It wasn't long ago I was in the little diner on the corner near my office. I go there because I can sit in the No Smoking section and see one of the more active parts of town, with a clear view of everyone who comes in. As you can well imagine, my main purpose for going there is the people-watching. I could be kind and say it is the food, but it's not the food. Even though you can have breakfast anytime you want, they grill everything and it all tastes the same, except for the soup, and I've never quite figured out what the soup tastes like.
Sitting at my favorite table, watching the traffic, sipping my iced tea, I waited on my order and pondered the events of a strained morning. There had been an unusual number of telephone calls, lost files and computer glitches. Lunch was my time to relax, center myself and make a valiant attempt to return to my desk with a feeling of sanity. It was a slow traffic day and I quickly got lost in a daydream, so when the waitress started talking, I startled. I turned and there, on the tray was a grilled cheese and fries, and an ice cream soda.
Now this wasn't just any ice cream soda. It was one of the old fashioned ones, in a tall glass with lots of chocolate dripping down the side and whipped cream and a big cherry on top. As I watched the frost forming on the sides of the glass, I thought I was having a memory challenged moment. Had I done something so brash as order an ice cream soda to eat with my lunch?
Just before I could launch into a speech that was somewhere between an apology for garbling my order and thanking her for bringing me something so wonderful, the waitress dropped the grilled cheese and fries in front of me, and turned, taking the ice cream soda with her. She walked to a nearby table and placed that delightful concoction in front of a young girl.
Comparing that ice cream soda to my lunch was, well, let's just say it was dismal. I sat there, searching for some flavor in my sandwich, trying to figure out why things like this happen. I had looked at the menu, reviewed all the items, weighed my options and chose the grilled cheese. It was a practical decision based on price and what I was having for dinner that night and how much time I had, all those things we take into consideration when we choose lunch.
On the other hand, the girl at the next table had looked at the same menu. She saw past the breakfast combinations, past the sandwiches, past the salads. When the waitress said 'And what will you have today?' she said 'I'll have a chocolate ice cream soda.' She probably even said thankyou. I found myself wondering just what in the hell she thought about when she made such an outrageous choice. I came to the immediate conclusion that she was some young college student out on her own for the first time, thinking Mom's not here so I can eat what I want.
It doesn't take long to eat a grilled cheese, so by the time the young girl had scraped the whipped cream to one side and dug into the soft chocolate below, I was finished. I reminded myself it was impolite to stare, so I took out my writing notebook and pretended to be taking notes, glancing away from time to time so as not to appear rude. When I couldn't stand it any longer, I lay down my pen and looked out the window.
With only the occasional pedestrian to observe, it didn't take long for me to begin reflecting. The time when I thought of life as a series of chance events and random occurrences had long passed. I knew that as frustrated as I was, this moment was about more than what I order for lunch. I had spent many a lunch hour sitting in that very booth in the little diner wondering what I was supposed to be doing with my life. I could sit there and be miserable, letting my mind mill the same question over and over again, or I could embrace the awakening this situation presented and consider a new approach to the quandary I face most often. When struggling with life's journey am I facing a contemplative decision or should I act on impulse?
I have been both decisive and impulsive in my time. The situations are alike in that they are both based on my own personal logic. The logic is usually focused on a belief that there is a right way and a wrong way and I must choose the right way. When taking the contemplative approach, I mentally shred a thought until it is nothing more than a pile of letters, every word dissected in my mind. On the other hand, I have also acted so impulsively that I wondered how I got to where I was. Even then, when I looked back on what I had done, there was an underlying theme of right and wrong.
Still searching for a clue to the significance of this moment, it seemed clear that for whatever odd reason I thought ice cream for lunch was wrong. Why did this trouble me? Then it hit me so hard I almost laughed out loud. That girl had done what she wanted to do instead of what she was supposed to do.
Could it possibly be that simple? What if I started with a question like 'What is my wildest dream?' instead of 'In the great cosmic mix in the Universe, where do I fit in and what am I supposed to be doing?' Time being what it is, my lunch hour experience had once again left me with a question instead of an answer. As I put my pen in my bag and started for the cash register, I realized something had changed. No, I'm not going to order ice cream for lunch. I mean, let's be realistic. She thinks she's going to be a size five forever. In a few years when gravity kicks in, all that whipped cream will settle into places she doesn't even know she has yet. But in the same way the question you start with has a lot to do with the answer you end up getting, a journey is determined by the map you choose to follow. I couldn't help but feel today had awakened me to a new path - a path sure to be filled with discovery.
Barbara Hampton is a long-time resident of a small town in southern Illinois where she has been wife and companion to David for 30 years. Her writing is driven by the variety of roles she finds herself in, including wife, companion, mother, grandmother, financial adviser, student, lay minister, inspirational speaker, group leader and expert on all things chocolate. Previously published in the John A. Logan Junior College literary magazine (Expressions), Barb can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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