I chose a Harrison Street Parisienne bistro as the site of my next disaster. There is no art or science in picking a restaurant for a first date. The decision is driven by whatever mechanism pops ideas into your head, and it’s made without the help of the equally important filter that sorts the good from the bad.
Gaslight was its name. All the local newspapers loved it, and the free nightlife magazines never put out a best of list without it. Harrison Street housed a number of fine restaurants, but my choice sat on the fringe of its district, just close enough to walk to from my apartment. I headed out the door neatly coiffed, with the usual rehearsed material rolling back and forth under the hairline.
With dates come advice, always unsolicited, on how to behave. A number of people I consider friends had spent the past few days deriding my usual punctuality. “Don’t be there waiting for her 15 minutes early. Eager is a losing quality.” But no one can really hide who they are, and by my watch I would have to walk the next two blocks at a beyond leisurely 20-minute pace to avoid appearing eager.
The one person in Boston who wouldn’t offer any more unsolicited advice was Noah. Convenient that he worked the evening shift at Goddard’s, a small cocktail bar not far from Gaslight. I couldn’t remember if Noah even knew I had a date, but he was the last person who would care. Noah didn’t date, nor did he have a lot of conventional dating wisdom to offer. Drinking until three in the morning after shifts behind the bar had a way of curing loneliness. Noah’s dating life ended every Sunday morning when he woke up. That would wear on most people after a while, but Noah didn’t have much to say about it one way or the other.
“Campari and soda,” I said to Noah after being greeted by his familiar nod. While he turned his back to fetch the bottle, I tried desperately to fix my hair in the mirror behind the bar. I worked quickly with both hands so Noah wouldn’t catch me in mid-vanity.
“Looking sharp, boss,” Noah jibed as he placed the drink delicately onto a cocktail napkin. I had a pragmatic sense of style – solid color shirts, jeans, black dress shoes. No logos, no advertising, no flash. Tonight I had dared to take a step outside that – giving Noah an opportunity to mock me that he just couldn’t pass up. Vertically-striped button-downs cry out for ridicule.
While I searched for something witty to say, Noah was called off to the other end of the bar to pour Chartreuse for a pretty brunette. She saved us both – him from boredom and me from having to defend the stripes. It didn’t take long to figure out that she would occupy the bulk of his shift. Finishing the drink only killed half the time I needed it to, so I gave up on trying not to appear eager and walked out of the bar.
Harrison Street was surprisingly empty for a Saturday night. A reservation for seven o’clock used to be tough at Gaslight, or at least that’s what I’d been told. Sitting in an empty dining room on Restaurant Row didn’t sound like a great start. As I approached the intersection of Harrison and Waltham Street, I noticed a short blonde woman in a deep blue dress. She walked down Waltham and crossed over to the other side before turning up Harrison toward the restaurant.
I slowed down to create distance between us, stalking the poor woman like an animal. I reached for my phone, struggling to pull up the photo I had saved of my prospective date. I didn’t remember her having glasses, but my sidewalk companion wore those intellectual tortoiseshell frames. I quickened my pace down the opposite sidewalk, looking for the profile shot. After several double-takes between the photo and the woman I decided that she was the one. Nobody ever looks exactly like their self-curated photo.
Now that I had confirmed her as my date, I still had the problem of crossing over to her side of the street and introducing myself without coming off as the nut I rightfully was, having spent the last few minutes alternating between glaring at her and squinting at the tiny image on my phone. I tried not to look obvious as I made my way over to her. I reflexively put my phone to my ear, acting out a fake conversation that probably made me more conspicuous. When the paranoia died down and I realized she wasn’t watching, I stopped the show.
As we approached the front door, where I hoped we would finally meet, she broke course and veered right, to the small park beside the restaurant. It had a large pine at its center with a circular walk around it and several benches – a small break from the city. I looked at her again to be sure she was the one. Glasses and all, she was.
I stopped for a moment and wondered why she didn’t go in to the restaurant. We were only five minutes early, there wasn’t time to kill. Maybe she took one look and said “no thanks.” I tried to shake the feeling of pre-rejection and got my feet moving. I wouldn’t be able to just wait inside Gaslight without driving myself crazy, so I followed her path up to the park and walked around to the other side of the pine, hoping to death she had just not noticed me. She was sitting on a bench, rubbing her dress between her fingers as she stared down at her tablet.
She sat, reading, while I stood, waiting for her to acknowledge me. I felt eyes on me, staring. I had been shoved out into the open, the world waiting to laugh at me. I took first steps towards her, slow and timid. When I came close enough to speak, my words wouldn’t come out, my legs wouldn’t stop. Momentum carried me past her. She never looked up.
That nervous feeling took off, along with any remaining nerve. I turned my head back and lingered on her briefly, but legs and shoulders have minds of their own. One took off in the opposite direction, the other rolled forward, bringing my head to a defeated resting place. I could imagine any number of bad outcomes without seeing a good one.
Eavesdropping beech trees curled their branches over the sidewalk of Harrison Street as I continued an aimless, gloomy march. They leaned in curious, wanting to hear my side of the loss. They scattered when Goddard’s appeared on the next corner, a protector warding away questions I could not answer. I raced through the front door, desperate to get out of the spotlight.
I landed in the entryway, beaten. Recognizing a familiar posture, Noah stepped away from his new friend, skipped past the play-by-play and went for the real question at hand.
“Campari and soda?”
Adam Riglian is a Boston-based writer who recently ended an unrequited seven-year love affair with journalism. Newsprint and pixels left behind, he is plodding along as the writer of an occasional short story. You can perhaps one day read his debut novel, Nonstarter, if he can ever finish revising it. Until then, enjoy his day-to-day musings at adamriglian.com.