She looks distractedly through the window at the rain tapping in a light drizzle. Why today in particular? But why not? She could have come ten days ago, or twenty. She constantly put off her arrival. Then, a week ago, she worked up her courage and reserved a table. "For two?" the male voice had asked. No, she would be alone. It was certainly the first time that she had come to a restaurant without a table companion. That was, in part, one of the reasons that she constantly put off this meal.
With slightly feigned interest she considers the room decorated in white and brown, a designer "roots" look with raw materials arranged in sophisticated ways — a bit absurd and superficial, but not without its charm.
From time to time the maître d' observes this elegant woman with very short white hair and no jewelry, her wrinkles her only make-up. How old must she be? Seventy? Older? She's having lunch alone, which is quite rare. This makes him a little sad, but he hardly has the time to wallow in sweet melancholy. Lunchtime is starting, customers are arriving. Still, he wants to make sure that everything is as nice as possible for her. There's a sort of pang in his heart, maybe because of her advanced age.
She smooths back a stray strand of hair and lifts the glass of mineral water to her lips, which are so thin, like a line drawn on her face. The bubbles rise and explode on the surface in a myriad of tiny drops, some of which reach her chin. She has selected dishes from a menu without really knowing what they are. She imagines that they include some dishes he will have prepared, but she didn't dare to ask. She would like to remain transparent, a passing guest in this restaurant at the end of her world. She has traveled two hundred miles to have lunch here. For a long time she calculated what it would cost her, less in money spent than in memories laid bare and uncertain emotions. Will she even see him? Will she speak? Sometimes she imagines touching with her aged, papery hand his smooth young man's skin, hearing his voice, slipping into his gaze. Sometimes she prefers to be invisible, distant, just a guest among others, leaving this little provincial town right after her meal. Perhaps glimpsing him, if only a single time…would this be satisfying, sufficient? Is it an illusion to want any more?
He isn't expecting her. She waited fifteen years for him. She sweeps away with a flip of thought, with a blink of the eye, all the regrets that are turning up.
She realizes that the maître d' is making a fuss over her. At her age, she has learned to pay attention to others, to observe details, to pick up on imperceptible clues on the skin, a keen stare, a trembling lip, a muffled sigh, choked-back tears, imprisoned words…. She knows everything people hide, everything they keep quiet; she has a gift for this. She senses that this busy man who walks quickly between the tables, who is lithe and straight, has a kind of consideration mixed with pity that is preserved in the attention he is paying to her. That's the way it is when you're an old lady by yourself. She reads the same interest in the moist eyes of her neighbors, the shopkeepers in her neighborhood. She's used to it.
She doesn't mind the taste of the cream of squash soup with white truffles. It's the first time she has eaten this luxury mushroom, just as it's the first time she has eaten at a starred restaurant. She finds it dream-like, these stars awarded for the soup in her shallow bowl. She gazes at the strips of truffle like so many shimmers of pale light.
She'd like to see the stars that are in his eyes. They are blue in the photos that fade in her album and are hazily reflected in her own eyes. She imagines thinks about how he is something like her distant star, her North, letting her stay on course, keeping her alive.
She picks a little bit at the second dish, very tender free-range chicken with flesh of opalescent whiteness that is coated in unidentified ingredients and unknown flavors. She has the feeling of traveling farther than the distance she covered in the train. Her pleasantly disconcerted taste buds quiver with brand new sensations. She places her little spoon into magenta mousse and green ice cream. The red berries explode and the pistachio melts on her tongue. Even if this isn't what she came for, this sweet, fluid pleasure in her mouth is enough to reconcile her with life.
She thinks that a career in cooking means offering a palette of emotions, tingles of pleasure, a balm for daily wounds. This job is empathy in its pure state. Perhaps he would have some for her? At least as a customer.
She imagines him, on the other side of the door. She doesn't exactly know what a professional kitchen looks like. An abundance of stainless steel, a gigantic stove, giant flames, ogre-sized utensils of gleaming copper, all the phantasmagoria of a woman who has never really known how to cook. Alas, it is not from her that the young man's vocation or inspiration comes but from her older daughter with whom she had a falling out over twenty years ago and who died before her. And before any reconciliation. How can she wipe away something like that? How can she come and glean the forgiveness of this young man, there, so close, on the other side of the past pass-through window. She dares an indecent thought, a flash textured with shadow and light. She says it to herself like an obscene word. It doesn't cross the line of her mouth, it's smothered in her constricted throat, it remains incarcerated in her brain. "My grandson."
She knows then that she will leave without having seen him.
Translated by Kate Deimling