He didn’t know which one of them was the first to not see the other one. One of them had to have seen the other one first because their eyes had never met, which would have been the case had they seen each other exactly the same time.
But they hadn’t.
Now, he had seen him clean the counter of the fast food place, and maybe he had been so focused on his work that he had missed the face of the first customer in line, or maybe he’d seen so many faces that day alone that they all looked sort of the same. And to stand out, it was probably best not to be a middle-aged white male.
Regardless of who saw whom first, the man in line saw and recognized his friend. (Although, weeks later, looking back at the incident, he had started to doubt himself, and had almost decided that it hadn’t been his friend after all). They had never been the best of friends, but a couple of decades can change people, and relationships.
Now, then, he had recognized him, even with the green uniform, the apron, and the hat he was wearing. They were both wearing hats, and maybe that threw off his friend a little, even though he had worn hats in high school as well, and was actually wearing an old baseball hat he had worn already in high school. (He really liked the hat).
When he had looked at his friend, the friend had looked past him, and then he had looked past his friend so he didn’t know if he had possibly seen him stand there right then.
Obviously, he told himself, obviously he should’ve said something right away. The awkward feeling he had now made it obvious to him, but it was too late.
He decided to create a second first encounter and left his family to stand in line while he went for a walk.
“I’ll just have a look at … what they have … over there,” he told them and walked casually to the other side of the restaurant. He walked casually, but he was a man with a plan, and the plan was to walk back and forth until his friend saw him and recognized him.
So he walked over to the other side of the restaurant, and picked up some napkins. As he walked back towards the counter, his friend had moved over to wipe some other tables. He walked towards the front door, and then, five steps later, as if he had just realized something, he stopped, turned around and walked past the table his friend was working on then.
Now that he had turned around again, he had to keep on walking so he walked to his family, and told them that he’d wait in the car. He said it a little bit too loud, at least judging by the looks of the older couple by the window. But his friend just kept on wiping those tables as if nothing had happened.
What was his deal, he thought. “Am I not good enough for you?” he muttered.
No, they hadn’t been great or even good friends in high school, but he knew he had been closer to being a friend than some of the other guys in their class had been. He walked around the restaurant one more time, now his eyes locked on his friend, so that he’d catch even the tiniest of glances from him.
There were none.
“Hey, I’ll wait for you guys in the car,” he told his family again, now from the front door, and walked out … backwards, still staring at his friend who walked to the back of the kitchen and disappeared.
He walked to his car, drove to the front of the restaurant and waited for the rest of the family to get in. Before he turned on the engine again, he told his wife that he thought he had recognized one of the restaurant’s employees.
“He was my classmate in high school,” he told her, “or at least I think that was him. I thought he was avoiding me now.”
“Maybe he didn’t want to talk to his high school friends at a fast food joint,” she said.
“Nah, it’s gotta be something else. It’s not him, it’s me,” he said.
“Sure, baby, it’s always you,” she said. “Maybe he was just focused on his work.”
“Maybe,” he said. “Maybe.”
“Why didn’t you go talk to him then?”
“Never got the perfect opportunity.”
“OK, everybody buckled up back there?” he asked his kids, and turned on the engine. As he drove out of the parking lot, he looked in the rearview mirror and … saw his friend out there. Or at least it was somebody who sure looked a lot like him, and now that man seemed to be waving at them.
He looked a little closer. His friend wasn’t waving. He was flipping them the bird.
Or that’s what it looked like anyway. He couldn’t be sure.