The sun had yet to set, but the friendly early evening crowd was beginning to trickle into the outdoor eatery area of The Court Street Bar and Restaurant. It was, after all, a little past seven on a Saturday night in Hobohemia, and after a full work week, most people just want to get out and have a little fun. Carlton Tucker had chosen this place because in his mind it would be the perfect place for a perfect first date. He’d had his eye on Annemarie Chellini for quite some time now, so after months of trying to muster up the courage to ask her out, the last thing he wanted to do was to screw this up before it even got started.
Carl had no great expectations on the night’s outcome and wasn’t even expecting a first kiss much less than any invites to whoever’s place afterward for a little nightcap. The most he allowed himself to hope for was perhaps a brief hug at the end of the evening and the opportunity for a second date. He was a man who made a rule of always keeping his expectations in check. It was just the way he was wired.
Annemarie Chellini was a several years younger than Tucker. He’d first spotted her drinking at the bar of The Court Street Bar & Restaurant more than a year ago. Initially, he wasn’t attracted to her at all. For that matter, he wasn’t terribly attracted to anyone. Outside of his workday business activities Carlton rarely spoke or interacted with anybody. To state it kindly, he was a bit of a misanthrope who wasn’t actually antisocial, but merely asocial. Where it came to most people, he could either take them or leave them, and for which the majority of them he chose the latter. In fact, most places he’d go he’d always be sure to bring a book along kind of as a shield to discourage those around him from speaking to him. Most times that worked perfectly well.
Yet, many months ago, while he was contently sipping a cocktail at the Court Street bar as he was laboriously making his way through Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury”, a woman on the barstool next to him tapped on his shoulder and asked, “What’cha reading?”
“Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury,” he replied after successfully battling the urge to utter his usual two-word reply, “A book.” An answer that would usually ensure to inform the inquirer that he was not much of a talker.
“Is it any good?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Because, you’ve been staring at that same damn page for a while now.”
“That’s because the content is seriously intense and narrated from the perspective of various characters, one of whom is severely mentally handicapped.” Noticing the highball glass before him was now empty he tried to catch Jeff the bartender’s eye to order another. Yet, before he did, and much to his surprise, he asked the woman sitting to his left, “May I buy your next drink?”
Downing whatever remained in her wine glass she held the now-empty vessel in the air then called out to Jeff in a voice loud enough so that everyone in the cozy barroom could probably hear, “Hey, Jeff, this guy wants to buy me a drink. Can I trust him?”
Like a hungry dog being called to dinner Jeff was now before the two of them and said, “Yeah, I can vouch for him. He’s harmless enough, what’re you drinking?”
Tucker liked Jeff. He had that unique sixth sense that any good barman has of knowing when a customer wanted to chat and when they just wanted to be left alone, and he was in the minority of individuals who Carlton Tucker didn’t mind exchanging a few words with every now and then. He’d even joked with Jeff that he found it sometimes hard to read while in a bar because of the dimmed lighting, and since libraries didn’t serve alcohol, that they should open a bar together that was equipped with a book lending library so their patrons could comfortably sip while page scanning. Jeff said he liked that idea and would look into obtaining the liquor license for their wet bar library. That was just the kind of fellow he was.
“I guess since he’s buying, you better give me some of the good hooch—a pinot grigio, please.”
“I’ll just have another bourbon Manhattan on the rocks, please.” Thus, the drinks were ordered and an adventure began.
“May I ask your name?”
“It’s Chesty McAddams!” she told him with a noisy giggle. “No, it’s really just Annemarie, Annemarie Chellini. And yours, if you don’t mind me asking.”
“Carlton, Carlton Tucker, but everyone just calls me Carl.”
“Wait a minute! You’re not that guy on Fox News, are you?”
“No, everyone always thinks that, so maybe I should just introduce myself as Carl Tucker from now on to avoid the confusion and explanations.”
“Probably not such a bad idea,” Annemarie concluded just as Jeff was sitting their respective drinks before them.
“So, your last name, Chellini, I’m guessing you’re Italian?” which would not be so farfetched here in Hobohemia, New Jersey.
“Bingo! Well, you know what they say about Italian women?”
“Please elucidate and share that tidbit of information with me, if you don’t mind me being the one to ask now.”
“That there are two types of Italian women: the kind who cook and the kind who clean.”
“So, which are you?”
“I’m the exception. My grandmother was the cooking kind and my mom was the cleaning kind. Me? I’m neither, must’ve been some kind of generational leapfrogging when it came to me,” Annemarie told him, tagging another peal of soprano-pitched laughter to the end of her sentence.
“Guess that’s a good thing to know about you.”
They had one more drink together before he left the bar alone to return home.
The next time he stopped in at Court Street he saw she was already sitting at the bar, and miracle upon miracles, the barstool adjacent to hers was still empty. When he asked if she’d mind, and she responded she didn’t, he took a seat. Her wine glass was already empty when Tucker arrived so the usually quiet guy offered to buy her another drink, which she agreed to this time without needing Jeff to attest to his character. But this time, instead of ordering a pinot grigio she asked Jeff for an Amstel Lite. He may have found that a bit off-putting, since Carlton always felt that Lite beers were the bane of a serious beer drinker’s existence, but upon reflection the normally book browsing Court Street patron just let it go. You see, sometimes in life discretion really is the wiser part of valor.
These random meetings continued over the years until on March 14, 2020, the Court Street Bar & Restaurant announced via its Facebook page that due to the COVID-19 virus, that they, as well as most on-premise businesses, had been ordered by both local and federal government, to shutter their doors. And thus, they lost contact—but not before exchanging their Facebook user names—and becoming engaged as social media “friends”.
So, fast forward to nearly early summer of that year, to the time when The Court Street Bar & Restaurant announced on Facebook that the city of Hobohemia had authorized them to provide an outdoor dining area so hardcore patrons such as Chellini and Tucker could return to drink and dine at The Court. Therefore, once again, the Court was in session. And after great deliberation, at the last moment, while his imaginary jury was still convened outside of the courtroom, Carl sent Annemarie a message via Facebook messenger informing her that their Court was no longer adjourned, and taking a huge gamble, asking her if she wanted to join him for an alfresco meal at their mutually favorite establishment.
The minutes ticked past without a reply until finally, a Facebook sound effect informed him, he had received an answer to his proposal: “I’d love to!” They settled on an agreed-upon mutually convenient time and date to dine, Tuck (another name others who didn’t call him Carl often used) then contacted Kevin, one of the kindly considerate owners of CSB&R, using the same Facebook app and the date was finally set in stone.
On June 18, 2020, as prior to schedule, he took his seat at a table outside the eatery to await her arrival. Annemarie appeared a minute or two later, exactly at the time they’d prearranged (punctuality—he liked that in a person) to join him. Since Facebook had informed him that she had just celebrated her birthday a few days before, he ordered a bottle of #A908 from a wine menu, the Veuve Cliquot Yellow Label Brut NV champagne to commemorate the occasion. He was proud that when the pretty young Court Street waitress poured her a glass Annemarie whipped out a cell phone to take a picture of the flute of bubbly then promptly posted it on her Facebook account with the caption, “In my happy place again!” This was, of course, something Carlton Tucker had only seen after returning home that night while checking his Facebook account. And he was not included in the picture.
The evening had started out relatively well. As they sipped their flutes of chilled champagne a warm breeze blew and they could almost smell the scent of the ocean from the beach of the Jersey Shore, which was more an illusion than a reality since it was about a hundred miles away (as the crow flies). Annemarie told him she’d spent her birthday down the shore, as they say in Jersey, with a family friend who was, as she described, “a doobie smoking fisherman”.
For appetizers, they both had the baked clams oreganata as they comfortably chatted about how good it was to be able to return to their mutually favorite restaurant after its three-month shutdown. Although Annemarie lamented that they could neither sit at the bar nor around a table inside. After scarfing down a half dozen clams and in between savoring sips of the cold wine they used chunks torn from the portioned loaf of French bread atop the table to sop up the remaining pools of garlicky olive oil on their plates.
“The bread’s not as good as it used to be. They must be getting it from a different bakery these days,” the chatty Ms. Chellini commented.
“Well, times have changed, I guess,” the normally non-talkative Mr. Tucker cautiously opined. He had noticed last week while visiting her doobie smoking fishermen friends in Manasquan she’d posted a picture on Facebook including a caption complaining of people who had parked themselves in front of where she was sunbathing on the public beach. In the photo the intruders appeared to be several yards away from her.
With the appetizer plates now removed as they awaited the main course, they continued to casually converse. It was a beautifully clear evening as the sun sunk lower, setting the pre-summer solstice sky ablaze with crimson. Personally, Carl liked dining outside the CSB&R in the near-nighttime open air. It was then, as he listened to his table companion speak, that their waitress set the main course before them.
As with the appetizers, they had both ordered the same entrée; panko encrusted sushi tuna steak accompanied with sides of wild rice (Annemarie had requested risotto, which wasn’t listed on the menu instead of rice, but was told, regrettably, that the risotto was not available tonight—and which appeared to miff the somewhat moody Ms. off a bit), steamed broccoli, and pureed squash. The fish was served with two dipping sauces. One was a sweet ginger and soy, and the second a wasabi sauce.
Tucker tried the sweeter of the two first, noting the tangy flavor the ginger added to it. Next, he dipped another bite of the tasty tuna in the other one, soaking and coating it generously with the lime green wasabi sauce. And this is where disaster struck!
At first, it wasn’t so much the burn of the wasabi on his tongue as it was the fast flash frying of the sinuses within his nose. Next, the Japanese horseradish caused his eyes to water and tears to stream down his now flushed cheeks. What followed was even worse: a rapid and what seemed like an endless series of uncontrollable sneezes. Before that, everything had seemed to be going so well…
Annemarie Chellini stared at him with concern as he covered his face with the Court Street white linen napkin when the sneezing continued. That expression transformed into alarm and she asked, “Are you alright?”
Due to the ceaseless sneezing Carlton Tucker was unable to talk. So, he tried holding his hand up in the universally understood gesture that tells another person “Please—just give me—a minute—I’ll be—fine.” The only problem was that the tears, the burning sensation, and worst of all, the sneezing showed no signs of subsiding.
“Achoo, achoo, achoo…”
Carl possessed a good sense of humor, and if he hadn’t been experiencing such extreme physical discomfort and humiliation, he’d a found this situation comical. Which in a way, it really was. By this time other diners were staring at them with curiosity and concern.
“Achoo, achoo, achoo!”
Even their waitress had returned to the table asking if there was anything she could do. Annemarie simply gave a small shrug of her shoulders then stared down at the glassware, utensils, and plate-covered table in silence as his fit of sternutation continued. When she finally spoke again all she said was, “I don’t know, maybe get him some water?”
When the seizure of suspiration thankfully subsided, she asked him again if he was okay and what had happened. Still trying to catch his breath now he explained it was the effect of the wasabi on his sinuses. Adding to his explanation a story of how his sinuses had been destroyed by too many nights back in the day at Studio 54 doing lines of cocaine with rock stars he knew and their girls. Which was kind of a major lie, if the truth be told.
The part about doing coke with rock stars, their wives and girlfriends, and Studio 54 was totally true. The part that wasn’t true is it wasn’t the blow; it was he’d suffered from a sinus condition, nasal congestion, and seasonal allergies almost his entire life. The remainder of the meal was awkward, to say the least. And since this date now seemed dead on arrival, and without even finishing their champagne, he asked for, then paid the check, and they left the Court Street Bar & Restaurant.
Carlton asked Annemarie if she wanted him to walk her home, but now she was the one lying, telling him she had some errands to take care of on her own—so with noncommittal promises of being in contact again soon—they parted ways. Well, at least he wasn’t the only liar that night. Oh, and by the way, in case you’re still wondering, there never was a first kiss, invites to whoever’s place afterward for a little nightcap, and of course, no brief hug nor second date.