In my defense, it had been six years since I had been on a date. Yes, you read that part right. Six. Long. Years. And yes, you read the next part right, too. Not “in a relationship”, but “on a date.” If you haven’t already guessed, my “in a relationship” time chasm was even wider.
It’s not the sort of thing you want to put on your dating profile, you know? Tall and slender, early thirties. Likes working out. Dog person. Has been 2,193 days since any meaningful contact with the opposite sex.
Lucas and I had messaged each other on an online dating app over the past several days, and tonight would be our first time meeting in person. I tried to stifle my nervousness by humming while I got ready.
My first mistake was deciding to wear a white blouse. Sure, as I was getting ready at home, I heard the tiny voice of my conscience (who apparently doubles as my fashion advisor) desperately whispering to me, “Don’t do it.” But the white blouse was the only reasonably cute and clean shirt hanging in my closet. I took it off the hanger, stole a guilty glance at the massive pile of dirty laundry on the floor, and whispered back, “I’ll just be extra careful.”
I was nearly finished doing my hair, which I rarely ever made a fuss about, when I checked my phone and realized I hadn’t left myself enough time - that was my second mistake. I looked in the mirror. The curls on the left side of my face were impressive - wavy, loose, natural-looking. Like a model on a beach in Hawaii. The hair on the right side of my face looked like a poodle had jumped into an industrial ribbon-curler.
I ran my fingers through my hair, let out a tiny wail, slung my purse over my shoulder and ran out the door.
I swerved into the parking lot of the Italian restaurant four minutes late, nudged my car into a tight spot between a vehicle, a fire hydrant, and the curb, and walked briskly inside.
Lucas was already at a table waiting for me so, after being seated, I awkwardly apologized for my lateness. He waved it off and handed me a little bouquet of a dozen pink wild roses. They were beautiful and, unlike a massive bouquet of deep red roses on a first date, felt more charming than concerning. But I felt extra guilty for being late.
I nervously dug in my purse for a lip balm, and then felt dread come over me as I realized my third mistake - that, in my haste to leave the house, I had left my wallet sitting on the table in the entry hallway. Lucas and I had already discussed the bill to alleviate any awkwardness at the meal, and we agreed to each pay for our portion. I pretended to look at the menu while my fingers were wildly searching the depth of my purse for any cash. I had…a ten, a five, a few dollar bills and some change. Whew, just enough for a cheap dinner and a tip. Disaster averted.
Lucas and I chatted while we waited for our drinks. The restaurant was welcoming, with dim lighting and low music, and we had been seated in a private tucked-away corner. A small vase with fresh flowers adorned the center of the table, and two tall pillar candles added a pretty glow.
The waitress returned with our drinks and took our orders. My fourth mistake was ordering the chicken parmesan with red sauce (more on this to come later), but it was the Saturday night special and was the cheapest thing on the menu.
My fifth mistake of the evening was during an awkward pause in the conversation. Most conversations have pauses, and some conversations have awkward pauses. But conversations on first dates win the gold medal for extra-special awkward pauses.
You know the kind. One of you is talking about something (the topic isn’t important) and inevitably trails off into an unintelligible mumble as you realize that the conversation is dwindling. And then the silence comes. Not a comfortable, familiar silence. But a silence that gnaws at you both and gets increasingly louder as the seconds tick by.
To the last person who spoke, the silence says, What is wrong with you? Why did you say that you like eating brined pickles dipped in cheese powder? She’s going to think you’re so weird! Say you were just kidding. No, it’s too late to take it back now. Look, now she’s staring at you!
To the person who was listening, it says just as loud, Think of a response! Think of a response! He told you about the pickles and cheese powder. Now you have to tell him about your secret hoard of stale two-year-old caramel chews from England, hidden in the back of the pantry, that you break out when you’re feeling insecure. Wait, no, don’t say that! Just say … something!
Lucas had just finished telling me a story about his grandma winning some quilt show years ago, and I tried to think of a response but kept coming up blank. I didn’t know anything about quilts. And the more I tried to think of something to say, the louder the silence became. His smile faded and he shifted in his chair.
Without thinking I panicked, laughed nervously, and blurted out, “Well, at least she didn’t give you the quilt!” As the words left my mouth, I remembered with horror that three minutes earlier Lucas said his grandma gifted it to him as a baby.
Lucas looked confused, and I realized - thank God - that he hadn’t heard me. The waiter arrived with our entrees right then, so I completely changed the subject. I hoped he hadn’t noticed.
Mistake number six was asking for extra napkins. I wasn’t generally a messy eater, but I wanted to give a good impression tonight and, if that meant I needed a few extra napkins with which to dab my mouth, then so be it. The waiter brought several extra linen napkins and set them near my plate. I thought I saw the waiter, and possibly the napkins, give me a disapproving glance.
The seventh mistake was setting my fork on the bottom edge of my plate after digging into my parmesan chicken. Lucas said something that made me laugh, and I leaned forward. My arm caught the end of my fork and flipped it end over end. I could see thick red sauce coating the tines, and I reached out in slow motion to catch it, hoping against all hope. As my hands flailed for the fork, a memory from high school flashed by. I had worked at a gardening shop, and it was my job to catch goldfish to plop into waiting bags of water to sell. It was like trying to scoop up a bar of wet soap that was also alive, wriggling, and trying to escape. Easy, right?
Despite my well-honed goldfish catching skills, the fork landed on my clean white shirt and spattered bright red sauce all over the front of it. It looked like some scene out of a slasher movie.
My eighth mistake was about to be made. I ran to the bathroom in embarrassment to try to get the stains out, paused in front of the sink, and thought for a moment. Is it hot water for berries and cold water for tomato sauce? Or cold water for blood and hot water for tomato sauce? I guessed cold. I was wrong. I walked back to the table with a shirt that looked like, after the slasher scene, it had gone through a wash cycle with a loofa and an open bottle of ketchup.
The ninth mistake of the night was when I sprinkled more pepper on my chicken parmesan (even with the tomato sauce it was bland). The pepper shaker wasn’t cooperating, so I unscrewed the cap and carefully sprinkled the pepper straight out of the opening. I didn’t hear anything Lucas said because I was concentrating so hard, and felt proud when I didn’t dump the whole shaker’s worth of pepper out all at once. I recapped the shaker and breathed a sigh of relief.
Just as Lucas was asking me a question, my left eye started to itch so I reached up and rubbed ground pepper squarely into my eye.
Mistakes ten, eleven, and twelve then followed in rapid succession.
I wanted to dip my napkin in the ice water to alleviate the searing burning feeling which now had tears running down one side of my face. But I couldn’t see out of my left eye and thus had no depth perception as I reached for my ice water.
I knocked the glass of ice water off balance and, in my desperate attempt to keep it from falling, my elbow hit one of the tall pillar candles. I realized in the back of my mind that Lucas had stopped talking.
The ice water glass remained upright, ironically, as the lit tip of the candle fell neatly into the pile of linen napkins by my plate.
I couldn’t see out of my left eye, but I looked across the table through the flames with my right eye and met Lucas’ gaze. His expression was indescribable, something between horror and disbelief.
We both stared at the small fire that was now growing bigger in the middle of our table. I tried to shout “Fire!” but all that came out was a loud squeak.
Lucas looked around wildly for a waiter. “Help!”
In the minutes of chaos that followed, I learned several things: how flammable everything is, how quickly an entire restaurant full of people can be evacuated, and why you aren’t supposed to park in front of a fire hydrant.