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After sitting down for a meal at a restaurant alone, the writer overhears an intriguing story. (Illustration by Eric Palma)

Guess Who Came to Dinner

A table for one can be the best seat in the house

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I don’t mind eating alone when I travel. I never give a second thought to how it looks or what people might think. Recently, after buying a theater ticket in Times Square, I wandered over to a little restaurant that doesn’t cater to the tourist crowd. It was early and I had no trouble getting a table.

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An older man with a full head of hair was seated just in front of me with a young, blond girl of about 15. I soon decided he must be her grandfather. After a few minutes a man with thinning curly hair and a broad smile joined them. He greeted the older man warmly, but with reserve, and he kissed the girl on the top of her head. When he began to talk, the girl rolled her eyes and the grandfather laughed out loud. I decided the new arrival was the blond girl’s father and the older man’s son-in-law.

Next a dark-haired woman and a plump 10-year-old girl rushed in. The woman kissed the grandfather and called him “Daddy,” but she only air-kissed the younger man. I figured she was not his wife—probably his sister-in-law. When the 10-year-old sat on the younger man’s lap, I decided she, too, was his daughter, making her the blond girl’s sister. After a little while the blond girl handed her cellphone to her sister, who read a text message and laughed.

Halfway through the appetizers, another dark-haired woman joined the table. She kissed the older man, kissed the blond girl, kissed the 10-year-old, kissed the aunt and kissed the younger man...on the mouth. This, I decided, must be the younger man’s wife—the mother of the two girls.

As their dinner progressed, I learned that the younger man was a speechwriter and his wife supervised an overworked staff at a museum. (The aunt had picked up the 10-year-old from school because the wife had to work late.) I also learned that the younger sister had been cast in a school production of Coriolanus, the 15-year-old had only recently become a blond and the grandfather’s wife—the grandmother—had suffered a fall, which explained her absence. (After much discussion it was agreed that the grandmother would do fine in the Canary Islands, as the vacation villa they had rented was all on one floor and there were only two small steps to the pool.)

Before I knew it I had finished dessert. There was still much I wanted to know: What had caused the grandmother’s fall? What role would the 10-year-old play in Coriolanus? How would the aunt’s divorce settlement be resolved? But it was getting close to curtain time and I had to leave.

As I passed the family table, the 15-year-old looked up at me. She smiled, wrote something on her phone and passed it to her sister, who giggled and turned to look at me as well. And I suddenly realized that I had been an object of their speculation. I could only imagine the text message: “Did u c that guy eating all alone and looking at us? wot do u think his story is?”

Angus Maclachlan is a playwright and screenwriter living in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

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