Michelle chewed nervously on her cinnamon gum, making her appear the epitome of a gum-chewing waitress. He wasn’t here yet. Probably as soon as he saw her frizzled hair and post-shift attire, he would turn right around and walk out.
Michelle had been chatting with a man from her area online at the dating service “WinkMe” and agreed to meet him in person. Originally, they planned to meet at Rizolini’s downtown, eat some spicy-sweet basil pomodoro with a side of crunchy pane Siciliano dipped in to-die-for garlicky olive oil. The dish would be accompanied by the restaurant’s incredible garden-fresh salad with olives and Italian peppers, and for dessert...mouth-watering, sugary zeppole…
Michelle’s mouth watered at the thought of the once-in-a-lifetime experience, reminding her of her own mother’s Italian cooking...But it was not to be. Her date had messaged her and said he called ahead to make a reservation at Rizolini’s but they were closed due to Covid.
Michelle hated Covid.
Instead, they had agreed that they would meet at the cafe on the corner of Market Street - Delaynea’s Demitasse, a charming little place with Dutch shutters, tables and chairs with curlicue legs and a partially shaded patio area. The coffee they served was imported, expensive but exquisitely rich.
Michelle chewed her gum a little faster. She didn’t actually know her date’s full name. All he had given in his profile was “Mike the Man” who was a Veteran from Afghanistan, and liked Italian food (a commonality with Michelle obviously). Through chatting she also was glad to find he enjoyed dirt track racing and the BackStreet Boys.
Shaking off snow from her boots, Michelle wished she had brought a change of clothes, or deodorant, or a comb for her black, curly hair, or something. Then again, she thought she’d have time to make herself presentable before making a dreadfully long-lasting first impression on this poor online dater.
Entering through the back door closest to the restrooms, Michelle finger-combed her hair with water and freshened her lips with an almost-empty tube of lipstick. Smoothing face balm onto her cheeks, she spritzed a little body spray to mask the barbeque smell from her job and sneaked out the back door again. Re-entering the cafe through the front door, she glanced around for the face she had only seen online.
A middle-aged man in a business suit, looking annoyed while waiting for his coffee a foot away from the pickup counter. Nope. A college student, seated at one of four tables Covid had allowed to stay standing in the cafe. Michelle scrutinized him briefly - red-head with a penchant for nibbling his pen. Nope.
Michelle seated herself at the second table and prepared to wait. She glanced at Mike’s profile photo again - auburn hair, inscrutable blue-green eyes, muscular build. His pose was in shadow, and she could only see half his face. Guys are so bad at taking selfies.
Five minutes later, the front door opened, followed by an arctic blast of air. A crew-cut muscular blond walked in, limping in a dignified stride toward the counter. “Groot (large) black Pine Forest Pour-over for one, please,” he said to the cashier, using their cafe sizing system. Flipping a $5 bill onto the counter, he backed up to the pickup counter. Casually he surveyed the room, as if he intentionally appeared not to be looking for someone. His eyes met Michelle’s and a flicker of surprise swept over his face.
Michelle blushed. Mike Calighan...from her very clumsy days in high school. He was the most sought-after football pro on the Senior team. Nervously she began chewing her lip. Should she go say hello? Or...was he actually already headed her direction?
Mike stopped at Michelle’s table, a tiny smirk tugging at his otherwise expressionless face. “Michelle Vargas!” he said.
Michelle faked surprise. “Mike! My goodness, fancy meeting you here. Please sit down.”
Mike chuckled. “Good to see you! It’s been a long time. You waiting for someone?”
“Um...I think so but, well, his name is Mike…” Michelle began, when she noticed something shiny under the table. Discreetly she glanced a little closer. Mike’s prosthetic leg was hard to recognize until he stretched it out man-fashion. “Maybe...you aren’t um…”
Mike chuckled again. “I guess I’m the wrong guy then?”
Michelle stuttered like she always used to do in High School. “Well I mean you’re M-mike but well, maybe you are him. Do you go...I mean...are you online?”
Mike nodded. “Yes...Are you… ‘Chelly’?”
“Oh! Right, I am. So you must be...Mike the Man. But your picture makes your hair look darker.”
“Oh, does it?” Mike touched his crew-cut top. “So, Michelle, what’s been happening since we graduated ten years ago?” They chatted while Mike ordered her drink, along with two pastries for them to share.
What a long time ago...her senior year. She and Mike had graduated together, but she didn’t think he ever noticed her - Mike, always so popular with Gabby Gordon on his arm. “I work at Pete’s BBQ. Sorry about the hickory smoke. I’m actually the manager there, starting after I graduated. I’m studying for a Bachelor’s in Business Management, as well as an Associates in Culinary Arts. I plan to open a restaurant and catering business some day…”
Surprisingly, Michelle found herself telling Mike all about her life. Half an hour passed before she realized she hadn’t let him say anything about himself. Michelle apologized and added, “I haven’t given you half a chance to talk! I’m probably boring you.”
Mike grinned. “No! Actually I was enjoying hearing you talk. I don’t remember you being outgoing in high school, though. Of course, I was pretty into myself back then. I always admired you. Smart, nose in your books, setting high goals and achievements. I didn’t think I had a chance back then.”
Michelle blushed. “Wh-what do you mean? I didn’t think I had a chance!” She paused and added gingerly, “I guess you and Gabby aren’t…”
Mike sighed. “No, no. Actually that ended a couple years ago. I was in Afghanistan when I got her letter that she’d married some dude she met in college.”
Michelle frowned. Trust Gabby to make a selfish mistake like that, to bail on an army recruit while he was deployed. “How long were you in Afghanistan?”
Mike was quiet for a few minutes. “Long enough to get this,” he gestured to his prosthetic leg. “On my first tour in January 2018, a stray shell caught me and some friends. I lost my leg, they lost a lot more.”
Michelle felt her throat tighten. “I’m so sorry.”
Mike sighed and shrugged. “Well, I guess Uncle Sam doesn’t need me there anymore, so I get to pursue whatever else opens up. Would you care to take a drive?”
Nodding, Michelle smiled and followed her soldier beau out the door. “Where are we going?”
“A surprise,” Mike answered.
Michelle gasped as they opened the cafe door, unintentionally gulping in the freezing air. The sun was already setting, and winter evening shadows crept across the parking lot. Michelle shivered and pulled her coat closer around her shoulders as a brisk wind whipped through her coat as if it was made of straw.
Mike glanced her direction and grabbed a blanket from his car. “Here, use this,” he said. “Mind if I drive?”
Michelle smiled and thanked him, pulling the blanket across her lap in the front passenger’s seat.
It was a 45-minute drive. Michelle was dying of curiosity by the time they arrived. She followed him up a small incline to a brightly lit gazebo just outside the city’s college campus.
“It’s beautiful…” she began, but Mike tapped his finger across her lips.
“Wait,” he said. “Close your eyes. Do you trust me?”
Michelle smiled crookedly but shut her eyes. “Ok.” She felt herself being steered through crunching, frost-bitten grass, and Mike’s arms came around her as he guided her up the three steps inside the gazebo.
“There. You can open them now.”
Michelle’s eyes were blinded for a moment. Millions of lights in pinks, reds, greens and blues sparkled brightly, winding around a single sprawling ancient tree one hundred yards away from the gazebo. In back of it, like a small village, the buildings on the college campus glowed in gold and blue, from rooftop to foundation.
Michelle was speechless. “My goodness...Mike!”
“You like it?” he grinned.
Michelle looked into his eyes. “Yes.”
Mike held her gaze for a moment. “Would...would you mind if I…” he slowly touched her chin.
Michelle couldn’t tear her eyes away, but her heart began throbbing double-time. Slowly, Mike kissed her, a gentle, but intense electric pressure on her mouth. Then he wrapped his arms around her shoulders and stood behind her, looking at the lights. Michelle leaned back into his embrace. “I was afraid...you’d be turned off by the hickory scent. I’m a mess you know.”
Mike chuckled his low, rumbling laugh. “I thought you’d be turned off by my leg.”
“No. I couldn’t be,” Michelle answered, squeezing his hand.
“You too cold?” Mike asked.
“Not really,” Michelle grinned. “This is the most awesome first date I’ve ever had. And I’m almost thirty. That is, in a couple years.”
“Me too, but that’s when it gets good they say,” Mike remarked mischievously.
Michelle blushed. “I wonder how many other couples have been here on a night like this,” she said softly, breath hanging in a cloud in the frosty air.
A few yards away, a young couple came to a stop under the tree. The young man got down on one knee and opened up a ring box to the astonishment of his companion. Several feet behind them, a couple walked slowly down the sidewalk, smiling. Their hair was grayed at the temples and they had to support each other, but they both looked very happy.
“ ‘Till we’re old and grey,’” Michelle murmured under her breath. “That was the song at my sister’s wedding.” Michelle sang softly under her breath:
And even when we’re old and grey, /
I’ll still be loving you this way, /
And when we meet at Jesus’ feet /
He’ll be the first to say /
“You did it all for me!”
Mike nodded, as if making a mental note. “It’s a good way to go.”