“My father was known as a bit of a dandy,” Ben said in his NY accent taking a sip of pinot grigio on our first date at The Local Peasant, a lively gastro pub in the valley. His hair was a little thinner than in his Tinder Pics, but he had a nice face and kind eyes.
“Oh, was he a snazzy dresser?” I asked, trying not to stare at Ben’s pink and yellow Hawaiian shirt. Not that there’s anything wrong with Hawaiian shirts, it’s just a risky move for a first date on anything other than the lido deck of a Carnival Cruise ship.
“That he was, but my mother Dorothy says he was gay,” Ben said, popping an entire bacon-topped, deviled egg in his mouth and swallowing it whole. “She never had solid proof, but she divorced him, claiming he hadn’t schtupped her since the night I was conceived. She got over it, moved to Atlantic City and opened a successful chain of private swingers clubs that she still runs today.”
Wow. The mom’s a swinger and he’s a little metro, but he’s funny, I thought nibbling on an olive. “Well, my mother runs the St. Cecelia’s Women’s Altar and Craft Society. Have you actually been to the swinger’s clubs?” Oh God, does he swing?
“Since I’m 12, I’ve seen people pretzeled together doing you name it. It’s the family business and very profitable,” he winked, giving my hand a little pat.
“Funny, my mom’s craft group specializes in wall art made of pretzels glued on burlap portraying the Stations of the Cross. It’s not very profitable, but an excellent snack option in a pinch,” I said as he signaled for the check.
“I’m a sucker for funny shiksa’s,” he said giving my shoulder a squeeze. “Sorry to cut this so short but I’ve got to pick my son Max up from his tap class,” he said leading me towards the exit. “It was so dark in here I could barely see, but in the natural light your eyes are so pretty. I’d love to take you to dinner Friday night,” he said holding open the door.
“Thank you. Sure. I’d love to,” I said. I mean he’s polite, he paid the check and he paid me a compliment – he’s a triple threat. “Where shall I meet you?”
“Vitello’s at 8:00. This is me, here,” he said, opening the door to a vintage Mercedes convertible parked right in front. See you there, beautiful,” he said blowing me a kiss.
On Friday night as I drove towards the infamous Studio City restaurant where Robert Blake’s wife was shot, I reviewed Ben’s details in my mind. Dandy dad, swinger mom, tap dancing son named Max. Ben had been divorced for 2 years from his wife of 20 and he worked as an importer of Italian leather goods. As the maitre’ d led me to our table, Ben (wearing a nice, navy blue shirt) stood and gave me a peck on the cheek. He seemed pensive as he pushed in my chair. Oh my, where was bon vivant Ben from Monday night?
“Bon appetito,” the maitre’ d said walking away.
Ben stared into my eyes looking like he might cry. “Sheila, I feel like I can tell you anything.” Oh God, where is the waiter? I thought forcing a smile through pursed lips glancing towards the bar, waving over a handsome Italian in a bow tie.
“I’d love a glass of chardonnay,” I blurted out before he had a chance to say buona sera.
“And for you signore?”
“I’ll have the Chianti,”
“I am Giovanni and will tell you the specials when I return with the vino.”
I watched Giovanni stroll towards the bar and stared at the empty wine glass at the corner of my place setting like an obedient dog at her bowl waiting for my master to open a fresh can of Alpo.
“As I was saying,” Ben said reaching for my hand. “I feel like I can tell you anything.”
Oh God, please don’t. I thought, swallowing hard.
“The food sure sure looks delicious,” I said watching a steamy plate of linguine go by.
“I was sexually abused at the hands of men my entire childhood starting at the age of eight,” Ben said squeezing my now clammy palm. Wow, I didn’t see that coming. I was figuring maybe he’d lost everything in a ponzi scheme or had possibly been indicted for mail fraud what with the import business.
“Would you like to hear the specials?” Giovanni asked setting down the wine.
While I responded with an enthusiastic “yes!” Ben simultaneously responded with a firm “not now.”
“Yes, tell us now, please,” I begged with wide eyes, taking a large sip of wine then clasping my hands in front of my chest watching the blood drain from them. I mean, this poor guy, but how am I supposed to respond to this?
“Ohhh, there’s risotto! I just love risotto, don’t you, Ben?”
“She’ll have the risotto, we’ll share the tri-colore with buratta and I’ll have the linguine and clams,” Ben said handing the menus to Giovanni who took Ben’s cue and quickly retreated.
“I’ve upset you with this information,” Ben said taking a sip of Chianti.
“Umm, it’s just, well, umm, I don’t even know if you prefer dogs over cats. It’s just umm… a lot to digest,” I said swallowing more wine.
“I’m allergic to dogs and I have a Mexican hairless cat named Chica. I just wanted you to know about my past because I really like you and I don’t want there to be any secrets between us. I’ve been in therapy for years. I mean, I’m not gay or anything. It’s just all of my formative sexual experiences were with men.”
“I like dogs and cats,” I said dunking a piece of bread in olive oil. “This is delicious. Where did you go to college?” I asked, chewing. I mean the guy is baring his soul here but what am I supposed to say?
“I went to boarding school my entire youth and never went to college. You’re trying to change the subject. I understand,” Ben said tearing a piece of bread. Giovanni quickly delivered the salads and refilled my nearly empty glass without asking.
“Thank you Giovanni,” I said wondering for a second if restaurants are required to offer Tinder Date Sensitivity Training. I mean these waiters are so intuitive they really seem to feel my pain.
“Boarding school must have been fun. This burrata is delicious,” I said taking a bite of soft cheese.
“I got picked on a lot, I was a late bloomer,” Ben said folding his white napkin into a perfect square and pressing it against his cheek.
“Are you crying?” I asked, patting him on the shoulder looking around the restaurant. OK, I get it, where’s Ashton Kutcher? I’m obviously being punk’d. All of my friends are right outside in a van cracking up watching me on a small TV monitor.
“No, I have a rare disorder that causes me to sweat out of the right side of my face. It’s worse when I’m anxious.”
As Giovanni approached with the dinner plates, he hesitated for a second seeing Ben so upset but I waved him in like air traffic control. I mean, I felt so sorry for this guy, but I had to get this over with.
“School was terrible, they’d get me drunk and take advantage of me. One time I passed out and was dreaming someone was performing fellatio on me. Sure enough, I woke up and my roommate Mark was. But I’m not gay or anything. I’m over it,” he said twirling linguine on his spoon. I look at my untouched risotto wondering if it would be rude if I just asked them to box it up.
“Of course you’re not gay, you were married for 20 years.” Wasn’t Liberace married?
“My Ex-wife and my mother both think I’m gay, but I am not gay! I just haven’t met a woman I’m sexually compatible with,” he said stabbing at a clam and banging his fist on the table then pressing the napkin back against his face. I scanned the room looking for a fire alarm I might pull as other diners start to stare.
“Listen, um, I’m gonna go ..and, umm.. thanks so much,” I said grabbing my purse.
“Sure, go ahead, I thought you’d be different,” he said as I bolted towards the door.
“Everything OK, signora?” the maitre d asked as I rushed past him.
“What’s a girl gotta do to get shot around here?” I asked running out the door and back to the Tinder Trail.