10. Promising Polenta

Polenta The next day at work I was tortured with excitement. I wanted to see the boy who wanted to see me. I had forgotten what it was like to be so excited about someone that I got distracted at work. I was so smiley and spacey that one of my lunch ladies asked me if I was “enamorada.” Burton expressed similar excitement to see me. I was happy.

Rejecting his offer to pick me up in a cab, I walked to meet Burton at Green Zebra. Frankly, as a person whose life, love and work revolved around food, I was a bit of a restaurant novice. This restaurant was a bit fancier than I was used to. There were lots of angles in minimalist shades of gray and green. It wasn’t what one might call “cozy.” It made me slightly uncomfortable. On top of that, Burton had arrived before me and his greeting was without the enthusiasm he’d suggested earlier in the day.

Admittedly, I wasn’t fashionable and didn’t keep up with new trends or anything innovative of any sort. Mousey and traditional were words I could relate to; edgy and swank, I could not.

Having several designer friends, I was hyper-aware of how dated my tastes were. Being in this restaurant made a normally confident me feel self-conscious. I suddenly felt like Burton was judging my flowery dress and my eight-year-old wool coat. Not to mention my cardigan that may or may not have been pilling but was definitely revealing my age. I felt awkward and it showed.

We checked our coats and the hostess showed us to our table.

Burton ordered a bourbon. I ordered a vodka soda. We were both completely sober and the conversation suffered for it.

To distract us from the uncomfortable silence, we went over the menu and made our selections:

PolentaHen of The Woods Mushroom Pâté, Vidalia onion marmalade, herb butter

Creamy Sunchoke Soup, Granny Smith apple, preserved lemon, pine nuts, German thyme

Eggplant and Tofu Dumplings, Sweet Chili Sauce, Poblano Pepper, Savoy Cabbage

Creamy Polenta, Bee Balm, Tuscan Kale, Honey Mushroom, Tropea Onion

Pretentious dinner. But it was delicious.

Instead of having a real conversation, we talked about the pâté.

“If this is all vegetarian, what do you think that layer of fat is?”

“Butter? Is this one of the vegan options?”

“I don’t think so. It’s not quite as stiff as I had hoped.”

He asked me about my job and food.

“I’m not a food snob, I’m just more aware of certain things. Like there’s this place on Chicago where I’ve eaten countless breakfasts and I always order eggs benedict. Then, after making hollandaise sauce a thousand times I went back there and realized that they made their hollandaise from a powder. It was disappointing.”

Polenta“Do you like your job now?”

“Yeah. I can do whatever I want.”

“Do you eat the food?” This was a question I’d never been asked but always had a fear of not being prepared for — and I wasn’t. People didn’t understand that this was a job I sought out.

“Most of the time, but we serve a lot of chicken and I don’t eat chicken.” What I should have said was ‘Well, I made the food. It’d be pretty awful if I wouldn’t eat the food I serve to the kids.’ I wasn’t doing much for my cause or my self-esteem. He clearly had no respect for what I did. I failed myself in this conversation.

We talked about my old job writing TV news and how it wasn’t satisfying because it wasn’t about reporting the story as much as it was about reporting it first for ratings.

He relayed a story about a childhood friend was murdered outside a restaurant. He told me how the reporters were desperate to talk to the victim’s family. The family wanted to grieve but the reporters were so persistent that the father gave in and talked to one reporter from the NBC station. He said one of the reporters from WGN got angry and threw a fit.

“It was infuriating that she had disregarded the fact that his daughter was murdered.”

PolentaI could understand his point, but I was horrified by his story.

“You tell me terrible stories. I’m starting to think you might be damaged.”

It was a very direct statement, but true.

“What other stories have I told you?”

Uncomfortable with my knowledge, I said, “Something about an ashtray.. and a cutting board.”

“I told you that?”

“Yes. Yes, you did. You don’t remember?”

“I had a lot to drink yesterday. But even sober, I have a bad memory.”

When the soup came, the conversation got better. Slightly.

I tasted the soup. “Ohh spicy!” I said.

Polenta“That’s not spicy.”

“You like spicy?”

“I love spicy.”

“Indian food?”

“I love Indian food.”

The polenta and the dumplings came at the same time. They probably couldn’t save the conversation, but they saved me.

“I love dumplings. I will take just about anything wrapped in dough,” I told him. “Oh. But this polenta. Oh my god.”

I needed to google bee balm and Tropea onion, but I knew that whatever they were they created magic.

Unfortunately, the magic in my mouth wasn’t that of the Blarney Stone.

Seeing the pleasure I was getting from the polenta, Burton said, “You take the rest of the polenta and I’ll take the rest of the soup.”

We skipped dessert and I invited him over to my house with the caveat that my entertainment system was very 90s and that I still owned a VCR.  He was comically exasperated with me and shook his head, but accepted the invitation.

When we got to my house, it was still awkward. This was an honest-to-goodness first date.

We sat on the couch for a while and chatted. I was dying for him to touch me, but he wouldn’t, adding to my insecurity. I introduced him to my cat. He had a blind cat, so it was an easy topic. And then we moved on to cat vHatchs, which I made him watch. I could tell he wasn’t excited about the Henri Paws de Deux or Maru, but I couldn’t figure out how to move the conversation to something -anything- else.

As it got closer to 10:30, he still hadn’t groped me the way I wanted him to so I said, “Well, this was a very nice evening.”

Polenta“Is that your way of saying you’re kicking me out?”

I smiled and said, “I have to go to bed.”

He still hadn’t touched me and he got up from the couch to put on his shoes and coat. He hugged me and kissed me the way I wanted to be kissed, but nothing more.  And there was no mention of making future plans.

After he left, I washed my face and brushed my teeth, but before I put on my pajamas, I texted, “That was a lovely evening. Thank you.”

He responded with, “You’re welcome. Lovely, indeed. Sleep well.”

And so I did.

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