Luckily my favorite table was open at the bistro I frequented in Alphabet City, the one by the window where the midday sun filtered through shelves of antique colored milk bottles, mason jars, and assorted glassware.
I scanned through the menu feigning interest in all the food options available for some unknown reason though I knew what I was going to order because my order hadn’t changed in over three years. The food here wasn’t really great but it was one of the few places in the city that had a natural ambiance that suited my temperament.
I felt a presence looming over me that smelled of Christmas—actually, the smell was of apples and cinnamon, which always reminded me of Christmas—so I placed my order by rote without looking up from the menu, keeping up the pretense of struggling with the choices of so many delectable options which was silly but perhaps I wanted the staff to recognize how much I liked the place.
“Um, that sounds delicious,” a voice said in a register higher than I was accustomed to in the bistro, a woman’s voice. “But I don’t actually work here.”
I looked up and was nearly blinded by a rosy-cheeked, platinum blonde woman bundled in the whitest fur coat in existence—hopefully not a real fur coat because that would be cruel—topped with a fur hat.
“Is anyone sitting here?” she pointed at the empty chair across the table from me.
I answered, “No…” as I glanced around at all the vacant tables situated throughout the eatery and I was about to bring this to her attention when she daintily and skillfully seated herself.
“Hi, my name is Mary, Mary Christmas,” she beamed a smile and proffered her white-mittened hand to shake. “You have a kind face so you may call me Mary or Your Royal Majesty Queen-Empress of the Known Universe, absolutely your choice but under no circumstances are you to refer to me as Merry as in Merry Christmas. I grew up being teased by that and I’m not having anymore of it.”
I didn’t answer because I was too busy processing what was happening which she took an entirely different way, most likely because I hadn’t completed the handshake ritual.
“Oh, you’re one of those, are you?” she sighed, slipping the mitten off her hand and rummaging through a white handbag produced from a fold in her coat almost if by magic.
“One of those?”
“A non-believer. A person who has to be shown instead of accepting things at face value,” she said as she pulled something out of her purse and handed it to me. “Here, proof.” It was her driver’s license and I’ll be damned if it didn’t list her name as Mary Christmas.
“Mary, I wasn’t doubting your name, strange as it may be, no offense…”
“It’s just that, you know…”
“Come on, you have to admit it’s a bit unusual for an absolute stranger to sit at your table uninvited.”
“Oh, but you did invite me.”
“Well, not you verbally, but your loneliness called out to me. I’m sensitive to things of that nature, people’s loneliness and all that.”
“I appear lonely to you?”
“Most definitely. No offense.”
“None taken, I guess.”
“And well, it’s Christmas time and no one should feel lonely on Christmas.”
“Oh, I get it,” I blushed against my will and was suddenly unable to keep eye contact with her. “Um, I’m flattered, I guess but this really isn’t my sort of thing. I don’t pay for…”
“Wait a minute, you think I’m a…”
“I-I am so sorry! It’s just beautiful women don’t make it a habit of approaching me and…”
“Let me stop you right there. I will allow the infraction because you called me beautiful and before you misread anything else into me sitting at your table, if you and I become anything it will simply be friends, not friends with benefits or any of this other modern-day nonsense. I’m far too old-fashioned for that. And yes, even as a friend I still expect you to be gentleman enough to open doors for me as well as pull out my chair when we dine, thank you very much.”
“And quit acting like this is weird,” Mary said. “Tis the season and I have no gift to bring other than to say, I see you. This has grown to be an unintentional world where people are acknowledged more on the internet than in real life, so I intend to change that, right here, right now, starting with you by asking you a simple question.”
“And what question would that be?”
“How are you doing?” Mary asked, looking me in the eye and giving me her full attention and I was about to respond with the automatic faux “Fine,” but there was something in her expression that made me feel that she was interested in hearing my honest response, so I told her.
I told her how I thought I was at the end of my rope. As an older gentleman who was closer to the end of the race than the beginning, I felt absolutely lost. My life was empty. I had felt this way before but then I wore a younger man’s clothes and was far more resilient, able to pick myself up by the bootstraps and rebuild my life but the change was always temporary and things crumbled and I had to begin again. The problem was I didn’t think I had the strength or wherewithal to start over again. I had lost all interest in the things I was once passionate about and all motivation to find something new was gone.
“Sometimes,” Mary reached her hand across the table and held mine. “We just need to focus on things beyond our circumstances to maintain our sense of peace and allow our senses to lead us to our true path.”
“Like you did by sitting at my table?”
Mary smiled and nodded. “Something like that.”
Now, I wasn’t one to believe in Christmas miracles but this bizarre woman, bless her heart, offered to be a knot at the end of my rope, transforming her from a random stranger to a catalyst of joy. And as the conversation continued, we discussed making a greater impact on society by acknowledging strangers and becoming a source of compassion for those in need and in turn challenging them to make the world a better place, filled with upturned smiling faces, happy to make contact with a living being instead of blue-lit zombies scouring their phones for acceptance and approval.
I never gave much credence to the idea of living a life of service as I equated it to religion and I was not a spiritual man by any stretch of the imagination but there was no denying how constantly amazed I was that a spontaneous conversation or a meaningful smile were so rare that they could literally be the highlight of someone’s day. Now, my newfound purpose in life had become making these rare moments of love between complete strangers the norm.
Thank you, Mary Christmas, for starting a revolution.