Title : Dinner With Stranger
Authors : Madhu Kalyan,Gunjan Vyas
Art : Dina Ahmed
7:15 pm, Saturday. Alarm rings, snooze is hit the next 15 minutes are spent staring at the ceiling. Eveleen’s parents are not home as usual. She sits at her computer desk, her cursor flashing in the blank word document. Her first day off in weeks, her first real opportunity to work on her novel and she is too stressed to think. For an hour or two, now she has been sitting in her worn black office chair, staring at the white page, stirring tea. The TV is chattering unobserved behind her, some stupid commercial playing.
She has always wanted to write, it has always been her dream to be a famous author some day. She had her story planned out, her characters were strong and well developed, she even had a title, all she needed now was to write it. But with her mind swaying between her terrible boss, her boyfriend leaving, her company failing and still giving her way too much work to do, not to mention the hundreds of other niggling issues in her life she fails to be creative. With a final sigh, she closes the word document and leans back into her chair. Her back is stiff from sitting all that time, and now her eyes ache from the continuous exposure to the monitor. She pushes her chestnut brown hair hanging around her eyes and past her shoulders, out of her eyes, and absentmindedly notes she would have to have it cut soon. She loosens her blue blouse from her shoulders and adjusts her black sweatpants before standing up and moving to the couch.
10:45 pm. A commercial for a sauna belt is playing and a slim blonde girl is squealing how the belt helped her lose that extra fat around her lower belly. Dumb bitch – as if she can’t see past that work of Photoshop on the photo showing her ‘before use’ photographs. She picks up the remote and flips through the channels past one bad show to another. There is a psychiatrist speaking on one channel, about multiple personality disorder. From the Armani suit she is wearing under her doctor’s white coat and not a hint of emotion on her face, Eveleen doesn’t find it difficult to conclude that she, quite unlike her, is under worked and overpaid. She considers to put away her burnt and uneaten microwave cooked pasta but her grumbling stomach makes her change her mind.
After literally swallowing the damn thing, she starts heading upstairs but a knock at the front door startles her.This late at night? she thinks and suspiciously eyes the door. Who could it be?
She tells her curious mind to go and have some sleep – a sensible person would have rang the doorbell instead of knocking – what is it, the nineteenth century? She starts to head back to her room but then there it is – another knock on the door, this one louder than before. She tries to ignore it and go back to sleep but her feet won’t move. Before she can do anything, the knocking starts again and turns into an obnoxiously cheerful beat that makes her jump out of her skin. As if her day hasn’t been bad enough, some idiot has to ruin her night as well. She briefly considers dialing 100 but anger takes the better part of her and she pulls open the door with more force than she needs to.
There in the doorway, silhouetted by the streetlights a man is standing in a heavy brown rain jacket and a leather hat. His eyes are a piercing green and his smile actually sparkled. Is that even possible to have teeth like that? He was a slight man, his arms loaded down with bags of groceries and knick-knack.
“Hello, who might you be?” he asks pleasantly.
Anger swells in her belly and she has an urge to snatch those bags from his hands and hurl them at his face.
“You are the one who is standing on my doorstep,” she points out sternly, her arms crossed across her chest.
He shrugs and grins at her like a man who had just won lottery…what was his problem?
“What are you doing here this late? My parents are out so if you have business with them come tomorrow.”
“No, actually I have business with you,” he smiles an innocent smile that warms her up to the very core – it’s been so long since someone smiled at her this way, she realizes Before she can recover from the effects of this charming man’s smile, he pushes the door open and enters the house.
“Hey! What do you think you are doing?”
He acts as if he didn’t hear her and keeps walking ahead, taking in a good view of her house. He sees a card lying on the center table and picks it up. Eveleen runs and snatches the card away from him – the break-up card her boyfriend gave her just this afternoon.
“Don’t look at others’ private stuff, mister,” she warns him but he takes no notice.
“Eveleen – a lovely name for a lovely woman,” he says in the same charming manner and she thanks her coffee complexion because she knows she must be blushing a bright tomato if not for that.
“I like the paintings you have on your wall, very modern,” the stranger comments as he puts down his bags on the table.
“So do your boyfriend broke up with you?” The stranger asks her innocently. Eveleen has the urge to point out that he should mind his own damn business but that innocent and concerned look on his face won’t let her be so rude.
“Uh, he left me this morning… who are y-“
“A beautiful woman like you? What kind of guy would be so blind to give you up? Do you have any food allergies?” he asks suddenly as he removes his wet hat and jacket to reveal a nice silk dress shirt and pants, his gold watch glittering almost as much as his teeth.
“Uh no? Why do you ask Mr…?” Eveleen begins again trying to interrupt the polite stranger and discern his identity. However, he ignores her question.
“Why, so I can make you dinner. Now you get dressed while I clean this place up, I’ll have it ready in no time.”
Eveleen frowns suspiciously – a man entering her house so late at night just so he can cook and clean for her? And she doesn’t even know his name?
She looks at him for a few moments, thinking what to say but he interrupts her thoughts.
“Please, Eveleen. There is lots to do. You get your best dress on for dinner while I prepare things, we can talk during the meal. Now go, I’ll be in the kitchen. Which way is your kitchen?” he asks looking around the whole place. Eveleen points a hesitant finger towards the door on the extreme left of the room.
“Okay, thanks. Now you rush to your room and get changed,” he tells her like one would tell a small child. She frowns at him but something about him made her follow his instructions without any argument or resistance. She shrugs and heads upstairs to get ready. Putting on her favorite red dress, that fit her curvy frame like a glove, she glanced at her reflection and blushes – she had forgotten how good looking she is. She sat down in front of the mirror and brushes down her lovely tresses which cascade down her shoulders like a dark brown waterfall. She puts on some gloss on her lips for a final touch before getting up and looking at herself – she is beautiful…she is very beautiful, she had only forgotten this. She gives her hair a final turn before putting her stilettos on. She frowns when she remembers the reason she’s bought this dress – her first date with Raman. The sounds of rattling dishes, the slamming cupboard doors and the clanging of utensils brings her out her reverie and she quickly gets on her feet. She considers wearing some jewelry and puts on her small diamond earrings. A fleeting thought about him being a thief who was only bluffing her into believing he was a kind man who wanted to cook for her in the middle of the night crosses her mind but she shoves it down and quickly runs down the stairs.
It is unbelievable – the beauty and simplicity of it is amazing and heart touching.
The dining room is clean. All her work papers, appointments, schedules, drafts, scribbled notes and numbers are piled neatly in a far corner. A red tablecloth is draped over the small and much scratched oak table and two candles burn in her silver candlesticks. Rose petals are scattered around the center of the table and along the walls bringing fragrance to the once musty room. She can hear the sound of rattling of dishes through the kitchen door so she enters.
The day isn’t as bad as she thought. The whole place is in chaos. Cutting boards loaded with meat and vegetables on every available surface and dishes stacked almost to the ceiling in one half of the sink; the other half being used to fill pots of boiling water.
Yet more pots and pans bubble and steam on the stove while her great grandmother’s precious silver dining platters sit closed on a folding cart. They shine, the years of neglect and tarnish having been polished away by the stranger. They looked like new, the entire kitchen and the stranger reflecting in their mirrored surface. A midst the chaos the stranger dances without taking any notice of her, a spoon and a knife in either hand as he glides from stove to sink to cutting board to tray and back again. Her rarely used kitchen now looked more like a highly choreographed Broadway number. His silk shirt and pants, much to her surprise, remain untouched by the inevitable mess and splatter of cooking.
This very odd man who she knows nothing about is making a wonderful meal (she can smell it) in her own kitchen, and for some strange reason she trusts him more than she could trust her best friend cum boyfriend in all these years.
I must be in shock, or I am so stressed that I have fallen asleep and this is all some dream, she mused.
Maybe her terrible job is finally driving her crazy, she concludes silently in her head and watches him hum and dance in her kitchen, meat sizzling in a pan. She silently pinches herself in hopes to wake up from this dream – the dream was great but she wasn’t so weak to make a stupid dream her life – but much to her surprise, she winced at the pain.
So, this isn’t a dream.
Eveleen starts asking him a question or two only to be silenced by him with an elegant wave of his slender fingers. He replaces some things in the oven and slowly fills the silver platters with food that Eveleen couldn’t quite get a good look at. Finally he turns off all of the appliances, fills the rest of the sink with dishes and grabs the rolling cart.
“Shall we head into the dining room, Eveleen?” He asks even as he herded her back there.
She shrugs and smiles, finally giving into the insanity of her situation – maybe it is crazy but still much better than what she was going to do this night anyway. She is in her home in her best dress with a polite young man, who, now that she got a good look at him, with his jet black hair, sparkling green eyes, chiseled chin, and beautiful olive skin was rather handsome. He had cleaned the room, made a very romantic setting and prepared a wonderful smelling dinner (a thousand times better than her measly forgotten microwave pasta). She didn’t know who he was, why he was here, or why she had let this all get so far. But now that she is here, she might as well enjoy it. After all, maybe with a little wine he might tell her his name.
He pulls a chair out for her to sit on, the flickering candlelight, the only illumination, casting soft light about the room. Soft violins begin playing from the bottom of the cart as he picks up the first platter. He removes the lid to reveal two bowls of soup. The soup is white with a bright red sauce forming a swirl around the surface. A single mint leaf perched on the edge. She dipped her spoon in it and tasted it. Whatever it was it tasted fantastic and got her appetite ready for the next dish. She is so excited she can hardly wait.
He opens one of her bottles of wine and poured them each a glass. It was vintage and tasted amazing – just how everything her aunt gifted was amazing.
“Nice wine,” he comments and she nods enthusiastically.
“My aunt gifted this about two years ago – my parents don’t drink so it remained unopened for all this time,” she giggles nervously, hoping he doesn’t think she’s overdressed or awkward.
He chuckles kindly in response and a polite dinner conversation opens over salad (nuts and different leafy lettuces and herbs with a fine blueberry vinaigrette). They discuss the news, weather, as well as some sports over the next course (Lamb chop and a small portion of potatoes surrounded by a fine mint sauce). When he finally placed the main course before her (Pan-seared chicken and roasted asparagus on a bed of creamy potatoes with a tomato white creamy butter) Eveleen opens up completely to his warmth.
As the stranger pours yet another glass of wine, he asks her.
“Do you live alone?”
“No,” she mumbles. “I live with my parents. They both do business and have been travelling too much lately because of a new scheme they’ve introduced.”
“You must feel alone then,” he says calmly with a tone of understanding.
“Alone? Ha! I’m devastated. They called this morning only to tell they won’t be returning for two months. Two months! To make things worse, the very next minute my boyfriend sent me a text saying we’ve grown apart and need to move on and left that stupid break up card on my office desk. I took a day off saying I felt sick,” she pauses and gulps down her wine.
“He’s been going out with my best friend – none of them told me they even liked each other. Which best friend does that?”
The stranger touches her hand sympathetically and she realizes tears she’d been holding before start falling down.
“That’s not the only thing, you know. My boss hates me – he would’ve thrown me out of my job if my dad wasn’t such a prominent person. He openly told me when I was asking for day off that he thinks I’m absolutely incapable of doing this job and that I should consider it a miracle that I’m still in the company.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m an accountant. But I hate this job – so boring…so tedious. I love writing stories – creating my own world and flying in it,” she sighed dreamily and the gentleman filled her empty glass again.
“I love reading books too. Have you written anything?”
“I have the plan ready but no inspiration and time,” she mumbled and looked to her side.
He nods in understanding as he eats the fantastically delicious main course. He looks at her with those piercing eyes of his and she feels her heart skip a beat.
“It’s okay, you don’t need to hold those tears back,” he tells her and brushes the skin under her right eye with his thumb and she can’t hold it in.
She cries and rants, and pours her emotions out for him as freely as the wine – her car that was breaking apart, how she wanted to be on her own and not depend on her parents, how mean some of her closest friends could be, how she hated to cook. Eventually, she found had nothing left to complain about. She grasps for something more to say, anything, but she had said it all. She was free and she feels so much better for it. The stranger had listened to everything she’d said with an interest even her (ex) best friend had never been able to show.
She finishes her dinner, each bite tastes much better than the last one with the departure of stress from her mind. They sit in silence as she slowly savors the meal to the very last bite. He waits patiently for her to finish before clearing the table and presenting dessert with a flourish.
Strawberry and champagne sorbet is set before her in a tiny glass bowl and she passes him a warm smile. He places an identical one in front of himself and smiles back at her before sitting down again.The silence is disturbing her more than any noise and she finds herself unwilling to eat until conversation resumed.
“So uh, what about you? Anything interesting to say?” She asks, feeling like a fool even as the words left her mouth – she hadn’t even considered learning anything about him for the whole time she ranted and cried.
But unlike her former cheating boyfriend he doesn’t point out her stupidity.
I’m not sure if you’ll find it interesting but the place I come from is very different from yours” He says kindly and swallows a spoonful of sorbet.
Then he begins to weave amazing tales of his adventures around the country and the world – of the people he had met, the foods he had eaten, and of all the friends he had made. He continues talking for hours as she sits in rapture, awestruck by his life.
Even if he was lying, which for some reason she didn’t think he was, it was an enjoyable and entertaining night. He continues to talk, pausing only to retrieve the final dessert of the meal (a long plate filled with expertly hand crafted sugar lilies, various tiny garnished pastries, and several metallic detailed stuffed chocolates, all hand made. Even the after-dinner mint had her name written across it in chocolate calligraphy).
The candles burned low and eventually the sun peeks out through the drawn curtains, the faint smells of the fantastic dinner lingering in the air.
With crushing realization Eveleen knew the night was about to come to an end but before she could say anything he had excused himself with the cart and the dishes into the kitchen. Eveleen sat at the table, unwilling to stand up. The night had been so magical; she didn’t want it to end. She hears him humming in the kitchen again as pots and pans rattled and water flowed from the tap.
Curiosity takes her and she goes to watch him in action.
The pile of dishes in the sink was gone, the floors and counter tops are empty and sparkling with lemon scented cleaner. Everything is put away in its proper place. He stands in the middle of the kitchen collapsing the cart and putting it in one of the bags he had come in with. He looks up at her and smiled his gorgeous sparkling smile.
“I have something for you.” He said reaching into his bag.
He pulls out a small white box with a red ribbon tied around it. It fit in his palm and was otherwise very ordinary, the first ordinary thing Eveleen had seen of him.
“It’s so you don’t forget this beautiful night, Eveleen. I know you won’t.” He says handing her the present.
She stands there, the box in her hand as he finishes packing his things and retreated to the entryway. She follows him as he put on his hat and coat.
“Well, Eveleen this has been a wonderful evening, I have very much enjoyed your company. You are a very interesting person with an interesting life, I am so sorry the night had to end but I must be going.” He says with genuine sadness.
“It has been a wonderful evening, everything was perfect. It really was magical.” Eveleen replies with the same hint of sadness in her voice.
“Goodbye, Eveleen. You are the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” He says kissing her fondly on the cheek before opening the door and heading down the front steps. She stands there astounded, feeling the slight wetness left on her cheek before running after him.
“Wait!” Eveleen cries out. How could he leave her before even telling who he was?
“Why did you do all this? Why me? Who are you?” she asks him in a quivering voice – she was going to cry again. He turns around and smiles enigmatically.
“Why did I do this? Simple – I have never done anything like this before, it was wonderful. Why you, Eveleen? I simply don’t know but I hope you don’t feel sad anymore.”
“But I don’t even know your name!” She cries in response.
“Well, you should have asked silly. Goodbye, Eveleen He says but before he is able to turn around, Eveleen holds him by his shoulders and kisses him on his lips. The kiss is magical and she is surprised at how good it feels.
“I have to go now. Take care,” he says finally and climbs down the last steps, disappearing around the corner.
The sun is shining brightly over the rooftops igniting the empty street in fiery red light as Eveleen stands there stunned.
Eveleen looks down at her hand, still holding the very ordinary little box. She unties the ribbon and peered inside. It was perfect. There was nothing else he could have given her that could ever be as good as this, it was so beautiful it was almost magical. She will keep it forever.
Eveleen closes her hand around the box closing the lid carefully – a voice, just a little louder than the air fills her ears and she knows who it is.
Troubles are meant to be overcome.
Eveleen straightens her shoulders and heads to her desk. She had called in sick for work before settling down at her computer. Today she would work on her new idea for a novel; she knows just what to write.