The doorbell rang. I grabbed my purse and jumped to get the door, but my mother was already there. She hesitated for a second after opening it, taking in the young man standing there with a crease between his brows. “I didn’t know what to think,” she would later recall, “there was this man at the door looking so serious”. It was my first time seeing him too, and I was excited. My friend had arranged for this blind date. He was older, and in my mind, more sophisticated than the boys I’d dated in high school.
“Thanks, mom.” and she walked quietly away to reveal a young man in a tan leather blazer, button-down shirt, slacks, and tan Italian leather shoes to match his jacket. “Hi.” I said. “Are you ready?” he asked, expecting to be invited in. Instead I closed the door behind us, “yeah, let’s go.” I stepped forward and he held every door that stood between me and the passenger seat of his car. Yeah, the boys in school didn’t do that.
At the restaurant I sipped on my Seven & Seven as the wife of my date’s friend sang “Johnny Angel”. Three waiters stood at attention, one for every couple seated at the round center table dressed in white linen. A busboy arrived with an oversized oval tray and one of the waiters place a large, round plate on which three shrimp the size of small lobsters were laid out like a pinwheel sprinkled with parsley. “Your first course, madam”, “madam?” I thought. I wasn’t even eighteen yet. If anyone noticed that I was still a minor they didn’t let on.
For the next seven years, he never stopped holding the door for me, even when it was to throw all my clothes out on the street when I talked about going back to school. “I’m sorry, please don’t leave”, he said, picking my clothes off the street. "I didn't deserve that!", I said. By the end of the year, I was on the bus to New York.
Twenty-nine years later I am sitting in my car outside a newly constructed building waiting to be shown a model kitchen. The door opens and he is standing there, leaning against the frame with his arms folded, smiling at me. The crease between his brows is deeper, his blue-grey eyes shine warmly. My heart jumps. It’s him. I run to greet him and he holds the door open so I can come in from the cold.
For our first date, J invited me to have dinner with him on a Saturday night. Though we had eaten together several times before, this would be the first time he initiated plans for a night that I was not working at the studio. It was also the first time he actually invited me to dinner, and it would be the first dinner date after we spent the entire day and night at my studio the Saturday before.
That day I showered in the city and drove to my air-conditioned studio where J would pick me up. I brought my favorite green silk beaded camisole on a hanger, in part to keep it from being wrinkled on the drive, in part to give my cotton clothes a chance to soak up the oil I had used to moisturize. I brought a gold glitter infused lotion to make my bare shoulders glow in the light. I brought my little red “sex in a bottle” scented with sweet vanilla, spicy cardamom and musk.
I brought creams, foundations, powders, pencils, lotions, paints and potions to exaggerate the features of my face. I made my skin tone appear slightly tanned and even. I made my eyes appear bigger and rounder and exotically slanted. I made my cheekbones look higher, and my round cheeks shaded. I made my lips appear larger, fuller, and moist. I added a final coat of minerals to make the apples of my cheeks shine like the fresh-scrubbed face of a cherub.
I brought my weekend bag full of irons, curlers, hair oils, and hair sprays. I separated my full hair into sections. I ironed parts and curled others. I sprayed the roots and smoothed the ends. I fluffed and teased and rolled and fussed until it glossed and rolled into a heart-shaped frame around my face.
My phone lit up. “I’m here”. “Be right down,” I texted back.
“Paulina, there’s someone at the door for you and he is veeery handsome!” my roomate cooed. I grabbed my purse and walked down the stairs of the Seaport loft we shared. “Are you ready?” asked my date, smiling. The sleeves of his navy blue suit revealed just a glimpse of cufflink on his French cuffs when he opened the door to let me pass. Outside, he stepped to one side holding his hand out for me to hold as the driver held the limo door open. “West Broadway, Joe. The Odeon”.
At our corner table, a server dressed in a crisp white shirt and black tie brought over the wine and presented the bottle. My date frowned. “Let me see the label.” The server held the bottle closer. “Move your finger.” The server pulled his index finger away from the neck. “That’s not the bottle I ordered.” He scurried away nervously and another man in a suit appeared a few minutes later with a different bottle. “Sir, we are out of the bottle you requested, but I have another wine I’d like to recommend.” They discussed the wine for a while and my date nodded. The sommelier opened it and poured a sample. My date tasted it and nodded. The server filled my glass three-quarters of the way before pouring my date’s wine. It was there, in Downtown Manhattan, as a college art student, that my forty-something date introduced me to Barolo. It's hard to care about the wine one is apt to get after you've tasted a really good one - you just keep the memory of the good one. I’m told you can’t get a good Barolo anymore - not even if you pay through the nose for it.
Twenty years later I am in the vestibule of my friend’s loft in Chelsea. He is walking and talking to me on his cell phone as I step on the sensors that open the glass doors, “turn around!” I tell him and he stops and turns to face me. He is shorter than I remember him, and he’s grown a beard. But he is no less handsome and his suit fits his slender frame perfectly. “You’re as beautiful as ever!” he says, taking my arm. I lean into his side as we walk to a little French bistro around the corner. We talk as if we just saw each other yesterday. I let him order the wine.
Outside my studio the June breeze was warm and light and J’s jeep idled in the parking lot. I approached the door and pulled the handle. Nothing. He reached to the inner handle of his door and clicked the lock free. I opened the door and climbed in. “Hi,” he said, “you look nice”. “Thank you” I replied. In his clean white cotton tee shirt, J pulled out of the parking spot and drove along the back streets.
Within minutes, he pulled into the parking lot behind a fast-food sign. Recessed at the back of the lot was a shabby brick building with slender white columns under a triangle wood awning. We approached the entrance and I paused to let him open the door. He stepped forward in black flip-flops that matched his three-quarter pants and pulled the door open for me. Inside, an older woman with her rinsed out hair piled high on her head and pink frosted lipstick approached us in a white button-down shirt and black tie. “How many?” she asked, looking from J to me and back to J. “Two for dinner” I answered. “Will this be ok?” she asked, pointing at a round wooden table at the center of the empty room. I looked at J and he looked at me. We both shrugged and nodded. It's all good.
The wind blew his carefully coiffed hair forward as my date handed the keys of his BMW to the valet. The doorman stepped forward to open the door for me. Brushing his hair back into place and tugging slightly at his double-breasted suit after putting away the ticket, my date walked around the car and placed his hand at the small of my back. With his other hand he reached for the door and held it for me. Inside, the carved wood walls reached high around thick, cream-colored columns under the warm light of the round chandeliers. “Good evening, do you have reservations?” “Yes” and my date gave the name as I took in the atmosphere. I stood there looking up, stiff and formal, and intimidated. My date placed his hand on the small of my back again. “I made reservations for a table in the jazz lounge. This quartet has a great smooth sound.” I nodded and he regaled me with the history of the building, pointing to the details in the decor and explaining the theme as we followed the maitre d’.
After the oysters, the lobster arrived and my date looked down with consternation. “Y’know, I love lobster, but, it’s such a struggle to eat”, he said. “Just eat it with your hands!” I said, having drowned my intimidation in a 15-year-old Highland single malt. He looked at me skeptically and I smiled. “Half the fun of eating lobster is letting the butter drip through your fingers and then licking it off” I said, looking intently in his eyes. He let his guard down. “I like your style, Paulina.” and, between sucking the sweet meat from the shells and wiping our glistening lips with the napkins, we laughed and talked and smiled at each other until the oysters caught up with me.
Five years later, a young man stopped at my desk at work to find out what the plans were that Friday. “He’s arriving tonight!” I gushed. “Here?” he asked. “Yes, he’s coming here from the airport and then I’m driving him to the Four Seasons.” I answered. “We’re having dinner at Au Jourd'hui.” That young man accompanied me to the lobby and marveled at my anxiousness. He waited almost an hour to get a glimpse of the man that stood between me and him and the rest of the young men from the office. There was an accident in the tunnel that night. Traffic from the airport wasn’t moving. The young man from the office got tired of waiting and left. It was a nice night. I stepped outside and waited.
“My manicurist got called to the Four Seasons to work on Mariah Carey’s hands,” my friend tells me one day, “she said Mariah’s skin is so soft because she keeps her room filled with humidifiers.” “It’s not for her skin, it’s for her throat,” I inform my young friend, knowingly “the air at the Four Seasons is extremely dry.”
“Would you like anything to drink?” the waitress asked. “Could I have a glass of Pinot Grigio?” I ask after looking at the short list. J ordered a coke. “I guess I over-dressed.” I think. I feel like a chaperone. I take a deep breath and try to remember what I was like at fifteen.
I remember sitting at a table very much like the one J and I were sitting at. The carpets were still red when I took my brother and sister to the Golden Temple. I ordered my first Manhattan that day and didn’t get carded. The cocktail tasted like cough medicine. I couldn’t drink it.
J orders Chicken Marsala and I order Veal Picatta. I don’t think the cook in the back has ever heard of Jamie Mammano.
I arrive just a tad late and hand my keys to the valet. I step up to the doorway of the building that housed Stan Frankenthaler’s Salamander nearly twenty years earlier. “Good Evening” a young woman in a black dress greets me. “I’m here to meet my friend.” I tell her. “Paulina?” she asks, “yes.” I say, surprised. “Right this way, please.” and she escorts me into the soft lit creamy ambience of my favorite restaurant. She stands aside and sways her hand open like the model of a game-show. On the cushioned bench under a backlit mural sat my date, dressed in light tweed jacket and silk tie. “Don’t you look handsome!” I exclaim as he stands to pull my chair before kissing me on the cheek. The server approaches quietly. “Would you prefer white, red, or something stronger” my date asks me. “I’m not sure what I’m having to eat,” I answered. “Join me in a Martini?” he asks, remembering my favorite drink when we socialized after work years before. “Sounds great.” I say. And he starts to tell me about the menu he’s been perusing as he waited for me. “This was a great recommendation, Paulina! The salmon is…..” and I smile knowingly as he explains the reason why salmon from that particular island is so special. My date reads a great deal and remembers everything. When the server returns with our drinks, I order the grilled octopus and he orders the oysters and the wine. We both order the salmon. Soon our appetizers arrive. “You have great taste, my dear.” he says to me. “I would never lead you astray.” I say with a wink, biting into the tender meat. We clink glasses and smile.