“Can you smell the pepper?”
“Well, maybe, a little…”
“Let it rest on your tongue and slowly roll down the back of your throat. You’ll pick up some intense notes in this wine you won’t find in other Merlots.” He demonstrates.
Following along, I tilt my head back too and let the wine flow down my throat as instructed, but only manage to gag myself. I blink as my eyes water. “This is really good, but I think I’ll just have to drink it the old-fashioned way.”
My date for the evening, Carl - a fix-up by a well-meaning friend - looks down his narrow nose and gives me an almost pitying look. “Just let it rest on your pallet for a moment. You don’t want to miss the complexity.”
Sitting up straighter, not wanting to get a C- on this assignment, I take another sip and focus on the mouthful of wine I’m holding obediently in my cheeks. Then the pepper really does kick in because I suddenly have an overwhelming urge to sneeze.
Knowing, without a doubt, that this mouthful of wine is destined to shoot out of my mouth directly onto the crisp white button-down shirt of the man sitting across from me, I stifle the sneeze as best I can and swallow down the whole mouthful before it becomes a projectile. The loud accompanying “gulp” has my date raising an eyebrow. Just one. Really high.
Dabbing my linen napkin to my mouth, I suddenly feel the sneeze rising again and hide behind the napkin to let it out.
“Are you allergic to red wine?” He looks horrified. “That would be awful.”
“No, I’m fine. It just went down the wrong pipe.” I take a sip of water. “Tell me, Carl, how did you get so interested in wine?” The next half-hour I listen to the history of how Carl’s last girl friend, the apparently flawless Becky, introduced him to all the wonders of wine country, wine case clubs, wine tours, and scenic vineyards from California to Upstate New York.
When Carl takes a moment to breath, he glances towards his phone. I get the feeling he’s hoping that somehow, psychically, Becky has sensed he’s talking about her and calls or texts him. But the screen stays dark. He sees that I’ve caught him checking the phone. “I’m sorry I’ve been talking so much. And about an ex, too. I was told not to do that, and I’ve already failed.”
“It’s fine.” I shrug. “Still having feelings for an ex is hard.”
“Oh, no, I don’t still have…”
It’s my turn to raise one eyebrow high.
He looks down at his hands. “Yeah. I might not be totally over her.” When he looks back up at me, his cool, sophisticated mask has slipped into a sheepish grin, which I find infinitely more appealing. “I told Sharon I wasn’t ready to meet anyone yet, but you sounded so nice and she was so…insistent.”
“Pushy. Sharon is pushy.”
He laughs and nods in agreement.
“You don’t need to be that polite. I love her, but she can be a steam roller.”
Leaning back in his chair, Carl straightens the silverware on either side of his plate. “I really did want to meet you. It’s just, the timing isn’t great.”
Tucking my shoulder length blond hair behind my ear – that I now regret spending so much money on at the salon getting a blow-out for this date - I give him a reassuring smile. “No problem. I get it. You want to move on, but sometimes it takes longer than you want to heal after a break-up.”
He glances at his phone again. “It does.”
“Look, there’s no pressure here.” I hold up my hands like a magician showing I have no cards or rabbits up my sleeve. “Just a bite to eat and a conversation between people that share a mutual friend - pushy though she may be. And, hey, I learned more about wine than I ever thought possible.”
“Or probably ever wanted to.” Carl’s shoulders relax and he asks about my work at the museum as an art restorer, about where I’d grown up, and if I have any brother’s or sisters. The pressure is off, there is an unspoken agreement that there will not be another date, not with the ghost of “Becky” hanging over the table. The conversation is light and the time passes quickly.
After dinner, Carl pulls on his jacket as we reach the door. “Can I walk you home? Or call an Uber?”
“No, I’m fine. I’m just down the block.” I stick out my hand to make sure there’s no question about an awkward kiss to end the evening. “Good luck with everything.”
He takes my offered hand. “By everything, I’m thinking you mean getting over Becky.”
“Or giving her a call.”
This time, both his eyebrows rise.
I wave goodbye to Carl and decide to get a nightcap on the patio of the corner bar next to my apartment building. Just as I approach, one of the waitresses is lighting a candle at a table with two empty seats. When she glances over at me, I motion to it and she nods. But as I reach for the chair, I’m startled by someone pulling out the one opposite.
A tall, lanky man with ruffled brown hair and thick-framed glasses apologizes. “I’m so sorry. I though this table was empty. I’ll find another seat.” He looks around at the half-dozen tables filled with chatting patrons, but it’s obvious there are no other options.
“Is it just you?”
Shoving his hands in his pockets, he nods. “Yeah.”
I pull out my chair and point to the one in front of him. “Then sit. I’m on my own too, so no reason to let a perfectly good seat go to waste.”
He looks up at the sky full of stars. “It would be a shame to go inside to the bar. You sure you don’t mind?”
“As long as you’re not going to have a glass of wine.”
He tilts his head as he sits down. “Why would you say that? And, no, I’m going to have a beer.”
Hooking my bag over the back of the seat, I shrug. “Sorry, just had a not-so-great blind date and the guy really loved wine.”
“You are not going to believe this,” his leans in with a crooked grin on his face, “but I also just had a first date, and she was really into wine too. She got some expensive bottle of Merlot that apparently I didn’t appreciate enough, because I got the distinct impression there will not be a second date.”
The waitress takes our order, his beer and my martini, and there is a moment of silence as we look across the table at each other. I am suddenly glad did get the blow-out and wore my favorite vintage wrap-dress. We introduce ourselves, and he doesn’t look at his phone once.
When the waitress drops off our drinks, we tap glasses. Taking a sip of very cold vodka - and being thankful I don’t need to tilt my head back and choke myself – I ask the handsome man across from me jokingly if his date’s name was Becky, by any chance.
Catching himself from spitting out his beer, he looks at me more closely. “How the hell did you know that?”
“She didn’t happen to mention her ex, did she?”
“Yeah, she talked about him way too much. His name was…”
“…Carl.” As he stares at me open-mouthed, I raised my glass. “To Carl and Becky, may they find their way back to their wine-loving selves.”
“You mean your date was…oh, that’s too funny.” Laughing, a warm smile settling on his face, he raises his glass too. “And to beer and martinis.”