Thursday, August 27, 2009

An homage

It was one of the last nights The Man spent in Seattle before moving to Toronto; one of the last nights I thought I'd spend with him. Ever.

He'd spent the day packing, and by the time he picked me up it was late and I was starving. I had my heart set on one restaurant in particular, and I called ahead to make sure they were going to be open. But when we pulled up, I looked at the sign and realized that I'd called a restaurant with an equally Mediterranean - but entirely different - name. And this one, it appeared, was closed.

It was silly, but I was nearly devastated. Not because no other restaurant's flavors would do, but because of what it seemed to signify about The Man and I: that we were closed, lights out, before we'd even arrived.

I sat in the car after he parked and sulked. "They're closed," I pouted. "I called the wrong restaurant and they're closed. I know it." But The Man insisted we try anyway, and his optimism was rewarded with an unlocked door.

It was too quiet when we stepped inside, though, and a quick survey of the dining room made it clear that they were just about to begin shutting down for the night. The hostess began her apologies, but the owner beckoned us in. "We have just closed," he said, "but..." He gave a quick glance to the kitchen behind him. "Come, come," he invited. "I can fix you something."

We resisted.

We hemmed.

We hawed.

But he insisted.

We chose a table and grinned sheepishly at each other over the plates of appetizers that began arriving: a delicious garlicy spready noshy thing; a perfect house salad. We giggled, thinking maybe we were doing them a favor by eating through their leftovers.

The owner approached, kind eyes smiling through saucer-sized glasses. He made friendly conversation and we thanked him for his generous hospitality. He shrugged off our gratitude as if we were no more trouble than guests of honor arriving fashionably late to a party.

"How about a bottle of wine?" he suggested. The Man and I bobbed our heads in approval. "You like maybe a..." he began, but I'd be lying if I told you that I remember a word of what he said about the wines. I was too enamored with my date, with our host, with the surprise the evening was presenting me. But The Man must've been listening, or maybe just continuing to bob his head like I was, because before long a decisive "I think I know what" from the owner ended the discussion.

There was still the matter of our main course to determine. But this is not the kind of restaurant where one orders from a menu, even when the kitchen is open. This is the kind of restaurant where the owner sizes you up and then brings you the most amazing meal of your life without ever showing you so much as a wine list. "For the tourists," he said of menus.

So he asked if we liked a particular ingredient. I don't even recall now what the ingredient was. Shellfish, maybe? Whatever it was, we again enthusiastically bobbed our heads in approval. And then, as was his way, he nodded knowingly and promised to make us "something special."

He wandered off to get our wine, and The Man gazed at me while I chattered nervously. He has a way of looking at me, The Man: head lowered and slightly cocked to one side; faint smile gently pulling at the corners of his lips, eyes seeing every flicker of bashful that creeps over me. And so I chirped on like a jumpy little bird until the wine arrived at the table and the tasting ritual began.

With yet another approving head bob from The Man, the wine swirled its way into my glass. The owner looked at me while he poured, cocked an eyebrow in The Man's direction and said, "He is good boyfriend for you."

I smiled at The Man and laughed nervously. I wasn't even sure of that yet. We'd had such a strange relationship up to that point. And now? Now he was headed to Toronto with a messy marital status and without any idea of a return date. Now he is a good boyfriend for me?

But he'd been right once before.

On a very different night with a very different man, the owner approached to clear our plates while my date was in the the bathroom and, with the same sweet smile gave his verdict: "You two will be good friends." And we are good friends; were nothing more than good friends shortly after that prophetic date.

So I allowed myself to wonder; to consider for a moment. Perhaps after a lifetime spent making food for couples in all stages of romance, after witnessing countless first and last dates, he'd developed a particular talent for spotting something special. Perhaps.

I looked at The Man, hopeful. He beamed back at me. And I heard the owner's soft voice in my head again: "He is good boyfriend for you." By the time the food arrived, my head was swimming with wine and possibilities.

We were sharing the dining room with one other couple, who'd been finishing dessert when we arrived. I was hardly aware of them, having trouble concentrating on anything beyond the unearthly deliciousness of both the food and the man across the table. But it was hard to miss when they left, because suddenly the lights were turned way down, and a waitress appeared to silently place a candle on our table.

We left the restaurant that night accompanied by an unopened bottle of wine that the owner suggested we take for later.

Romantic? It was so much more than that. It was perfect.

It was the night I gave in just a little; the night I stopped fighting quite so hard against the swelling in my heart; the night I started to believe that, despite the odds stacked so high against us, we might actually be together someday.

"He is good boyfriend for you."

I do not exaggerate when I say that this blessing was the extra little push I needed to believe I might not be crazy after all. And I continued to lean on it. Over the next two years, those words would whisper through my mind whenever I began to feel that I really was nuts; that it was all too much.

"He is good boyfriend for you."

The Man will be back in Seattle - to live, not to visit - in a number of days. I would like nothing more than to return to "our" restaurant to celebrate and to thank the man who unknowingly played a pivotal role in our unlikely love story. But, hand clutched over heart, I read the news of Hussein's death earlier this month.

Oh no.

Oh no.

Oh no.

Never have I so loved a man I didn't even know.

Hussein Khazaal
Owner of Phoenicia on Alki

He died unexpectedly but peacefully in his sleep, at just 63, mere days before he would've celebrated his 40th wedding anniversary. Please read the Seattle Times obituary or the comments to this and this West Seattle Blog post for an idea of who he was and how many lives he touched. And then maybe cook "something special" for someone you love. I think he would like that.


T said...

OMG. This made me cry.

The whole scenario reminded me of the scene in Lady and the Tramp with the spaghetti and the Italian restaurant owner.

Aw. What a perfect moment captured so beautifully with your words.

And what a wonderful tribute. I have no doubt that you made him proud.

Smiling, Beguiling said...

Oh dang woman... what a lovely tribute to Hussein! Now I wish I'd bothered to go there once more for a meal, just so I could have chatted w/ him.

Nicki said...

Wow. Powerful stuff. I believe in fate.

This weekend, I'll be thinking of Hussein while I cook.

MindyMom said...

Wow. What an amazing story. I love every little bit of it, except the owner's passing of course. Sounds like the guy had a wonderful life though and touched many others.

Single Mom Seeking said...

This line gave me a deep chill: "Never have I so loved a man I didn't even know."

Beautiful. Thank you.

Katherine said...

Unbelievable story...

Great blog... so glad I found you.

Karlynn Moller Rossetti said...

OMG. jI've been an 'in the wings' reader of your blog for a while, but I couldn't resist posting to this one. As soon as I saw the photo of Hussein, I instantly broke into tears. Could be the PMS, but I would like to believe that it's more than that. What a beautiful story.....and so, so special to read, knowing Hussein. He was a special man......and this story really brings that to life in an amazing way.....thank you for sharing....

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