“Hello?” She held the cellphone tightly against her head, her slim fingers white with tension. Only moments earlier, the restaurant’s host seated the young woman in the booth across from me. She had long, black hair and delicate features. A tiny thing, she was slender and petite, and in many ways, the young woman looked like a doll – fragile, with wide, frightened eyes. Her sweater was thick cashmere; her skirt short and dark. I believe her heels were Jimmy Choos.
“No,” she said. Her voice trembled, and she closed her eyes. “I can’t talk about it on the phone. Please, just come to the restaurant.”
I tried not to be obtrusive in my scrutiny of the young woman. Instead, I pretended interest in my shrimp cocktail, yet her furtive actions and obvious discomfort snagged my attention. I averted my gaze, finding some small detail in my cutlery to examine. Out of the corner of my I eye, I saw her drop the phone into her purse and anxiously scan the restaurant. She was crying. Or at least she had been. Her pretty blue eyes were raw and red rimmed. Her pale cheeks were flushed. She held a tissue clenched in her fist and dabbed at the corners of her eyes. Her lips trembled and fear clouded her angular face. She was a pretty girl, though clearly terrified.
Around the young woman, the restaurant whirled in the hustle and bustle of a family diner at lunchtime. Teenagers spoke in whispers. Some glanced her way. Others were boisterous, laughing at jokes unheard by either of us. The young woman seemed wholly unaffected by the small diner’s crowd, drawn into her own little world of impending calamity. Whomever she spoke to on the phone would arrive at some point, and then the drama would begin. I wondered what set the young woman on edge. What was it that she feared so much that she chose a public place as a venue to disclose her secret?
“Have you decided on lunch?” Startled from my revelry, I looked up at my server. He was a young man with broad shoulders and narrow hips. His white shirt strained to contain a muscular chest. He had a bright smile, with white, even teeth and clear, dark eyes. I glanced at the name tag he had pinned above his right pocket – Derek.
“No,” I said, toying with the shrimp in my cup. “Just a few more minutes.”
Though his smile widened noticeably, his lips were tight, and Derek’s brow furrowed in frustration under his curly, brown locks. He was ready for me to order more than the appetizer, yet the young man took my reluctance in stride. “Certainly, ma’am,” he said. “I’ll be right over there.” His nod indicated the host’s station.
“Thank you.” I watched Derek’s narrow bottom twitch with his impatience as he walked away. Once he was clear of the immediate area, I picked up the restaurant menu and scanned the noontime offerings. I wasn’t about to be hurried in my choices. Not when my curiosity was peaked by my neighbor in the next booth.
While I studied the expansive menu, the young woman’s phone rang. She rummaged quickly through her purse, then withdrew the instrument. She tapped her thumb on the screen and put the phone to her head. I held my breath when she answered.
“Hello?” The word trembled on her lips. Another tear slid down her cheek. “I’m here. Please, we need to talk. Yes. Yes.” She wiped the tear from her cheek with the shredded tissue. “I can’t do this over the phone. I have to see you.” She clutched what was left of the tissue tight in her fist. “Five minutes? Yes. I’ll be here.”
The conversation was finished within moments, and yet I felt as though I’d overheard the end of something else entirely. There was more to this meeting than a simple lunch. The young woman’s face was bright red; her shoulders shook gently. Her breath came in hitches and quiet sobs.
“You’re ready, ma’am?” Once again, Derek stood by my right hip. He had his pad in one hand with a pen in the other, poised and ready to take my order. I thought it strange that he could ignore the distress of the young woman in the nearby booth. He was her server as well, and yet he hadn’t even yet visited her table.
“The petite steak,” I said quietly, pushing my menu across the table. I looked straight into Derek’s dark eyes. “Rare, with a side salad and bleu cheese dressing.”
“Mashed or baked potato?”
“Baked, with a touch of garlic and parmesan.”
“Very good, ma’am.”
Derek collected my menu. “Will there be anything else?”
At that moment, I was furious, and I wanted to slap the young man. Across from us, a young woman was in tears, and Derek studiously ignored her plight. And yet, even as the impulse of striking him crossed my mind, I knew that I was no better than my server. At least Derek didn’t hide that he avoiding the young woman and her pain. He was honest in his ignorance. And though I wanted to offer her comfort, instead I spied on the young woman: I listened as she wept, and I waited for the rest of her story.
“No.” I waved my hand at Derek, disgusted with the both of us.
Yet, I couldn’t leave the restaurant, now matter how guilty I felt. I was trapped by the unfolding scene: the tremors that wracked the young woman’s slim form; her words, a wonder of declarations and unanswered questions. I had to know more about the situation. I suspected, but wasn’t yet certain, that I was about to witness the end of a relationship. And like watching a vehicle careen out of control, I had to see the outcome.
I didn’t have long to wait. A bell tinkled, and the door to the restaurant swung open. A tentative young man entered. In one hand, he clutched a small bouquet of flowers. The petals trembled in his tight grip. As he looked up the aisle, I saw the tension in his unlined face. His eyes were wide and staring. His hair was cut short, yet it was wild and unruly, as though shocked by a stiff breeze. When he ran his fingers through his short, dark, curls I realized the reason for the young man’s disheveled appearance; when he was nervous, he fiddled with his clothing and hair.
There was no doubt that the young man was the next act in the tragedy that would soon unfold. I took a shallow breath and waited for him to spot the young woman.
“Your salad, ma’am.” Derek slid the bowl of greens into place squarely in front of me. “Your steak will be out soon. Do you care for some bread?”
I had no attention to spare for my server. “No bread.” Waving my hand, I watched the young man make his way slowly down the aisle between the booths.
“Are you sure?”
I glanced up at Derek and narrowed my gaze. His eyes widened when he got the hint. He backed away.
“Yes, ma’am.” Derek turned and left, but I could see the annoyance in the set of his shoulders. He practically fumed when he joined his fellow servers at the host’s station. I didn’t care what my server thought or said; Derek was interrupting the developing scene, and I was glad to see him go.
By the time I returned my attention to the young woman, the dark haired man had found her. He stood awkwardly beside the table with his head down.
“These are for you,” he mumbled. He held the flowers out and away from his body, as though they were something foreign. “I know that daisies are your favorite.”
Many of the flowers in the bouquet showed the wear of his concern. Their stems were broken. Most of the blooms had shed their petals. The young man dropped the bouquet on the table and slid into the booth across from the young woman. He was tense, and his arms were rigid on the flat surface. As he sat there, the young man seemed carved from stone. He held himself like a statue waiting for the hammer to fall.
“Melissa,” he whispered. Her name seemed to wilt in his mouth. His voice had a peculiar cadence, rising from a whisper to normal tones. “I’m sure we can work this out.” He ran his fingers through his thick, dark hair, and it sprang out at odd angles. “I mean, I don’t know what I’ve done wrong, but I know I can fix it. Please let me try.”
As the young man pleaded, fresh tears streaked Melissa’s cheeks. She held herself tightly, hands in her lap, head down. She was fragile in his steady gaze, as though she was made from cellophane and glass. Slowly, Melissa shook her head back and forth. Her chin was tight to her neck. “It isn’t you,” she said. “I promise it isn’t you.” I could barely hear the young woman’s fearful whispers, and I leaned over my salad, fork in hand with an ear cocked. “Richard, it’s me.” Melissa’s choked up for a moment. “I haven’t-” She raised her eyes; they glittered with tears. “I haven’t told you everything.”
Richard shook himself; the statue come to life. “There isn’t anything to tell,” he said earnestly. He was pleading with her again, and he reached across the table for Melissa’s hand. “Please, we can work this out.”
Melissa didn’t return the gesture. She looked down at her own hands, still clasped firmly in her lap. Then she looked up, though she avoided Richard’s intense and needy gaze. Her shoulders were hunched, and Melissa shook her head shook her head slowly from side to side.
“I,” she began. Her voice cracked. She stopped and composed herself, sitting very quietly, like a porcelain doll. She took a deep and resolute breath, resigned to her declaration: “I used to be a man.”
I think at that moment, the entire restaurant went silent. At least it seemed that way. I no longer heard the laughter and giggles of nearby diners. The teenagers who goofed on one another at the next table seemed to disappear. The clash and clatter of the kitchen faded into tiny echoes, until the sounds vanished altogether. Even the scent of bleu cheese on my freshly-made and peppered salad was nothing more than a memory. I was focused entirely on the conversation between Melissa and Richard. I held my breath and counted the seconds till Richard’s reply, though he was too slow in his response.
“Did you hear me?” Melissa asked, looking up at the young man. “I said I used to be a man.”
Richard was silent. The muscles in his jaw twitched, and the fingers of his outstretched hand curled into his palm.
“A man?” he squeaked. He shook his head slowly. “You brought me here to tell me that you used to be a man?”
By now, Melissa was crying openly. She opened and closed her mouth several times in an attempt to speak, but she could find nothing to say that would express her sorrow. The young woman’s dark hair fell in front of her face. She didn’t push it back. Finally, the words tumbled from Melissa’s mouth.
“I was afraid to tell you. Afraid of what you would say. I meant to tell you sooner. But I just never thought it would go this far.” The rush of thoughts finished, Melissa sobbed, and then held her breath. Like a condemned woman, she dropped her head and waited in silence.
Richard furrowed his brow and clenched his hand tightly. “So, you’re telling me that you had an operation to find out what it would be like to be a woman?”
“No, of course not!” she jerked her head up. “This isn’t a game for me,” Melissa hissed. “Inside, I’ve always been a woman.”
“So then, you’re telling me that you were never a man?”
Melissa’s dark eyes were clouded with confusion and tears. A shudder ran through her body. Slowly and distinctly, she made her confession one more time. “I was a man. I had an operation. Now I’m a woman.”
For a long time, Richard was silent. He studied Melissa closely as she trembled and wept. Finally, Richard shook his head. “No,” he said slowly. “You’re wrong, Melissa.” Leaning across the table, he brushed the dark hair from the young woman’s eyes and met Melissa’s gaze. “You’ve always been a woman,” he said. “You were just born with the wrong parts.”
Melissa’s lips trembled. So did mine.
Richard put both hands flat on the table and took a deep breath. “When you asked me to come down here, I thought it was over. I that you were going to break up with me.” By now, the young man was crying, too; his voice was choked with sobs. “I thought I’d done something wrong and that you didn’t love me anymore – that maybe you’d found someone else.”
“Richard, didn’t you hear what I said?” Melissa’s voice was small, and she tipped her head to one side. Her dark hair was a curtain of black, and her lips quivered.
Richard leaned far across the table, reaching for the young woman. She hesitated, but eventually Melissa put her small hand in his. Gently, he closed his fingers around the young woman’s hand.
“It sounds to me,” Richard said quietly, “that you said you still love me.”