Thus With a Kiss
A long-awaited first date, an upmarket restaurant, the promise of wine. What could ever go wrong?
It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that any man in need of a dream date with a woman should book an upmarket restaurant, choose a bottle of wine (that is not the first option on the wine list) and ensure there is a candle flickering on the table. Or is it?
However little known may be the feelings or views of anyone about their idea of a dream date, this universal truth is so well fixed in the minds of everyone that it is considered a fact.
- Dream date = upmarket restaurant + evening meal + wine (not the first option on the wine list) + a flickering candle.
* * *
Covid made things weird for dating. The country went into lockdown the day after I connected with Anna on the dating app. We met up on Zoom thinking it would be for a short time. It wasn't.
Three months later I pulled into the hotel entrance. A steep concrete ramp circled down to a cramped subterranean world with parking spaces narrower than any car I knew of.
Anna smiled at me from the passenger seat. I couldn’t smile back, I was too busy attempting not to reverse my car into twelve square inches of reinforced concrete pillar. They seemed to be set as traps every few feet for unsuspecting drivers.
I parked across two spaces and switched off the engine. Ours was the only vehicle in the car park. I let myself breathe and looked across at Anna. We'd talked non-stop on the hour-long drive, our connection was strong but distant. It was like the Zoom calls; an invisible screen hung between our seats.
It was crazy to make our first physical date a night away in a hotel but Covid had changed the rules we told ourselves. To be on the safe side I booked single beds; I wasn’t sure the rules had changed that much.
We stared at each other for a moment. I swallowed, my mouth dry, heat glowed in my face. Finally together in person. I closed my eyes and leant across for the kiss I’d yearned for during those lockdown calls. A small one, a peck. A hesitant start to a real relationship. My lips met air and my ear the freshener hanging from the rear-view mirror
I flicked open my eyes. Anna was halfway out of the car door smoothing her skirt, she hadn’t noticed my pursed lips lingering over the handbrake. After three months of the inside of an apartment and staring at a phone screen, she was keen to get out and explore the big outside. An underground hotel car park lined with air conditioning pipes is not the most romantic of locations for a first kiss I guessed. There was time. We had all evening to build on our virtual romance. The kiss would come.
We put on our Covid masks, grabbed our small suitcases that hadn’t seen an aeroplane cabin for fourteen months and went to check-in.
The receptionist apologised, the kitchen was closed. There were no other guests. It was off-season, the first week after lockdown and people were still worried about infection, she said. “But I could rustle up some sandwiches and bring them to your room later.” Her face told me she hoped for a negative.
“No thanks,” I said and she relaxed. Eating sandwiches in the room was too much like the last three months. We wanted that romantic evening we'd promised ourselves: a nice restaurant, flickering candles and a good bottle of red wine. The universal truth for a dream date followed, inevitably, by the first kiss.
It was getting late and Anna didn’t want to hang around the room while there was some light. She threw her case on her bed. “Let’s explore before dinner.”
I pulled myself up, I'd hoped her first inclinations might be a gentle cuddle. A small kiss? Who waited three months for a first kiss? I dragged my eyes from her lips.
She said she wanted to feel freedom: walking along the seafront with the breeze in her hair, waves lapping on the beach and gulls floating on thermals.
Talking on Zoom every evening was great but we were in danger of becoming just good friends if this went on much longer. Was she not as desperate as me for something more?
I knew the only good restaurant in town; it was classy and overlooked the beach. I wasn’t going to romance Anna in a pub or a burger place. I imagined the moon glistening over our meal, a glass (or three) of rich red wine. The waiter would light the candles as the light faded and the shadows would dance on our faces. A dream location for a first date, everyone knows that. It is a universal truth after all.
I hadn’t booked a table, what was the point? It was mid-week and out of season. And Covid hadn't gone away, just retreated. We stepped out of our white-fronted Edwardian hotel, a neon vacancies sign glared from a window. Anna took my arm and snuggled in against the chilly wind. My stomach tingled at our first physical contact. I put my free hand on her arm.
We got to the restaurant and looked at the menu and wine list behind the glass. A piece of paper taped to the front door flapped up in the wind. The restaurant was still closed, it was too early for dinner.
“I’m going for roast lamb,” I said, not telling Anna I had looked at the wine list first and found a Merlot. It was a safe choice, she liked the same wine. We’d covered that on Zoom. And everything else.
She tapped me playfully on the arm. “We’re on the coast. You should choose fish.”
Merlot and fish? Why not?
We stepped over the low sea wall and crunched onto the shingle beach. We huddled further into each other as the wind gusted. Low angry clouds raced over our heads and the icy spits of rain stung our faces. I didn’t care; I pulled up my collar and grasped Anna's hand. It was warm, the first touch of skin. She locked her fingers inside mine and my stomach tingled again. I pushed down my facemask and moved closer, inches from her lips. Now was the moment. Our first kiss, an instant away.
“We should get back, showered and changed for dinner,” Anna said from behind her mask. Her eyes sparkled, her wet hair plastered to her head. Was she teasing me?
We returned to the hotel room as the rain got stronger. She'd been right. Anna rummaged in her case, grabbed a change of clothing and a make-up bag. She went into the bathroom and the metallic lock slid shut. Had I been too bold in suggesting going away overnight for a first date? We were two strangers who knew everything about each other.
* * *
We left the hotel for the short stroll to the restaurant. A three-quarter moon glistened from behind high streaky clouds. The last orange rays of a sunken sun poked up from the flat watery horizon. The wind had carried the rain clouds far away and faded. Anna’s arm weaved into mine.
The restaurant lights were off. They must be lighting the candles now the sun had set. You’d never get a table in high season, too full of couples enjoying the evening and their love. I imagined Anna across the table by the picture window watching the sea swish onto the shallow beach washing small stones and shells in its wake. We would chink our wine glasses together as the flickering candlelight reflected in our eyes. We'd move in for the first kiss. The dream date.
We stood in front of the dark locked-up restaurant. The piece of paper now lay flat: open weekends only until further notice.
I stared, hoping the words would magically change. What was I going to do? I looked along the promenade hoping for a miracle, stark neon lights from a fried chicken takeaway shone in the gloom. The smell of frying onions wafted from a burger van on the other side of the street. Our first date had become a choice between fried gristle or burnt vegetables. Cheap cola and dried ketchup on the side.
I remembered the high street had a pub. It wasn’t ideal but the least bad option. I grabbed Anna’s hand and walked away from the seafront. The high street was no more than a hundred yards long and the pub was in darkness. Offseason. Covid. Several cars were parked at the far end and the shopfronts threw light across the road. These places hadn’t been there the last time I'd come.
I strode towards the light with Anna’s hand gripped tightly, she half-ran behind me. We stood outside the two places, cars pulled up as others left, people went in and out. A wine merchant was doing brisk business. Next door, a traditional fish and chip shop had a small socially distanced queue.
We looked at each other and back at the wine merchant. A telepathic message flashed between us. “Merlot,” we said at the same time.
We entered the wine merchant as he finished serving a customer. Anna and I looked at each other and back at him. “A bottle of red,” I said.
The assistant raised his eyebrows. His eyes swept the store, stacked floor to ceiling with bottles of wine. He held out a hand. “Could you narrow it down a little?”
I flushed red. Anna giggled. “Do you have a good Merlot you'd recommend?”
His face crinkled in a kind smile, happy one of us wasn't a bumbling idiot. “Of course.”
The assistant walked around from the counter to a pile of cardboard wine boxes. He pulled out a bottle and held it up to us. “This one's very popular,” he said looking over the label. “Medium, soft tannins, moderate acidity and a good level of alcohol. Not too expensive.”
Anna nodded with enthusiasm. “We’ll take that one,” she said.
The assistant returned to the counter and pulled a blue tissue paper from a stack.
“Don’t worry about wrapping it,” I said.
“And could you open it for us please?” Anna added, anticipating my second sentence. The dating app and Zoom calls had worked their magic.
The assistant’s eyebrows raised again. Now I was certain about Anna.
“Do you have two glasses by any chance?” she asked.
He opened his mouth and said nothing. He went to the storeroom behind and emerged a moment later with two clear plastic cups. “Beakers are on the house,” he said, probably wanting to get rid of us quickly in case we put off his more discerning customers.
I paid for the Merlot. Anna was looking at the fish and chip takeaway. “We’re by the coast, we should have fish.” Her eyes crinkled into a smile. "Merlot and fish. Why not?"
We queued for a portion of fish and chips and walked back to the seafront, my arm through hers. We sat on the sea wall. A yellow band of light glowed over the water like a bright rippling path to the moon. I opened the food and poured the wine into the plastic beakers. We raised them to the moon, put them to our lips and sipped on the rich Merlot. We picked at the fish and chips with greasy fingers. For the first time ever we sat in silence. Then we kissed.
It is a truth, not so universally acknowledged, that a man in need of a dream date need not necessarily book an upmarket restaurant, choose a bottle of wine (that is not the first on the wine list) or ensure there are several candles on the table. It's far more complex than that.