When he pulls up to the valet station the kids manning it all give an eye roll. I see Ben Sheppard smile at that. I open the door and one of them helps me down. Ben hands another valet his keys and I see him tip a twenty and say in a low voice ‘for the truck being such a hassle’. The valet gives Ben a big smile and says “Thank you, sir”. Why do I like the fact that Ben tipped the guy a twenty and why do I like it even more that the kid smiled back at him and called him “sir”?
He turns to me.
“Hungry?” he asks.
The hostess who, in her heels, is just as tall as Ben Sheppard ignores me but gives Ben a thousand watt smile. She’s about twenty-two, blonde and wearing a strapless cocktail dress held up by two huge orbs. Her skin is a flawless white without a blemish or a wrinkle anywhere.
“How many?” the bitch asks.
“It’s just the two of us,” Ben says.
Josh’s voice would always change timbre when he had to deal with a pretty girl. It became softer and reedy. It was him trying to be endearing but it only showed his nervousness. It was the voice he spoke on our first couple dates. Ben’s voice, however, didn’t change. If anything, his voice took on a hard edge.
“Right this way,” says the bitch as she picks up two oversized, faux leather bound menus then, as if it’s a normal thing, she ever so lightly puts her hand on his shoulder to show him the direction. I see what looks to be our empty and ready table about half way across the restaurant.
He interrupts her.
“Would you mind? It’s only that the restaurant is loud and sometimes I have trouble hearing and I want to hear everything Tess here says tonight. By the way, she looks great, doesn’t she?”
The bitch gives me an expressionless up and down, nods and looks back to Ben Sheppard. “Yes, she’s lovely.”
“I see a table for three over there...” I look the direction he’s pointing. It’s an awkward little table under the stairway that leads up to the bar area. “It looks much quieter. Would it upset anything much if we took that one?”
The bitch seems momentarily thrown off then recovers.
She leads us over and we sit down and she hands us our menus and walks away with a ‘I’m done with you two’ sashay.
Ben Sheppard looks at me with a mischievous smile. I’ve not seen it before. It’s cute.
“I was wondering if you’d mind if we did something...different?”
Alarm bells go off in my head—WARNING! WARNING! WARNING!
“You see. I have my regular places back home. I know what I like and I know what I don’t like. Here? Not a bit. I’m lost. I’m always disappointed in what I order when I don’t know the restaurant.
“Okay,” I say hesitantly. “What’s different?”
“Mind if we just order four or five entrees and sample off each? That way chances are we’ll order something good.”
He’s still got that mischievous grin and his request seems so silly it’s endearing. I smile back.
“No,” I laugh. “Of course not.”
“We’ll have extra, but we’ll take it home. Maybe your son would like it for lunch tomorrow”
“Oh, he won’t be home. He’s with his father on a trip to California.”
“Then you’re welcome to take it home then. Or we’ll split it.”
“Fine. Fine,” I say. “What do you have in mind?’
He’s already scanning the menu.
“How about some appetizers...their ceviche and some Nada sliders. Then their apple almond grape salad. That sounds good, no? For entrees, how about this cazuela tasting thing and Baja fish tacos and the pork belly?”
He looks up smiling and I giggle at him. I’m at ease.
“I know it’s silly, but I want something good tonight.”
I laugh some more and there’s a pause. He sits back in his chair and takes a sip of his water. The waiter comes for our drink order and I ask for a Sangria. Ben repeats the same order to the waiter he just gave to me.
“Will others be joining you?” he asks.
“No,” Ben says offering no further explanation. This makes me laugh again.
The silence resumes. My confidence is back.
“Ben,” I say.
“Why did you ask me out?”
“Because you’re a beautiful woman and life is too short to dine with ugly women.”
This makes me smile. I try to repress it but fail. I’m grinning my head off. He goes on.
“But also because there is something about you besides your beauty. There was something that said you were interesting. Maybe it was the intelligence I saw in your eyes or the confident way you held your body. I’m not exactly sure, but thank you for agreeing to let me take you out to dinner, and thank you again for not holding my late cancellation last night against me.
“Why did you ask me out in front of those other men? It was awkward.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you feel awkward.”
“I could have turned you down in front of them. It would have embarrassed you.”
“Oh, I don’t embarrass that easily. Not anymore.”
He’s looking me in the eyes. His eyes have changed from a brown dominant hazel to more greenish.
“So tell me about yourself,” I say.
“I lead a fairly normal life. I live in Milwaukee. I love my job. I grew up in Green Bay then moved down to Milwaukee after college. I was married for twenty-five years. I have two children practically grown. They’re doing well.”
I quit listening after hearing the words ‘twenty-five years’. I blurt out, “Wow, twenty-five years. How old are you?”
Now I’m the one embarrassed. “Sorry,” I say. “That was rude.”
He smiles that smile again.
I do some quick math in my head. Forty-seven minus thirty-three. That’s fourteen years. If our birthdays fell on the calendar right, it might only be thirteen years different. That’s not so much, I think.
“Our age difference won’t be a problem,” he says and for some reason I put it out of my head. I recover.
“You were married, then. Divorced?”
“No, widowed. A form of brain cancer took Helen.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be. We had a good life together. I only wished I enjoyed it more. One day, I walk in the door on a wonderful summer night and she tells me she went to the doctor and there’s a problem. By Christmas she was dead. I spent a year mourning her then woke up the following Christmas Day to Joy to the World on the radio and decided to get back to living.”
There’s a glimmer in his eyes that’s truly beautiful. I’m lost in them. I see my hand reach up and do something I’d never done before. I cup his right cheek and with the tips of my index and middle finger play with the silver hairs at his temple. He doesn’t pull back but smiles. After a few moments, he takes my hand in his and kisses my palm. It’s a gentle whisper of a kiss.
“Thank you,” he says.
The waiter interrupts us. He puts down the mole sauce and tacos.
“And kids?” I ask.
“Yes. Two. They’re all grown up,” he says. “Tina just graduated from Wisconsin and Tommy is...What is Tommy? He’s looking for a direction in life. He dropped out of school after his sophomore year and is back home with me. He’s a good kid. He really helped me after Helen died.”
He pops a chip in his mouth and says, “Now start talking about yourself.”
“As you know, I’m a commercial loan officer.
“How’d you get into that?”
“I went to a small school up in northern Ohio. I went there because my best friend from high school was going there. They have a nice arts program and a good engineering program too. I wasn’t creative enough for the arts or smart enough for engineering so I went into their little business program.”
“Is that where you met Danny’s father?”
“No. Well, yes. Senior year. He was visiting from another school. He’d driven a van up to our campus to pick up a bunch of my friends. We were going to protest some cuts to the higher education budget in Columbus. Actually, they were going to protest the budget cuts. I was hoping to make it to a decent mall for a new pair of shoes.”
He laughs. I feel good making him laugh.
The waiter comes with our entrees and piles plates all over our little table. It’s hysterical and Ben looks kid-like grabbing tastes from each plate. I can’t stop smiling even when he tells me about his work and I don’t understand it and—truth be told—the ins-and-outs of conveyor belt design and manufacturing is fairly boring. He seems to love it and I enjoy his love for it.
I don’t even notice the waiter dropping off the bill and him paying. Before I know what’s going on we’re walking toward the front door of the restaurant. I see the bitch hostess chatting with two other Twinkie type girls. Our eyes meet and I give thought to sticking my tongue out at her. Instead, I hook my left arm around his right elbow. Ben bends his arm slightly and covers up my hand with his left hand.