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My friend Minerva is fed up with her cousins. To put it more precisely, she’s fed up with the way they feed each other.

The cousins (let’s call them Calvin and Blanche, since, having actual names of their own, they truly do exist) have been married forever — at least 40 years. All that time, it appears, they’ve been eating off each other’s plates, both at home and in public. I, for one, have actually seen them do it —  at Minerva’s house, at their own house, and at fine restaurants in major cities, all across our fair nation.

There appears to be an unspoken agreement between the two of them. Blanche takes a few bites from her entree and then slides her plate across to Calvin. Forthwith, Calvin takes a forkful of Blanche’s poached salmon and shifts the plate back toward her. Being more adventurous of spirit, she then stretches across the table and dips into Calvin’s boeuf bourguignon, holding her napkin under her soup spoon, so as not to dribble on the linen. Then they look at each other and say either “Mmmm…” or “Mmmm?”

In short order, and after a swift swallow of wine, they return to their own dishes. Until the dessert course arrives, nothing else is shared across the course of the evening, except polite conversation.

It drives Minerva crazy. (“Why can’t they just eat their own food?!!?” she’s been known to screech in the cab riding home from a restaurant.) And it would drive me crazy, too, if this weren’t such a ritual for Calvin and Blanche, a rudeness they’ve fine-tuned down to the point of high art. They handle it subtly, and rather elegantly, to tell the truth. Hardly anybody notices, except perhaps for probing eyes who have very little to pay attention at their own tables.

What would drive me crazy, however, would be if Calvin and Blanche — on a first date, or four decades into their marriage — were heard asking each other, “What does that taste like?” “May I have a bite of that?” or, worst of all, “You’re not going to eat all of that, are you?”

Such questions suggest a hunger that cannot be healed by the size of any portion on any plate. They also bespeak disturbing lacks of self-confidence, self-reliance and self-discipline.

In such cases, the fellow diner is perfectly correct in asking — even if it’s something he’s been asking for the past 40 years — “Would you like to order something else?”

The answer, almost inevitably, will be, “No. Of course not. I’m loving my poached tripe on cheese grits. I’m sure the second bite will be wonderful.”

To which the well-thought-out response will be, “Waiter! May we take another look at the menu?”

Even amongst the closest of friends, the trading of tidbits is a questionable practice. Who will know, at the end of the meal, how to divvy up the tab? Who will have been keeping track of the spoonfuls of boeuf bourguignon? Who will be counting the shrimp in the scampi?

Friendships have been parted over smaller things. Reputations have been ruined by considerably less.

— John/

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“You still may have time to make a reservation,” I assured him yesterday.

“Oh, no,” my friend Cecil gulped. “There’s no table, anywhere, where she’d like to eat.”

I asked, “Well, what does she like to eat?”

Cecil said, “I’m not sure. She has tattoos.”

“Tattoos?” I asked.

“Yes,” Cecil said, “Three intertwining cobras, tatooed up to her left elbow.”

“Do you know what they mean?” I asked.

“No,” Cecil said, “but I thought she and I might have dinner.”

Valentine’s Day is not the time for this sort of first date, or any sort of first date, I can assure you. It is not a time for testing the waters. It is not a time when two people who hardly know each other should be left standing in line, waiting for a table, talking about their tattoos, while a hostess calls out “Briggham? Are you Briggham? Are you the table of three?” It is not a time when the hostess finally turns to them and says, “Oh yes, you’re the Grisgow party, aren’t you?  The ones with the intertwining cobras.”

By that time, all romance has certainly been sapped out of any evening.

On a Valentine’s evening such as this, a gentleman is much wiser to serve up some take-out cannelloni, at his own place, spooned up on nice plates, even if they’re borrowed from his mother. (Candles always help.) Quiet is good. (So are flowers, trite though they may seem.) A 90-minute wait in line is never impressive. If it leaves two people with nothing to say, for an hour and a half, it can easily last for a lifetime.

I asked Cecil, “Are you sure you want to spend an evening with tattoos you don’t understand?”

“I don’t know,” he said, in a hesitating sort of way. “But it’s just a first date.”

I said, “But Cecil, It’s Valentine’s.”

Cecil said, “Maybe we’ll just do pizza.”

–John/

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My friend Brick just broke up with his girlfriend, Tristina — via a text message.

I said, “Brick, that is just about the lowest thing I’ve ever heard of.”

Brick and I were standing in the snacks-and-nuts aisle at the grocery store. (Brick was wearing a baseball cap, turned backwards.) “Hey man,” he said, “at least I signed it. It’s not like she didn’t know where it was coming from. It’s not like I just tweeted her, or something.”

I said, “Brick, it’s less than two weeks until Valentine’s Day.”

“Yeah, I know that,” said Brick. (He was breaking open a pack of pork rinds.) “That’s why I thought I’d give her a heads-up.”

Then he paused, just long enough for a confused little furrow to work its way across his otherwise untroubled brow. “Whaddaya think I am?” he said. “Stupid?”

I said, “You could at least have called her. You could at least have talked to her in the parking lot at the gym. You could have at least have stopped by her condo. ”

“Oh sure,” said Brick. “And then she would have started crying.”

I said, “Brick, you could at least have faced this like a man.”

Brick tossed back a fistful of pork rinds. “Jeez,” he said, brushing the pork-rind bits off the front of his sweatshirt. “That’s what I thought I was doing.”

Some messages seem horrific enough, even written by hand on the best quality card stock; but they certainly have no place being left on somebody’s voice mail, much less on the screen of an iPhone. It’s bad enough to send along a last-minute “Sorry. Got tied up. Maybe you can take a cab to the airport,” or a conflict-avoidant “Thought you ought to know. We just decided to give your office to Eustace.” But, when it comes to passing along certain messages, the biting of bullets is still required. Among those messages are, “I’m really sorry I ran over your dachshund,” “Sorry for the remark about the woman in the two-piece. I didn’t know she was your mother,” and “Great 18 months. It’s OK if you don’t keep my toothbrush.”

In some situations, the music must be faced, face-to-face. In some cases, there is no easy way out, no acceptable escape hatch — at least, not for a gentleman.

So I said to Brick, “I guess you’re open on Valentine’s Day.”

“Gee, I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe I could still get a table at Cafe Cozy. Girls like Cafe Cozy a lot.”

Standing there in grocery store aisle, I looked at Brick and said, “Are you going to pay for those pork rinds?”

Brick looked back, scratching a flake of something crispy out of one of his eyebrows. “Hey man,” he said, “Whaddaya think I am?… “a jerk?”

— John

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