I ate lunch alone today. Don't feel sorry for me. I needed space to think, and my favorite Italian restaurant is perfect for that, like sliding on a pair of old shoes.
When I walked in, Lena, the hostess, said "Just one?," and I said, "Just me." I never even slowed down. I pointed to the corner booth, said "I'm going to my hole," and she nodded. This happens once every two weeks or so. I sit down, they bring me what I always eat, keep the ice tea flowing, and pretty much leave me alone. There's no chit-chat like a bartender might engage in with a single diner like me. Occasionally the owner, Frank, an Italian immigrant, walks out of the kitchen, maybe out onto the sidewalk, looks around, and comes back in. We say hello. But he knows what I am there for.
Today I am reading Leaving Orbit: Notes of the Last Days of American Spaceflight, by Margaret Lazarus Dean, an English professor at UT Knoxville. That's an ominous title. I am 96 pages in, and I keep hoping for more but keep coming up short. Yet I can't stop. Dean, who is quite a bit younger than me, is no doubt a fan of all things space, but so far this is a book about a young author writing a book, with shallow observations, laments over being born too late, and "ga-ga" moments, as when she spent a couple hours with Buzz Aldrin. She deeply regrets being born too late to see the "heroic era" of spaceflight, and yet I have rarely read so many words about so little. She pulls off the 528 Causeway on Merritt Island to watch with other tourists one of the last shuttle launches, and I long for rich descriptions of Discovery's liftoff, for deep reflections on the era, the flora and fauna of the island, anything. But she doesn't have the words. Asked her impression of the launch by a friend, all she can muster is "awesome," with the explanation that "sometimes the most complex events are summed up in a single word." Maybe, but not that word. But I still have a couple hundred pages to go, so maybe the fire is in the finish.
I take a bite of pizza. I am cutting my single oversized slice with knife and fork, making it last, as if I were writing Notes From the Last Days of Pizza, as if I need to describe it all to you, reader. Frank's pizza is little more than a delicious sizzling piece of cheese held together by the slightest of flour atoms, like raclette, the only Swiss dish I care for. Lena fills my glass, breezes by. "Thanks," I say, not even looking up, deep in the Last Orbit, in space. I know why I'm reading the book. I'm a sucker for melancholy tales, for wistful longings, for lost dreams. Or maybe, magically, I hope to see someone I know in these pages, might see what they see as they drive up to Kennedy Space Center, as the Vehicle Assembly Building looms staggeringly large over them, a building which seems to touch the clouds and welcome the sky. I'd look with their eyes over a archipelago of buildings strewn across Florida marsh and sand and wonder: What now? Seeing the open horizon, suddenly I don't feel so melancholy at all, even believe that Cape Canaveral-sized dreams are still worth dreaming, that even I might reach a metaphoric star.
"Thanks Lena," I say. Thanks for that bit of space to fuel my day, to dream.