There are things that people do when they eat out alone. Like use their mobile phone to call others they would never talk to otherwise. Or look intently into their plates, afraid that the food might run away if they took their eyes off it. Some check their watches a lot. As if to suggest to others that they are really not eating out alone. But simply waiting for someone else to join them at the table.
Padmaja never used a mobile and rarely ate out. She kept stirring her coffee until it had gone tepid and then finished it in a swift gulp. She could only vaguely remember what that man Prakash looked like. She thinks that he wears glasses and has a shiny bald head. He had a mildly expansive waistline, the kind you get from leading a good life and in the photograph that he had sent, he was laughing at a joke that had been cracked by someone beyond the camera. He seemed like the kind of person who never suffered from self-doubt. He was a couple of years older than her and had been widowed for eight years. He ran his own business and had suggested that they meet outside in a coffee shop rather than at her house.
It is the sort of coffee shop that she would never have gone out to, much less on her own. She had lingered at the entrance unsure whether to wait outside or to go in on her own. A young couple, clearly impatient to get inside, forced her to make her way through the door and find a seat for herself. It took her a few minutes to adjust to the dark interiors as she deliberated over where to sit. She didn't want to choose a table by the large glass window where everyone outside could see her and wonder what she was up to. Nor did she want go in for a secluded table, deep within the coffee shop. A sofa seemed to suggest familiarity and a table-for-two, intimacy. Finally, she picked a seat at a table, with four chairs, that was conveniently located in the middle of the cafe and was one of the few places on the floor that was brightly lit.
She has been waiting for more than an hour now. She looks around to ensure that there is no one who fits the description of the man she is waiting for. The place seems saturated with the young. She briefly considers ordering another coffee but instead raises her hand, calls the waiter's attention and asks for the bill. The waiter shuffles across to her table and lowers his head to whisper. She wonders why the need for secrecy and asks him to repeat what he has just said.
“Your bill has been settled, madam”, says the waiter looking down at his shoes.
“Settled? By whom?”
“By an old man, a Sir, who came in some time ago. He also asked me to tell you...” he seems to hesitate to continue.
“Yes?”, says Padmaja encouragingly.
“He said that he was sorry but he doesn't think you are his type.”
He let his message sink in before continuing.
“Madam, this is a busy time of the day for us. Will you be needing anything else?”
Padmaja forces herself to look straight ahead as she walks out of the coffee shop. Once outside, she hails an autorickshaw, gives directions home, climbs the stairs to her flat, draws the curtains, sinks into bed, throws a blanket over herself and remains there for the rest of the day.