Thursday night he arrived at 7:03 p.m., claiming to be on time because, he reminded me, “It’s not fair to factor in parking and the distance it takes to walk to the front door.”
Secretly, I wanted him to arrive just once at 7:10 p.m. Or even 7:30 p.m., rushing in with a frantic look on his face, finding me in the crowd, relieved I was still there, and with exhaustion and anxiety in his eyes, approach the table cautiously, reverently, hoping I wasn’t mad. He’d apologize and wait to see if I would accept. And then I would smile and tell him that of course I would accept.
But Edward was never late. Edward never looked frantic. And now Edward was doing the same thing he always did at the front door, which was removing his scarf, folding it three times, and instructing the maître d’ on how to hang his coat, which was the same coat he wore every single spring.
As I watched him, my mind wandered back to my character of Jodie Bellarusa. For now she would have to wait. But soon enough, I’d be able to bring her back alive on the pages of my computer. I was still in the first act, and Jodie had yet to meet Timothy, her eccentric opposite. Four or five scenes down the road, they would meet and hate each other. But like all good romances, love would blossom, despite Jodie’s preference for practicality.
I watched Edward make his way around the tables that stood between us. He could maneuver them blindfolded. We’d been eating at this restaurant for two years. I’d once suggested we try a window seat. Edward gave his best to be compliant, but I was forced to watch him eye our “regular” table all night like it was another woman.
And just like two years ago, we still loved each other’s company.
He sat down without making eye contact, found his napkin, placed it on his lap, and then looked directly across the table at me.
Smiling warmly, he said, “Good evening, Leah.”
He’d never had a pet name for me, and I guess I never wanted one. I used to hate when I’d go out with couple friends and they’d call each other the weirdest things that would be offensive in any other context. But as the months passed, I started wishing for a pet name, something whispered in public, in my ear, like a private joke.
But it was always Leah, pronounced with preciseness but not lacking delight.
“Hi.” I smiled back.
He took my hand from across the table. His were cold, and he apologized by explaining he’d left his gloves at the office.
He glanced around for our waiter, who would be Joel on this evening, because it was the second Thursday of the month, and Joel always took Curtis’s shift, because Curtis played in a band or something like that. “How was your day?” he asked, obviously still monitoring Joel’s response time.
Something held my tongue and it surprised me. Normally I would say “fine” and provide some highlights if he looked in the mood for details. But today was not fine. My agent had explained my desperate need for a new and dynamic script, reminding me that despite my first success, the last two plays had been “utter flops” and that my career was hanging in the balance of hell and heaven, as if all of eternity rested on my ability to move dialogue along. She’d said this as though I might be unaware that my last two plays had been disasters. But I was very much aware. A bright One-Hit Wonder sign hung itself on the dark side of my eyelids every night when I went to sleep.
“Where is Joel tonight?” asked Edward. “I really don’t like him as well as Curtis.”
“He’ll be here. Just gives us more time to talk, right?”
His honey-colored eyes, the ones that I fell in love with more than two years ago at a banquet, studied me like I was a formula written out across an expansive chalkboard.
“Sure, of course.”
“Good evening,” Joel said, sliding toward the table out of nowhere.
“How are you two this evening?”
“Fine, Joel,” Edward said. Edward then proceeded to order. I had to hand it to him. We didn’t eat the same dish every Thursday. He liked to throw in a few surprises. This evening, he requested a pasta dish that I couldn’t pronounce.
But just as he finished speaking, the words “crêpes suzette” flew from my mouth. I think I gasped as they escaped. Edward looked up at me. Joel glanced my way, too, as if he was surprised I could actually speak, since Edward had always ordered for us. But the fact was, I didn’t feel like pasta tonight.
Edward frowned at me. “Those flaming French pancakes? So everyone can observe what we’re eating?” It was true. The waiters would bring the dish out with fire encircling the mushroom crepes.
It was one of the restaurant’s specialties, and they liked to brag by way of dangerous combustion. I’d once observed a man order it for his wife, then watch with pleasure as all attention shifted to her when they delivered it to their table.
“It sounds kind of good to me. I’m not really in the mood for pasta.”
Edward was leaning toward me, examining me with intense eyes.
“Why not fish?”
“I don’t know, fish just doesn’t—”
Edward turned to Joel and said something that sounded like kah bee yoh ehn pee puh rahd. Joel smiled and turned to me. “We have a wonderful baked cod in a Piperade sauce. We use serrano peppers, blended with bell peppers, plum tomatoes, and garlic, simmered to perfection . . .”
I was nodding and acting interested, but my attention focused on a strange stirring inside me. It was nothing I could identify, and it could just as easily be related to nerves about the new play I was attempting. But some kind of restlessness was provoking bizarre behavior, like ordering flaming pancakes.
“Sure,” I finally said, noticing Joel’s mouth had stopped moving and both men seemed to be waiting for an answer. “The baked cod sounds lovely.”
Edward leaned back in his chair and smiled. The smile stretched into a grin. “So, I’ve been working on my speech all day.”
It was a speech he was to give five months from now, but Edward had a long and distinguished history of speech phobias. To nearly everyone but me, he was Dr. Edward Crowse, professor of physics at Boston University. I still did not understand what exactly the speech was for or to whom he was giving it, but I knew it was important.
Edward had been talking about it nonstop for five weeks.
“Yes. I think I’ve finally got the perfect opening joke.” He rubbed his hands together with anticipation.
“Well, let me hear it.” I grinned.
“Okay. There’s this farmer, who is having a great deal of problems with his chickens. They’re quite sick, and he has no idea what to do about them.”
“And so after trying all conventional means to find why his chickens are sick, he decides to call a biologist, a chemist, and a physicist to see if they can help figure out why the chickens are sick.”
“So the biologist takes a look at the chickens, handles them a bit, and looks them over. But he cannot figure out what’s wrong with the roosters.”
“I thought they were chickens.”
“Right. Yes. Chickens.”
“Okay, go ahead.”
“Well, then the chemist takes some tests and makes some measurements, but he cannot come to any conclusions about the chickens either.”
“So the physicist tries. He stands there for the longest time looking at the chickens. Not touching them. Just looking at them. Then, all of a sudden, he starts scribbling away in his notebook! The farmer rushes to his side, wondering if he’s figured it out. After several lengthy calculations, he suddenly states, ‘I’ve got it! But it only works for spherical chickens in a vacuum!’”
Edward leaned toward me, his eyes wide with expectation.
“In a vacuum. That’s funny.”
“Do you get it?”
“Sure. That’s good.”
Edward leaned back in his chair, scratching his chin. Then, flopping a lock of moppy golden hair to its proper side, he said, “I don’t know.”
“Well, joke-telling is really all about the timing—”
“Maybe it’s too long.”
“How long do you have?”
“Forty-five minutes, but I have to make some introductions and things like that. What about this one? Two atoms accidentally bump into each other. One atom says, ‘I think I lost an electron.’ The other asks, ‘Are you sure?’ to which he replies, ‘I’m positive.’”
“Yes, I guess you’re right.” Edward sighed, and the conversation continued about his day until Joel returned with our meals.
I stared down at my baked cod then looked up at Joel. “Would you mind lighting this on fire just for kicks?”
The startled expression covered Joel’s face again and Edward’s fork dangled from his long fingers as he stared across the table.
“I’m kidding.” I laughed, a warm blush crawling up my neck. I liked to call it a blush sometimes, as if that single word would somehow add a femininity and attractiveness to what was really just splotching. “I’m sorry,” I said to Edward after Joel left. “I don’t know what’s gotten into me.”
Edward shook his head. “That’s okay. The cod does look a little dull, doesn’t it?”
“It’s okay. Fish is better for me than mushroom-and-cream-filled crepes, right?”
Edward went on to a new joke. “Two pheromones walk into a bar. One orders a drink. The other says, ‘I’ll have what he’s having.’”
“I don’t get it.”
Edward was looking dejected. “I suppose I do have to worry about the wives and girlfriends in attendance. I have to tell something universally funny.”
I tried again. “Edward, telling a joke successfully is all about the timing and delivery. For instance, remember that joke you told me last week at the party? About the superconductor in Alaska?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Sure you do.”
Edward shook his head.
“Come on. You told it to Tom, and then to Jeff, and I think later to Mr. and Mrs. Lavonte. About the researchers in Fairbanks?”
“In the joke.”
“Oh, I know. About the fish.”
“No. About the superconductor. How the researchers in Fairbanks, Alaska, had discovered a superconductor that would operate at room temperature.”
Edward blinked, his eyes dimmed for a moment of thought, and then he raised his fork, indicating he did remember.
“Well,” I said, holding back a sigh, “that right there is a great example of how not to tell a joke.”
Edward didn’t get what a remarkable display of bad timing that was. Instead, he suddenly seemed interested in his pasta, poking around in it with his fork.
“There’s an odd spice in here. I can’t quite identify it. It’s not French, I can tell you that. Strange. It definitely doesn’t belong in this dish.”
“Hmm. Maybe the chef is trying something new.”
“Maybe. But he should be careful. A spice this strong can really wreck the medley of flavors a dish such as this is supposed to have.”
He moved the pasta around some more. “Maybe you could come over tonight. Help me out. This is, after all, your area of expertise.”
He managed a smile and a glance at me in the midst of his search for the mysterious spice.
“Don’t you have chess club tonight?”
“Didn’t I mention it? They’re changing it to Wednesdays on the third week of every month. What is this spice? It’s nearly overwhelming the entire platter.”
I found myself staring at the cod, flaking its flesh with my fork tines, realizing that in a strange way Edward had put into words what I was feeling. There was an odd spice inside me. Something that was bold and strong and distinct, yet misplaced. It was interrupting all the flavors that were important to my daily life. Tiny and unidentifiable, yet there, nevertheless.
What was it? And on what dish in my life did it belong? Was it there intentionally or had it been put there by mistake?
“I think I’m going to call for the chef,” Edward said.
He looked up. “Yes?”
I gazed at his delicate face, his amazingly beautiful eyes, his blond, curly hair. How could I tell him all that I was feeling? How could I explain that once in a while I wanted to have dinner on Wednesday and eat hot dogs at the park? Could this simply be about food?
“Leah, are you okay?” He set down his fork. “Is something wrong? You’ve been acting strangely all night.”
“It’s just that . . .”
His eyebrows rose, his lips pursed in an expectant manner.
“Well, it’s about . . .”
“Yes, Leah? What is it?”
I sighed. Who was I kidding? “I think I taste that spice in my food too.”
He beckoned Joel.