This month’s word is lunch, meaning “a light midday meal between breakfast and dinner“.
Sorry this is so late.
It was an odd meal. Should’ve been straightforward, this lunch with my new partner (and by partner I mean business partner; I don’t do romance), but it was anything but. I hadn’t met them before; everything had been online or through an intermediary. I’d never even spoken to them. All I really knew about them was that they had money, they were interested in my business, and their initials: H.J.S. I thought the S might have been Smith, but I wasn’t sure.
First thing was, I could not find the place. I followed the instructions on my phone, but there was no restaurant there, no shops, just a warehouse. And it was locked. I knocked on the door, rattled the doorknob, double- and triple-checked the location on my phone. After five minutes of pointless knocking and looking up and down the street I was ready to leave.
“Can I help you, per?” It was an unexpected interruption. I had no idea where this individual had come from, but there they were, bowing and offering assistance.
“I’m looking for The Restaurant“, I told them, thinking once again what an unhelpful name that was for an eating establishment.
“Of course, per. This way.”
They gestured towards a door that had definitely not been visible a minute ago, and we entered the place. My first impression was that it was deserted. There were a few booths scattered around, but I couldn’t see anyone through the dim lighting.
“Is per meeting someone?”
“Yes, I’m meeting H.J.S.”
“Ah, of course. This way, per.”
They led me over to one of the booths.
“Has per attended one of our establishments before?”
I shook my head.
“No, first time.”
“Well, it’s very simple, per. You order your food via this tablet, and the person you’re meeting will dial in to that screen opposite you.”
I stared at them.
“Oh yes, per. This is a socially distant establishment. Only one person per booth.”
I blinked in disbelief. I’d heard of these kinds of places, of course, but I’d never expected to be in one.
“If per needs any help from myself, please press the red button in the centre of the table.”
“Th… Thanks, thanks,” I stuttered, feeling extremely out of my depth.
They bowed again and drifted gracefully away. I stared after them for a moment, then began to explore the menu on the tablet. I didn’t really understand why my partner had picked this of all places, given that the point of this lunch – I thought – was for us to meet each other, but my confusion was no reason to go hungry.
I ordered something from the mid-price section, not wanting to appear either cheap or greedy. Just after my drink appeared on the table, delivered in some mysterious fashion (I swear nobody approached me), there was a ping! and an avatar appeared on the screen in front of me. I knew it was an avatar, because it was a pink-and-purple-striped cat-faced flying horse.
I must have been staring blankly because it cleared its throat and spoke to me.
“Hello? Can you hear me?”
“Yes, yes,” I stammered. “I just thought… I thought I’d be meeting you in person, or at least seeing your face.”
“Oh, no no no,” it said. “I value my privacy.”
“Really I just want to see you eat.”
I stared at the avatar suspiciously.
“Is this a sex thing? Because I’m not up for that.”
“No, not at all,” it interjected smoothly. “I merely enjoy watching others eat good food.”
At some point during this conversation, my food had arrived. It smelled delicious, but I was now a little wary of eating.
“Please do eat,” it said. “It would be a shame for your food to get cold.”
I stared at it, then at the food – which looked as amazing as it smelled – and sighed.
“Fine, I’ll eat,” I said, taking my first forkful and closing my eyes to better savour the wonderful blend of taste and texture.
“So are we going to discuss business?” I enquired.
“No, I’m just going to watch you eat. You can learn a lot about a person from that, you know.”
“If you say so.” I shrugged, unconvinced, and continued eating.
It was possibly the most awkward meal I’ve ever had, even more so than the time my sibling accidentally invited both the people they were dating to family dinner, and it turned out neither knew of the other’s existence. That at least had been fun to watch, on a trainwreck kind of way. This was just… weird.
It was slightly compensated by it also being the best meal I’d ever eaten.
When I was done, the avatar thanked me for my time, and then disappeared. A notification appeared on the tablet to say the meal had been paid for, and I got up to leave.
The person who’d shown me in reappeared to show me out.
“Did per enjoy per’s meal?”
“Yes, thank you. It was the most delicious meal I’ve ever eaten.”
“I shall pass your compliments to the chef.”
I stepped outside and stopped dead as they shut the door behind me. I was now in a totally different part of town, one much closer to my home. I turned around to see that the door to The Restaurant was now the door to a chicken shop. Just to be certain, I opened the door and stepped in. Yes, definitely a chicken shop.
I stepped back outside and began walking back to my flat. I wondered if I’d get another lunch invitation from H.J.S. It might be worth the weirdness to eat that food again. Maybe. Probably.
Oh, who was I kidding? I’d undergo any amount of awkwardness to eat like that again.