It was the first date when I asked her the question.
Nervous, searching for topics to cover, things that we could expand our lungs on, and mostly just sounding like I was interviewing her for a job that she hadn’t officially applied for. I’ve always been like that, rattling off words from my mouth in rhythm like the steady clap of a machine gun, bullets replaced by question marks, coming in such rapid succession that one might get caught with too many and tangled in the long arch of the symbol, like a lamb pulled in separate directions by multiple well intentioned but untimely shepherd hooks.
We were seated in the corner table at The Lot, a tiny Italian restaurant on the eastern fringe of Ballard. A corner table seems like a great thing. In fact, I was overjoyed when the host said that the corner table was all they had, unaware or too distracted to notice that he cringed when he offered the table. I piped up immediately, before Alice, my date, could say anything. I had asked her out to dinner and I had chosen the restaurant to meet, and it seemed the proper thing to decide where we sat, if there were any choice given, which it seemed as though we did. The host slowly grabbed menus from under the pulpit as if he’d had a sudden onset of lower back pain, glanced uneasily at us when he came upright again, and nodded, as if realizing that we wouldn’t be swayed, which was correct, but at the time, I had no reason to think any different and only took his slow movement for physical disability.
I held my place for a second, allowing Alice to lead, not because I thought it gentlemanly or chivalrous but simply because the low lighting was very discreet and she was wearing shorts. I did try my best to keep my eyes level with the back of her head but she wore her brunette hair down and curled, my eyes slipped down her hair like kids on a twisting slide at the playground, then I saw the tag sticking up from her tank top and my eyes stopped suddenly and I fought the very urgent need to either fix the tag or alert her to the rogue label.
‘Here we are.’ The host said.
His voice came from very close, thats because I’d been so intent on Alice’s back I forgot to look up until I was a foot away from the curly head teenager. He smiled uncomfortably and took a cautious step back, mumbling something about excusing himself. Alice was turning to sit and didn’t see the exchange, which relieved me and I moved swiftly to my seat, thanking the host who turned and left us to ourselves for a few short moments.
The corner table, if you can call it that, is a nook in the wall toward the back of the establishment. To my left was the wall. Behind Alice was a wall. To my right was the bar, not two feet away, so small was the aisle that waiters had to turn sideways and hold trays over seated guests while avoiding the bar crowd which had its own surging movements like the waves of an excited sea. Directly behind me and to my left, were the swinging doors from the kitchen, from which streamed a torturous scent of marinara and parmesan that made my head swim, but the doors did more than allow the mouthwatering aroma of Italian cuisine to my seat, which I realized shortly after.
‘Well.’ I said, sighing a breath of satisfaction and grabbing the menu with both hands. Alice just smiled and looked down at hers.
‘This place smells amazing.’ She exhaled. The clink of glasses and guys at the bar describing in great detail the symmetry of last week’s girl’s gluteus drowned out Alice’s little voice. I strained to listen, edging up to the table and crouching over its edges.
‘What was that?’ I asked, raising my voice a little but trying to keep it at a becoming level.
‘I said, this place’ she raised a finger and half twirled it in the air ‘smells amazing.’
‘Oh yeah! It does. Whats your favorite-‘
I was cut off by something colliding with the backside of my chair which shoved me a little further into the table and rattled the glasses which were filled to the brim with water. I twisted to see who the assailant was but the only villain I saw was the shadowy blur of the swinging door and a sweating server dancing between tables with a tray full of lasagna. I sighed and turned back to Alice.
She was giggling and looking down at the menu.
‘Well that’s fun.’ I said, trying to keep my humor and failing.
‘It’s perfect.’ She said, but something far too interesting kept her eyes on the menu.
I was only bumped by the doors three more times before we ordered drinks and food, lasagna for Alice and fettuccini for me. We both ordered cheap beers and I was glad when she ordered first because I hate spending outrageous money for half way decent beer, usually defaulting on the three dollar cans, and it seemed that she felt the same.
We tapped our glistening Rainiers together, mine slipping a tiny bit from my hand, and I realized that my palms were sweating more profusely than the can. After a healthy chug and still not knowing quite what to say, I launched my frontal assault of questioning, but in the back of my mind I wanted to warn her about the tag.
‘So you’re a nurse?’ I asked.
‘Yeah, pediatric ICU. I love it.’ She said, running a finger around the rim of her can.
‘Why?’ I asked. Ruckus from the two nearest barstools broke out and flooded my voice.
‘What?’ She said. Alice leaned closer, over the table, the cut in her top revealed just enough and I tried not to look but it was too late. She caught me, I played it off like I was looking at her can. It didn’t work.
‘What do you love about it?’ I asked.
She was quiet for a second, thinking about it.
‘Its just an amazing feeling, helping tiny humans survive an untimely or complicated birth. Watching them grow and get strong and finally released back to their parents. Its a beautiful thing.’ She looked down at her beer, turning the tab a couple degrees. ‘It’s tough too. Sometimes they don’t make it. Sometimes the worst happens. I guess it makes me more grateful on a daily basis, you know, that I was lucky enough to have a simple and successful birth. That I’m alive.’ She finished and took a swig. I copied her.
‘You’re job impacts you a lot?’ I asked.
‘Yes and no. I try to leave work at work because it is a lot of weight to carry, if you keep it stuffed in a bag and lug it around everywhere.’ She said.
‘It’s sounds like it’s hard to keep from bringing it home.’ I said.
‘You caught me.’ She offered.
I realized that maybe I should delve into a lighter subject, since this was our first date and I barely knew her and this obviously wasn’t the easiest thing to talk about. But I guess I’ve learned that many people don’t get the chance to talk about the things that affect them on the day to day basis and I tend to open up space for that, forgetting that it can have a negative affect on the atmosphere altogether. I started to panic. Imagining she’d go home with little Tommy or Bethany or Isaac or Sarah on her mind, little humans she grown attached to but didn’t make it in the end. Babies that she’d probably already cried over and had more tears to shed if the right memories were brought to the surface like an oil spill riding the turquoise waters of her thoughts. Thats not how I wanted her to remember me. What I wanted was her to remember what a great time she had and that maybe, with a capitol M, she would want to see me again. I switched the subject.
The swinging door hit my chair so hard that it shoved me into the table I was already pressed too tightly against and my mostly full beer launched a hoppy spout like the snort of a great whale from its mouth with a trajectory for Alice’s face. It all seemed to happen in slow motion, I saw the surprise in her face, the tiny flicking movements of her perfectly separated eyelashes as they batted away the initial specks of flying beer. The rest of the spout turned over in the air, like watching an astroid spinning in the weightless universe, then all at once it collided with her face and chest. I was mortified. My hand crunched around the beer can, nearly folding it. Alice didn’t make a move, except looking down and gauging the damage with indifference. I expected her to cry out. I wanted her to be angry, maybe yell at the server or barge off madly to the bathroom to fix herself. Instead, while cheap suds dripped down her chin and into her shirt, she did the thing I never thought would happen.
Alice laughed. The full, happy, not a care in the world, the beer might as well have been a cool shower on a hot day, kind of laugh. Her head tilted back and her smiling mouth opened.
Too frightened to understand, I could only do one thing. I laughed with her. We laughed like two kids, stoned in the back yard, watching youtube videos of bad lip-syncing. It was the most relieving and beautiful thing that has ever happened to me on a date in my life. To this day I still think that you should laugh like you have beer all over your face, but no one understands except Alice.
We laughed until our sides ached. Until the server came over with our food and looked at us suspiciously, thinking that maybe he should warn the bartender that we’d had far too much to drink already.
We were wiping away tears when Alice pointed to something near me.
‘Can I have one of those?’ She asked.
I thought she meant me but she was pointing to what was squashed under my elbow, a pile of napkins. I handed her one, still biting back laughter that escaped like carbonation bubbles.
Once we settled down and finished half of our meal, she spoke up.
‘What was it you wanted to ask me, before?’ She asked.
‘Oh yeah. It was nothing really.’ I said, while stuffing a forkful of noodles and alfredo sauce in my mouth.
‘No, tell me. Don’t be all shy now.’ She said playfully.
I swallowed too quickly. It was nothing really, just another one of my interrogative inquisitions.
‘I was just curious if you liked to cook?’ I said, trying not to act like it meant anything.
She chewed on her food and the question for a minute.
‘No.’ She said laconically.
‘Like not at all?’ I asked.
‘Like not at all.’ She replied.
I tilted my head to the side, eyeing her with suspicion.
‘Okay. I give in.’ She said, holding up her hands in surrender. ‘The real answer to the question is that I love good food and don’t like to pay someone else to make it for me every night of the week. So, I cook. And I’m a damn good cook. But like it? Ehh. That’s different. I do it out of my own desire to eat well and not an ambition to assemble beautiful edible things.’ With that, she knifed another slice of her lasagna.
‘I like you.’ I said, after awhile.
‘I know.’ She replied.
I cooked most of the time and even now I can hear the echoes of Alice barking orders, after tasting a bit of curry or sauce or whatever I was making.
‘It needs salt.’ or ‘A pinch of turmeric and a teaspoon of cumin, maybe a splash of paprika.’ or ‘Jesus, a little basil and oregano goes a long way.’ and ‘What is this? Are you trying to assassinate me by chili seasoning overdose or what?’
I would be peacefully stirring away, tasting, and thinking I’d done quite a fine job when she would walk into the kitchen, she was studying for her masters then and still wearing her glasses and a short face from reading long words, shoulder me to the side and begin making her adjustments. More this, less of that. I couldn’t argue. She was always right. What she hadn’t told me that first date was that her father was a cook for a long time and taught her how to properly make anything from hollandaise sauce to cordon bleu. I learned a lot from her.
She was always kind and never treated me ill for my shortcomings in the kitchen. Alice saw my potential and treated me as a project, one that needed care and training and consistent involvement if I were ever to ascend to her level of culinary professionalism. Well, as a professional critic that is.
Even now, as my quiet studio on the south side of the city creaks with the sound of new lovers on the floor above, I can feel her nuzzling up to me and saying, ‘Adam, you’ve really become quite the chef. I’m proud.’ Which would be poorly placed because I’m making boxed macaroni and cheese and the only thing I added was pepper, hoping the spice will sting my eyes and hide the reason my salty tears are soiling the pasta.
Alice walks about my flat in bare feet, flops on the couch and opens a book on advanced anatomy while I stir near the stove. Her brown hair lays softly on her shoulder and her blue eyes are framed by square glasses, staring intensely at words that I don’t understand. Sometimes I wish she would go and she does but only to come back again when I’m cooking or reading a novel she never approved of. It would be much easier to let her go if she had left of her own free will. If she had just told me, ’That’s it, Adam. I’m done with you and this and I’m going now.’ But that’s not what happened and this isn’t why she’s haunting me and there’s a chance I’ll find her again somewhere other than my waking dreams, for better or worse.