It was cold, snowy, wet. Again. Stella and Luke didn't have big plans, each having spent the past 12 hours working downtown at their respective offices, and via cell phone they decided to get Thai for dinner at the BYOB place close to home. They agreed to drop their stuff off at the condo, grab beers from the fridge, and walk the three blocks to the restaurant. Never mind that it was Valentine's Day. For Stella, the greasy noodles and spicy curry were comfort food to ward of the bitterness of a Chicago winter. And they needed the walk after being stuck inside at their desks all day.
The place was as dingy as ever. Grease clung to the fake woodwork, and the dim room smelled like overcooked broccoli and spices. A draft blew in every time someone opened the door and threatened to blow out the single, weakly flickering tea light on each table. A thin layer of frost lined the bottom of the wide front windows that faced the busy sidewalk. Textiles with hand sewn motifs – trees, birds, fields – sat between layers of heavy square glass, decorating each tabletop. The chairs were something out of a keynote speech at a national convention held in a nondescript assembly hall – black cushions, gold metal frames. The drinking glasses didn't match, and were scratched and chipped at their bottoms.
But tonight, Stella and Luke didn't complain. Tonight the waitress had actually brought them glasses and a bottle opener on their first request.
"I didn't realize this place actually had a waitress," Luke joked, raising an eyebrow in mock surprise.
"You do realize, however, that tonight -- Valentine's night, my beloved -- I'm going for comfort over romance, right?" Stella asked him. "Look around. This is most definitely not a romantic place. It's a place for lonely people to eat inconspicuously by themselves, a place that does a great takeout business. In fact, if we're really honest with ourselves, I think we'd agreed that it's the kind of place you don't want much brighter than this for fear of how it'd really look."
Luke nodded. "But it's still our place," he said.
It was true. In their quickly gentrifying neighborhood, the Thai restaurant was a relic of their early love. As decrepit as the place was, it had been a key location of their dates, during which conversations eventually turned serious, and which now found them in this newly married life. Given the significance of the place, they didn't mind too much if, on occasion, something was floating among the ice in their water glasses.
"Here's to us…there's no one better," she said, raising her glass as another couple entered the restaurant. Stella looked over her arm and could see a woman helping a man through the heavy door. Both of them were at the tail end of middle age, bundled against the weather in heavy wool coats, hats, gloves, scarves.
The woman returned Stella's gaze directly. She had a gray-white mane of hair that made Stella think of Susan Sontag on her old book jacket photos, before the ones of her while she was suffering a nearly insufferable death from cancer. The woman nodded at Stella, and then turned into the restaurant where she and the man slid into a booth to sit across from each other.
Then, without even taking her coat off, the woman gently took the man's hand. She leaned closer to him. Took a breath and smiled, then began to sing. And Stella immediately thought the voice that came from her should have been singing to a crowd in a smoky cabaret downtown, crooning to a crowd of Valentine's Day revelers.
"My funny Valentine…
Sweet, funny, Valentine...
You make me smile when skies are gray…."
She sang the whole song. The waitress held back, unsure of what to do. Another couple entering the restaurant stopped stamping the snow off their feet and stood still in the doorway. The woman never took her eyes off her companion, even when her voice gave a Katharine Hepburn warble, although that happened only once.
And then she was finished. She let go of his hand, and smiled again at him. There was no obvious reaction from him, and Stella couldn't see the man's face. She knew it would be obnoxious to get up and take a look at him, or to tell the woman that she had an amazing voice.
The restaurant's action picked up: customers entered, the cook called out orders, silverware clinked against plates, the phone kept ringing.
Stella looked at Luke. He was taking a sip of beer but she could tell her was smiling at her. She realized her mouth was wide open.
"Happy Valentine's Day," he said, as she closed her mouth and picked up her glass for a sip of beer.
Stella looked at Luke then, and hoped that someday, after many years filled with both the more and the less of life and love, that she could sing that song to him and mean it the way the woman meant it. And she wanted Luke to hear it the way she wanted him to hear it, the way she hoped the man she could not see had heard it tonight. Dingy place or not. She wanted to sing "My Funny Valentine" with the same expression of joy and passion. Like there was no one else in the room, no one else anywhere on a cold, snowy Chicago night but the two of them.