Charlotte pulled up to the restaurant, watching the sunset paint the sky from her car window. She opened the mirror in her car and checked her eye liner, lipstick, and blush. She slowly opened her car door before stepping out, her black stiletto clicking on the pavement of the parking lot. Her eyes darted across the parking lot, checking for black ice. The final snowstorm of March had come and gone, but not without leaving behind a few deadly ghosts. Subconsciously, she reached her hand up, running her fingers through her hair. Then, her hands drifted along her hips to smooth out the slimming little black dress. Briskly, with feigned confidence, she walked to the large, glass double doors.
The restaurant was abuzz with Friday night conversation. She weaved her way through the forest of men in smart suits, the women careening in high heels, and the young lovers who can’t imagine not physically touching each other for a second. They chorused “Pardon me,” and “Excuse me,” at one another; some mumbling an apology instead. Their breath fogged up window glass corners. She reached the sleek, black host’s podium and met the gaze of a tall red head. The girl handed her a menu and asked for her name.
“Charlotte Birmingham,” she said. The hostess ran her pen along the leather bound reservation book and placed a small red tick halfway down. “The rest of your party has arrived, if you will follow me, please,” the hostess stepped from behind the podium. Magically, the sea of people parted for the hostess and Charlotte trailed behind, feeling like a child following their mother through a grocery store on a Saturday.
Charlotte saw him, sitting at a large booth. Her breath caught in her throat. Her heart began to race. Suddenly, she willed the hostess to walk slower. Noah was swirling dark liquor in a square glass with a single piece of ice, cut like a diamond. His smile filled his face as he stood, wrapped her in a hug, and a kiss on the cheek. The hostess smiled and departed. “Baby, you look incredible!” Noah praised. Charlotte blushed bright. She reached to her hair, running her fingers through the long, straight black layers. Noah was beaming at the nervous woman sitting in front of him.
A tall young man with dark curls swirling around his rosy cheeks approached the table, “Can I get the lady anything to drink?” Charlotte smiled and reached for the drink menu perched behind the salt and pepper shakers. Noah’s hand reached for hers, stopping her. “She’ll have the specialty cocktail for tonight,” he said. Charlotte started to protest and Noah beamed back at her. “Baby, you’ll love it. I promise,” he promised before nodding to the waiter whose nervous green eyes darted between the couple. He made a note with a small, black pencil and walked away. Charlotte bit her lip. Noah’s blue eyes shot to the white ceiling with a sigh. Charlotte released her grip on her lip and dabbed delicately with her pristine, white napkin.
“Aren’t you cold?” he asked. But she caught his eyes, lingering on cream colored shoulders and legs so she shook her head. This won her another smile for the night.
Sam balanced the red cocktail garnished with the orange peel on the black tray. He weaved between the tables, the crowds of guests, and busy servers. He placed the cocktail in front of Charlotte. He watched as Noah’s long fingers reached across the table, squeezed the orange slice into the drink, and reoffered the drink. Sam plastered on a smile as Noah waved him away. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Charlotte’s lips wrap around the glass. A small, delicate sip entered her mouth. Sam would have bet all his tips for the night that she didn’t like it. He chuckled to himself and stepped over to his next table, taking their order for an appetizer of mozzarella sticks.
Noah just kept beaming at Charlotte. She painted on a fake smile, showing off her perfectly white teeth beneath crimson lips. “It’s good!” she lied. The vodka burned her throat. The lemonade and grenadine did their best to hide the heat. She did enjoy the citrus hints.
“I knew you’d like it,” Noah said. He reached out a hand saying, “I know you, Charlie.” His smile softened. It wasn’t giddy; it was affectionate. A real grin began to fill Charlotte’s face. She traced the lines in his palm. The waiter returned. Charlotte reached for her menu as Noah began to order. He chose a fish dish. Charlotte contemplated a classic pasta or the flat bread pizza. She opened her mouth to order, but found Noah’s authoritative voice drowning hers out, “She’ll have the bison steak. Medium well. A side of brussel sprouts and no carbs, please.” Noah extended a hand and took the menu. He handed them both over to Sam and rattled the ice cube around his glass.
“Noah, why did you do that?” asked Charlotte. Her hand ran through her hair as Noah sat back and then leaned forward at her question. His perfectly clean shaven chin looked up at her inquisitively.
“What?” he asked.
“I didn’t want a bison steak. I don’t like bison,” she asserted.
“Baby, you’ve never had bison. Not really. You’ll love it,” he said. Again, his hand reached across the table.
“Noah,” said Charlotte, “I really wanted a flatbread pizza with pesto. I love pesto.”
“Baby, you don’t need the carbs,” urged Noah. His blue eyes peered into her soul via her dark eyes. He was right. She sat back and took a sip of the signature cocktail. The heat of the vodka warmed her to him. The restaurant played a soft Italian soundtrack. Charlotte reached out for the bread basket and then retracted her thin, manicured fingers. She pressed her lips together in a bitter attempt to not bite them. Noah was back to beaming at her. The waiter dropped off the fresh glass of liquor at the table and departed, silently. Noah stood, suddenly, mumbling something about the bathroom.
Reflexively, Charlotte reached for her phone, briefly reading the messages from her girlfriends asking how the big anniversary dinner was going. Once Noah was out of sight, she reached for the bread, stuffing her face. She washed it down with a steep sip of the cocktail. She pulled out her compact and dabbed her lips, disguising her shame. She called, “Excuse me, could we get some more bread? And quickly, please!” to a passing waiter who returned quickly with more rolls.
Sam felt eyes on his back. He’d returned to the waiters’ corner which housed the restaurant’s POS systems. When he turned, Sam saw Noah standing a few feet back. He stood tall in his navy suit and red tie. Sam imagined he was the type of man who made himself busy at a bustling office. The kind of man with a secretary who he wouldn’t dare look twice at...until his wife was eight months along with their first child. “Can I help you?” Sam asked, around him his colleagues swirled like cream in coffee.
Noah walked forward, pushing a couple of the wait staff out of the way. Sam mouthed an apology to them which was met with an understanding eye roll. Noah began fishing something out of his jacket breast pocket. A proposal, of course, Sam thought.
“I’m going to ask that beautiful woman to be my wife tonight. We will have the chocolate mousse. I need the ring placed, delicately on top,” Noah said, extending the box to Sam who reached for it with a nod, but Noah pulled it back. “This ring is worth more than your salary,” Noah added. Slowly, he extended it back out. Sam carefully took it in his hands and plastered on a grin. He watched Noah turn and walk away. Sam frowned, rolled his eyes, and returned to his tasks.
Noah returned to the table, gasping softly. Charlotte frowned at him, reaching a hand out to him, “Are you ok?”
“Yes, Baby. Thank you,” Noah smiled at her. Within a few minutes their food arrived. The gamey aroma of bison filled the air and Charlotte resisted the urge to gag. She stabbed each brussel sprout with purpose, knowing this would be her real meal for the evening. Sam swept over to the table, to inquire how the food was. Noah answered for them. He assured the waiter that it was perfect. Charlotte swore she caught a wink. Her heartbeat quickened. Then, with cold shaking fingers, she began to cut into the steak. She placed one, small bite on her tongue and began to chew. She chewed. And chewed. And chewed. Then, she forced a swallow. She felt the meat slide down like a child afraid of the slide, desperately gripping with all four limbs to the slick sides, all in vain.
Noah beamed at her expectantly. His asparagus had been devoured and so had half the fish. Charlotte smiled back at him. She took a second and a third bite, choosing to gulp down her previously untouched water glass with each one. The steak was two thirds of the way gone when Charlotte declared herself full. “But not too full for dessert, right?” asked Noah. It’s a test, worried Charlotte.
“Um...yes. Yes, too full for dessert,” she declared.
“Nonsense! It’s our anniversary! You can make room, just this one!” Noah proclaimed with a burp while waving his right hand. His clunky, silver watch glistened even in the dim light of the restaurant.
“Ok,” she reached for the dessert menu. “I’d like the strawberry cheesecake,” she said, trying to contain her excitement. She hadn’t indulged in dessert in quite some time. There was talk of a trip to Hawaii this summer; she had to think of her beach figure.
“I was thinking of the chocolate mousse,” mused Noah. He sipped his liquor, peering at her over the glass.
“Please?” asked Charlotte.
“Alright,” conceded Noah. Sam must have felt his ears burning because he came to sweep the dishes away. “I’ll take another one,” he rattled his ice, “And the cheesecake. Not the mousse,” he held Sam’s gaze for a moment. Sam nodded rapidly. He retreated and left the couple in the silence of the table. Charlotte rested her chin in the palm of her left hand, her elbow perched on the table. She caught Noah’s gaze and straightened up. She ran her fingers through her hair. Noah began to drone on about work. Charlotte half listened as she looked around the dining room.
Her eyes rested on the young love birds she had seen when she first entered the restaurant. She watched as the young man fumbled with a small, worn, black wallet. He pulled out his cash. She watched him glance at the bill in the tray and then count it in his lap. The girl across from him giggled loudly, excited to be in such a nice place. Charlotte watched her take a few bread rolls from the basket and stuff her cheeks like a chipmunk. Charlotte saw the boy place all his cash on the check, slowly, painfully, and with a grimace. She watched Sam sweep up the bill and return the small, plastic tray with a receipt and a few coins. Charlotte watched the boy's fingers reach for the coins and pocket them. Then, he led the girl out. His lanky frame was lost in the excess material of an ill fitted dress shirt and black trousers. He tripped slightly and Charlotte figured it was due to the dress shoes being half a size too big.
The cheesecake was placed in front of her. On top of the large, glazed strawberry perched a beautiful diamond ring. It glittered in the light of the restaurant and the patrons around them gasped. Noah stood and knelt on one knee. Charlotte gasped. “Baby, I love you so much. I have loved you for three years now. Your father said yes; will you?” Noah asked. He reached for her hands.
Charlotte felt the world fade away. She remembered meeting Noah at a bar downtown during a girls’ night. Her heart fluttered when he bought her a drink and all the way back to her place. Charlotte had figured she would never hear from him after that, but was surprised when he brought her chocolate croissants in bed the next morning. Charlotte was delighted when he took her out for coffee and when they hit the town for the first time. He had showered her with luxury–-nice dinners out, annual vacations, and plenty of jewelry. His requests hadn’t felt preposterous: she needed to keep slim, wear nice clothing, and be open to sex on his schedule. She had fulfilled each of them. Her girlfriends had warned her a proposal was just around the corner.
Gleefully, Charlotte said yes. Noah plucked the pillow cut diamond ring and placed it on her ring finger. The restaurant erupted in applause as Noah kissed her passionately. The scent of his cologne, familiar hints of cinnamon, filled her nose as she kissed him back. Her fingers began to tangle in his perfectly styled hair. She allowed herself to get lost in his passion. When they separated, she immediately held out her hand. Charlotte admired the way the center, princess cut diamond sparkled. She counted the smaller ones surrounding the middle-all 18 of them. Noah smiled at his bride to be. Sam, at Noah’s insistence, snapped a photo of the two of them with Noah’s lips pressed against Charlotte’s cheek, one of the ring back on the cheesecake with Charlotte beaming, and one of her hand. She nibbled at the cheesecake before excusing herself to the restroom.
Excitement and anticipation built in her heart and she raced to the bathroom. She found herself pausing at the couple in the back. They were around her grandparents’ age, huddled together in a small booth. Charlotte cringed, not realizing before that anyone would agree to be sat ten feet from the bathrooms.The woman held a large glass of red wine and the man wrapped his arm around her. In front of them, a large wooden plate held the remnants of the flatbread pizza. Charlotte watched the woman place her head on the man’s shoulder. She watched as he kissed her cloud of white hair, delicately, intimately. The man’s icy, blue eyes looked up at her. Nervous that she had been caught spying, Charlotte ran her fingers through her hair and headed to the bathroom.
Standing at the sink, she caught her breath. She splashed some cold water on her chest, red with excitement and liquor. The ring sparkled more in the bathroom light. It felt heavy. Charlotte reached for the sample size bottle of perfume tucked in the bottom of her purse. She spritzed a bit on her chest, allowing the scent of rose to fill her nose. She took a deep breath, releasing her bottom lip from her teeth. Charlotte applied another coat of lipstick. She checked her teeth for evidence of her lip biting. Her hand drifted to the locket she had worn. It was a gift from her grandmother. It held a small portrait of her grandmother on the left, her grandfather on the right. Her hand fell as she caught her reflection in the mirror. She saw her rosy cheeks which were sore from smiling. She glanced down at the thin, gold watch on her left arm. It was last year’s anniversary gift from Noah. He was a good man. Kind, smart, hard working, affectionate, funny. And as he had said, her father had said yes. The large, burly, blue collared man Charlotte called Dad, had hated anyone Charlotte brought home. But he doesn’t hate Noah. He likes Noah, she thought.
Charlotte’s heels clicked on the red, tiled floor as she exited the bathroom. The elderly couple was gone. A white napkin with hints of the woman’s lipstick was all that remained of their presence. At the table, Noah’s head was bent over his cell phone. Charlotte paused, allowing the crowds of the restaurant to move around her. She took in the man at the table. She watched his jaw clench slightly because, she imagined, he read something he didn’t like. A giggle escaped as she saw him scratch furiously at his collar. Noah hated dressing up, saying it always made him feel like a caged monkey on a stage.
Charlotte approached him confidently and began to sit on his side of the table. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“Sitting next to my fiance,” she responded with a kiss on his cheek. He pulled her in.
“Don’t.” he whispered in her ear. His breath was hot and heavy with liquor as he continued his scolding, “You are not a child.You don’t need to sit next to me to know I exist.” He smiled and finished his drink. She stood and he wrapped her sweater around her shoulders. They walked out to the chilly parking lot. He pulled her in for a hug outside by the large planters in front of the restaurant. Charlotte melted into his warmth. “I’ll see you at home,” he mumbled into her hair. She was left to watch him briskly walk to his car. Her feet, firmly planted on the sidewalk. Cars passed by and a few honked at her with annoyance. Her bottom lip trembled, a lump in her throat formed. When Charlotte blinked, two tears escaped.
Sam’s voice piped up from behind her, “You don’t have to marry him, you know.”
Charlotte wiped away her tears, surprised he had followed her out. Her feet suddenly remembered how to move. And Sam watched her fade into the night, listening to each click of her heel on the pavement.