Often he thinks, I know how ghosts must feel. Here it is, time for lunch, but he lacks sufficient substance. Some prerequisites are present: money, pockets, hunger. Others appear to be lacking: visibility, force, location. Often he tries to convince himself, I am not so hungry really.
On this occasion, hunger cannot be denied and so he hangs his clothes on empty space, unbolts the door, and peeks out timidly, like a man expecting to be stampeded by mice.
He is in a foreign city far from where he was born; it is an exotic destination which will be entirely overrun in five years time but is now, despite having plenty of tourists, still a place where some real people also live.
The tourists are enormous tanned Europeans. Always in couples or small groups, they appear garlanded by cameras and security belts, ornamented with broad shoulders, water bottles, muscular calves and absolute total self-confidence. They are like the hurtling red buses native to this place: they take up the entire road.
How tremendously unfortunate, he thinks, that I have chosen to incarnate as a goose feather.
A bustling popular restaurant is out of the question. He does better at deserted places, where the waiter may not mind so much that he has shown up as only 11% of a person. He enters, ducking his head though the roof is not low, sits down in the corner.
All previous challenges pale beside what he must do next. He must speak. Speak so as to be heard. In restaurants one is esteemed if one is able to boom, Chicken and chips, please! And an ice cold beer!
It is unimaginable, really, how people manage to live. How much noise they make and how much space they take up, and how they do it all so unapologetically as if the world belonged to them.
He seeks out places where you can write your own order, but even in places like that they can ambush you, oh just tell me.
He opens his mouth. At first no sound comes out. When he does finally succeeding in producing a sound, his voice is that of a starving orphan girl in a nineteenth century costume drama.
These initial sounds may not be fully audible, but they alert the waiter, here we have a character, and so the waiter leans in to hear him whimper, “T u n a s a l a d . . . i s p o s s i b l e ?”
He always assumes that what is written in the menu is not actually available, and certainly not for the likes of him. It is impertinent to even ask. If he must order, he ought to order the simplest possible thing on the menu. For example, he ought to eat only vegetable fried rice. Or plain toast.
The waiter looks at him as if to say, “This here is what is called a restaurant. Here you order food.”
If only this were the end!
When the food at last arrives, one must receive it appropriately. One must not coldly ignore the fact that one has been served – though this is exactly what the gigantic glamorous European tourists do. (It is all right for them.) It is also extremely wrong to over-thank. For example, to thank the waiter when he brings a water glass, and then an empty plate, and then the food. To thank him individually for the fork and the knife and the spoon. This is extremely wrong.
The meal must not be eaten too quickly. (That might seem ungrateful.) It should also not be eaten too slowly. (Think of how boring that is for the waiter!) He also feels badly if he takes up a table for too long, and he feels this way even if the restaurant is empty.
Then he must decide whether or not to have coffee. This is a critical decision. Because a cup of coffee has the potential to almost entirely reconstruct him, rendering him a functional, plausibly normal person in just a few minutes.
A cup of coffee could also result in total calamity, like switching on an industrial fan in the vicinity of an elderly community of dandelions. There’s just no telling what will happen, if he orders coffee.
Asking for the bill is something gentleman know how to do. It ought to be crisp and matter-of-fact, bold but not over-bearing, confident, capable, take-charge. It ought to pass between customer and waiter like a nearly telepathic snap of the fingers.
It is impossible, he thinks. Yet somehow everyone else manages do it.
Getting attention is a challenge for someone who is nearly entirely invisible. He must try several times. Each time he fails he shrinks slightly in size. When at last he succeeds, his tone that is not quite that of a confident gentleman. Invariably his tone is oh my god please help me. I am trapped in this restaurant. Paying the bill, no matter how difficult, is my only hope, my only chance of escape.
He is certain that never even once in his life has he had the exact change.
The contortions and calculations necessary to decide the tip – would exhaust the reader. The man himself is quite exhausted and desperate to exit. He staggers to the door and must try hard to appear sober, although he has had nothing to drink.
Then he is back on the street with the locals, real people who actually belong somewhere on Earth, and the tourists, who are all seven feet tall and have obtained post graduate degrees in Being Aloof.
He knows he must return to his room and nap even though it means facing the hotel clerk who may at any moment demand, But what is your plan, sir? If this happens, he must feign intestinal distress, because a man of no substance can have no plans, even if he is perfectly capable of having diarrhea.
At last he is back in his room with the door locked. Which is not to say that he ceases to be afraid. How did it ever happen, he wonders, that other people learned how to live? They cannot understand. How merciless they are when they say, There’s no right way to have lunch, when they say, Just show up.
09.25.12) Kandy, Sri Lanka