Tonight in New York City, I stumbled upon the restaurant that my sister and I had dined at nearly 10 years ago.
When we were younger, she and I had a pact that when we turned 40 the “other” sister had to take the birthday girl on a trip somewhere. We are from Ontario, Canada, and neither had been to New York. She surprised me with this destination, only letting me know slightly in advance so we could plan together.
With our guidebooks earmarked and highlighted with all the sights and restaurants we wanted to experience, we embarked on our multi-day sister adventure. A night that stood out for me was our dinner at an Italian restaurant near Times Square. They served house red wine in juice glasses, and the meals were family-style with large platters for sharing.
And share we did. The ravioli, the wine, the laughs, and the great conversation with an older gentleman behind the bar where we sat. It is a dear memory to me, like a photograph.
My baby sister, Marianne, passed a few months ago, just before her 44th birthday, of metastatic breast cancer. We celebrated the hell out of life after her diagnosis five years prior, but this trip to N.Y.C. took place years before we truly understood how finite our precious time together would be.
Nonetheless, we were grateful for this celebratory trip of wonder and exploration. We savoured each carefully selected meal, laughed at many ridiculous moments, and took in as much as our sore feet and exhausted bodies could sustain. And somehow, that evening at that restaurant percolated to the top of the memory pile.
Tonight, while in town for a trade show, I was on the hunt with my colleagues in search of “the best pizza in N.Y.C.” After collecting our bounty and the ice cream that followed it, I saw that restaurant’s sign hanging over the sidewalk. I stopped mid-stride.
This was our place.
I tried to find the words to explain to my colleagues. They didn’t come, so I simply blurted that I had to go inside. As though in a trance, I approached the doorman. I asked if I could come inside to see the bar upstairs. They were closed. He was apologetic.
I paused. But I could not leave.
“Sir, I wonder if you could do me a favour, please?” I went on to explain that night in September 2013 when Marianne and I had dined upstairs at the bar. And how I felt I needed to see our spot—precisely where we sat that evening. She had physically left us, but somehow I had stumbled across this place tonight.
We shared a knowing look. “Just a minute, please,” and he stepped into the restaurant. A moment later, he reappeared, letting me know that he would escort me inside but that I needed to leave my ice cream outside. Definitely a fair trade, I felt. As we walked, I felt the need to explain and apologize, “You must think I’m crazy, asking to see some spot where I sat with my sister…” He gently interrupted with, “Ma’am, I just found out that my first girlfriend died yesterday. We stayed friends. She was my first love, and I never stopped loving her.”
We stopped walking. We each turned to offer comfort to the other hurting human in front of us, with a look, with words, with touch. At that moment, as strangers, we understood. As strangers, we felt each other’s pain. More importantly, in that same moment, we stopped being strangers. We were connected. I asked his name. “Jay,” he said, walking away to get me a tissue for my visibly swelling eyes.
As the second-floor bar came into view, I took a breath in. An exhausted employee sat on a barstool, second from the left. That end stool—Marianne’s seat—was empty. “That’s our spot,” I gestured. “That’s her spot, actually,” I corrected, motioning to the empty barstool. “Take your time; this is a special place for you,” Jay comforted. I took a photo, though it was not as vibrant as the photograph I already had in my mind of us sharing our time together that evening in September 2013.
Moments before, I was walking with my ice cream. At that moment, Jay and I were two divinely interconnected people. We were connected by the human experience of love and loss, by the complexities of what it means to be human. His heartfelt empathy and kindness cultivated the experience I needed. With all my heart, I wished I could do the same for him.
“I hope you find peace Jay…” was all I could muster as I placed my hand on his arm. We shared one last knowing look as I left the restaurant, reappearing to my colleagues whose puzzled expressions sought understanding. “What was that?” one inquired.
“I didn’t realize I knew him…” I smiled in response. “The doorman?” their intonation incredulous.
“Yeah, long story. Thank you for holding my ice cream.”