“I’m sorry, Rob,” she said. I stood at the top of the stairs near the Moon’s guest greeter podium. She was a grinning redhead with pale skin, and she was curvy head to toe. “Christmas party inside, all booked up tonight, sorry.”
“Oh, you know my name?” I said. I glanced at her; I stared inside the well-lit restaurant and over at the mahogany bar where I would have normally had a Guinness and comfort food. But there was a group of professionally dressed interlopers using the bar as if they had owned it. I noticed her name badge, Britany, “Well, I guess they appear to be having a lot of fun, good for them, Britany. Sorry, I usually just get lost in my own little world, as I scoot past you.”
“Yeah, I know,” Britany said. “I have some tables out front?”
I turned, and I looked down the tiled stares and over at the half-full, canopied covered dining section, where tables had been set old-world-style and draped with white linen clothes.
“Why not, I guess I’ll pay better attention to you, sorry,” I said. I stuffed my hand in my pants pockets, I bowed toward Britany. “Table for one, Britany.”
“Ah, shucks,” Britany said. She picked up a laminated menu, and waved for me to follow her down the stair. After a few moments, Yvette walked over next to the small rectangular table.
“Hey, Rob,” Yvette said. She grinned with a wide-toothed smile. “Out here slumming with the tourists, how about a Guinness?”
“Ha, yes,” I said. “At least it’s a comfortable night.” I sat back on the chair. My brown shoes rested on the concrete slab as a group of silk-dressed young women strolled past me tapping at their mobile phones as they headed toward a long night club line. It was a bit noisy behind me from the constant car traffic coasting along Beach Drive. The other dinner guests were lost in their own family conversations, and inside the restaurants, it sounded as if they were all in full party mode. After awhile, Yvette returned with a paper coaster, she set the dark colored Guinness on it. She twisted the golden harp symbol on the glass toward me.
“Edwina and Kate, said hello,” Yvette said. “They are swamped inside, big, loud group. Alan’s happy.”
“Good tip night though? It’s that time of year,” I said. I set the menu down. “I think I want that order Jane recommended once, vegetarian shepherd’s pie?”
“Sure,” Yvette said. “I like it, too.”
“I guess it’s a good idea to change things up,” I said. I shrugged. “I should order early, might take a bit, right?”
“Absolutely, busy, busy,” Yvette said. She scribbled on her menu pad. “And, I get a regular out here, that I actually like.”
Later, two women were seated next to my table. They were perhaps two-feet from me within the intimate dining space. The shorter woman appeared quite old with thick white hair. The taller woman was a middle-aged blonde with fit, tanned arms. But, the younger woman had walked over with the aid from two forearm-crutches, and from her waist down, a modern looking black exoskeleton was tightly strapped to here at the hips, knees and ankles. As she moved near me, her assistive devices sounded robotic, the dinner crowd had noticed her. It was my instinct to step up and help her take a seat. But, the look in her blue eyes told me she preferred to manage her own situation. As the older woman inspected the crowd; the younger woman carefully sat down on the chair, she huffed, and she leaned the forearm-canes against an extra chair. Yvette moved near their table.
“Hi there,” Yvette said. “What can I start you off with?”
“Water for me,” she said.
“Oh,” the older lady said. “Vodka with tonic.”
“Mother,” she said.
“I need a stiff drink,” the older lady said. “And a lime.”
“Can I have a bendy straw?” She asked.
“Helps her,” the older lady said. “You know, drink her water.”
“I don’t know if we have bendy straws,” Yvette said. “I’ll check, let me get your drinks.”
“You would think I’d bring my own,” she said to her mother. “After all, I bend all over the place these days.”
“Now, love,” the older lady said. “You’re doing great.”
As the middle-aged woman’s neck spontaneously spasmed, she tried to grip the menu. As I stared over at Britany redirecting new dinner guests, the younger woman had reminded me I had forgotten how lucky I was at that point in my life that, for the most part, I had good heath, and after my dinner, I would easily get off the chair, and amble up the alleyway.
“You ladies out chasing men, headed clubbing?” I said. I smiled over at them, as I pointed my right hand thumb over at the night club line.
“That’s my plan,” the older woman said. She laughed.
“We’re down for a few, a, few months,” she said. He cadence was methodical.
“Keep her out of the snow,” the older woman said. “I’m afraid she’ll flip on the ice with her crutches.”
“Mother,” she said. But, she grinned.
I looked over at the carbon fiber crutches with rubber hand grips and forearm cuffs.
“Other than those, if you don’t mind,” I said. “You look like a serious athlete.”
“Thank you,” she said. She smiled. “I work out constantly, how I want my children to remember me.”
“You’re my girl,” mom said. “You’ve always been my fighter.”
Yvette had returned with their drinks.
“I’ve great news,” Yvette said. She giggled. “I have a bendy straw, see it bends, but it doesn’t break.”
“Oh, thank you,” she said. “So, true, you cannot image how helpful these things are.”
We sat quietly for a moment. I sipped my Guinness. I suspected I was about the same age as the younger woman, at some point in here life I thought she had looked like the blonde girl with a tight ponytail that was out of my league, who was in the hot summer sun slinging a javelin across the infield at a national track and field event.
“They make a good drink, here,” the older woman said.
“This might be a bit personal, I’m Rob, by the way,” I said. “But, you’re exoskeleton, where’d you get it, has it helped?”
She nodded over at me as she leaned forward, her lips on the straw. She slowly leaned back up, her right hand involuntarily tremored as she released the glass. I noticed her mother patiently waited for her to respond.
“I’m Jennifer, my moms, moms, Millie, it gave me life back,” Jennifer said. “It’s been almost a, a year, I went to Houston.”
“It was expensive,” Millie said. She sipped her drink. “But don’t mind me, it was worth every penny, just look at her.”
“I also agreed to be their test bunny,” Jennifer said. “Why do you ask? I know I’m noticeable.”
“I’ve only seen them in labs,” I said. “Prototypes like that.”
Jennifer wanted to respond, but she slurred her words. She stopped, she waited, and she sipped her water through the bendy straw. I encouragingly nodded over at her. Perhaps I had learned with age, and her mothers example, to just wait for her.
“What, what, do, you do?” Jennifer said.
“Fancy insurance guy,” I said. “In the trade it’s called, life sciences, the liability part. But truthfully, over time, I have become interested in what these startups create, how they help people, like your exoskeleton. I think it’s cool.”
“You know,” Millie said. “In my day, nothing like this existed.”
“Yeah,” I said. I looked over at Millie. “Home, up east?”
“Oh,” Millie said. She tapped at me. “Connecticut.”
“How many grandkids?” I asked. Yvette set the shepherds pie on the dinner table. Jennifer grinned.
“Jennifer’s my only baby,” Millie said, as I tasted the warm pie. I looked back over at her. “She has three, all in college, or about out?”
“Yes, John’s out, and you?” Jennifer asked. She unconsciously wobbled her hand.
“None,” I said. “I went for the donut, divorced.”
They ordered, and we sat near each other. I thought about all the people that passed by us that evening, all heading along their own journey. But then Jennifer tapped on the dinner table. She stared over at me, and she smiled.
“I, I didn’t answer your, question,” Jennifer said. She tried to swallow. She leaned forward and she sipped her water with a bendy straw, and then she leaned back.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Yeah you did…”
“No, you asked me, has it helped?” Jennifer said. She touched the exoskeleton’s curved back support. “It has, but more to your question, what it has given me is time, time I wouldn’t have.”
I nodded back at her, as I set the Guinness down on the table.
“Time gets us all,” I said. I smiled at her. “I looked at the back of my hand the other day, it appeared to have wrinkles, I wondered where had those come from?”
“So true,” Millie said. She laughed. “It only gets worse.”
“Time with my children,” Jennifer said. “My husband, all I want, as much as I can get.”
“I could walk down the wrong alley,” I said. I shrugged. “Get in the wrong car, plane or train – and it could end in an instant.”
“So true,” Millie said. She shrugged. “One day I was a housewife in a big house, the next, I’m a widow in a big house. Jack, my husband, heart attack got him, worked himself into the grave.”
“Good reminder,” I said. “I’m glad they helped you, very cool.”
Jennifer grinned over at me. Her hands tremored. She waited.
“Don’t get me, me wrong, I would give anything to go run a mile, again,” Jennifer said. “I, I can’t, but now, I’m happy, I’m very lucky to have this.”
I had paid my bill, and I had gotten up.
“Well, Merry Christmas,” Millie said.
“Merry Christmas,” I said. “And I wish you both a happy new year. Millie, go easy on the boys. Jennifer, my best.”
As I walked home and up the brick alleyway past the sweating cooks and bar backs, outside smoking cigarettes and discussing conspiracy theories behind the steaming restaurant kitchen; I was certain the coming Christmas Day would be quiet. I was comfortable in my solitude. And, I hated to have been the adopted guest who had lost his family. But, I smiled up into the clear, night sky, and I said, “thank you”, aware, in a very real sense, God had quietly reminded me of an unwrapped gift, a gift that only I can share.