I met him on a snowy night in January. I was up to my ankles in slush and up to my knees in failed New Year’s Resolutions. I was in Chicago with a group of higher-ups from my company, helping to negotiate a multi-million dollar deal. Today, I had gone toe to toe with the CEO of one of the country’s biggest book publishers, one which we were in the process of acquiring. I started the day with the mission of talking down his selling price by ten million and ended it by getting him to agree to fifteen. In other words, just another day in the life of Jane Worthington, businesswoman extraordinaire.
The rest of the white collar crew I travelled with had reserved a room at our exclusive hotel’s steakhouse, but I was in no mood to celebrate and faked a stomach ailment as my means of escape. The fact was, the deal we were brokering was huge and I should have been thrilled. But I was miserable and confused. I had drained over a decade of my life into a career that I had never loved and now hated, just because it promised a cushy lifestyle and an impressive business card. It was getting unbearable.
It probably hadn’t been the best idea to leave my room in search of “fresh air”. This air sure was fresh, but it was also freezing. Now, I was leaning into a gusty white wall of winter, and very quickly figuring out the reason for the windy city’s nickname.
So it was that about fifteen minutes into my blizzardy walk, I spotted a glowing “OPEN” sign and burst into Spaghetti and Meatballs Restaurant. I could barely hear the sound of the bell above the door jingling over the storm outside, and I stopped right inside the entrance to stomp my feet and brush the snow off my Michael Kors trench coat. It took me a second to realize the place was empty of both patrons and workers, and just as I was trying to decide if I should leave, a man appeared through a swinging door at the back of the room.
“I told Joey to unplug the sign on his way out,” he said as he slammed a dish towel down on the bar. “You give a guy one simple job…”
By now, he had marched his way to the door and leaned behind a table to roughly yank a plug from the wall, cutting off the juice to the OPEN sign instantly. It was only then that he bothered to give me more than a glance, and when he finally did, we stood there a little awkwardly, me not quite willing to offer to leave, him not too interested in inviting me to stay.
I can still see him standing there. His white chef coat was spotless, the only sign that he had been cooking a streak of flour across his cheek. As neat as his jacket and perfectly ironed black pants were, you would have expected his hair to match. But it was dark and thick and wild, sticking out in various directions, and a five o’clock shadow traced a path over the lower half of his face. All of this may have made him unappealing if not for the fact that he had been blessed with strikingly good looks, straight from his Mediterranean ancestors I’m sure.
Often, I wonder what I must have looked like to him, soaked from the snow in my khaki coat, dark wash skinny jeans, impractical leather boots and my shock of red hair pulled back school-marm style in a tight bun. All business, I suppose.
“You’re not from around here,” came his astute observation.
“No, I’m from-”
“How did you-”
“The clothes, the hair...you can tell a Manhattan girl from a block away,” he said. “I should know. I grow up in Jersey. Worked in a few kitchens in the city before I came out here.”
We stood there then, in silence. I was a little hesitant to speak, seeing as how he had cut me off during my last two attempts to complete a sentence.
“I’m Will,” he finally said, extending his hand. “I’m the head chef here.”
“Jane,” I responded while shaking his hand with a firmness I had practiced for years to survive in the boys club at work. “And I’m...well, I’m the foolish New Yorker who wandered too far from her hotel in a snowstorm. I had hoped I could wait it out a bit while having dinner, but it looks like I’m out of luck.”
“Yes, well, we cancelled dinner service once it started getting heavy. I was just heading out, but with the way it’s coming down out there…” He hesitated then, looking between me and the door several times before he went on. “I guess I can see what’s left in the kitchen. Pick a seat and I’ll be back in a minute or two.”
I scanned the room and immediately chose the table that sat against the front window, where I could watch the snow come down. I was so mesmerized by it that I didn’t hear Will come back into the dining room until he put a plate in front of me and settled into the seat across the table.
“Well, miss, what we have here is a thin crust pizza, with homemade dough, fresh mozzarella, my very own sauce -or do you say gravy- and the secret ingredient, broccolini,” he said with unmistakable pride.
The little pizza was an irregular circle, crusty and gooey and...perfect. I bit into it and let out an involuntary sigh.
“This is so good,” I managed to garble out through my second bite.
“It better be,” he answered. “That was supposed to be my dinner.”
I instantly dropped the slice onto my plate and passed the plate towards him.
“I’m so sorry!” I said, embarrassed. “Please, finish it. I didn’t realize.”
“I didn’t tell you,” he answered and pushed it back in front of me. “I’m not in the mood to eat anyway.”
“Rough day?” I asked with a raise of the eyebrow.
“You could say that. I got some bad news this week.”
“I DON’T want to talk about it.”
“Sorry, I just…” his voice faded as his gaze wandered to look at the falling snow out the window. He seemed to check out of our conversation for a moment, and when he looked back, I could have sworn he was fighting tears back. “How about...how about we talk about you. What brings you to Chicago?”
“Work,” I said with what amounted to zero enthusiasm and took another bite of pizza.
“What kind of work?”
“The awful kind,” came my reply before I could process and filter it. I slapped my non-pizza-eating hand over my mouth, but it was too late. He was already laughing at me.
“That good, huh?”
“Well, it’s uh-”
“Listen,” Will said as his expression grew serious. “I don’t want to make you uncomfortable, but it seems like you have something on your mind. If you want to talk, go ahead. After all, I need a good distraction from my own problems, and you can tell my anything, because after that pizza’s done, you walk out the door and never have to see me again.”
I took a second to think before I spoke. I should be clear on the fact that I don’t normally unload my baggage on complete strangers. But I guess he just met me at the perfect moment, when I was in just a desparate enough state, because right there in Spaghetti and Meatballs Restaurant, eating Will’s pizza, I told him everything I had been feeling. About the emptiness in my life, the disillusionment, the longing for more. And he just sat there and listened. Then he leaned back on the back two legs of his chair and crossed his arms, staring at me all the while until finally he spoke.
“My work has me up at the crack of dawn and out until midnight six days a week. I don’t have time for hobbies or a girlfriend, the pay isn’t that great, and neither are the benefits. I yell half of the day and bang pots and throw spoons every now and then, but I do it...well I do it all because I care so much about cooking. Because I love it, and I’m thankful for every day I get to spend in a kitchen. Every new day is a gift. Do you feel that way about your work?”
I was almost ashamed to answer, hearing his deep passion. Here he was, doing what he did because he loved it and was meant to do it. Meanwhile, I was just chasing the almighty dollar. How sad.
“Listen Jane,” he said with a deep smile that opened up a dimple on the right side of his face. “It’s really none of my business. I just think that everyone deserves to wake up with such strong feelings about what they do that they would go crazy if they did anything else.
“So,” I said weakly, suddenly feeling like oxygen was running mighty thin in the restaurant, “You’re saying I just walk away from my job? My life?”
“Your job, yes.” With that, he reached across the table and covered my hand with his own. “Your life? No. I say you walk towards that. RUN towards it.”
How do you respond to something like that? How do you begin to even process it? I couldn’t. I knew he was right, but it was too big, too overwhelming to take it all in right then. So I just nodded and offered a half-hearted smile. Then I pulled my hand away and took my wallet out of my pocket.
“No, no, no. The pizza and the counseling session are free.”
“No, I do,” he said as he picked up the empty plate and stood. “To be honest, I think I needed this more that you did.”
“That’s hard to believe.”
He started heading towards the kitchen and I took that as my cue to leave. Thankfully, the snow had slowed as we sat. I pulled open the door and it jingled again, easier to hear now that the wind had died down.
“Thank you Will,” I called out and turned to go.
“Hey Jane,” I heard him say loudly when I was halfway out the door.
“Yes?” I looked at him, and we locked eyes like we had known each other for decades.
“You know what to do. So just do it”
With that, he offered me one last smile and whistled his way through the swinging service door. I stepped outside and hurried back to the hotel as quickly as my Manhattan shoes would take me.
I was due to fly out the next night after hours of business meetings to wrap up our big deal. But I risked missing the flight so that I could stop by Spaghetti and Meatballs one more time. When I entered, a girl who looked like she was in her early twenties was setting tables. I approached her before I could convince myself it was crazy for me to be there.
“Is Will working today?”
“No,” she answered as she continued to set the table. “He doesn’t work here anymore.”
“What? But he was here last night.”
“Yesterday was his last day,” she said with a flip of her blonde hair. “He thought it was best to move on now, before the treatments started.”
The world got a little hazy, unsteady, for a few seconds at her words.
She looked at me then, evaluating the situation before she spoke again.
“How did you say you knew Will?”
“He...he’s a friend.” It was a stretch, but I couldn’t help myself. I had to know what she was talking about.
“Well,” she said with an eye roll, “If you were his friend, you would know he just got diagnosed with cancer.”
I must have looked pretty bad by now, because she pulled out a chair for me and I fell into it. Once I recovered enough to think straight, I begged her for more information and she spilled. By the time I left, I knew it all. Stage 4. Pancreas. Aggressive treatment plan, being administered in a city the girl didn’t know, where he had family. He hadn’t left any way to contact him. And that was it.
What struck me the most as I left the restaurant in a fog and hailed a taxi for the airport was that in the midst of the worst moment of his life, Will had somehow found a way to focus on me. A stranger to whom he owed nothing. And had given everything.
Will changed my world that day. Like an angel in a chef coat, he spoke truth to me exactly when I needed to hear it. He made me realize that I could be a better -much better- version of myself if I only had the courage to try. And every day I live, I think of Will and his cancer and how that new day is a gift not everyone is given. So I try to make the right choices and live fully. That meant leaving a swanky job, moving to a small town, and taking a job that pays very little and gives back a whole lot. When I was interviewed for the position, I was asked why I would make such a move. I told them about Will.
I’ve thought about looking him up. A few times, I’ve even gotten as close as entering his name into Google. But I never pressed the search button. I think part of me is afraid of what I’ll find, maybe an obituary with phrases like “fought a brave battle with cancer before…” thrown across the screen. That would be too much for me to bear. I would rather imagine him alive, in a kitchen somewhere, with that sloppy hair and contagious smile, yelling at line cooks but smirking all the while. I like to think someday, I’ll get hungry and wander into a little Italian bistro, and there he’ll be, and I’ll get to thank him for what he did. And tell him I knew what to do. And I did it.