robert.”
“Robert,” she said, as if she were trying on a hat. “Yes. You look like a Robert, as well.”
I wondered if there were consequences if I had not 'looked like a Robert, as well'.
We turned to our dinners and I learned Aran Finney had left a broken hearted lad behind in Belfast. He was terribly unhappy about losing his lovey to the U.S. for a year. What if she took a shine to some Yank? He wept, she said, and vowed to wait. The poor man had no idea his worst nightmare was in the making. And neither did I.
We watched the waitress return with the warmed up baby bottle. Both mom and the waitress tested the milk on their wrists and agreed it was just right. The infant took the bottle and refused it and took it and coughed, but the bottle wouldn't do. It continued to fuss and squirm. The situation was hopeless. She held the tormented child to her and let it cry. Dad turned a page.
Aran and I talked back and forth, getting acquainted over the noise. We hardly noticed the gradual silence spreading over the room. Then the entire restaurant became so quiet so quickly we both looked up in time to hear the mom singing in a sweet, hushed voice. There was only the smooth 'OOOOM' of the fan over the grill as the mom ended her song: 'I once was lost, but now I'm found. Was blind, but now I see.' The restaurant simmered down, the quiet lingered, and the infant slept. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
I said, “I think we've just witnessed a miracle.”
Aran pouted her lower lip and nodded matter of factly. “Mom is learning to communicate. The wee one is teaching her. And look who's still busy with his sports news. Dad's lessons will come later when he and the child will see who gets wrapped around who's little finger.”
Aran suggested we share a booth the following night. Of course, I agreed. She was good company and, aside from her attractiveness, I was interested in getting to know someone from Ireland. She was a fresh, unique personality.