Tuesday, August 29, 2006
Truth or Lie?
Four years ago, I went to Newport, Oregon to see a play and meet an actress who had been cast in the pilot of a TV show I was trying to get produced.
The trip was my introduction to the Sylvia Beach Hotel. I adored the place from the moment I stepped in the door. Like the Skin Horse in The Velveteen Rabbit, The Sylvia has been loved into a kind of genteel shabbiness that manages to be comforting and comfortable at the same time.
You gotta love a place like that.
Anyway, the night of the play I was ready early and decided to walk down the street to a beachfront restaurant for a glass of wine.
I was feeling pretty good as I strolled along wearing a new black dress with a bright scarf wrapped around my shoulders. It was, miraculously, a good hair day and my makeup had turned out unusually well.
I think I was simply high on life. The whole trip felt like a grand adventure, probably because the idea of getting the pilot off the ground was not just exciting. but completely surreal.
Around the corner and just off the street stood a portico that sheltered the entrance to the restaurant. I ducked in and took a seat at the gleaming pine bar. A friendly young bartender produced a glass of good Pinot Grigio and chatted with me for a bit.
As we talked, an older man made repeated trips in and out the door, bearing a huge arrangement of flowers, then several gift bags and brightly wrapped packages, then impressive silver candlesticks. He lovingly arranged each item on a table by the windows, happily surveying the scene after each addition. The staff, all of whom seemed to know him, scurried around solicitously, clearly helping the man prepare for a very special occasion.
By the time the man appeared at the door with a magnum champagne and crystal flutes, my story-sensing antennae were at full alert. This time he spoke as he passed by.
“Hello,” he said. “You’re so full of life it’s a pleasure just to look at you.”
Now my bullshit antennae leaped to attention.
I smiled narrowly, murmured “Thank you,” and turned back to my Pinot Grigio.
“I’d be honored if you would join me in a glass of champagne when I finish my chores,” he continued.
I glanced up at the bartender, who seemed to be sending me some sort of signal with his eyes.
“Thank you,” I replied politely, “but I have wine.”
“I understand, but I hope you’ll change your mind. It’s safe to drink with me. Ask any of these guys,” he chuckled and waved toward the bartender and host.
All but dancing, the man settled the champagne in a chilled silver bucket that had been placed on the table by one of the waiters. When he smiled, his bushy eyebrows waggled over his eyes, giving me the impression he might be slightly scandalous but certainly not dangerous.
“I’d like to share a drink with a beautiful woman this evening,” he added as he breezed back out the door. “Think about it.”
As the door closed behind the man, the bartender leaned toward me and spoke in a low whisper.
“Go ahead. We’d consider it a real kindness.”
To my surprise, the handsome host leaned in to join the conversation.
“George is absolutely harmless. We’d all appreciate it if you’d have a drink with him,” he said quietly.
The door burst open again, and “George” swept in, carrying a simple brass urn. As we watched, he carefully placed the urn in the exact center of the table. Finally, he ripped the foil off the champagne bottle with a flourish and expertly twisted off the wire cage. The cork released with a satisfying “POP.”
I turned away, but it took only a moment for my curiosity to get the better of me. When I glanced back, a flute filled with champagne rested beside the brass urn and George was filling a second. When that glass was full, he raised it in what looked like a toast to the urn, and then drank the entire contents in one long, slow swallow. His eyes never left the table.
Next, George picked up the urn and the remaining champagne flute, and slipped quietly and resolutely out the door and toward the beach.
Not a moment after the door banged shut, the bartender and the host stepped close again. With a minimum of words, they told me George’s story.
His wife had died 10 days earlier. During her mercifully brief illness, the two of them had agreed that there would be no funeral after her death. Instead, George would bring her ashes to their favorite table at their favorite restaurant, toast her with their favorite champagne, and then scatter her ashes in the surf.
After the ashes floated away, their plans called for several friends to join George for a selection of his wife’s favorite foods. He would then distribute her final gifts to these friends, the people she loved most in the world.
Before I could digest this amazing tale, George materialized at my elbow. He eyes looked wet, but other than that, he was perfectly composed.
“The guys probably explained when I was gone,” he began, “and I hope you don’t think I’m a jerk. My wife made me promise to keep living. It’s sort of like I’ve got to live now for both of us. She wanted me to celebrate beauty and joy where ever I find it.”
George took several deep, calming breaths and continued. “She didn’t want me to be sad. I don’t think either of us knew how hard that would be. But I promised, and I’m going to do my best to celebrate every day for the rest of my life. I’m going to laugh and play and be thankful.”
“And, when I’m lucky, I’m going to drink fine wine with beautiful women,” he added.
George handed me a glass of champagne and picked up his own. We raised our glasses to the urn and drank silently.
When our glasses were empty, George and I stood together, my hand on his arm, for several minutes. Neither of us spoke but the energy that passed between us was more substantial than words.
Suddenly, the flow of energy stopped and it felt like our exchange was complete. We hugged like old friends before I stepped out the door into the dusky evening.
When I passed the windows in front of his table, George was lighting the candles and preparing to receive his guests.
I walked across the street to the beach and meandered through the sand back to the Sylvia, contemplating the kind of love that could inspire such promises.
That night at the dinner table, one of my stories was about drinking champagne with a stranger and his late wife’s ashes.
No one believed a word of it.