The Man at the Buffet
“I love it! I love it! I love it!”…….
Jen throws her hands up high in the air, as though she’s at the top of a hill on a roller coaster. Her fingertips poke out the sunroof of our rental car. The Carrolls are cruising down 192 East in Orlando, Florida. It is our annual holiday away from Rhode Island, and Florida is our destination of choice.
“Vaughn, are you excited?” Jen says with pure alacrity, spinning around in the passenger seat.
“yessssssss………..” he responds, his gaze never steering away from the scene out his window.
During these annual vacations, one of Jen’s favorite moments is choosing the restaurant for dinner. As a stay-at-home Mom, this is a critical part of our vacation – no cooking, no meal prep, no cleaning up. Having come down to Florida for several years, we have a short list of restaurants we have to visit, plus a new list of restaurants we have to try.
Earlier in the day, we were poolside and I decided to stoke her enthusiasm about dinner earlier than expected. As we were drying off at lounge chairs poolside after a long swim together, I sow the seeds of excitement, knowing the reaction I’ll get from Jen.
Jen pauses deliberately, turning her head toward me. Theatrically, she lowers her sunglasses, her eyes meeting mine.
“Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh….” she says with a cat-like purr.
I make the suggestion fully knowing how she’ll respond. This is Jen’s favorite destination by far, for one singular reason –all you can eat sushi. When you add my wife’s favorite food with the novelty of unlimited choice and selection, it is no wonder she is instantly smitten with the idea. Vaughn is a big fan of this restaurant as well, as am I. Everybody wins.
As we enter the restaurant – a huge buffet style restaurant with tons of seating – I'm struck by the fact that Ichiban never looks busy – mostly because of its enormous seating capacity. We are quickly seated and a waitress immediately comes by.
“Welcome to Ichiban. Have y’all been here before?”
“Ohhhh, yes….” Jen responds, oozing with sincerity. “we come at least once a year”
“Wonderful, then you know how it works. Please feel free to grab a plate at any of the stations. I’m guessing you’ll want the sushi buffet?”
“We wouldn’t have it any other way!” Jen responds a second later.
“Excellent, you can go up at any time”
Before the waitress finishes the comment, Jen is off and running, leaving Vaughn and I at the table. The waitress looks at me a little surprised, with a “I haven’t even taken your drink order yet and she’s already gone” quizzical look.
I smile at her, “She’s really been looking forward to this all day” I say honestly.
‘Of course, what would you like to drink?”
“My wife and son will have a Diet Coke.”
“And how about you?
“A decanter of hot sake”
“A big one……..I mean….” feeling a little self-conscious, ”a large, please”. I am on vacation after all.
‘Wonderful” she says with a smile, ”feel free to join your wife”
Vaughn and I amble our way deeper into the restaurant, where all the serving stations are. There is a large impressive rectangular station in the middle of the restaurant. The middle of the table is hollowed out to make room for two sushi chefs, who are working furiously to meet the demand. On all four sides of the rectangle are different types of sushi: nigiri, maki, etc. I see my wife, who is surveying the sushi scene, her eyes wide and lit across her face, a grin across her. As we pass by, I say:
“Vaughn and I are gonna check out the hot station. I already ordered you a Diet Coke.
She doesn’t respond, her eyes never leaving the array choice of sushi. She is still smiling, the fluorescent lights of the sushi station giving her a ghostly glow. She is savoring the moment, when choice fully meets expectation. We walk by her.
Returning back to our table, our plates are stacked with standard Chinese fare: General Tsao’s chicken, fried rice, crab rangoon. I’ll hit the sushi table on my second round. As we sit down, our waitress is bringing over drinks.
“Perfect timing” I say to her. I instinctively reach for the decanter of sake. Grabbing it, my right hand is scalded. It’s right out of the microwave, intensely hot.
“YOOOOWWWWW! That’s hot!” I cry out to Vaughn, flapping my hand.
Vaughn instantly breaks out into a fit of giggles.
“Why did you grab that?” he says, his posture collapsing from laughter.
“I didn’t know it was hot! Ooooooouucccchhhhhh”
Sitting next to me, Vaughn is now doubling over with laughter. “Daddy! Why would you grab it?” he can barely get out the words, my pain is a great source of amusement to him “Daddy, why did you do that? He says again, hyperventilating with laughter.
Though Vaughn isn’t being unnecessarily loud, I feel a wave of self-consciousness, as all Dads do in public places. Sitting diagonally across from us, a man is sitting by himself, his back against the wall. He is watching us intently. His age is hard to determine, probably younger than me. His eyes are asymmetrical, one eye dropping lower than the other. He is fairly large, with an enormous worn black T-shirt sagging down over his hips. He is pale, his hair a dirty blond, and dining alone at a buffet restaurant. His stare is making me uncomfortable, so I look away. He is clearly watching us, taking in the exchange with me and my son, assessing the scene.
Jen returns from the sushi station. It feels like she has been gone a long time - the sushi impressively arranged on her plate.
“Mommy! Daddy burnt himself on the sake!” Vaughn shouts gleefully.
“Vaughn, not so loud” I retort.
“Wait, what? You burnt yourself on the sake?”
“The decanter was insanely hot. I almost dropped it. And then of course, this guy……..” I say glancing over at Vaughn. He is still hiccupping with laughter, his full weight leaning on my left shoulder. “Oh Daddy……..” he drawls..
We enjoy dinner, making several trips to the sushi station. I almost forget about the intent staring of the blonde man in the black T-shirt, until I catch him in my peripheral vision. Suddenly, I feel him closing in on me, a large shadow drawing closer, as he approaches our table. My eyes meet his - which are moist, blinking away tears.
“It’s so nice to see a boy with his Dad like that. You seem like a really good Dad” his tone is genuine, heartfelt.
He places his hand on my left shoulder as he talks, I instinctively grab his left elbow with my right hand. His voice is rich with emotion.
“I never really had a Dad…not really at least”
“He’s lucky. You’re lucky too….”
“Yes, yes I am”
“Well, enjoy your dinner”
“Bye. Bye now. Vaughn – can you say bye?”
The man departs, shuffling out the door. Jen waits until he’s out of earshot, the door swinging behind him.
“Well, that was nice. What was that all about?” she asks with a tone of surprise.
“I dunno. He was staring at me and Vaughn a lot when you were getting your sushi.”
When we leave the restaurant, I toss the keys over to Jen. ”Can you drive? I’ve had a full decanter of sake” .
Driving down 192, Vaughn immediately begins his post-restaurant ritual - an in-the-moment Yelp review.
“For food 5 stars, loved the General Tsao’s chicken. For service, only two stars – you know why Daddy?”
Silence. I am lost outside the window, speculating about the man at the restaurant.
“I’m only giving the restaurant two stars for service, You know why? Because it’s a buffet restaurant. We served ourselves!” he says giggling.
I am lost again. What would compel a solo man, dining alone, to come over like that? What’s his story? What did he mean when he said I never really had a Dad? And why was he so emotional?”
“For price, guess how many stars, Daddy?”.
“For price, 5 stars. Mommy ate over $100 of sushi. It was a good deal………”
Vaughn’s words dissolve into the background of the car like elevator music. I’m still obsessing over the man at the restaurant. Just what is his story? Why was he compelled to come over? What is his story?