Vines on a brick wall

When the garlic bread came out—a little soggy but with cheese, so passable—I finally realized what animal Peter looked like: a crane. His long neck could have qualified him as a giraffe or a llama, but neither felt right. They were lazy comparisons I’d settled with as I watched him walk toward me down the sidewalk or when I sat in the passenger’s seat and gazed at his profile while he bit the inside of his right cheek—a habit he’s had since I met him four years ago.

But the way he carried himself determined his resemblance to the crane; whether sitting or standing, he leaned forward a bit too far, like his bottom half couldn’t keep up with the haste of the top. It never bothered me before, but as he lurched over the breadbasket, it unsettled me.

“Nobody serves garlic rolls anymore,” he said after taking a bite. “It’s always this crunchy kind. Does anyone actually prefer this?”

He did that a lot—assume his opinion and experience constituted the majority. It was cute when he was being optimistic but tedious when it was about bread or football or haircuts or theme park merchandise.

I took a piece of bread, broke it into smaller bits, and tossed them onto the cobblestone floor where the little gray birds could get them. I loved eating on patios, especially at dusk, when the air had a chill and the sky had a glow. Tonight’s air carried a haze that accented the oranges on the horizon. Nobody around us seemed to notice, though. They were all caught up in their own conversations. I tried to listen in, but the music they had playing over the speakers drowned out the voices. All I heard was the occasional crescendo of violins and a fit of laughter every now and then that matched the volume. It worked well to keep each table feeling private, but I felt ostracized.

The tables were already pretty far apart, anyway. Every one of them was round and had an umbrella stuck in the middle, though because it was evening, they were all drawn. The tabletops sported a deep emerald color, and each showcased a different pattern. Some looked like swirls and others like the top of a forest canopy. Who had decided on those? Who had designed them? What were there lives like? I couldn’t imagine. They seemed too far away.

The waitress came by with our meals. Peter had ordered the chicken marsala, and I’d gotten something called The Atlantic, which was a pasta dish with clams and scallops and shrimp in it. Peter reached over to pluck out one of the scallops and popped it in his mouth. I hadn’t even known he’d liked scallops, and here he was making sure it was the first thing he ate before starting his own meal. What was even his favorite food? He liked pizza, I knew that, and popcorn and maybe salmon. And a lot of other stuff, obviously. But what was his favorite?

I used my fork to push the pasta from one side of the plate to the other, taking a bite every now and then so Peter wouldn’t ask what was wrong. Truth was, I didn’t know. So instead I nodded as he spoke about the project he was taking on with Sam at work, but I stared behind him at the vines that creeped up the brick wall. I wondered whether they had naturally been there or added for restaurant patio décor.

Peter kept talking. I thought: Here is a man I’ve known for a while. Here are some vines. Here is some angel hair pasta. Here is a sweater I bought on Tuesday. I saw those things—I knew they were there—but I couldn’t piece them together. I couldn’t figure out what it was I wanted out of the scene and I couldn’t remember how I ended up there or why.

The confusion made me panicky. In the literal sense, I knew where I was and what was happening, but the feeling of detachment was growing stronger.

The waitress approached our table to clear out the plates. Mine was still half full, so she asked if I wanted a box. I nodded. Then she said, “Any dessert tonight?”

I wanted coffee. Well really, I wanted a nap, and if not that, I wanted a mission. I wanted to go back to undergrad. I wanted to kiss someone else and regret it. I wanted a train ticket and a reason to take the trip. I wanted someone to hold my eyes open and say, “Here—look around you. This is your life. Stop gliding through it.”

“Let’s try the tiramisu,” Peter said, picking up our menus and handing them over. He smiled at me vaguely—an echo of a smile, nostalgic for all of the desserts before this one. We always shared the desserts we ordered, even though there was one instance in which we ended up breaking open a gallon of ice cream at home after not reaching our fill during Dessert Round 1. I couldn’t remember what the pecan pie tasted like that time, but I could remember the torch-lit restaurant with its wood floors and somehow rustic-looking candelabras, and I remember the way Peter looked when he said something along the lines of, “It feels like we’re somewhere else.” His expression was soft and his voice almost a whisper, like he was expressing awe at a magic trick or miracle. It had been a little cold in that restaurant, but we drank hot chocolate, and I dozed off in the car on the way home after we’d blasted the heat. We didn’t listen to music; I drifted off to the hum of the car and the dull flashes of streetlights zooming by one by one. When I felt the car slow to a stop in our driveway, I didn’t open my eyes. I waited until I felt hands lift me from under my knees and from the middle of my back, and I curled so my head rested on his shoulder and felt the cotton of his shirt on my cheek.

I felt more settled in the patio now, and I noticed the faces of the family sitting closest to us. They all looked so similar with small noses and wide smiles and I shot glances at them while Peter spoke and we waited for dessert. The youngest child had a fistful of spaghetti in her hand and when her father noticed, he gently held her arm and removed the pasta from her grasp. I don’t know, maybe the kid was onto something. Maybe eating with your hands is more efficient anyway.

The tiramisu was okay—we’d had better—but we finished it and left our forks on the empty dish. We split the check (this was another thing we always did), and I gulped down the rest of my water.

“I’m so full,” I said, leaning back, accentuating my belly. “Can you carry me?”

He laughed and said something I can’t recall. But then he said, “You ready?”

I answered by standing, and I followed him out of the patio area and to our parallel parked car, grateful that Peter loved to drive because I despised it. As he maneuvered out of the spot, I looked out the window and wondered what I would remember from dinner—the bread? the violin? the child?

The vines?

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