“Table for one,” they both said to the attendant.
“One table for two then?” The cheeky attendant grinned.
“Don’t try to play Cupid,” she said, without looking at him at the same moment he looked at her and said “Sure, why not?”
The grin wiped off his face, the attendant sheepishly said “It’s Valentine’s Day and the restaurant is fully packed. We just have the one table unless you want to wait…”
They both sighed. Her, in surrender. Him, in anticipation.
“Don’t expect me to make small talk,” she muttered to him as the attendant walked them to the tiny table by the window. He nodded and pulled out the chair for her to sit; took one look at her and gently blew off the lone red candle on the table. She raised one eyebrow at him, in question.
“Just trying to be a gentleman,” he said. “I assume you wouldn’t want any pretense of this being a date.”
“If you were a gentleman you would have offered to give me the table and let me have my dinner in peace while you waited for yours,” she spat out.
“Well if you feel so strongly about it… Maybe I should leave you be,” he said and stood up just as a cheery waitress came over with a bottle of chilled red wine.
“Yours if you tell us when your anniversary is!” The waitress trilled, grinning ear to ear.
“No thanks, I was about to leave,” he said at the exact moment she said “Today. It’s our first anniversary today.”
“Oh wow! What a coincidence!” The waitress exclaimed with another saccharine smile and proceeded to pour out the wine in two glasses. He sat down as if in slow motion and she pretended to look at the menu to avert his eyes. The wine poured out and the bottle left to slowly sweat on the table, the waitresses drifted to the nearby table.
“I really, really need a drink. Like, yesterday,” she softly said as she took a long sip from her glass. She rolled her tongue to savor the taste only to make a face a few seconds later. Putting her glass down on the table she went back to looking at the menu.
“So how did we meet?” he said, his wine glass untouched.
“Huh? I’m sorry, what?” she looked up from her menu.
“You said it is our first anniversary today. So how did we meet?”
She returned her gaze to the menu, as though she hadn’t heard him. Dignifying the question with an answer seemed to be out of question.
“I think we met because we were waiting for a cab on Valentine’s Day. With people having dinner dates all over town there was a shortage of cabs and so we shared one. In an epic ride fit for a scene in a movie, we found out the sizzling spark between us, the electric excitement in the air almost palpable… and then when I reached my apartment I asked you, ‘Your place, or mine?'”
“You talk too much. You watch too many movies. You are annoying me,” she said, without looking up from the menu. “Also, I would never go up to your apartment. You’re a stranger.”
“Right on two counts, wrong on one. I’m not annoying you. You are intrigued,” he said cockily, leaning back on his chair to a near slouch, lazily sipping his wine. “And I guarantee you would come up to my apartment.”
“You have bad taste in wine,” she said, looking at him this time.
“Guilty. Can’t tell a Shiraz from a Merlot,” he admitted, and the conversation that had been trudging along came to a screeching halt. Awkward silence drew itself a chair and sat down, curiously noticing both of them.
“Are we ready to order?” the waitress suddenly appeared, the faint signs of a strained smile peeking through the corners of her red-stained lips.
“I’ll have the Valentine’s Day three-course special,” she winced as though even talking about it was distasteful, “and a double chocolate brownie with vanilla ice-cream and hot chocolate sauce,” she said.
“But Ma’am, the three course comes with dessert. Caramel creme brulee, see?” the waitress pointed one perfect fingernail at the menu.
“Don’t see anywhere that I can’t order one more, right?” she smiled with sweetness that meant business.
The waitress fumbled, her smile faltering for a few seconds before she recovered herself.
“No… no. Of course not. I’ll get you the brownie. And for you, Sir?” the waitress turned to him.
“Whatever the lady’s having, please. She’s got really good taste. As is apparent,” he winked at the waitress, who gushed, blushed and glided away with professional grace.
The menu having thoroughly perused, she took to looking around her. Cliched Kenny G played in the background, hushed conversations bouncing off the stark walls and plush carpets to create a rather pleasant hum, a clink of glass here, the clank of fork on plate, a loud laugh suppressed at the last moment… She sighed and looked at him. He was looking at her.
“Sorry I’ve ruined your evening,” he started at the same moment she said, “Sorry, but I’m nursing a nasty heartbreak.”
She tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear consciously, and smiled.
“I am pathetic with strangers. Never know what to say,” she said.
“You are, aren’t you? But I don’t think is it because you don’t know what to say.”
“No. It’s because you have this transparent face that shows way more than you’d like it to.”
“You’re way too candid for a stranger.”
“You’re way too rude for one.”
He laughed and she noticed that twinkle in his eyes for the first time.
“Truce,” she said, holding out her hand.
“Not until you tell me all about that heartbreak,” he said.
“We met. We fell in love. He fell out of love with me and fell in lust with his best friend. End of story.” She laughed dryly, reaching out for her wine glass. “This is terrible wine.”
“Thanks for the blurb. I take it you don’t wanna tell me the synopsis instead?”
She touched her finger to her nose. He nodded.
“What’s your story?” she asked.
“Never found the one. Never fell in love. I’m a walking talking love story waiting to happen.” He shrugged.
The waitress glided with steaming plates of food and laid them out in front of them. The “three-course” meal turned out to be half a bowl of French onion soup, a huge white dish with a sad mound of spaghetti garnished with parsley plonked in the middle, and caramel creme brulee, as promised.
“Dig in, I guess,” he said.
“My stomach’s growling at the sight of the food. But not in a happy way,” she said.
“I love your stomach already. It can read my mind.”
An involuntary laugh escaped her lips, and she clamped her mouth shut with her palm as though shocked it was capable of betraying her true emotions.
“Did I use the dreaded L-word a little too soon?” he asked.
She nodded, and then shook her head.
“You are quite the something, aren’t you?”
“Which is what you said two minutes before I asked you to come up to my apartment in the cab,” he said, through a mouthful of spaghetti, waving his fork around.
“I think we met in a bookstore,” she conceded.
He raised his eyebrows.
“Yeah… one of the nice bookstores. Waiting in the queue to pay for our new purchases. I’d already started reading the book and you told me you could ruin it for me by telling me how it ends. We engage in a flirtatious battle of wits that ends with us realizing we love the same books.”
“And you say I watch too many movies.”
They talked about books through the main course, the soup being dismissed as inedible. By dessert they were talking about world politics and bitchy colleagues, the smell of rain and whether teal is more blue than green. The vanilla ice cream on the brownie married the chocolate sauce and turned into a puddle as they talked about the pure bliss that is milk chocolate.
“Dark chocolate is that snooty cousin who comes with that suitcase from Paris, and talks with an accent.”
“I know, right? My best friend is that huge slab of Dairy Milk that I know I shouldn’t polish off in one seating and still do.”
By the time the bill arrived the twinkle in his eyes was reflected in hers. The bottle of wine was declared so bad it was almost good, and dutifully emptied. He reached for the bill, and she let him. It wasn’t everyday he got to be chivalrous and pay for a Valentine’s dinner, he argued. They stood up to leave, and when she tripped on her heels he held her by her elbow and it looked as if they’d been doing this forever.
“Two taxis?” the harried attendant asked, pointing towards the sea of red and yellow tail lights and head lights that was the bumper to bumper traffic during the post-dinner rush.
He looked at her.
“Just the one,” she said.