The Big Gulp

A foreign national finds himself in uncharted waters


By Cynthia Adams

In my husband’s home country of South Africa, refills on coffee or sodas are not free as they are in American restaurants. Ice is by request, and water is a scarce resource. When we began dating his first year in America, he was still adjusting. He gaped open-mouthed as a waitress brought an unsolicited glass of H2O.

“That’s amazing,” he muttered, staring at the sweating glass. 

“How come?” I asked.

“Because I didn’t order water,” he answered, as I was thinking, “Wow. Such great service,” draining my glass.

Our entire first date at a now defunct Tate Street joint, went something like this:

Him: “So.  Tell me about your growing up.”

Me: “Well, I was born in Union County, blah blah blah . . .”

Waitress: “Hon, what can I get you?”

Him: “I’ll need a menu first.”

Me: “. . . and there were five children in our family . . .”

Waitress: (Returning with menus under her arm and two more glasses of ice water): “Can I get you something else?”

Him: (Looking confused, staring at water): “I still haven’t seen the menu.”

Me: “. . . and my father was this really free spirit . . .”

Waitress: “What about you, Hon? Ready yet?”

Me: (Opening menu, sighing, as I’m just getting warmed up with my personal biography) “I’ll just have the burger.”

Him: “Umm.”

Waitress: “Will that be the veggie burger, the Tate Street Spirit burger, the Tate Street Garbanzo-bean burger, the cheeseburger, or the daily burger?”

Me: “Cheeseburger.”

Him: “Ahhh . . . er . . .”

Waitress: “Would you like a side with that, Hon? Our sides are: string fries, steak fries, waffle fries, a blooming onion, Methuselah carrot sticks, regular chips, or slaw?”

Me: “No thanks.”

Him: “Ahhh . . . uhhhh . . .”

Waitress: “And what can I get you to drink?”

Him: “Ma’am, I have waters I haven’t drunk yet.” 

Waitress: “But what would you like, Hon? We have draft beers, imported beers, low-cal beers, no-carb beers, white ales, lagers, stouts  . . .”

Him: (In a strangled voice, staring into a brimming water glass) “A Bud?”

I think it took him 35 minutes to order. The waitress alternated between coming back to take our pulse and sprinting over with a sweating pitcher of ice water to refill our glasses. Having come from a sunburnt, drought-stricken country, he felt morally obliged to drink every drop. He did his best to keep up with the steady flow, gulping as I talked. 

On that night, my future husband wound up dining on ice water, a Budweiser and a dish of vanilla ice cream. This is the truth. 

I no longer remember the total glasses of water he drank; but I do remember how long it took him to finish the beer and the melting ice cream.

When the checks arrived, his tense face relaxed. Then, alongside the bills, he emptied pockets bulging with coins. “What am I supposed to do with all these?” he wailed, piling pennies on the table.

This was America; his new chosen land, where ice water and copper pennies flowed, come hell or high . . . er, water.  OH

Cynthia Adams has an unquenchable thirst for most beverages and a special fondness for people from foreign locales. She is a contributing editor to O.Henry.


Illustration by Harry Blair

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