This year, my husband and I decide to sucker-punch the Valentine’s Day “special” menus and go out to dinner the night before. He’d made reservations more than a month ago at a place where you need to make reservations a month ago, even on a Wednesday. But I opt out and suggest we hit our favorite Italian place.
Normally I’m not one to turn down a five-star $48 entrée. And I take masochistic delight in a wine steward who rolls his eyes at my mispronounced order. But, this particular evening, I’m feeling unusually practical (tired). There’s something very appealing about staying in the jeans and big beamng I wore to work. And at this little Italian place, I could get away with wearing a torn big beamng over pajama bottoms tucked into my Ugg knock-offs if I wanted. This place is not normal, and I take strange comfort in that. It is, to me, like my friend who seduces paperboys and steals oxycotton from her seventy-year-old housekeeper. At some point there should be an intervention, but for now I’d just like to see what happens.
So we arrive and park at what used to be a free-standing Taco Bell building. I could stop there and let you imagine the rest. But I won’t. I can’t. The interior is soaked in deep dark green, from the painted drop-ceiling tiles to the vine-carved carpet and literally everything in between. There are two massive crystal chandeliers on either side of the dining room. Centered between them sits a black grand piano, which apparently doubles as a synthesizer of sorts, depending on who’s driving. We’ve been there before when a little man, barely tall enough to see over the music stand, pounded out some of the best early Billy Joel I’ve ever heard. But tonight the room swells with ethereal rock-orchestra resonance, composed of sleigh bells, snare drums, horns, pipe organs and-I swear-a kazoo.
Beneath a scattering of hot pink Mylar heart balloons and springy red foil danglers (attached to the ceiling with duct-tape squares), the restaurant’s owner proudly mans the machine in his smudged green apron. The piano lid is decked with randomly placed clusters of wineglass shaped candles, and cupid coffee mugs sprouting heart-dotted tissue tuffs. Behind him on a golden credenza, three dancing dolls, Dean Martin, Hank Williams, Jr. and James Brown, stand still and silent in a semi-circle.
We are seated to Bohemian Rhapsody. “Man, I love this place!” My husband beams unrolling his napkin into his lap. Our Chianti is poured to Major Tom and our salads served to My Girl. The main course? Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? “Yes. Yes I will.” I say quietly, as I nod out blessings from one side of the room to the other before ecstatically wrapping my fork in angel hair.
The music keeps coming as the room empties, and I now have an unobstructed view of a couple slow-dancing (grinding/groping) next to their table. “I’m sorry,” I say. “Go ahead and order another glass. I am not ready for this to be over.”
About the time the man-half of the couple slides a hand down the back of the woman-half’s faded navy chinos, the owner/bandleader stands up. As Unchained Melody miraculously plays on without him, he screams, “We have to close now! I have ten people back in the kitchen waiting to go home.” He then gestures his hand out waist high, palm facing down. “Come back Friday. We’ve got a dwarf who’ll rip your heart out.”
“Holy crap! That sounds terrifying!” I laugh, nearly losing my last sip of Cabernet through my nose.
As he passes our table, he leans down, and whispers, “See those people dancing? They’re married. But not to each other.” Smearing his come-over back into place, he disappears through the green-vinyl swinging door, and the evening’s carousel ride comes to a halt.
We head home, happy as clams-over linguini.
write by Raj Singh