Los Angeles, CA
Last Tuesday, Jin O. and I grabbed dinner at Il Barbarosso on Vermont. It was our first time hanging out one on one, and my friends are all in agreement that it was like a date. It was my first one in longer than I’d like to admit (but since we’re all friends, I’ll say it was around a year, maybe two years), so I prepped and preened with some enthusiasm.
He picked the restaurant, and when I walked in, all looked promising. Wood tables, candlelight, wine bottles on the wall. A couple cherubs painted on the ceiling, but hey, no one’s perfect. Despite my best efforts, I showed up ten minutes late, and Jin was already there, looking hopeful, I think.
The food was decent. We shared calamari and prosciutto with melon. I had pumpkin ravioli. I could tell by the way he asked what I wanted to eat and drink that he either meant to pay for the meal, or that he had a poor understanding of basic etiquette. He chose a $60 wine without my input, and I spent some time worrying that he’d accept an offer to go Dutch after all.
The restaurant was pretty “intimate,” like “small,” and our table was separated from the next one by an inch of space and a fictional boundary. Five minutes after I sat down, a couple filled in that adjacent table, so that I was closer to the woman than I was to Jin—our elbows vied for space as for an armrest in an airplane. The couple was about our age, late twenties, early thirties. They were vaguely good-looking, both fit, with tight clothes and fresh tans. The girl smelled like a day at the beach, though not in a pleasant way. Singed skin, coconut oil, sweat.
It was apparently her birthday—she mentioned it to the waiter in a way that inquired implicitly after a complimentary slice of cake. She had a loud voice, the kind that carries across a room, and she used it within licking distance of my ear. I tried to tune her out and focus on Jin, but it was hard to do that for more than a few minutes at a time. It didn’t help that she made kissing noises at him every forty-five seconds. At one point, something hit my ankle, and I looked down to witness a vigorous game of footsie, shoes and socks off.
Jin was telling me a story about his brother and a stingray when I noticed the couple was starting to fight. It was kind of thrilling to watch, really, and I could tell that even Jin was losing interest in telling his story, which he had definitely told a hundred times before. (I forget the exact content, but it was a good story, highly usable first date material.) They went after each other, swapping grievances, then accusations, then flat-out insults. He called her a psycho and an ugly dog, and I stopped disliking her and started rooting for her to put that squealing voice to use and make a scene. Instead, she went completely quiet. She reached across the table, grabbed his plate of ravioli, and without a word, picked up her fork and knife and started cutting. She sawed every square of ravioli into tiny little pieces, ribbon shreds of cheese and pasta too limp and fine to pick up with a toothpick. She worked in silence for a full minute, then crossed her arms and stared at him, every inch of her body giving him the finger.
At this point, the waitress came over and demonstrated a shocking inability to pick up social cues. As she cleared the couple’s plates, she acted downright scandalized that the birthday girl wasn’t ordering dessert. She was the cheerful type, and while she’d been drowned out by the woman before, she now sounded like an aerobics teacher shouting into a cave.
The stewing couple submitted to a complimentary dessert, and eight silent minutes later, the waitress came out bearing a crème brûlée, its top on fire but without a candle in sight. She had a moon-wide smile on her face, and as she opened her mouth, Jin and I looked at each other with equal parts dread and glee. Out of it poured the beginnings of a birthday song, but as no one joined in (the plan being flawed from the outset, for a party of two), she sang it through alone, her voice full of emotional vibrato.
The couple didn’t speak for the short remainder of their meal, and Jin and I relaxed back into our date, and it went pretty well. We finished our bottle of wine and shared gelato for dessert. He picked up the check after all.
Steph Cha is the author of Follow Her Home, a feminist hardboiled detective novel. She lives in Los Angeles and mothers a basset hound.