He yawned loudly upon their arrival to the restaurant. It must have been past midnight at the very least but he didn’t know for sure- he didn’t have a watch. When he stepped out of the taxi to look at the place, his mouth froze mid a second yawn to gape. Meters from the building, he could hear cheerful European tunes drifting through the elaborately carved front doors, and the smell made saliva build up in his mouth. He spat on the sidewalk. A passing well dressed gentleman glared at him. “Youth these days don’t know a thing about public courtesy,” he muttered. The boy didn’t think to say sorry- he just stared at them, wide eyed. He didn’t remember the last time a stranger has walked so close to him. Then, as he scratched his pant leg, he remembered he was not in his usual clothes.
“What are you standing there for? Let’s go!” The French woman was waiting for him in the entryway and he hadn’t even noticed. A waiter was holding the door open. “Alex, what do you say now?” He almost ran into her. “What do you say?” Alex stopped, scratched his head, stared at the polished black loafers she had given him, thought hard. He looked at the French woman. She nodded curtly at the waiter still holding the door. He was probably in his early 30’s, and he looked well groomed and smiled at Alex courteously. But Alex still had no idea what he was supposed to say. “Thank you, Alex! For Christ’s sake, I thought you had better manners! Say ‘thank you’!” She put her hands on her hips like an angry mother.
“Oh.. uh… thanks.” He just wished they could eat already. He was starving. They had only moved inside a few feet where they were now waiting once more. He counted how many songs played until the hostess came. Two… Three… Four… Five. “Good evening, welcome to Victoria’s, do you have a reservation?”
“Yes, it’s right here.” She leaned her stubby elbows over the hostess’s desk at her name, which Alex didn’t know. He remembered her strange reaction when he had divulged his identity, and it had distracted him from asking for hers. “I’d like that table over there, in the corner.” The French woman pointed firmly to a curtained-off area.
“I’m sorry ma’am, but you didn’t indicate you wanted a table in the East Wing, all our tables in that wing are reser-“
“ What? That’s nonsense, I’ve been here on many occasions and that wing was never full!” In her loudest, heaviest voice.
The hostess looked frazzled, and Alex was sure she wasn’t going to let them sit there. Aromas of juicy pork, fried calamari, exotic wines, and simmering vegetables tantalized him. He couldn’t help his salivating, had to resist the urge to spit again. “Uhm, ma’am. He tapped her shoulder shakily, and she wheeled around, red in the face.
Alex took a step back, but held her gaze unwaveringly. “I just… I’m really hungry. Can’t we just sit somewhere else?” He avoided her venomous eyes. Her breasts were bulging from her sequined patterned blouse. Alex knew she was well off when he met her.
She scowled and her wrinkles deepened around her thin dry mouth. “Haven’t I taught you any patience? Remind yourself who brought you here, show some respect! That is the nicest table- don’t you understand? Be a little more grateful.” The boy nodded, and she turned away sharply. He didn’t understand- he was grateful, but he didn’t understand her at all. Did she understand him? Did she know what it was like to sleep on a hard park bench in the middle of winter, to eat food thrown onto the sidewalk for the gulls, to huddle next to drunk strangers for warmth? His youth made it easier to beg, but also made him more vulnerable.
The French woman demanded to speak to the manager. Suddenly the two were conversing in her language, and soon the conflict was resolved. Alex would have been impressed, but his stomach was growling like a dog from Pavlov’s experiment. He sat down eagerly, and was handed a menu. He tried to read it, but it was too dark and he hadn’t graduated elementary school. “Good evening, good sir and madame.” He smiled good-naturedly. “May I offer madame a taste of our signature wine?” As he spoke Alex couldn’t help but notice his shiny white teeth. He was holding the wine in his right arm, balanced in the palm of his hand. The green glass gave off an eerie reflection of the burning red candle between them.
The French woman looked at Alex. “Do you know what you would like?”
He could barely hear her over the cheerful chatter surrounding them. “No, ma’am. I don’t.” If they would just give him some food, anything would do. He wasn’t picky. Any scrap, so long as he didn’t have to wait any longer. His eyes greedily followed a waiter carrying a feast of lamb chops.
“The drinks are listed on the back” The waiter kindly assisted him. Alex knew if the man had met him on the street he would never be so polite. He would probably look at him in disgust and walk the other way. The boy stared at the letters which seemed to blur in and out of focus with the glimmer of the candles. The chatter grew louder to him as the French woman ordered a martini.
“Well? Alex?” Short pause. “Alex!” More aggressively. “What’s taking you so long?” The French woman was scowling again. “I hope you’re not looking at the liquor menu, you’re far too young for that!”
Hands over his ears, and eyes tightly closed. Teeth grinding together to keep from swearing. “I..can’t… read… Ma’am.” There. He said it.
The French woman looked at him as though it was an atrocity. The waiter turned away with a quiet “excuse me.”
“Alex. Look at me. Explain yourself.”
This time Alex couldn’t do it. He opened his eyes just enough to make out her expression. At that moment, she was stone. His face felt hot against his hands. “There’s nothing to explain. It’s none of your business.” Mumbling, fingers locked.
“How dare you speak to me that way! It is my business, so long as you want to be here, with me!” She stood up and put a fist on the table, napkin falling from her lap, glasses wobbling perilously close to the edge. A sophisticated group of businessmen looked around in alarm, one spilling his beer. Over the shouting of obscenities a waiter ran over and tried to put his hands on the French womans shoulders. “Get off! Off, I’m calm, I’m fine! Just surprised, that’s all. Don’t touch me!” The man wasn’t listening, just trying to push her back into her seat. He didn’t cease until the French woman stopped shouting and was sitting still.
Alex didn’t notice she was crying until the waiter left and his cup was filled with ice water. He saw it when a pool of tears started to form in her plate, and he heard the drip drip falling between her clenched hands, covering her eyes. The boy didn’t know why. What did she have to cry about, especially in a public place like this? If only he could make her stop somehow, it was sickening. His stomach was aching more than ever.
“Ma’am, could you please stop?” He watched her rub her temple, sniff a few times, remove her hands, look down at the shining wet plate.
“ My son could read.” Her voice was hoarse. She put her small hands on the table and observed them as though they were not her own. “I taught him myself. You know how to read, Alex. Remember? I taught you.” Her hair had gotten undone and parts of it were getting wet in her plate of tears. The French woman smiled and reached across the table. Alex didn’t like it. He knew that smile well. It reeked of desperation. He scooted his chair back before her fingers could touch his hot cheek.
“Ma’am. I don’t know what you’re talking about. “ Alex didn’t want to leave, not before dinner was served.
“It really hurt when you died, Alex. Remember, a month ago? You got hit by a car. I thought I’d never see you again, Alex. Your name is Alex, right? Or are you going to lie about that, too?” Alex couldn’t help but stare, terrified, into her vulture eyes. He thought that he saw a different boy’s reflection in her pupils. He stood up, legs shaking.
“Don’t be scared, your mommy ‘s right here. Alex. My son.” For a moment he believed it, her voice like a soft blanket enveloping him.
Her eyes did not belong to the living, only fed on them. She was not his mother. His mother had dropped him off on a downtown street corner far away from the house after he punched a kid in school for his lunch. The boy’s mother hadn’t fed him that entire week. Alex thought of everything he had missed out on: school, a hot meal waiting for him at dinner, a warm place to sleep, someone to care for him. He felt his eyes getting puffy. Let out a slow breath.
Alex sat back down on the chair and took the French woman’s hand. It felt fragile. He smiled back, knowing what kind of smile it was.
“I’m sorry about all that, mommy. I didn’t mean to hurt you. I’m here now, and I’m not scared anymore. Just hungry, that’s all.”