Two girls walk into a bar. A bistro, actually, a block from the Park Theatre on Cambie Street, where The Grand Budapest Hotel is playing. And we're not exactly girls anymore, with seven kids and two thousand patients between us. The bistro has a bar, though, and my visiting girlfriend Erin and I have a half hour till showtime.
She has a beer and I have a whiskey sour. The place is packed, Saturday night noisy. I’m poking at the ice in my glass with a straw, and Erin’s telling me about a patient from her practice in Comox. The server approaches with a tomato and bocconcini salad, a glorious trifecta of tomatoes, basil and cheese with the balsamic drizzled artfully across the plate. I expect her to pass by, but she stops and reaches over to set it down between us.
“That’s not ours,” I say, regretfully.
She looks confused.
“It’s not ours,” I say again. “Not unless someone ordered it for us.”
She takes it back, apologetic. “Your face just lit up when you saw it,“ she says.
"It does look delicious," I admit. We laugh, she brings it to the couple a few feet up the bar, and Erin and I are back to our drinks and conversation.
Ten minutes later, the waitress approaches with another tomato and bocconcini salad. She sets it down in front of me. It’s déjà vu,, except this time the bartenders and another server pause to watch, smiling.
“Someone ordered this for you,” she says. We stare at the plate.
“The guy that was sitting at that table over there, " she says, gesturing behind us. "He ordered this for you." I turn, and he’s gone, just a crumpled napkin and the bill folder on the table.
Our show is about to start, but I enjoy every slice of Roma tomato, every pale oval of cheese, every basil leaf, and with each bite I think happily: A stranger bought me a bocconcini salad, anonymously, simply to delight.
* * * * * *
A few years ago I came across a description by Phyllis Theroux, American essayist, of an ecstatic experience where she watched the morning sun light the cockleburrs next to a sleeping porch. This was an experience from which she drew strength later:
Could it be, and this is the question of a speculative, unmarveling adult, that every human being is given a few sights like this to tide us over when we are grown? Do we all have a bit or piece of something that we instinctively cast back on when the heart wants to break upon itself and causes us to say, "Oh yes, but there was this," or "Oh yes, but there was that," and so we go on?
- (California and other States of Grace, p 55)
She’s referring to childhood experiences in nature, but the idea of clinging to the recollection of an extraordinary experience of goodness in moments of despair resonated with me.
A few weeks ago I saw pictures of captured Iraqis before and after execution by militants. I saw their faces and hands. I struggled to grasp that humans treat each other this way, and I couldn’t make sense of it.
Then I read this article in the Guardian about men being raped in war, and it fit exactly with my experiences at the refugee clinic. A person, deliberately, severely damaged by another person. Multiplied by a thousand people, over a thousand wars.
These days, when my heart wants to break upon itself and I’m desperate for a small reassurance to hold on to, I remember this story: the one about the guy who bought the girl at the bar a bocconcini salad.
Oh yes, but there was that. Humans do that to each other, too.