September 29, 2021

Invitation to Dinner

In the spring of 2019, my good friend, Nicholas, texts me: Come to a cool party.
With cool women? I text back.
You’ll see.

I’m known as Jay. I share an apartment with a friend in Oceanside, California, and I’m twenty-eight years old. I have a long face and a short black beard. Two years ago, I moved here from Salem, Oregon.

Life is often lonely for me. I haven’t met a woman I really connect with. Those I liked during a first date refused me when I asked them out again, and I couldn’t figure out why. Will I ever meet a woman I can love, who will love me?

On Saturday night, we go to the party in Del Mar, famous for its beautiful beaches and racetrack. Nicholas parks opposite a two-story house on a steep hill.

“Are you sure this ritzy place is the right one?” I ask him.
“No worries. I’m a friend of the family.”

We walk inside, and we’re greeted by the hostess, Emily, who is Nicholas’ friend from college. She gives us a charming smile, gestures to the side and says, “Get your drinks at the bar, guys.”

Nicholas orders a vodka martini, and I get a beer. He tells me that Emily’s parents own the house that has a huge pool, six bathrooms, five bedrooms, a detached guest house, and an ocean view. In a lighted courtyard, wooden planter boxes hold miniature orange and lemon trees.

A pretty, young woman wearing a white dinner jacket offers hors d’oeuvres. I eat toast with lobster and avocado, chewing slowly and enjoying the rich flavor. I can’t resist a second plate, loving the sweetness of a carrot tart with creamy ricotta cheese and almonds.

In a large room next to the bar, guys on guitar, trombone, upright bass, and drums accompany a female vocalist.  More girls than guys are dancing on the polished wooden floor. The band plays popular dance sets, like Peggy Gou’s lively, “It Makes You Forget,” and I sway with the beat.

“I gotta dance,” I say to Nicholas. I had studied at the Tippy Toe Dance Academy in Salem, whose owner taught modern, hip-hop and international folk dance.

Nicholas says, “Go for it, buddy.”

I head toward four girls dancing together, and they watch me as I dart into the middle of their group. They clap to the rhythm as I coordinate my movements and end with a slick-the-hair-back move. People clap, grin and slap me on my back.

A green-eyed woman approaches me. She’s a foot shorter than my six feet, three inches, and she’s wearing tight-fitting, black leather pants, a white T-shirt and a burnt-orange blazer. Oh my God, she has a gorgeous, radiant smile. What’s this strange fluttering in my chest? Why is my heart beating so fast? I realize I’ve stopped breathing, and I draw in a deep breath. “Only once,” my mother would say, “will you have an immediate connection with a woman.” Tonight might be that connection.

“I saw you dance,” she says. “You’re good.”
“Well… um… thanks.”
“I asked the bandleader to play a hip-hop oldie. Want to dance?”
“Yeah… I mean, I’d love to.”

The band plays, and our movements are in sync, as if we’d practiced together for weeks. When the music ends, we laugh, and she suggests we sit down. We find a quiet place in the huge courtyard and sit on cushioned chairs opposite each other. Her ring finger is bare, and sapphire, pear-shaped earrings with diamonds dangle from her ears.

“My name is Brianna.”
“Jay,” I tell her.
“So, where do you work?”
“I’m a high school teacher at the San Dieguito Academy.”
“Why did you decide to teach?” she asks.

“My elementary school teacher was like a second mother to me. She inspired me to encourage young people.”

“That’s great,” she says. “I’m in biotech. I study genes.”
“Fascinating.” No chance of me hooking up with this incredible woman.

“It is fascinating,” Brianna says. “I research how to prevent, treat and cure diseases. I study what happens when genes go wrong.”

She tells me she was born in Santa Barbara, and I tell her I was born in Salem, Oregon. We talk about twenty-first-century art, hiking in the mountains and the storylines in great movies.

Nicholas arrives and stands beside us. “Jay,” he says, “we need to go.”

“Already?”
“It’s late, and I gotta get an early start tomorrow.”
“Brianna,” I say, “I’d love to buy you coffee sometime.”
“Excellent.”
We save each other’s phone numbers.

*

Brianna texts me that she will work at her company’s subsidiary in Toronto during the next two weeks. Since our first meeting, her smiling face appears in my mind before I fall asleep at night. I want to see her again.

We plan to meet in San Diego on the following Sunday at three in the afternoon, the week after she returns.

My doctor said I have a social anxiety disorder that runs in families. My mother had panic attacks when she lost her job and when her mother died. My attacks can happen anytime, even when I’m calm.

At one o’clock on Sunday, my heart races. I tremble, my chest hurts, I’m light-headed, and short of breath. I lie on my bed and close my eyes. My symptoms grow in intensity for ten minutes, then subside after half an hour. Before I stand, I take four deep breaths, then drive to meet Brianna at the Better Buzz Roasting Company. Paintings of mango, papaya and cherimoya decorate a wall. She orders rooibos tea with masala spices, and I get a ginger-spiced chai latte.

My attraction to Brianna is so strong, I’m momentarily confused. I feel tingling up my back. I want to shout and laugh and dance, but I stay calm on the outside.

She tells me about her horse, which she rides one hour a day, six days a week. “Stable guys make sure that fifty-per-cent of Lady’s diet is grass or hay. And she’s on a deworming plan.”

“That’s great,” I say. I tell her about my neighbor who is a published author. “I bought one of her mystery novels. And she signed it.”

“I’ve never met a published author,” Brianna says.
“I’ll introduce you sometime. Can I ask a personal question?”
“Sure.”
“Are you dating anyone,” I ask, “like regularly?”

“I was. We met at college, and for three years, I thought we had a great relationship. One evening he called me to say he was dating someone else.”

“That’s too bad.” Bad for her, but good for me.

“Yeah. I hated him for that. He married her.” She clears her throat. “Are you seeing anyone?”

“No one special.”

She tells me she’s a member of the Rancho Santa Fe Country Club, and that she had graduated from Columbia University in New York. “I’m an only child,” she says. “My mother is a pharmacist, and my father owns a financial advisory company. Tell me about your family.”

“I don’t have siblings. And… um… this is hard to say.”
“What?”
I inhale a deep breath. “My parents…”
“What about them?” she asks with concern.

“Eight years ago, they were in a terrible accident.” I almost choke before I can tell her more. “They… they were killed in a small commuter plane when it crashed during a thunderstorm.”

“Oh, my God.” She clasps her hand over her mouth.
I blink fast and bite my lip.
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you. I met with a grief counselor for a year.”

“That’s good,” she says, her eyes moistening. “You know, I complain that my parents are so focused on their careers, they don’t spend much time with me. I can’t imagine losing both of them.”

“Yeah, it’s hard. Really hard. But I must be honest. It wasn’t easy growing up.”
“What do you mean?”

“Um, well, my… my mother frequently apologized. Like for having an opinion or making choices that someone disagreed with. She didn’t want to do things, for fear she would upset people. My father had a hair-trigger temper and yelled at her a lot. I tried to keep him from exploding.”

“You grew up trying to protect her.”
“I did.” I don’t tell Brianna about my panic attacks that started after my parents’ death.
“Thanks for telling me. I’ll keep it confidential.”

We talk about novels, and interesting college classes, and our conversation flows naturally. Before we get up to leave, I ask, “Can we meet again?”

“You want to take me to dinner?”

I can’t believe she asked me that. Coffee is within my budget, but dinner? “Yeah, I would.”
We arrange to meet at her parents’ house on Saturday night.

*

On the afternoon before our date, I eat pancakes, scrambled eggs and toast. I can only afford to pay for one dinner if we go to an expensive restaurant.

I wear my tan chino pants and a light blue Oxford shirt and tie, but I can’t find my car and house keys that I usually put on my bedside table. After removing the clutter from my desk, I don’t see them. I try to recreate in my mind what I was doing when I last had them. I search in the kitchen, then again in my bedroom, and go outside to the street and look through my car window. My keys are on the driver’s seat, and the car has self-locked. I need to find my spare keys. Thank goodness, when I return to my room, I find them on my window ledge.

I text Brianna that I’m running fifteen minutes late, then drive fast to the Crosby Estates. A security guard checks my license, makes a call and opens the wrought-iron gate. I drive past the golf course to Brianna’s house.

She’s ready when I arrive and looking gorgeous in a black skirt and a white silk blouse.

“Sorry I’m late,” I say. “Something came up last minute.”

“Not a problem,” she says.

“I love your perfume.”

“Thank you. Citrus is my favorite fragrance.”

I open the door of my black twelve-year-old Corolla. Does she notice the dents? She sits inside and buckles up.

After I start the engine, I ask, “What’s your favorite restaurant, Brianna?”
“Juniper and Ivy. I made a reservation.”

She gives me the address, and when we arrive, the public parking lot is full. I have to use the valet service that has available parking, and I feel drops of perspiration trickle from my armpits as the valet opens my door.

Inside the restaurant that has paneled walls and dim lighting, the maître d’, who is wearing a double-breasted suit, welcomes us and bows as if we’re the British royals. “Please follow me,” he says and escorts us through the dining room to a table near a long aquarium that contains bright green, yellow and blue fish. When Brianna sits, he slides her velvet padded, high-backed chair closer to the table.

He tells us about the specials of the day but doesn’t mention the prices, and I’m too embarrassed to ask. “Let me know if I can help you,” he says. He raises his arm, clicks his fingers, and a server scurries toward us.

“Good evening,” the server says with a quick smile. “My name is Walter, and I’ll be looking after your table tonight. Would you like to order drinks?”

Brianna orders a red blend from Bordeaux that I’ve never heard of, and I ask for water with a slice of lemon. We study the menu that has more French than English. Male diners in button-down shirts and blazers and women in pantsuits and dresses are drinking, smiling and laughing. A man in a black suit, who looks like he could be the restaurant owner, saunters to the widely spaced tables and talks with people like they’re old friends.

“I’m starving,” Brianna says.

Starving means she’ll eat a lot of expensive food.

When Walter returns with our drinks, Brianna orders an organic salad and whole roasted duck with herb butter. I order the cheapest hors d’oeuvre: roasted figs with smoked almonds that cost more than an entrée at Veggie Grill.

“Those figs are starters,” she says. “Order something else.”

“I’m not hungry.”

Brianna raises an eyebrow like she doesn’t believe me. “Maybe you’ll get an appetite later. I come here often. They know how I like my coffee.”

“They know how you like your coffee?”
“Yup.”

I’ll need to work at least two jobs if she wants to go out to dinner again. Maybe the owner needs a dishwasher.

“Brianna, I listened to a song yesterday that reminded me of you.”
“What song?”
“‘Only Human,’ by the Jonas Brothers.”
“I’ve heard of them. What are the lyrics?”
“The ones I remember are, ‘You got all my love to spend.’”
“Jay, slow down.” Her green eyes sparkle. “This is only the third time we’ve met.”

“I can’t help it.” I hum the “Only Human” tune and sway to the rhythm. She moves in sync with me.

Walter brings the food then stands far enough away to be out of hearing range but close enough to be at our table in five seconds.

I chew small bites of the roasted figs, tasting the honey-like sweetness with a hint of berry. I take my time, so I won’t have an empty plate before she finishes her food. While I study her turned-up nose and high cheekbones, I’m happy to be with her. I can’t risk losing her.

“Jay,” she says, “I’m thinking about getting a car. If you could buy a self-driving car for the same price as a standard car which would you get?”

“A self-driving car. If my grandma had one, I wouldn’t have to take her keys away.”

Brianna chuckles. “How do you think a car with electronics could interpret a police officer directing traffic?”

“Beats me.” I’m clueless about self-driving cars, so I change the subject. “How’s the duck?”

“The meat is firm, and the rich flavor is absolutely fab.” She cuts a small piece and puts it on my bread plate.

I close my eyes. “Mmmm. It is good.” My stomach begs for more.
“What’s your favorite ethnic food?” Brianna asks.
“Mexican. I love the taco festival in May.”
“Festival? You must take me there.”

We talk about growing vegetables, pets we had and cartoons we watched when we were kids. When Brianna finishes eating and sits back with a small smile, Walter returns with the dessert menu.

He says, “The Macadamia Nut Brittle is delicious, sir.”
“Not for me today, thank you.” I’m never called “sir” at the restaurants I go to.
“Jay,” she says, “I’ve had that dessert. It’s to die for.”

“Okay.” I bob my head at Walter. So what if I need a bank loan to pay my credit card bill?

Brianna orders mango cheesecake with passionfruit curd and dark chocolate. When Walter returns with the desserts, I salivate. He pours steaming coffee for Brianna, fills my glass with water and clears our empty plates.

While I eat my scrumptious dessert, I want to think about something else besides the cost of dinner, so I ask Brianna, “If you could go anywhere, where would that be?”

“Bali. It’s a tropical paradise. How about you?”

“Catalina Island.” I figure if we do go, it will cost a lot less than going to Bali. “If you could be a fictional character,” I ask, “who would you be?”

“Um… I don’t know. Maybe Alice in Wonderland.”

“I would be Peter Pan.”

Walter arrives and places a black check presenter on the table. The words, “Thank You,” are imprinted in gold. When I see the total amount, I gasp. How will I pay my rent?

“I had a great time tonight,” Brianna says.

“I did too.” That would have been completely true if I had just won the lottery.
“Will you take me to dinner again soon?” she asks.

I put my hand over my mouth to stop myself saying that her tastes and my budget do not match. They don’t even come close.

“What’s the matter?” she asks. “You hardly ate, and you’re pale.”
“I’m…” I lower my voice. “Just a little…”
“Tell me.”
I lean back in my chair and ball my fists. “I’m okay now.”
“No, you’re not okay. You’ve got tears in your eyes.”

“I… uh… I get panic attacks. One has started now. I’m overwhelmed. Scared I’m losing control.”

Brianna stands, walks to my side and strokes my back. “How can I help?”

“Stay calm and count my breaths. I’ll breathe in for four seconds, hold for four and release for four. That will slow my heart rate.”

“One,” she says as I inhale, and she continues counting.
Walter brings a chair for Brianna, and she sits with her hand on my arm.

The attack peaks, and about twenty minutes later it subsides. She peels my fingers from my fist and lifts my cold, tingling hand to her lips.

“I love to be with you, Brianna, to talk with you.”

She kisses my cheek. “Jay, if I didn’t feel the same, I wouldn’t have asked you to take me out again.” She rubs her fingers across my knuckles.

I reach for my linen napkin to wipe my eyes. “To be honest,” I say, “my income… it’s not—”

“I understand. And that’s not important to me. What is important is how I feel about you. I know tons of people, but I’m lonely a lot. My mother told me, ‘Once, just once, you’ll meet a man you really connect with.’ And you’re that man, Jay.”

“I am?” I scratch my head.
“I had to be sure. That’s why—”
“What?”

“Why I chose this expensive restaurant.” Her face relaxes into a charming smile. “I wanted to know if you would bring me here even though you can’t afford it.”

“But you asked me to take you to dinner again. I guessed it would be to this or another high-end place.”

“If I choose an expensive place, I’ll pay. Or I’ll make sandwiches, and we can hang out at the beach.”

I can’t stop my flowing tears. Brianna hugs me and kisses my head. The maître d’ and Walter rush to our table and ask if they can help. The other diners stop their conversations and stare at me.

“His tears are happy tears,” Brianna says to Walter, and she gives her credit card to the maître d’.

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