It was a slow night. Marco lamented the indisputable decline in business over the past few years. His restaurant, like so many of the Italian restaurants in this rapidly growing suburb of the booming tech city of Seattle, was a victim of changing demographics and tastes. Sushi, Dim Sum, Thai, and other Asian food restaurants were replacing the long-established Italian, burger, pizza, and seafood places he grew up with. It’s a sign of the times, he told himself, embrace it.
He folded a few cloth napkins in the back while he hoped for some new patrons to walk in. Many empty tables, set with candles and white tablecloths, waited.
There were only a few tables occupied so far tonight, Thursday, a night which in the past would have seen at least ten of the fifteen tables bustling with conversation by now, the place gearing up for the busy weekend. Friday and Saturday nights used to always be overbooked, with guests clustered at the entry waiting for a table to open up.
A young couple sat next to the fireplace, engrossed in reading the large menu cards. It was a chilly February evening, still several days before Valentine’s Day. At least that day was still booked fully in advance, Marco thought. There’s something about romance and Italian food. His was one of the few restaurants still offering a romantic atmosphere, with its cozy fireplace, romantic music, brick accent walls and candlelight. He knew to keep the lighting dim so everyone looked good. That’s amore! He smiled at the old Dean Martin song leaping into his head.
An older couple had come in earlier, at five, when the doors opened. Seated at a prime table by the window, they were taking their time, enjoying the bottle of Montepulciano they ordered to catch the ‘fifty percent off a full bottle of wine’ Thursday Special that only ran until six pm. They began with their usual ‘cheers!’ toast. Marco had seen them often over the years and they never failed to begin each meal with this tradition. After devouring their shared salad, they seemed relaxed and in no hurry to finish their Spaghetti Carbonara, a house specialty, and baked lasagna. Marco had already refilled their breadbasket twice and didn’t plan to fill it again even though it was empty.
He had just sat another couple who, by their agitated demeanor, appeared to be in their mid-forties. They came in quickly, eyes darting about the room, appraising the remaining tables, ready to challenge if they were seated in a second-rate spot. Marco had picked up on this – he should, after almost fifty years in the business – he started as a busboy for his uncle’s restaurant back when he was in high school. He sat them at a well-positioned private table away from the other parties. It was set for four, but they looked like they needed the extra space for the woman’s large leather tote and the man’s briefcase. Apparently, they had come directly from work.
When he left them with the menu card, the woman dug into her huge bag and retrieved a pair of black, narrow-framed reading glasses. She alternately peered through them at the menu and over them as she spoke to the man who was obviously her husband.
“What are you having?” she asked. “I’m starved, but I’m dying for a glass of wine right now. What a day! And the traffic, it’s getting ridiculous – you can’t cross town anymore in less than forty-five minutes. It used to take ten, fifteen at most. Should we get a bottle? Damn, we missed the fifty percent off deal. That traffic! Well, it doesn’t matter, I just want a big glass of red wine,” she rambled on without a pause. “Are you going to have red? We could get a carafe, or a half-carafe if you prefer – it’s up to you. Just get the guy’s attention and let’s order it now.”
“I’m good with a carafe of the house red,” her husband decided and signaled at Marco. Marco was there in a nanosecond. “Would you like to start with a cocktail or some wine while you review the menu?”
“A carafe of house red,” said her husband with a wave of his hand. He had a way of sounding curt and his wife gave Marco a big smile to make up for it.
“Well, you’re not the only one,” the man commiserated after Marco left. “I had a bad day, too. Two projects that I spent months preparing were cancelled today. Two.” He shook his head and looked back at the menu. His job was terrible. He could hardly take the constant over-seeing of his projects. As Senior Engineer, he was the one who had to put in the work, to make the projects viable, to connect the dots, to make sure all the details were taken care of. Then the big shot VP would swoop in and question everything – are you using too much material, can we cut a corner here, downgrade a spec there – always trying to save a buck.
“Hey, they still have that Spaghetti Carbonara,” his wife broke in, delighted. “I definitely have to have that.” She put down the menu and took off her reading glasses just as the wine arrived, and set them on the table, just in case.
“I’ll split a salad with you if you like,” she said. Her husband always wanted to split a salad.
“Are you ready to order?” Marco asked as he appeared and poured from the carafe into the two globe-like red wine glasses already sparkling in the candlelight at their place settings. He whisked away the two narrower white wine glasses and stood at attention while reciting the two daily specials, a baked crab and mozzarella rigatoni and a roasted sea bass. The man’s eyes widened at the mention of the baked crab dish, and he promptly ordered it, the Spaghetti Carbonara, and a Caesar Salad to share. His wife smiled; he was always a sucker for baked cheese in any form.
“Cheers!” They said in unison as they lifted and clinked their wine glasses, a longstanding habit they shared whenever they acknowledged their still-vibrant mutual attraction.
The breadbasket arrived and the couple poured some oil onto their bread plates, added a splash of balsamic vinegar, and finished off the entire warm sliced baguette almost as quickly as they downed their first glass of wine.
“I’m not sure I can take off a full week next month, Richard,” the wife continued, “We have our big convention in April and it’s going to be crazy beforehand. I don’t even know why I agreed with you to take a full week vacation. Seven days! I must have been nuts.” Her fingers drummed the table, causing her glasses to skittle over a few centimeters.
“But Bess, it’s really only five days off work,” the man said feebly, also feeling the pull of his workload. “Although… five days is going to be tough now, I’ll be under a lot of pressure to replace my cancelled projects before quarter end. March is going to be a bitch.”
“Let’s just postpone it,” Bess sighed as she watched a plate of Spaghetti Carbonara being carried across the room. She almost drooled.
Richard smiled as he watched his wife’s liquid brown eyes follow the food. Those eyes still moved him, the way they could change from stressed and darting to wide and childlike in a split second. Bess smiled back, admiring how his smile created the symmetrical little crevices in his cheeks that still made her heart flutter. The moustache was long gone, and his dimples now had free rein of his face. His heavy tortoiseshell-framed glasses had been replaced by contacts years ago.
Out of the corner of her eye, Bess saw Marco’s lone food server slide the Carbonara in front of the young woman seated by the fire, then place an oval dish bubbling with cheese in front of the handsome, dark-haired man sitting across from her. She watched the young couple awkwardly clink their wine glasses and dig into their dishes, hot steam rising from each plate.
The man took a bite and immediately seemed embarrassed as he used his napkin to wipe away a streak of cheese that clung to the patch of thick dark whiskers above his lip. He gave a helpless look. Elizabeth Mattis had always made him nervous.
The young woman smiled as he tried to disconnect the gooey mass without making it worse.
“Now you must think I’m a true barbarian,” the man said ashamedly. “And I was hoping to impress you. I guess I won’t be asking you for a job.”
The woman stared at him, not exactly sure if he was kidding or serious. Could he really be feeling her out for a job? She had recently landed a prime position with a start-up company in the hot new computer market. However, one of the things she had always liked about him was his self-deprecating humor. He could definitely laugh at himself, which was endearing.
She decided he was trying to be funny, which was good, because when she knew Ricky Chase at grad school he came off as a bit geeky, with his big glasses and constant talking about the math and science classes he immersed himself in. Who knew they would run into each other again while he was interviewing in Seattle, and wind up on a date. Enough speculation, her Carbonara was tonight’s chef special and she turned her attention to it.
“Wow,” she cried, her large brown eyes widening in delight. “This is fabulous! This should be their signature dish. Yum.” She twisted the strands of pasta on her fork, trying not to lose the bits of peas and bacon that clung to the delicate eggy mixture coating the spaghetti.
After a few minutes of silent savoring they each reached for the bread, hands touching as they groped inside the folded napkin that housed the sliced baguette. They blushed as they realized there was only one piece left.
“You take it,” they each said simultaneously. They laughed easily together, agreeing to order some more.
Marco surveyed the mostly empty room and noticed the older couple at the window had finished their entrees and were now leisurely sipping the last bit of their wine. He scurried over instantly, clearing the large plates, and placing a neat little printed dessert menu on their table. “Just in case,” he grinned at them, repeating his usual joke. The man grinned back, his grey-tinged beard exposed a small string of cheese that had lodged in there. The woman was glad her husband had grown back his moustache, and she even liked the peppery grey stubble that still let his dimples show through.
Grabbing the dessert card, the woman instinctively reached for her reading glasses waiting at the edge of the table and perched them on her nose. Her husband thought they made her deep brown eyes appear large, luminous. Age had done nothing to quell the fire in them. Tonight, those eyes had gazed leisurely out at the sinking sun and soaked in the blaze of deep pink and purple without a hint of the tension that was constantly there during her fast-paced career days. He liked that over these past few years she could sit back and enjoy the moment without stressing.
She turned the dessert card around so that she would read it upside down, allowing her husband to read it right side up. He pushed his glasses up on his head to read the list of treats he knew they would decline. It was a ritual practiced for decades. They never ordered dessert.
After all these years, she still admired her husband. He had softened his manner and calmed down since he retired, but he still had the drive to work hard at whatever he set out to do. At this moment, she especially loved that he did not reach for his phone. She felt pity for the women she often saw at other restaurants, staring into space, completely ignored while their companion sat staring at their phone in rapt attention, completely oblivious to their partner’s presence. So selfish, she thought. She felt sorry for these women and was thankful for her husband’s attention whenever they went out. He always put his phone away and talked with her.
Marco stepped behind the small bar to prepare for the group of late-working regulars that usually stopped by for a quick drink before heading home.
Billie, the new server, was left to attend to the checks. Shortly all three tables decided to leave at the same time, none ordered dessert.
“Of course, “she thought, “All or nothing,” as she finalized the tabs, put them in small leather folders and dropped them off at the tables. As she made her second round to pick them up, she knew she had to be sure not to mix up the similar credit cards.
Back at the register, she carefully double-checked the name and expiration date on each card. She looked at the cards, looked at the tables, looked at the cards again. One Visa card showed Richard D. Chase, expiration August 2022, the next had Richard D. Chase, expiration August 2002, and the third one Richard D. Chase, expiration August 1982.
Bewildered, she stared at Marco, who just winked and smiled.