As someone who often travels for my job, I am used to eating alone in restaurants. It’s something I’ve gotten accustomed to, just like long, unaccompanied drives and trips through airport security. I don’t mind it. It gives me a chance to enjoy my food, check my e-mail, take in my surroundings, and get some writing done. I am always excited to engage strangers in conversation, but most folks are busy with their own schedules, and I’m perfectly comfortable enjoying some time to myself. Sometimes, though, a chance interaction with a stranger takes my day in an unexpected, interesting direction.
Recently I found myself in Madison with not a lot to do during the day. My friend Ben, a Wisconsin native, offered some advice.
“You have to go to the Old Fashioned and get the beer battered cheese curds,” he demanded.
“I’ll give it a shot. I’m not the biggest cheese guy—“
“You have to,” he reiterated.
“Okay, I’ll go,” I promised. Saturday was my last afternoon in town, so I made my way over to the restaurant, which was mercifully only a block away from my hotel. I sat down and perused the menu, looking for something to pair the deep fried cheese with that might counteract some of the damage to my arteries. I settled on a spinach salad with grilled chicken. I ignored the fact that my greens came with “hot bacon dressing.” I sipped my water and waited for lunch to arrive.
The cheese curds came first. They looked like tater tots but just a little smaller. When I bit into one, warm yellow cheese bubbled out. It was delicious. Silently, I debated how much of the basket I would allow myself to finish. I was concerned that eating the entire serving would result in an immediate coronary.
“Excuse me,” said a young woman at the table next to mine. “I don’t know if you’d noticed me staring.” I looked over and saw that she was sitting with one other woman and three men, all apparently in their late 20’s or early 30’s. Maybe they needed a sixth guy for a bank robbery.
“Did you order the cheese curds?” she asked. Shucks. There was probably no heist on the horizon. Still, I was encouraged by her friendliness.
“I did. Would you like one? I’ll never be able to finish all of these,” I replied as I held the basket out to her.
“No, no,” she protested. “Just, are they good?”
“They’re really good,” I said, once again extending her the basket. “Take as many as you want. You guys can all have some. Seriously.”
“Okay,” she relented. The basket got passed around the table.
“Holy crap these are good,” said one of the guys.
The whole gang invited me over to join them, and even though I suspected it was largely cheese curd related, I happily agreed. A round of introductions revealed that my new friends were Jessica, Jesse, Sarah, Quentin, and Russ. They were in town for a wedding. Over lunch and beer, they explained that their friends Jeff and Chelsea had just gotten married, and there was a three-hour window before the reception. I learned how the couple met and discussed my fascination with Russ’s day job (window washer) and leisure activities (motocross). Jesse, it turns out, owns a skate shop in Milwaukee. It was a cool, down to earth bunch.
As the food (including my salad, whose dressing was at least 50% bacon) arrived, Jesse explained a prank that he and Jessica had recently started perpetrating at friends’ weddings.
“We leave an anonymous gift,” he explained. “It’s always a real piece of junk. Then we get some terrible card and sign fake names. Then when they open it, they’re like ‘Is that your cousin?’ ‘I thought that was your cousin.’”
I was floored. What a great idea. I’d never heard of anything like it. I needed to know more.
“What’s the gift today?” I asked.
“It’s this porcelain sculpture of two turtledoves. It’s awful,” Jesse said.
Timidly I asked to sign the card. The entire group responded enthusiastically and insisted that I sign it from both myself and my girlfriend. There was a little talk of my actually crashing the reception and attempting to give a toast in character as an ex-boyfriend, but we figured my chances of success were slim at best. I politely declined, given my lack of dress pants and aversion to being thrown out of places. I offered a more feasible idea.
“Guys,” I said, “I’d really like to write the note in this card.” Everyone immediately agreed. To get me in the festive spirit, I ordered a Maker’s Mark on the rocks. (I really wanted to get into the wedding state of mind.) When I’d finished my drink, I requested the card and began to compose a suitable note. I wanted something tender, but silly. Full of lies, but inoffensive. Here’s what I came up with:
Dear Jeff and Chelsea,
Congratulations on this, your special day. It has been a joy to watch your relationship flower and blossom over the years. In an era where so many people rush headlong into marriage like lemmings over the edge of a cliff, it is beautiful to see two people who have made sure to enter into matrimony after careful consideration, like two more thoughtful, circumspect mammals. This gift is a reminder that turtledoves mate for life. So too may your marriage be a lifelong bond. May joy and delight fill your days, and may this tiny handmade bird sculpture always remind you of that. Keep on rockin’ in the free world.
Josh and Gaby
As Russ arrived back at the table after smoking a cigarette, I read the note aloud to much laughter and rejoicing.
“It’s perfect,” declared Sarah.
We tucked the note into the envelope and sealed it. I took a group picture with my new friends and headed back to my hotel, grateful for the turn my day had taken. Not only had I avoided eating an entire platter of fried cheese on my own (a major victory in the ongoing battle of Man v. Self) but I also bonded with some new people and formed a legitimately quirky memory that I can hold onto. We had conspired together to turn an uneventful afternoon into something out of the ordinary for all parties concerned.
“Thanks,” I said, as I left. “This was the best.”
Two days later, Jesse texted me: “Thanks again for signing the card. Everyone we showed it to loved it. Holla when you’re back.”
I’m excited to hang out with everyone next time I’m in town. Maybe I’ll even meet Jeff and Chelsea.