There were two Turkish restaurants in town. They stood side by side, on the gravel road that hugged the north side of the lake, and were owned by the same man.
The restaurant on the left served the same food as the restaurant on the right, and the owner tended to serve whichever crowd was largest, which would often force diners at the neglected restaurant to migrate to the busier one in hopes of being served.
The service was notoriously slow, the food notoriously delicious, and on a particular December evening, a hungry pack of travelers had gathered to partake in shared plates of fried eggplant and manti with thick yogurt and pilaf and beer, endless bottles of dirt cheer beer in dusty bottles.
They sat on the floor on plush pillows, and friends trickled in one by one, in twos and fours, until the dimly-lit restaurant with the low ceiling was filled with foreign tramps and vagabonds — the British guy from India, the brunette writing the travel book, the American woman who’d cycled South America, the Ecuadorian couple who’d just trekked the Annapurna circuit, and the spritely 20-year old in her sixth month of solo-cycling the planet.
Soon locals mixed with tourists, and there was no rhyme or reason to the cozy haven, which spun with energy the romantics among them would later describe as magical.
The fragrance of incense mixed with the scent of minced meat and sizzling vegetables. Candles served as the only source of light save a dim lamp with a tasseled shade that illuminated the host stand in the corner.
The feeling of being in the right place at the right time was palpable — this evening, this moment was exactly why everyone in the room had made the journey to Nepal and why they traveled in the first place; to slip inside the beating heart of earth’s eternal family, to become one with the mind of the planet, to feel like they belonged precisely because of their differences.
And then two assholes had to go and ruin the whole thing.
The first asshole was this awful woman from New York, a restaurant patron sitting a few tables away whom Chris would never have noticed if the American and the brunette hadn’t suddenly rolled their eyes in unison at the sound of her voice.
“I can’t stand it,” said the American.
“Right?” agreed the brunette in irritation. “New Yorkers.”
“How can you tell she’s from New York?” asked Chris, baffled and impressed.
“That accent,” said the brunette.
“The volume,” said the American.
“The complaining,” said the twenty-year-old cyclist, who was Canadian, but apparently could spot a New Yorker when she heard one across the din of a tiny Turkish restaurant.
The Ecuadorians chatted with each other in Spanish, quite oblivious to the fact that had they understood English better, they too would have been suitably irritated.
“OH MY GOD, I KNOW, RIGHT?” shouted the voice, completely oblivious to the agreed-upon volume levels that had been subliminally determined by everyone else in the restaurant.
Once it was pointed out to him, the bright, grating voice of the New York asshole was all Chris could hear. He made a mental note to be more like the Ecuadorians and only travel to countries where he did not speak the language. When you don’t know what people are saying, he thought, it’s much easier to like them.
“EXCUSE ME? EXCUSE ME! HELLO! OH MY GOD, OUR WAITER IS NOT EVEN — HI. HELLO. WE HAVE LIKE, ZERO NAPKINS AT OUR TABLE. NAP-KINS. TISSUE? YEAH. CAN YOU BRING SOME, LIKE, ASAP? THAT MEANS RIGHT NOW, NOT IN LIKE, THREE HOURS. THAAAAANK YOUUUUUU.”
They all listened to the obnoxious symphony for a few moments, the Americans and the Canadian shuddering.
“Holy shit,” breathed Chris softly. “It’s positively dreadful.”
They nodded at him solemnly, sighing into their eggplant.
“The way we feel about her must be the way the rest of the world feels when they hear Americans speak,” said the brunette.
Everyone agreed with the observation.
“…AND THEN I WAS LIKE, I’M FROM NEW YORK! I MEAN, AM I RIGHT?”
“She like a caricature of herself,” mused Chris.
“It’s not completely her fault,” said the brunette, ever the diplomat. “Her city is so big and loud that she has to compete to survive. She’s under the impression that if she doesn’t scream, she won’t be heard. If she doesn’t scream, she’ll die.”
“But we’re not in New York,” said Chris.
“Touché,” said the brunette, grinning.
Just then, as if demonstrating the validity of their observations, the New York asshole called out across the entire dining room to the waiter, breaking about 17 cultural subtleties of dining in a Turkish restaurant in Nepal.
The entire dining process in Nepal takes quite a bit longer than it does in the West because it is assumed that you are dining out for the experience, not simply to assuage your growing hunger.
That’s why it takes 20 minutes for your order to be taken, another 15 for the beer to come, and so on. Sometimes you have to eat a meal right before you go out to dinner, just so you don’t starve before your food arrives.
It’s also not customary for the waiter to bring you your bill; it would be considered rude, as if the proprietor was throwing you out of the restaurant before you were ready to leave. If you are ready for the bill, you must ask for the bill.
In typical American fashion, the New York asshole assumed that the lack of attention to her and her table wasn’t a cultural idiosyncrasy of Nepal but a personal affront to her and a sign of deliberate neglect.
“EXCUSE ME, CAN WE GET OUR CHECK, PLEASE? GOD.”
“If I murder her right now, will you visit me in Nepalese jail?” whispered the brunette to Chris.
“Only every single day,” he whispered back.
It was ironic, though not inappropriate that she’d brought up the topic of murder.
Especially since one was about to take place when the second asshole of the evening stepped through the back door of the Turkish restaurant, the one on the right, wielding a butcher knife in his right hand.
When these things happen, these sudden blips on the heart monitor of life, these moments you write home about and get interviewed about by local reporters (and if the event is really shocking, national reporters), everyone always says the same thing: “It all happened so fast.”
And so it was for the American woman, the Canadian cyclist, the Ecuadorian couple, the British guy from India, the brunette writer, and the New York Asshole that night in the Turkish restaurant, the one on the right.
The smattering of locals that had slipped inside the restaurant earlier in the evening had slumped into the back left corner. They were having a ball of a time getting drunk on raksi, the equivalent of Nepalese bathtub gin.
At one point during the evening, one of the Nepali men joined their table, slurring his words and asking them all where they were from. Upon seeing Chris’s disapproving look and making sure none of the women at the table were likely to sleep with him that night, he gave up and returned to his den of debauchery in the corner.
Later, just as the brunette was set to murder the New York Asshole, there was a flash of light to her left.
A man had entered the restaurant from the back door. He swept in swiftly and was immediately restrained by the young hostess and two male waiters who noticed him first.
The brunette looked to her left and saw, not two feet from her face, the cold steel of a fat butcher’s knife catching a glint of the tasseled lamplight.
The man broke free from the staff, raised his arm above his head, and with a wild war cry rushed toward the back table, toward the drunken locals and their empty bottle of raksi.
It could never be said that a roar went up from the crowd so much as a gasp, an immediate silence, a rush of out, out, out, out!
Chris had never had his animal instincts completely take over before. At that moment he had no thought for the brunette or the cyclist or the American or even the Ecuadorians. His only thought was to get as far away from that butcher knife as he possibly could as fast as he possibly could.
In the ensuing chaos, with the crowd of diners bottlenecking the front door, the women grabbing their purses and shrieking, there was the pivotal moment when Chris decided that no, he wasn’t overreacting and yes, this was indeed an emergency.
In that moment, Chris made to turn from the scene of the crime toward to the door. And it was in that split second turn that he saw her hips, those same hips backing away from danger, leading the brunette away from death.
And as they sprinted full speed into the night, away from the restaurant and the butcher-wielding murderer, he couldn’t help thinking, “this is the dance she does when she is afraid. She is afraid of me.”
It was also not lost on Chris that in a moment of mortal danger, everyone, himself included, panicked as politely as possible, not wanting to make too big a scene in case this whole butcher knife-thing was just some sort of terrible practical joke.
— — — — — — –
When the smoke cleared, there were four of them left, and what a quadruplet they were: Orion, constant and belted against the black winter sky, the New York Asshole, terrified and giddy, her tough exterior melted away in the face of real fear, Chris and the brunette, panting and out of breath as they’d been on their hike up to the stupa.
The rest of the crowd had dispersed, they’d lost their friends, everyone had run all the way home in terror and the excitement of something real and tangible actually happening, and happening to them.
They stood in the street, which was silent and dark, having stopped some 100 yards away from the Turkish restaurant, the one on the right.
Chris and the two women stared in each other’s faces for a few moments, looking for signs of just how frightened they should or shouldn’t be, looking to see if what just happened had, in fact, just happened.
“Should we go back?”
“We didn’t pay for our meals.”
“That poor restaurant owner, he just lost his entire night’s earnings.”
The New York Asshole had already paid her bill, as everyone in the restaurant was well aware, so she bid them farewell, and they departed warmly, bonded in the way only tragedy can bond, connected on a level that’s only realized when the ego is silenced and for one sweet moment all that’s left is sheer, unadulterated humanity — that nameless innocence and sweetness common to all who walk the earth, even the jerk from New York.
Chris and the brunette decided to return and pay their bill. Perhaps they wanted another rush of excitement, another shot of danger. They weren’t alone.
A small crowd remained outside the restaurant. The police had come, they’d be questioned, they’d pay their bill, and they’d assure the devastated restaurant owner that no, this incident was not going to ruin his business forever. After all, people could always go eat at the other Turkish restaurant, the one on the left.
The butcher had been sent home with a warning, escorted by the police. Apparently, one of the drunken locals had said something rude to him, something disrespectful, something that warranted a stabbing. But in the end, no one was hurt except the restaurateur.
The man who was the intended victim, the one who’d almost been butchered to death, was wild-eyed and talking a mile a minute. He grabbed the brunette, shook her by the shoulders, and said, “You saw. You were closest. What did I do? I just needed to use the bathroom, he was in there, I told him to hurry up. It’s not my fault, I didn’t do anything wrong. Did I do something wrong? It’s not my fault.”
Chris gently lifted his fingers from the brunette’s shoulders, speaking in soothing tones, agreeing with him.
“Of course, it’s not your fault.”
They extracted themselves from the shaken victim and walked home together, both quiet, both ruminating on the fact that they themselves could have been butchered tonight.
And yet not even that, not even being faced with their own deaths, was enough to convince either of them to speak up about their feelings for the other.
And so Orion’s belt was gazed upon, the hips tilted backward to prevent the kiss that didn’t happen, and they made plans to see each other again the following day.