October 02, 2013
We chose an open table at Bijan’s by the window. Almost simultaneous to our ascent, a harried-looking Teutonic cocktail waitress presented us with menus. Izzy excused herself to the ladies’. Once she was out of the room, I illuminated my Timex with Indiglo and took an inconspicuous glance at my wrist under the table. Tempus fugit—it was already after one in the morning. I was surprised at this late hour I was still conscious. I’d subbed an eight o’clock for Berkal, my grad student officemate; taught my own classes; drank wine through the tasting and vodka at dinner; and hadn’t even once needed to mask a yawn behind a gulp of water or dissembling smile. But for most of the evening, I’d largely only needed to be responsible for a third of the conversational momentum. There was no falling asleep at the table now. Izzy and I, here, were officially on a date.
Since deciding I needed to be on her television show in order to win her heart, I’d learned, via Google, about Izzy. I knew she was thirty-two. She had, intrepidly, moved from Southern Illinois to the city to take a job working the fine dining floor at Bistro Dominique, a position that came with a starting salary four or five times what I picked up at UIC, even after all these semesters of parsing flawed introductory clauses and indicting generalities. In a few years she’d seen her picture on the covers of Wine Spectator and Cellar Temperature, been profiled in a Times feature on rising young enological talent across the country, and received a James Beard Foundation Outstanding Wine Service award years ahead of many of her significantly older and more experienced colleagues on the shortlist. All of this had brought Isabelle Conway unparalleled acclaim, and made her the object of food and drink bloggers’ relentless gossipy scrutiny. She’d want to know things about me, too. What would I share about myself?
There really wasn’t a lot to tell. These days I mostly taught my English composition classes, languished in my office, and drove home in the Mustang I’d had since undergrad with a seemingly bottomless pile of papers to grade. I’d Foreman grill some chicken I’d eat alongside microwaved frozen vegetables. A glass of warm Côtes du Rhône in hand, I’d watch the evening’s Vintage Attraction rerun, recasting the day’s failures with more fruitful outcomes, not in a classroom with my indifferent students but at a dinner table, with someone else, someone who’d get me, who’d inspire me—Sommelier Isabelle Conway.
Following the waitress’s departure with our cocktail orders, Izzy asked, “So, what exactly is a conceptualist?”
It took me a bemused second to recall that I had included “conceptualist” among my other occupations when I signed my first email to her this afternoon. The eventual need to define the term for a date wasn’t a surprise. My Nerve.com girls, after a couple of dirty martinis and the opening statements, when things began to slow, frequently probed for clarity the vague occupation I’d listed on my profile. I’d produce my Rhodia, the pumpkin-colored pad in which I jotted my ideas, and share my favorite entries: I Have a Beef with You: civil procedure and steakhouse. For the Hitchcock fan who has a predilection for overly salty meats: Pork by Porkwest, where even the menu comes wrapped in bacon. Rawwwwr: hipster vegan, chic raw foods, screaming Howard Dean mascot. Sushi bar-meets-strip club: Pandora’s Bento Box. Nobody in recent romantic memory had received this with anything to suggest we might be kindred spirits. “So,” one of the sharper ones once asked, “‘if you have no intention of starting the business, what’s the point? What do you hope to achieve?” I had no answer.
This time I left the notebook in my messenger bag. “Picture a tiny space,” I told Izzy. “Like a New York bar, something you’d find in the East Village, but really concealed, hidden to keep the tourists away. Maybe like only ten tables, mostly for two people, and a bar, but with only four or five seats. And all the tables have little tea light candles, nothing bright anywhere, everything soft . . .”
“Romantic,” she finished. “That sounds like a perfect place for wine.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I actually came up with this one tonight, during the tasting. When you talked about the Zinfandel and the lava cake.”
“Dimly-lit, people sitting close to each other,” she prompted. “What kind of food?”
“It’s a dessert place. Little pastries, petit fours, macarons, and hazelnut tarts.”
“And port,” she added. “Do you have a name for it?”
I beamed. “That’s pretty much how I always start.” Remembering the instant it came to me, a moment in which I was gazing up at Izzy’s electric performance, swirling my glass of Zinfandel off-handedly, almost finally, nearly, maneuvering with precision, brought a similar pulse. Her rapt eyes and mouth further swelled my heart. The captivated attention she paid made me feel as though she were one of the audience and I the one mesmerizing the room. “The naming is the best part,” I was able to tell her in a steady voice.
“So, what is it called? The suspense is killing me.”
Delight and adrenaline coursed through my roughened romantic pipes, which had, until tonight, lain dry for months. Izzy began to smile, really smile, not just widening her mouth out of courtesy. Whereas my Internet dates might have privately dismissed me as being entirely frivolous, a half-wit, I had finally found someone who’d receive a performance like this and might just think I was a genius. And an email had brought us together.
“Not bad,” she said. “So many restaurants today seem to have everything but a brilliant concept behind them.”
It was all I could do not to get up and throw my arms around her. I wanted to kiss her.
“Wine could definitely work there.”
“Dessert wine is very sexy,” she said. “I could see a delicious tawny port pairing quite nicely with that beautiful hazelnut tart. A couple of small glasses of port—and you’d only need to serve a little bit, in keeping with the diminutive charm of things—and tarts? It would be love at first bite.”
“That’s not a bad slogan,” I said.
“Yes, it is,” she said.
“You’re really good at this,” I said, “and you’ve gotten me thinking. Not just about Monogamousse.” I pushed my drink aside, clearing a narrow space between us, and laid my hand on top of hers. I pressed with the assurance that only this much booze could instill. She looked down at what I was doing, but didn’t comment, as though I’d made no more serious of an overture than to reach for a packet of Splenda. Then she flipped her palm to touch mine. With our fingers interlaced, I stared seriously into her eyes. “How come there’s never a pen around when you find yourself sitting across the table from a wellspring of inspiration?”
She looked away. “I’ve always wanted to be somebody’s muse,” she said.
I paid the check. Outside at the intersection, we waited for the light to change so we could cross the street and hail a southbound taxi. It was freezing out here. I moved my toes and heels and clenched my calves to keep warm. Bouncing around amplified my buzz. We held hands now. When we became still for a moment, I leaned forward to kiss her. She pulled away.
“Wait,” she said.
The wind suddenly turned much colder.
“You can’t kiss me here.”
“Look.” She turned around, to the pornographically illuminated White Hen Pantry behind us. “It’s a convenience store. That’s not very romantic. That’s not the kind of place where you want to say your first kiss happened. Right?”
Vodka sloshed around in my stomach, climbed up my veins, and spilled into my head. I felt myself leaning and pitched forward faster than my eyes could refocus. For a moment I couldn’t see anything, only smell her coat. I aligned my hips and stood straight once again. The light for westbound traffic on Erie had changed to green and we crossed the street.
“What about here?” I asked. We stood before a brick building with an out-of-business restaurant on its ground floor. I moved in once more.
She raised a hand to my chest. This was now a bit acted out by a comedy duo. “Look at the address.”
We raised our heads in unison. 666 North State.
“You can’t kiss me in front of six-six-six,” she said. “That definitely doesn’t bode well.”
“I’m out of ideas,” I said. I looked up the street for taxis. A few came, but they had darkened roof lights and didn’t slow down. My teeth began to chatter from standing still, and I jammed my hands into my jeans pockets.
“You remind me of Woody Allen. Has anyone ever told you that before?”
I laughed. “I mostly get Jeff Goldblum, because of the hair. I prefer to think of myself as a young Dustin Hoffman, with glasses. Or Yale, Woody’s best friend in Manhattan, though I guess—”
She tilted her head, as though appraising me. “I love Annie Hall,” she said. “It’s, like, the most romantic movie.”
“I have it at my apartment,” I said. “On DVD. If—”
“If you wanted to, you know, come over and see it.”
“Okay, tell you what,” she said. “If we get in the cab and NPR is on, we’ll go to your place.”
“And you can kiss me.”
“It’s a deal.”
I flagged down a dusty white for-hire taxi with a faded purple logo on its rear door. It lurched over to the curb so quickly that I thought it might end up plowing us down. Izzy slid in, and I followed. Idling there, we listened to the radio. Wordless African music, rhythmic with tribal-sounding drums, played. She frowned an apology.
I realized something. “Wait a minute,” I said. “This is NPR. They have music at night. It’s World Beat.”
“Nice try,” she said.
“It is NPR. I swear.” I leaned forward to address the driver through the opening in the bulletproof partition. “Is this NPR?” I asked.
“Ninety-one point five. WBEZ? The radio station?”
“Ninety-one point five, yes, yes,” the driver said with a Caribbean lilt that complemented the instrumental.
I grinned. “I told you so.”
I slurred my cross streets in Humboldt Park to the driver. Izzy held up her hands for a moment in capitulation before opening her arms to receive me.
And then I kissed her.
We reached a corner market that sold cheap brewed Cafe Bustelo in miniature Styrofoam cups and the three-story brick building to which it was Siametically attached. I’d been subletting a one-bedroom on the ground floor from an associate professor on a research sabbatical. It was my first residence since my parents’ with central air, cable (illegal basic), and an in-sink disposal. I opened the door and let us inside. I began leading a brief walk around the open areas of the apartment. Izzy paused in front of the kitchen counter piled with books. At the coffee table in the living room flooded with DVDs, she picked up Annie Hall and smiled. We passed my cluttered desk in the back alcove between the bedroom and bathroom. “I have to show you my cellar,” I said. I directed Izzy again to the kitchen, where we’d begun, and opened a cabinet high above the range. I couldn’t see into it, but knew for what I reached. I took out the two dusty bottles of French wine Talia had left behind at the beginning of the summer.
“Are these any good?” I asked.
She ran her fingers over one label. The clearing didn’t render the text any more comprehensible than it was before. “Oh, sure,” she said, “if you like Two Buck Chuck.”
“You know, after tonight, I think I’m ready to move on to . . . to bigger and better reds,” I said.
“I think you are, too,” she said. “So, how about the rest of the tour?”
“I think you may have seen everything.”
“Not quite everything.”
We fell into my bed and were greeted by a fusillade of high-, medium-, and low-pitched squeaks and screeches. Izzy cracked up. I, susceptible to late-hour giddiness, emitted several gleeful measures of chromatic staccato eighth notes.
CHARLES BLACKSTONE is the author of the novels Vintage Attraction and The Week You Weren’t Here and the co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non) Fictions Come Together, an anthology. His short fiction has appeared in Esquire‘s Napkin Fiction Project (the piece was also selected for the &NOW Awards: The Best Innovative Fiction anthology), Lewis University’s Jet Fuel Review, and the University of Maine’s Stolen Island. His short plays have been produced by Victory Gardens and Lifeline Theaters. In 2011, Blackstone was named Managing Editor of Bookslut.
Blackstone holds degrees from University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Colorado, where he directed the Graduate Reading Series and received a Barker Award for fiction. Blackstone has taught at Colorado, Wright College, The University of Chicago’s Graham School, and Shimer College. He lives in Chicago with Alpana Singh, a master sommelier, and Haruki Murakami, a pug.