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A Feast of Sweet Memories

Sam’s Grill. White linen tablecloths. Dark wooden walls. Waiters in black tuxedos. A man at the bar wearing an ascot and sipping a martini.

It looks the way the world did when we first opened our eyes in the 1940s, which is how long Sam’s Grill has been at this location. It could be Tony’s and it could be the Cafe Royal. The fundamental things survive.

I look at you across the table and think of our first date. I wore my new blue straight skirt and matching vest, with the button-down-collar blouse. Other kids at the party were doing the stroll, and you were talking to me about Nietzsche and George Bernard Shaw.

I was hoping you’d ask me to the senior prom. I was wondering if you were going to kiss me good night. When you did, I decided right then: Let’s get married.

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The waiter brings our dinner. Crusty bread, grilled fish, au gratin potatoes. A man and a woman having dinner.

I think of the summer after we were graduated from high school. I worked in an office filing orders. You were a mailman. The night before we left for college, we went to Tony’s. Chianti bottles. Checkered tablecloths. A glass filled with bread sticks. On the way home, in your father’s Olds Holiday, we sang along with “Moon River” on the radio: “Two drifters off to see the world. . . .”

We broke up three months later.

Tonight, we look around Sam’s and see all the old people and talk of how our fathers would have liked it. I’ve told you about the time when I was 5 years old and my father stood up in the Cafe Royal and sang “O Sole Mio.” Everyone clapped and said he sang just like Caruso. I remember this better than I remember his funeral. But I remember your father’s funeral like it was yesterday. A sunny day in San Diego, and our baby took her first steps without holding on. And we clapped. Then we went in and bowed our heads.

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Our baby is 14 now, and you wonder if she would like Sam’s. “It wouldn’t mean anything to her,” you say.

“What would she order?” I say. “There’s nothing here she likes.”

Clam chowder. Fresh asparagus. Grilled Pacific snapper. There are no new words on the menu. We have no questions for the waiter.

Remember a poem we loved in college?

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Back out of all this now too much for us,

Back in a time made simple by the loss

Of detail . . . .

The summer after we were graduated from college, we decided we were going to get married. You told me I would learn to cook and drive and balance a checkbook. Two out of three ain’t bad.

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I worked at Kroch’s and Brentano’s selling children’s books. You drove a cab in Evanston. We ate our last Chicago pizza and planned our voyage to California. When we arrived, all we heard was Bob Dylan singing, “How does it feel? Tell me, how does it feel? To be on your own, with no direction home, like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone. . . .”

We got married a year later.

That was half our life ago. Whenever we go out to dinner-- just the two of us--I think of us at 19, posing as grown-ups. Drinking Manhattans in Manhattan and then falling asleep during “Goldfinger.” Eating lobster for the first time at the Miss Florence Diner in Florence, Mass. Fighting in Paris in 1967, a big public fight in a cafe. What was it about? We both got up and went our separate ways. We could have lost each other there in the Sixth Arrondissement.

There are no fajitas at Sam’s Grill. Or arugula. Nothing Cajun. The coat hooks are solid brass. The booths are dim and private. The waiter brings everything promptly. When the check comes, we’re in no hurry to leave and find the ‘80s waiting at the door.

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What sights we’ve seen since that party in high school when we left early to talk about serious stuff. But it’s the same old story. As we walk out of Sam’s Grill, I marvel at my luck. I’m still leaving with the most interesting guy at the party.


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