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This week, First Person looks at the ups and downs of love.
We met the good, old-fashioned way. In a bar. It was a time when Tinder was inconceivable and computer dating not yet invented. I’m grateful our courtship was void of technology because at least no one could record our first date. It was an event ripe to become a sketch on Saturday Night Live.
It was 1983 in the dead of an Alberta winter. My date picked me up in a van I thought was the colour of rust. When in fact, the rust was what was holding this clunker together. The interior was covered with a sickly orange-brown shag carpet. A dye-lot of which I had never seen. Straight out of a seventies thriller, it boasted interior design elements one might see in a kidnapping movie, and yet I was immune to all of it. Considering the severely frigid temperatures, as long as there was heat, I was fine. I typically dated guys who drove shoddy vehicles. My experience was that they were kinder and gentler, confident and sweet – not needing a shiny fast car to impress or define who they were. This thing on wheels was the absolute worst car yet. According to my reasoning, this guy had the potential of being a gem.
We arrived at what was the only authentic Italian restaurant in Calgary at the time, Mamma’s Ristorante. Once seated I placed my favourite shoulder bag underneath my chair unaware that the strap was sticking out like a lasso. Shortly after the drinks arrived, my seat suddenly jerked backward. I could hear a sizable commotion behind me with plates smashing and hysteria transpiring but I didn’t want to detach from our intimate conversation. My date would tell me later that he witnessed a massive tray of food launch over the table behind me onto other diners and then crash to the floor. His expression was stunned but calm. But I paid no attention. I sat with my back to the pandemonium, utterly fixated on him with no room for distractions. As the drama ensued, Italian profanity spoken at high decibels surrounded me. I sat oblivious, mesmerized by this man’s presence. I was blind to the fact that my handbag was the culprit of the chaos. A waiter tersely pushed my chair out of the way and adjusted the strap of my purse. Completely unaware, I was taken aback by the rude behaviour displayed toward me.
The evening continued as my soft-spoken date held me captivated with stories about his travels and work. I listened intently, the weight of my head nestled in the palm of my hand, my head gently cocked, my elbow anchored on the table. So entranced was I, that I did not realize I was slowly pulling the crisp white tablecloth toward me. When suddenly my elbow slipped, I smacked the right side of my face on the table while simultaneously knocking the wind out of me. To this day I am unable to comprehend how I did it.
Feeling like a cartoon character with stars spinning around me, I shook my head and giggled while feeling like a full-on jackass. I was committed to salvaging what had transpired as our food arrived. I ordered bite-sized gnocchi, the most ladylike dish on the menu. By the third bite, one little gnocchi fell from my fork back into the sauce. My face and crisp white shirt were splashed with pasta sauce. My skin was burning. I calmly stood, excused myself, napkin in hand and went to the bathroom to clean up and gently weep. The evening was a disaster, and worse yet I liked him.
I returned with some sense of composure, or at least I believed so: the evidence, spattered all over my white shirt and blazer, refused to be wiped clean. My date was gentle and reassuring as I sat there feeling defeated and hugely embarrassed. I didn’t want to get attached, and yet this man was endearing. The waiter showed up to top up our wine, which I accidentally knocked over moments later. It dripped off the tablecloth, like grape-infused tears, into my lap, soaking through my pants. My date struggled not to laugh while I sat in surrender wondering how it could get any worse.
The bill arrived sooner than I expected accompanied by two Italian chocolates called Baci, or kiss in Italian. Something I was sure was not in my future. We both reached for the bill. I believed I was asserting my female financial independence, and tugged at the cheque just as the sleeve of my blazer caught fire from the candle below. I smacked the arm of my (borrowed) jacket repeatedly and aggressively on the tablecloth to extinguish the flame. Delighted and yet speechless, my date grabbed the bill and handed me the pitcher of water. The evening had officially gone up in flames.
To console myself, I unwrapped the chocolate and popped it into my mouth, quietly asking for a truce from the universe. But the candy immediately lodged in my throat. Red in the face, hunched over, the waiter grabbed me and performed the Heimlich manoeuvre. Utterly humiliated, with the entire restaurant now looking on, my eyes welled with tears. I expelled the chocolate and struggled to catch my breath as mascara ran down my face.
We married six months later.
Djanka Gajdel lives in Toronto.