Because She is My Friend

Photo by Krista Mangulsone on Unsplash

I wait in the cool darkness of the Italian restaurant for my friend, Evelyn. In truth, I’m dreading what she will say when she sees I didn’t procure her favorite seat — a booth. To my credit, we have a half-booth — on one side of the small cafe-sized table, a booth-like bench seat and on the other, a chair. I occupy the chair hoping that the booth side will be enough to curtail Evelyn’s complaints. Evelyn likes to complain, usually with a deep sigh as though nothing is right in her world when her world is really quite enviable.

If you could make a composite of all the stereotypical Jewish mothers portrayed on television and in the movies, you would have a close resemblance of Evelyn — unfortunately, she is rarely as funny as the Estelle Costanza-types in comedies.

Ask about her children and she will quickly tell you about her son, the doctor and her son, the judge, and then mention her daughter, failing to identify Susan with a profession. But, if pressed, Evelyn will tell you her daughter is a well-respected comptroller for a resort corporation — in Evelyn’s eyes, not quite as impressive as the doctor and lawyer sons.

Evelyn is fiercely independent but cannot stand to be alone. After her first husband, and the father of her children, died of cancer at forty-five, she married a man whom she met at a bereavement group and who was twenty years her senior. When he passed a few years ago, she grieved for less than a year before actively looking for a new husband. “At my age, I can’t wait long,” she said. While still crying over the loss of her second husband, she went in search of her third to avoid the loneliness of living alone.

Now seventy-five, she’s been married for two years to a Christian engineer who believes in science more than religion. He accepts her unfamiliar Jewish customs and habits, adheres to her kosher kitchen rules, and often attends temple with her because he finds the people there to be as intelligent and liberal-leaning as he is. He has little regard for how or what they worship. He only judges the intentions of the people and finds them acceptable to his sensibilities.

Evelyn is also quick to tell you how financially secure she is, even when finances are not the subject of the conversation, and how much she contributes to her home synagogue, which she does not attend because the people are too snobbish and gossipy, and how much she contributes to the smaller, more liberal synagogue that she does attend but refuses to join because it is not “her synagogue” — the synagogue she helped form but no longer likes. Yet, it is there that she goes for special events, like the announcement of her engagement to Hank, and it was there they were wed.

She also shares information about her hefty contributions to Israel and different Jewish charities. She is a die-hard Democrat and, even at seventy-five, will go door-to-door and phone bank for any Democratic candidate in local or national races. She still cleans her large home, refusing to spend money on help although she can well afford it. She bargain hunts like a single mother on welfare and brags about her inexpensive finds.

I see her slightly bent body enter the restaurant door. She is dressed in white capri pants and a bright yellow pullover blouse with red and blue flowers embroidered along the neckline. As always, a gold Star of David dangles from her neck. White sandals with inch and a half heels are on her feet. She carries a large, bright yellow purse. Yellow is her signature color. She searches through every store in town to replace one yellow purse with another. She nearly always wears at least one article of yellow clothing. And, every room in her 3,000-square-foot house is some shade of yellow — from the bright yellow in the kitchen to the pale yellow of her bedroom to the mustard yellow of the dining room.

She removes her dark shades and surveys the room, squinting against the darkness, as she looks for me. Her gaze immediately goes to the booths that line the wall opposite where I am sitting at the half-booth. Although she surely sees that all the booths are occupied by at least two people, none of whom is me, she starts her wobbly walk in that direction with full confidence that I must be seated there because the booths are the only acceptable place to sit.

I call her name but she continues walking away from me. I stand and wave my hand. She keeps walking toward the booths, her head moving slightly side-to-side as she searches the booth occupants for me.

I walk across the room and take her arm. “Over here,” I say, steering her to the half-booths. Evelyn looks confused as she accepts my greeting hug and sees me point toward the half-booth, “Nice to see you,” I say, noting the stern frown on her face.

Each month Evelyn and I meet for lunch in the same Italian restaurant. It is convenient, classy, the food is good, and the owner is Jewish, an added plus for her. This has been our habit for nearly fifteen years.

Evelyn and I met when we were working for the same client. She was providing healthcare management while I was handling the elderly woman’s finances. When our client passed, we began our monthly luncheons.

Evelyn and I rarely socialize outside our monthly meals. Together we attended the funeral of our mutual client. I attended her home synagogue twice — once when all of her children and grandchildren were in town and she was reading from the Torah — my first time in a synagogue — and the day her engagement to Hank was announced — my second time in a synagogue. After an accident in which she was faulted, my husband helped her practice-drive for the test she was required to take to retain her license. As age affected her driving skills — skills that were already rusty from years of having a man to handle most of the driving — she reluctantly acknowledged that driving long distances was no longer an appropriate activity for her and allowed me, more than twelve years her junior, to chauffeur her to visit her daughter who lives several hours away. During driving lessons with my husband, she visited our house once, staying only a few minutes. Other than those occasions and a short telephone call each month, our only contact is at the restaurant.

She frowns at me as I lead her to our table. “Not here!” she wails when she notices the cafe table. “Why didn’t you get a booth?”

“There weren’t any when I arrived,” I reply. “Sit on the booth side and it will be no different than sitting at a full booth.”

“No, no, I don’t like this! Where is Gloria? Find Gloria. She’ll get us a booth!” Evelyn says loudly as she looks around for the Gloria, the owner of the restaurant.

“There are no booths,” I say as patiently as I can. “They’re all occupied. This table is perfectly fine.”

As if on cue, a couple rises from one of the booths. “There!” Evelyn exclaims, “Over there. A booth.” She snags a passing server. “We want that booth,” she says to the bewildered woman who is balancing a plate in the crook of each arm.

The server suggests we sit down and wait while she delivers her food order and checks on the table. “Maybe someone else is scheduled for that booth,” she says, “I have to check with the hostess.”

“No, that is our booth,” Evelyn insists. “We were here first.”

By now all eyes in the room are on us. Two other servers pause in mid-delivery to look at the loud, red-headed woman.

Gloria rushes from the kitchen to the dining room to identify the ruckus she heard. I give her an embarrassed smile as she surveys the room, and her worried gaze lands on us. She sighs deeply. This is not the first time Evelyn made a stir in the restaurant. Each outburst put more strain on her friendship with Gloria, a friendship that did not seem to exist outside the walls of the eating establishment.

“Take care of your tables,” Gloria tells the paused servers. Looking at the server near us, she says, “Deliver those meals and then ask Timothy to clear the table for our friends here.” She pivots to us, “Well, hello, ladies. Nice to see you again.” Her voice is friendly but cool.

Gloria suggests we sit down at the small table while we wait for the booth to be readied. Evelyn ignores the suggestion, eyeing the booth possessively and remaining in a standing position as though ready to tackle any diners that may try to steal it from her.

The three of us stand awkwardly as servers and patrons walk passed. “How have you been?” Gloria asks no one in particular.

“Fine,” I reply as Evelyn looks critically at Gloria. “Have you lost weight?” she inquires.

Gloria blushes with pride, “Yes, yes, I have. Almost forty pounds!”

I congratulate her but Evelyn purposefully looks away, not making a comment. Gloria notices and frowns as she looks quizzically at Evelyn.

I steer the conversation to the restaurant business and Gloria’s grandson as we wait. Evelyn turns further away from us, not saying a word.

When our booth is ready, Gloria graciously walks us to it and makes sure we are comfortably settled before returning to her kitchen supervisory duties. Evelyn doesn’t thank Gloria for the booth.

“Did you hear that?” Evelyn exclaims indignantly. “Can you believe how she was bragging about losing weight? How rude!”

“You commented on her weight loss and she replied. What’s rude about that?” I ask.

“She didn’t have to say how much she lost. She only had to say thank you. That’s what a mannerly person would say,” Evelyn replies sharply.

I shake my head in amazement. “She’s proud of how much she’s lost, and she should be. We all know each other well enough that she felt comfortable telling us how many pounds she lost. It’s not like we’re strangers.”

Evelyn grunts. I sigh. It’s going to be a long lunch.

Evelyn and I, in spite of our limited lunchtime friendship, have supported one another through many years of ups and downs. My separation. Her last husband’s health issues. My move and financial problems. Her fear of aging. My husband’s death before we could get divorced. Her work and my work. My new relationship. The birth of my grandchildren. The marriage of her son. My sadness when my daughter and her family moved far away. The contentious relationship between Evelyn and her daughter-in-law. My strained relationship with my new step-daughter. Her sadness when a favorite niece moved overseas. My excitement when my daughter and grandchildren returned and moved in with me. Her daughter’s health scare. My husband’s health. Her car accident. My long hours of work. Her retirement. My daughter’s divorce. Her husband’s death. My depression. Her grief. My mother’s death. Her engagement and marriage. My recent purchase of a new home. Through all of it, we’ve comforted and celebrated with each other and always at Gloria’s Italian restaurant.

We both tend to order the same one or two dishes when we meet for lunch. As our typical orders are placed before us, Evelyn complains about the temperature of her food, demanding it be re-heated, although I can see waves of heat floating away from her pasta. When her meal is returned and put before her, almost glowing with heat, she complains that the pasta looks dry and overcooked and asks for a different entree.

I sit silently eating my salad as she tells me she’s tired of Gloria’s restaurant. “Don’t you think the quality of the food has gone down recently?” she asks. “That pasta looked terrible. Didn’t it look bad to you?”

I consider agreeing just to ease the unpleasantness at the table but I cannot bring myself to slander the delicious food that Gloria serves. “Nope,” I say with a too-sweet smile, “It’s as good as always. Your pasta actually looked delicious the first time, before you sent it back, and it looked delicious the second time, too.”

Evelyn glares at me, “Well, not to me, it didn’t look good to me. And, Gloria isn’t as friendly as she used to be.”

I want to yell, “And, whose fault is that?” But, I demurely reply, “She’s friendly but busy. She doesn’t always have time to chat.”

It’s obvious that Gloria is as disenchanted with Evelyn as Evelyn is with her. Even on her good days, Evelyn is hard to please, and she brazenly demands that Gloria give us free desserts for our birthdays. Gloria reluctantly accommodates as I slink down in my seat with embarrassment.

The server places a steaming plate containing a different type of pasta in front of Evelyn. She waves her hand at the plate and says, “Take it away and wrap it to-go. I’m not hungry anymore.”

The young man continues to smile tolerantly as he agrees to box up her meal, but I can see the frustration in his eyes as he picks up the plate and walks away. He was solicitous to each of her complaints and demands and still she wasn’t satisfied. He’d spent most of the half hour we were his patrons waiting on Evelyn while his fellow servers divvied up his other tables.

Evelyn and I take turns paying for lunch. This time our meal was on her. I watch her fill in a piddly amount for the tip as she completes the credit card slip. “More than he deserves,” she declares.

I let her get up and start walking toward the door before I slip a ten dollar bill under her credit card receipt.

As we say our good-byes at her car, Evelyn sternly declares, “We aren’t going there again! Next time, pick a different place.”

Three weeks later Evelyn calls to schedule our monthly lunch date. I make a few suggestions of other restaurants, but she doesn’t approve of any of them. One is too spicy, one too crowded, another too expensive, a fourth is too far away. Finally, she says, “We can go back to Gloria’s. There’s no place as nice and as convenient. Maybe it will be better this time.”

As usual, I arrive at the restaurant before Evelyn. My shoulders tighten when I see there are no booths available. The hostess offers to seat me at a table, but I tell her I prefer to wait for my lunch companion. Gloria sees me as she comes out of the kitchen to speak with the hostess. “Are you meeting our friend for lunch as usual?” she says in a cool tone, putting emphasis on the words “our friend.”

I say yes. She offers to seat me, and I again decline, explaining there are no booths available and I prefer to let “our friend” choose a spot. Gloria nods understandingly and whispers something to the hostess before disappearing into the kitchen.

A few minutes later, just as Evelyn walks through the door, a booth opens. Evelyn smiles as she gives me a warm hug. “Why aren’t you sitting down?” she inquires.

“No booths were available,” I reply as I notice the hostess hurriedly clearing the just-emptied booth. Before Evelyn can reply, the hostess rushes to the front to greet Evelyn and lead us to the booth.

The gods were benevolent that day. We had a booth. Evelyn loved her food. Our conversation was pleasant. We had the same server as before, and he was again solicitous and gracious, in spite of recognizing us.

Gloria did not appear. Probably a good thing, unless she had gained twenty pounds since our last lunch.

Sometimes Evelyn can be — well, let’s just say, difficult to the extreme. We have little in common other than our monthly luncheons and the challenges of life. When my husband asks why I tolerate her, I think about when I left my previous husband and how most of our friends turned against me. I remember how many of my personal female friends, most in deteriorating marriages themselves, were critical that I had the guts to leave when they did not. Their jealousy caused them to treat me cruelly and to gossip about me when I was out of earshot. I lost many friends during that trying period of my life, but Evelyn was not one of them. She stood firmly by my side, buoying me with encouragement, support, and helpful advice. When I jumped into a new relationship soon after leaving my husband, my family and what few friends I had left castigated me. But, not Evelyn. She told me to follow my heart and grab any happiness that came my way.

So, when my husband and anyone else questions why I put up with Evelyn’s often difficult personality, I give a very simple answer:

Because she is my friend.

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