This piece is a retelling of “The Luncheon,” the iconic short story by William Somerset Maugham.
I caught sight of him two minutes after I took my seat at the play. Let’s just say I really wish I hadn’t. I tried to avert my eyes, but he had already spotted me, and I saw an expression of momentary horror, resembling my own, flash across his face.
We had to do the polite thing. He nodded with a tight-lipped smile as I walked up to him.
The last time we met was fifteen years ago in Paris. I was an amateur writer searching for my inspiration, my muse – we threw such words around when we were young, my friends and I. What better place to begin our search than in Paris? Unfortunately, Paris was not kind to us; we were barely making ends meet. But it couldn’t be so bad, after all, since he lived in Paris. To say he was my favourite writer would be an understatement. He had changed the way I looked at literature, art, life.
His latest work was about Alexis, a young woman in search of love in France. He had said in multiple interviews that Parisian food and Parisian women had inspired him to see “beauty in the ugly and glory in the weird”. I had rewatched the videos multiple times on YouTube and swooned at the profundity of his words before sending him a couple of emails, and a few handwritten notes, asking if he would impart some suggestions to this ardent fan of his. I had his posters and his quotes stuck to the walls of my tiny apartment. As I said, we were young, dumb, broke, and (obviously) unoriginal, my friends and I.
It was a shock when he replied to my email. There was a single line: “Sure, let’s meet at Foyot’s, for lunch, on Thursday.” I nearly fainted. It could have been because of low blood sugar, given I was on whatever diet was the frenzy at the time. I went days on end skipping lunch and drinking just coffee for breakfast. But a good chunk of it was excitement. If I could get him to see me the way he saw Alexis, I remember thinking, my life would be made.
He was exactly as I remembered him from the YouTube interviews. He was thirty-five at the time. He wore a worn-out grey suit, the pants of which were an inch too long. His hair was unkempt, his beard unshaven, and he wore circular spectacles on his unsmiling face. A very brooding-artist-in-a-foreign-land vibe, for sure. He seemed nervous and fidgety.
We took our seats in a silence so heavy that I began to wonder if this was a bad idea. He refused to make eye contact and that made me more nervous. If there is a weakness of character that I fault myself for having, it is the need to fill in silence with incoherent jabber. And so, that is what I did. I said I had read all his previous books; I quoted my favourite lines; I asked him when Alexis was going to release. I might have even given a few ear-shattering fake laughs. Thinking I saw him cringe, I might have also brought my fake laugh to an abrupt end.
The menus were brought. “What will you have?” he asked.
“I don’t really eat lunch. I just drink coffee in the morning and then dinner,” I said.
“Oh, you have to eat something!”
“Perhaps a little fish,” I said. Truth be told, I was starving. The morning coffee on an empty stomach was making me sick. Or was it the apprehension of having him sitting in front of me that was making my stomach churn? Here he was, well versed in all that was exquisite about life, and I hardly recognized any of the dishes on this menu. Then I remembered salmon. Wasn’t it supposed to be delicious? “I wonder if they have the salmon,” I said.
“It is a bit early in the year for salmon, um…,” he shifted anxiously in his seat.
“Oh, we have had the first delivery of the best salmon in all of France!” the waiter cooed, “I am sure Madame would enjoy it!”
I had just noticed that they had asparagus on the menu. I had seen them in the shop windows and had always wanted to taste them. Before I could lift my head from the menu to change my order, he had already ordered the salmon for me and a mutton chop for himself.
“Will you be eating meat for lunch? I couldn’t for the life of me eat such heavy things before I go back to work,” I said. There it was again, my ridiculous fake laugh.
“What would you like to drink,” he asked as if I hadn’t spoken at all.
“I don’t really drink anything for lunch—
“Neither do I—
“Except I don’t mind white wine,” I said, realizing too late that I had interrupted him. I had no idea what he had said. All I was thinking about was the magazine article I had read the other day that said white wine is less fattening than red wine.
“Oh splendid!” the waiter cooed again, “How about champagne?” He proceeded to tell us all the varieties they had, most of which went over my head.
My host ordered half a bottle. “My doctor has totally forbidden me from drinking champagne,” he said. He shuffled again and dropped the menu. While he picked it up, I thought I saw sweat dripping down his forehead.
“Would you like to have some caviar while your fish is being cooked?” the waiter asked.
“Uh…um.” I had never eaten caviar before, but if I pretended that I had, it would impress him, right? Would Alexis have caviar? “Sure, I wouldn’t mind that at all,” I said brightly.
“Okay, caviar for her,” he said to the waiter.
“Wouldn’t you have something to drink though?” I asked.
“Water,” he said, and quickly picked up the glass of water before him, downing it in ten seconds.
The waiter left us and the silence was back. Itching to begin my jabber again, I opened my mouth, but he started speaking. Which was great, except he didn’t stop. I would try to add in a “oh, that’s excellent” or a “really?” between his incessant ranting, most of which, I look back and realise, made no sense whatsoever. I stopped trying to butt in. He spoke so fast and with such vigour that sometimes he would stop for breath at the wrong beat. His entire body language was like a squirrel.
Our meal arrived and I must say, it is to this day the best salmon I have ever had. Oh, and the caviar! I felt guilty that I was enjoying it so much. I was eating more than I had in months.
“You should eat more,” he said suddenly, “I can’t have my guest not enjoy her meal.”
“Oh, no it’s wonderful—
“Are you sure you don’t want anything else?”
Honestly, I hadn’t stopped thinking about the asparagus. I had already broken my “no-lunch” rule. Might as well.
“I usually don’t eat more than one thing for lunch, if at all,” I said, wondering how to ask for the asparagus, “but I saw they have asparagus. Would you like to have some?”
He picked up the napkin next to him and wiped his forehead. He called the waiter and ordered the asparagus for me.
“Wouldn’t you like to have some too?” I repeated.
“No, I never eat asparagus.”
I felt panic rise up my spine. Should I have not asked for the asparagus? Should I refuse it or was it too late now? I didn’t feel great about how much I had eaten. I decided I was not going to eat dinner to balance things out.
The asparagus arrived and I ate them, feeling guilt burning in my ears. We had both stopped talking and, for the first time since we sat down, he leaned back onto his chair. He looked away into a distance outside the window.
Finally, the bill arrived. I would have offered to pay half, but my stomach was churning, my head was hurting, and I was waiting for all of this to be over. Looking back, I know I couldn’t have afforded to pay even half.
Apparently, he couldn’t either. I watched, frozen, as both his credit cards got declined and as he emptied his entire wallet, all of it cash. I wondered why he chose this restaurant if this one was so expensive. Did I order too much? Should I be apologizing? He left a very meagre tip; it just made me more certain that he couldn’t afford this restaurant.
As I walked towards him now, he said, “It’s been quite a while! You look healthy. Looks like you’ve been eating well.” His face was expressionless as always. I felt guilt rise in my stomach again.
Sneha is a writer, copyeditor and a chronic over-thinker. She believes that the world can be changed by one act of kindness at a time, and of course, by storytelling. When she is not watching movies and shows, or learning how to dance, she writes short stories and slice-of-life personal essays.