I’d spent my day walking through Jackson Heights, finding food stalls and fresh markets on a street where Spanish was the leading language, although Indians, Himalayans, Chinese, and Thai share that neighborhood with Colombians, Mexicans, Peruvians, Brazilians, people from El Salvador, Guyana, all selling food in small restaurants and bakeries.
My feast was purely visual. I wanted to eat everything I saw but my time was limited and I needed to budget my appetite. I bought a coconut popsicle frozen into a styrofoam cup and bit into it as I walked and stared. The woman who sold it to me did so in Spanish, with a look of compassionate pity for my lack of language, and I felt as if I were at home, or at least in Thailand.
As I usually do when I visit Queens, on my way back to my room, I stopped in at the Atlantic Diner. I’d seen on their menu that they still made ice cream sodas, which I was certain had become extinct. “Pepsi-vanilla?” the waitress asked and I fought through my confusion to say indignantly, “No! Chocolate-chocolate.”
It was her turn to stop for a moment and I began to say “Chocolate ice cream, chocolate syrup.” “I know what you mean,” she broke in, “but it surprised me for a second. Everybody in this neighborhood always orders Pepsi-vanilla.”
I watched as she squirted soda water into the chocolate syrup and then stirred it vigorously. “You mean a float?” “No. It’s a regular soda but made with Pepsi.” My teeth curled a little with the thought of that much sweetness hit their nerve endings but even so I said “Yes” to her offer of “A little whipped cream?” This may well be the last ice cream soda of my life, I thought, so let’s have the kind that I used to see on Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post covers..
It was precisely that, resting in its Pepsi-Cola glass in regal glory, and with my first sip I wished that I could still drink it through a paper straw. As I absorbed that first rush of sweetened soda water, I was the only customer at the counter, with a cluster of waitresses at the far end. They were all deep in a discussion, since I was the only visible potential listener, and that seemed to restrain them not at all. They were discussing love, with the oldest one holding the floor and I began to eavesdrop.
“The difference between being in love and loving is huge. I was lucky. I had both with my husband, but it took time. I fell in love with him after we’d been married for years.”
There was a ripple of disbelief among her younger audience and suddenly she turned to my end of the counter. “Were you in love with your husband when you got married or did you love him?” she demanded.
And I answered a question that nobody had ever asked me before. “I loved him very much but I wasn’t in love with him.”
“Did you ever fall in love?”
“Years later when I was in my forties,” I replied, “it was a surprise.”
She turned triumphantly to her audience. “See, it can happen to anybody, no matter how old you are.” Returning her focus to me, she asked, “And was it with your husband?”
“No. It was with a much younger man, after my marriage. And then that deepened into love and stayed that way for the rest of his life, but I couldn’t have him. We became friends. He brought his family to visit me when he was in Thailand and his wife and I still write to each other on Facebook.”
“It's true, you can’t stay with a younger man,” she agreed with sympathy in her voice. The cluster of younger waitresses had all turned in my direction and one broke ranks to sit beside me.
“How did you know you were in love? How was it different?”
“ I felt as though I was eighteen again. I got out of bed every morning floating, I was so happy. Friends asked me what had happened to me because I looked so different. One of them said I glowed. It was one of the best parts of my life.”
The older waitress said “See. I told you. You feel completely different. One day I woke up near a man I’d been with for years, we had children, we had a life together, and that was exactly what I felt for my husband that morning for the very first time.”
The younger woman smiled at me and returned to her friends, I took one final sip of my ice cream soda and realized that in every way, anything else, one more taste, one more question, would be an anticlimax. I walked out into the day that had turned from blazing summer into the prelude to autumn and I knew I was in love again, but this time it was with New York.