There are not many distinctions that come from having lived in the same place for too long, but one of those distinctions is that if you live in any place long enough, you will become a regular somewhere.
I'm a regular at the Chinese express on the corner of 3rd and X Street. The delicious, greasy, fattening, wonderful Chinese place across from the music school, best Chinese food in town. The chinese express is owned and run by a short Chinese man with thick eyebrows and a square face. He always bustles, never smiles, and always manages to seem like somebody's favorite uncle despite having the sternest appearance of any restaurant owner ever. I've never seen him without a dingy tan baseball cap on, and I've never seen him anywhere else in town except for this restaurant. The other workers I've seen--I have their faces memorized. I harbored shameless lesbian crushes on the spiky-haired chick who read Robert Jordan and hung out at grunge cafes, and the sexy brunette with the expensive car who worked her way through grad school. And then there are the tall quiet oriental men who work in the kitchen who always laugh and joke in foreign languages. They've been there as long as I have. We always smile at each other.
Tonight I went there driven by hunger and nostalgia--I don't get over there as much these days, and when you're a regular trying to sever yourself from a place is like trying to saw off a limb. A few moments after I walked in, I witnessed something truly extraordinary. The square-faced owner who never smiles was... changing plants.
The good thing about life is that if you stick around it long enough it will surprise you when you least expect it. The Chinese place is small and rectangular and freezing in the summer and burning up in the winter. It has a ghastly 12-foot long picture of a waterfall on one wall, and bare walls on the other. It has a serve-yourself hot tea spigot and two trash bins, and a bathroom partitioned off by those beaded curtains that were popular in the 70's. The place is bare and simple and that's just the way they like it to be.
On the middle windowsill beneath the dingy Venetian blinds are three plants. I have sat beside this window innumerable times, and yet the plants were never something that struck me. And yet, tonight, just as I sat down, the squat owner bustled by me, carrying a tall fern, which he painstakingly, and with the greatest of care, situated in the middle of the sill, between the slightly shorter bamboo and the slightly taller generic green plant already there. As I watched, he fluffed the leaves, and arranged the three plants together on the windowsill as if he were arranging a table setting for Martha Stewart.
There are many, many things in life I have never expected to see. The Queen of England. Harry ending up with Draco at the end of Book Seven. My favorite Chinese restaurant owner primping ferns.
I watched with fascination. It was wonderful. It was one of those moments you hope never to forget because of the unholy surprise of it all. I wanted the restaurant owner to turn around and smile at me. I wanted him to know that I saw, that I was watching, that I understood the value of those three green plants and his taking the time to water them every day. I wanted him to know it meant something. Instead, the restaurant owner, fully intent on his plants, scurried back to his place behind the kitchen for more water.
As I turned around to follow him with my eyes, I met, instead, a beanpole staring at me.
"They actually water their plants here," he said.
The beanpole sat down at my booth. "Have you ever heard of the Facebook?" he said.
Since this would not be the first time random strangers have chosen to sit down at my table and talk to me when I am intent on reading Georgette Heyer and reflecting on plants and Chinese restaurants, I replied politely, and said I had. The beanpole proceeded to talk to me, until I decided it was my cue to leave. We had met before; I remembered him and he did not remember me, but when I told him my first name, his eyes lit, and he told me my full name, back to me, perfectly. I was amazed his memory could be so acute after six years.
"Has it been that long?" he said. "I'm surprised you're still here."
"So am I," I replied wryly.
The Beanpole had many more or less attainable designs of taking over the internet, most of which he shared with me until my steamed dumplings started to lose their warmth. These included an email client for his beloved Facebook and a site for fans of people who'd been kicked off American Idol. As he talked, I noticed that one of the men who normally worked behind the counter was watching us intently. He was cleaning tables and changing silverware, and the whole time he watched us from beneath a blue North Carolina baseball cap.
I hope he is thinking this is extremely bizarre, I thought. I hoped he was not thinking that the Beanpole and I were an item. I hoped he was listening to my polite replies and thinking, 'there is someone who knows how to be gracious when her dinner is interrupted by beanpoles who wish to discuss internet forums.' I glanced up at him while my dining companion talked about the difficulties of circumventing copyright and profiting off the reality tv market. The man from behind the counter would glance up, and then back down quickly, and then back up again.
When I managed to shake off the beanpole at last (who asked if I was in the phonebook, to which I blithely replied yes, and temporarily forgot how to spell my name), the man in the blue North Carolina baseball cap startled me by coming directly up to me. We stared at each other for a moment before he said, "Here you go," in an awkward accent, and offered me a bag for my dumplings. I thanked him kindly, and all I could think was that whatever he might have wanted to say was forever sealed inside that paper bag.
He was still glancing up, then hastily back down, as I left, still glancing up and back down as our eyes met through the window before I drove away.
I wonder if he was watching the beanpole watching me watch the changing of the plants. I wonder what he saw, what he thought, why he couldn't stop looking at the pair of us when there were plenty of other customers around. I wonder if he was thinking about things and life and people, the way I was when I watched the restaurant owner grooming his fern as if it were the ears of his favorite poodle.
I wonder if I connected with three different men tonight in the ways that last, or if it was all, all, in my head.