One Friday night, we were fresh out of a lockdown. All week people had been tentatively moseying through the streets, shying away from the rest of the world around them and burying their heads in their phones, guesstimating two metres from others.
“Let’s have dinner,” you said, fingers poised on your touchscreen to find a reservation. “Real dinner, where we sit at a table and leave our devices in another room, and we don’t have the news playing in the background.”
The idea was charming, something of a novelty, and I could feel my body unwind at the notion of not having to stress about switching from work-to-cooking-dinner immediately after I came downstairs, of not having to ruffle through UberEats to work out who had the best deals and freshest meals.
“OK. Japanese or Italian?” I’d wondered, trying to not let myself slide into the too-much-choice rabbit hole. You’d laughed, already seeing that, and caught up my hand in yours, kissing the knuckles.
“I’m thinking… hmm, I was in the mood for sushi.”
We’d agreed on it, booking up a table at a restaurant, and I flicked through a line of dinner dresses. The grey felt too sombre, but purple seemed garish - this was supposed to be celebratory. For weeks I’d been in the habit of wearing jeans and a basic T-shirt, or leggings with a T-shirt on laundry day. Dresses felt clumsy to wear, after being tucked to one side of the wardrobe for so long; they felt sort of like rediscovering my body, after a period of being plainly functional.
“Are you ready to go?” you called, and I could picture you hovering over the Uber app, waiting for the exact moment we’d need to be in view of the driver. I twisted my hair around itself, knowing it’d tumble apart later, and stepped into my shoes as I caught up to you.
At the window, I watched the sky darken, folding in on itself before the rain began billowing down, ruining visibility and bringing traffic to a stop. A couple of minutes later, you prodded at your phone, before setting it aside. “The Uber’s cancelled, rain’s too heavy for him to get here in time for us to meet the reservation.”
Absently, I tugged off my coat and hung it back on the hook, trying to replace sushi plans with something that wouldn’t take too long. “Can we still order in, do you think?”
“Probably. I’ll see what’s around - would you be interested in going for Italian?”
I nodded, already mentally picking through the kitchen to see how I could set the table to mimic a quiet restaurant. Spotify would have a suitable playlist, and I was sure there were unscented candles for the table centrepiece. Undoing my strappy shoes and replaced them with a more comfortable version, I left the ordering to you, humming while I searched for music. The rain was heavier, creating a white noise that’d drown out most music to a low background patter.
You were there, suddenly, laying out some cutlery on the table, folding napkins into place. “Dinner should be here soon,” you said idly, looking past my shoulder as if to check the app. You brushed a kiss to my temple and headed back into the kitchen.
“What did you order?”
You tapped your nose in a gesture I recognized from every time I’d done it - mainly when I was keeping secrets or surprises, like Christmas or birthday gifts. I couldn’t help but laugh a bit, and stood back to survey the table. It was neat and formal and perfectly laid out, place settings identical.
I didn’t like it.
Studying the arrangement, I scooped up the plates and carried them to the small table by the loveseat, then reset the two of them side-by-side. We’d end up pressed into the seat, knee to knee, elbow to elbow, and I swooped up the blanket we always kept handy for movie nights.
Coming into the lounge with boxes still in the bag, you blinked at the new arrangement, but quickly knelt to dish up lasagne, so hot I could see the rising steam from two feet away. Garlic bread was piled on the platter in the centre of the table, and you scooped out salad for the final portion - simple green leaves tossed with a tangy vinaigrette.
We’d been on a mission for the perfect lasagne, as long as we’d been together. It’d started when we began cooking for each other, each of us declaring we had the better recipe. Two weekends in a row we had cooked, putting on the best meal we could. My dish tended to be crisp, crusty around the edges, but you made a creamier cheese sauce for the topping. It was our favourite point of contention, and in the effort to find the best one we’d begun expanding the search further afield. Many an innocent restaurant had produced the dinner for us, unaware of the careful rating and analysis that would follow.
After we sat down, I pulled the plates to us and inspected the dinner, prodding it carefully. You were more haphazard, snagging what you perceived to be the best bit and saving it for the middle.
“The sauce is a bit heavy,” I remarked. It was too rich, overly tangy with the tomato that made it, and I wondered how it’d been seasoned that the richness hadn’t been reduced. When a dinner was like this, we were often in agreement about what was technically wrong, and you followed it with another bite.
“I find the pasta’s a bit… limp? It sort of fell apart in the dish, I think,” you replied. It was true - a good plate of lasagne had pasta that was al dente, just a little resistance as you bit through, but the sheets in this were soft. Inspecting it, I saw that the layers were less defined and more suggestions of how it should be made.
It wasn’t the best. It definitely lacked the crusty edges I liked, but it didn’t quite have the smooth cream to the sauce that you liked. Eventually, we discarded our plates, and curled towards each other, the garlic bread resting on our tangled-together legs.
“Bread’s good at least. I like the char, that’s unusual, and it’s finished off with garlic butter.”
You took another thoughtful bite. “I’m not getting the butter so much - I think they used olive oil. Maybe garlic-infused, brushed over?”
I shrugged. By this point I typically lost interest in the food itself, having eaten my fill, and was more interested in what else could be done. Taking my shrug as a cue, you disentangled yourself from me, and we cleared the table away.
“Leave the dishes for later, and we can watch a movie now,” you suggested.
Cuing up a movie, I rejoined you on the couch and we wrapped ourselves like a burrito in the blanket, dropping the volume on the TV. Outside, the rain lashed down, heavy enough that it muted the volume overall. Thunder broke the quiet, and lightning flicked across, breaking up the window every so often.
Inside, the movie hummed on.