“The lady would like the cannelloni rossini; I’ll have the mandilli de saea al pesto. The house salad will be fine for both of us. Just oil and vinegar, please. Espresso after dinner.”
“Two glasses of the Friulano — yes?” I glanced at Abigail, who nodded.
“Very good, sir. Your wine will be right out.” The waiter floated away.
Abby gave me a glance of cool amusement. “Theo, I think you enjoy ordering the food more than eating it.”
“Only when I’m with you. And I enjoy your presence more than either one.”
She gracefully tilted her head in acknowledgement. “A pretty compliment. Some day I’ll test it by making you sit and watch while I eat. Theo” — her smile vanished — “do you hear those loud voices?”
“Now that you mention it —” Heads were turning all over the dining room. When the waiter returned, I asked, “Is someone playing a game of rugby? We hear shouts and cheers.”
“Sorry, sir. A party of college students in the bar area has become, ah, a bit rowdy. The manager has spoken with them. I think they’re leaving.”
He’d spoken truly, for the noise swelled again, and there they were — five young men, still talking raucously, but uncertainly progressing toward the exit. One of them looked in our direction, then quickly looked away. They left. After two heartbeats of silence, the murmur of conversation resumed.
“For only five, they did a fair imitation of 12,” said Abby. When I made no response, she asked “Theo?”
“Hmm? Sorry, Abigail, I was woolgathering. I thought I knew one of those students, but I can’t place him. Never mind! Happy anniversary. May the next 31 be as blessed as the last.”
She lifted her glass to meet mine. It was a lovely dinner.
* * *
The next day he appeared at my office door, not quite so disheveled. I peered for a moment, then recognized the young man who had met my eyes the evening before. But there was something else. As he stood and asked “Professor Theophilus?”, something went “pop” in my memory, and the picture came up on the screen.
It had been more than a year ago, on the very first day of freshman orientation the week before fall semester started. Green as an unripe tomato, he looked scarcely old enough to be in college. From nowhere, he’d shown up to say that he’d read some of my columns in Nounless and to ask for advice. About what? “I don’t know. Anything.” I gathered that it might not have been his own idea to see me. It wasn’t hard to guess his background: Conventionally good kid. Christian home. Overprotective parents who confused being good with being compliant. Their anxiety about his going away to Post-Everything University.
“I know you. Eddie, isn’t it? You —”
“I know what you saw, but it’s not what you think.”
“What? What did you think I —”
“Those were good guys. They were my friends. We weren’t blotto. We weren’t even drinking.”
“I didn’t say —”
“Not drinking drinking, you know? OK, we’d had a few. But nothing serious.”
“I hadn’t even —”
“Mostly just beer anyway. It wouldn’t have gone anywhere if Jocko hadn’t asked us if we knew what boilermakers were.”
“Are you trying —”
“But like I said, apart from the vodka, it was just beer. Mostly.”
“You don’t have to —”
“And I only had a few of those anyway.”
“Eddie, will you just —”
“They probably told you about the Everclear, but I didn’t know anything about that. Mooner brought it in his jacket. He’s always doing stupid stuff like that. I told him off.”
“I’m trying to —”
“I didn’t even have any, except when he switched it for the vodka. And that wasn’t my fault.”
“Will you just —”
“I only had three or four anyway. And I didn’t have any of the screwdrivers, no matter what they told you.”
“I haven’t talked to —”
“That manager? He’s a liar. He was just mad because we didn’t buy the bourbon from his bar.”
“Didn’t you say —”
“And that screeetch you heard in the parking lot? It wasn’t our fault. People shouldn’t bring their kids along if they can’t pay attention to their driving. We were lucky we didn’t get hit.”
“I didn’t hear —”
“The sign says ENTRANCE, but everyone knows you can go out there too. That guy should have been more careful.”
Since Eddie wasn’t listening anyway, I gave up trying to speak.
“It isn’t like I’ve got a drinking problem. I never drink alone.”
“Mmm,” I murmured.
“Only with the guys. Even then, only on weekends.”
“Never on school nights. Unless there’s a special occasion. You know, when there’s something to celebrate.”
I nodded to show that I was listening.
“Like a holiday. Or a victory by the football team.”
I may have raised my left eyebrow.
“Or getting back together after semester break. Or passing a big exam. But that doesn’t happen very often.”
This time I’m sure I raised it.
“Sometimes we go out when we need cheering up, but you can’t blame us for that. For instance if the football team bombs, or if it’s the middle of the semester and we’re tired.”
I pressed my fingertips together.
“Or if we’re, you know, discouraged because it’s not the weekend yet.”
I inclined my head to the left.
“Or because there’s nothing to celebrate and we’re depressed. So it’s not like we go out drinking every night. Usually no more than once a week. Maybe twice.”
This time I inclined it to the right.
“Three times max. I mean really, really max. And these are the greatest guys. I feel like, they’re real friends, you know? Because I can have fun with them. Not like my old friends.”
“With my old friends it was always the same old thing. A movie. A basketball game. Debating stuff. Bicycling. Going places to eat. One time we staged a dramatic reading of Milton’s Paradise Lost in the dorm. And then there was Glee Club — singing, singing, singing. You see what I mean. The same old thing all the time.”
“But I do lots of different things with these guys. Like, last night we were at the bar at Molto Alimento drinking boilermakers. But last weekend, we didn’t feel like going anywhere, so we sat around Jocko’s apartment drinking jello shots. See what I mean? Variety.”
“And these guys aren’t always judging me like my old friends did. I mean like they would have, like I feel that they would have, if you know what I mean. These guys don’t judge me about things. They don’t care what I like to do when I’m out. They don’t care how I have fun. They don’t care about, you know, drinking.”
“Mmm?” I hoped Eddie would run out of words before I ran out of murmurs and gestures.
“In fact, they don’t care about much of anything, and that just shows how nonjudgmental they are.”
I didn’t move. I didn’t make a sound.
Eddie didn’t either.
We sat for a few seconds in silence.
I asked, “Are you finished?”
“Good. Now listen to me. I didn’t recognize you last night; you were too far away. I didn’t know that you were drunk; I only heard you making noise with your friends. The manager didn’t talk to me about you; he had no reason to. I didn’t hear the screeetch in the parking lot; the door was shut, and music was playing. I didn’t know that you’d dropped your old friends, and I didn’t know about your new ones. I didn’t know that you’d given up your old interests, and I didn’t know how much or how often you drink. Eddie, if you hadn’t told me all these things, I wouldn’t have known a thing about them. I tried to tell you.”
For a few seconds, Eddie continued to stare at me. Then he wrapped his arms around himself and began to rock — forward and back, forward and back. “Oh my God, I’ve told you everything. Oh, God. Oh, Jesus.”
It might have been a prayer; I couldn’t tell. At least he remembered God’s name.
He stopped rocking and looked up.
“Are you going to tell my parents?”
Copyright 2003 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.