John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met. Two could-have-been-gulag-guard Polish hummingbirds who had never met. Then they met. In a West Side Chicago neighborhood restaurant/bar at a formica table with a cheap lamp. The lamp sat there, like an inanimate object shedding a warm glow across the sticky surface of the worn formica. Here and there illuminating a non-descript blob- ketchup, maybe, or antidiluvean breakfast jelly. The place settings, though, were fresh. In the corner of the bar, a television droned the opening measures of a Polish state-filmed version of Swan Lake through a snow of bad reception. From the entrance John could vaguely make out a ballerina who rose gracefully en pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant. Then he spotted her. Mary. In the same top as the photo from the online dating site. Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had its two sides gently compressed by a Thigh Master. Grateful to be stateside after a 2-year tour of contract duty dumping raw porta-potty military issue sewage into otherwise viable water sources, he breathed deeply of the perrogi, chicken noodle and stale beer air and headed toward the table. He moved slowly. He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck, either, but a real duck that was actually lame. Maybe from stepping on a landmine or something. Which had happened to John. Only it wasn’t a land mine really, just a banana peel on the sidewalk outside his apartment. And now he knew for sure that you really could slip on a banana peel and that it didn’t just happen in the cartoons. From the street came an unearthly howl. The whole scene had an eerie, surreal quality, like when you’re on vacation in another city and Jeopardy comes on at 7:00 instead of 7:30. He was slow and he was tall-as tall as a 6’3” tree. A tree that could walk very slowly and was lame. But his steady gaze found Mary’s eyes and he negotiated the sparsely populated dining area with the assurance of a seasoned skipper in the arctic in late summer. Her eyes. Her eyes were like beacons. They were like two brown circular beacons with big black dots in the center. “That’s something those online dating service photos just don’t capture” he thought pleasantly as he slid into the cracked pleather booth. They made their nervous first hellos and then descended into silence as the waitress placed menus and waters down. “Two beers” John ordered authoritatively, turning back to his menu “and a plate of sledzie.” The waitress nodded and left. The ice broken, they chatted of this and that-his toilet tour, her work at a failing travel office featuring cut-rate deals on Polish winter vacations- until four beers apiece and a kielbasa appetizer later, they heaped their plates from the all-you-can-eat steam trays near the bar. She was a talker. A REAL talker, once the beer arrived. Her vocabulary was as bad as, whatever. But she told some really great off-color jokes- a particularly hilarious one involving bacon, rabbis and tomatoes. She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up. And as the beer flowed and they traded ever more risqué stories, he felt a warm glow-not just from the inanimate lamp, but from deep within the cockles of his heart. She grew on him like she was a colony of E. Coli and he was a side of room temperature Canadian beef. He thought briefly-VERY BRIEFLY-of his someday to be X-wife. How it was some HUGE DEAL that he HAD TO be away 2 years at a time (in the DESERT for CHRISSAKE hauling SEWAGE FOR UNCLEFUCKINSAM.) That revelation-2 weeks ago- that his marriage of 3 years had disintegrated because of his wife’s infidelity came back to him as a rude shock, like a surcharge at a formerly surcharge-free ATM. Momentarily his vision was blurred by a fog of angry red. But little by little two brown circles with big black dots blinked through the miasma.
“Oh you betcha” John said to the red-ruffled twin peaks of the waitress’s ample bust. John felt the slow glow of satisfaction and anticipation infuse him with broad amiable assurance. “2 for me and another for the lady.”
It was a good day to be alive.