I set my alarm for an ungodly hour for a Saturday. I had to make a last minute trip to the grocery store and tie up any other loose ends for Brenda’s fundraiser. My experience from the previous year’s fundraiser proved that anything that I needed to take care of that day would take me about three times as long as I had set aside. I wanted and needed to run that morning, I also wanted to nap, but I didn’t have time for either.
Brenda scooped me up at 5:00pm. We drove over to the gallery in the West Loop to unload the car and set up. Still exhausted, I tried to get a boost of energy from a shot of espresso alongside a cafe latte. It didn’t help. I set up all of the food and directed the girl helping out how to serve everything but I felt… ineffectual.
The event was to raise money for speech and language therapy in Kenya that Brenda launched a couple years before. Brenda was everything I was not: smart, ambitious, accomplished, social, and charming. She grew up bouncing around from country to country and somehow landed in Chicago long enough for me to find her and leech some of her boon. At this point, she was finishing her PhD at Ohio State after a three-year stint in Kenya as the only speech and language therapist in the country, hence the idea for her non-profit organization. I was honored to be asked to make a contribution, but still felt inadequate.
At 7pm, people started trickling in. Lena showed up early. I talked to her as she imbibed and I suckled on my Izze Soda. She gave me feedback on the food — the shrimp and cucumber had a late heat, and it was wise to add the caramel and pretzels at the last minute.
Marty arrived at 7:30 by himself. Lena entertained him while I tended to the food and greeted Matt and Andy. I convinced them to attend with promises of single girls for Andy. There were single girls there, but they were probably too smart for Andy’s taste.
The whole evening was a big bag of discomfort for me. The event the year before was when I fell off the wagon for the first time after being sober for five months. I had a lot of fun, but I didn’t remember getting home that night. I didn’t want to repeat my mistake and tried to ignore the fact that everyone was comfortably buzzed while I was agonizingly sober and painfully tired. To add to my discomfort, Lucy showed up in an outfit as traumatizing as our friendship. It was excruciating to look at: a black slinky, sleeveless cowl-neck blouse, a short yellow and purple tweed skirt, shimmery gray tights and cracking, brown pleather knee boots. The outfit made as much sense as her presence. She knew that it was an event that I was involved with. I thought for sure she hated me; I couldn’t imagine she’d want to be in the same room with me, let alone at my event. But she was someone Marty could talk to — not that he had any trouble getting along with people in social situations.
My exhaustion was eating away at my consciousness — I wanted to be social, but it was impossible to hold up any kind of conversation. But an unexpected, perky, well-lubricated fellow pulled me aside to ask about my food.
“Are you the chef?” he asked.
“Well, I’m not a chef, but I made all the food,” I answered.
“The food is just wonderful. Do you have a card?”
“Thank you! No, I don’t. This is just something I do for Brenda.”
“You should get some cards! And put them out around the table!” he said. “By the way, the caterers who did the food a couple years ago did some sort of caprese and they used SPINACH instead of basil!”
“Oh dear,” I said trying not to sound flat, but goodness was I flat. I couldn’t even pretend to not be tired. Had I been drinking, I’d have been whirring from social circle to social circle, but since I had no liquid courage, I was eyeing a nice spot against the wall where I could lean and possibly catch a wink. Instead, I snuck outside to have a cigarette with Marty.
“So 15 Pies is you?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. Apparently, I neglected to tell him about any of this. It even said the name on the invitation.
“You know I can help you with these things,” he said. “I have what we in the business call design sensibility.”
“OK,” I said, trying to keep my head up. What I wanted to say was ‘Yes! Please! Would you really?? That would be awesome!’ But I had no energy for enthusiasm.
Brenda’s beau, Pat, walked up to the gallery; he had helped with the event.
“Hey, Rachel!” said Pat. “The food was really, really good. Thank you so much for helping. It was amazing.”
“Thanks, Pat!” I said as the door closed behind him.
“By the way,” said Marty. “When someone asks you if you’re the chef, just say yes. You don’t have to explain anything to them. Just take the compliment and go with it.”
“Yes, yes,” I said. “I’m self-conscious for one and two, I feel like I haven’t slept in days.”
We went inside to look at the silent auction. There were yoga classes, a terrarium, various handmade goods from a Kenyan village, electronics, dinner packages, but nothing Marty or I wanted to bid on. While we were looking at a box of books, Brenda’s friend Joyce hovered over us. She was an older, interesting woman — very earthy and liked me very much, though there was no indication as to why.
“That’s a great collection of books,” Joyce inserted into our space.
“Oh,’ I said. “Did you donate those?”
“Yeeeah,” she said with exaggerated enthusiasm. “I sell books on Amazon on the side.”
“Interesting,” I said. “Where do you get all the books?”
“I buy them, read them, sell them,” she said. “Some I get from schools and libraries.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. “Joyce, this is Marty. Marty this is Joyce.”
“Gosh,” she said to Marty as she grabbed both my shoulders. With dramatic sincerity she gushed, “Are you in love with her?”
I panicked and got wide-eyed. I didn’t know what to say. I could feel my head shaking ‘no.’ Marty said nothing and waited for her to get distracted. When Brenda walked by, I grabbed her to introduce her to Marty.
“Hello, Marty,” she said in her sneaky Australian accent. “It’s lovely to meet you… finally.”
“She used to date Angry Dave,” I told Marty. Angry Dave was one of Marty’s favorite former co-workers. “That’s how she and I met. I was dating Dave’s roommate. We got rid of the boys and kept each other.”
I had no sooner told the story of our meeting than Brenda was whisked away to chat up someone else. But it was just enough time for Joyce’s attention to be diverted by someone looking through her box of books.
“Does she have tourette’s?” Marty asked, referring to Joyce.
“Oh God,” I said, hoping that he wouldn’t say anything about it. “I don’t know. She just likes me a lot.”
Things couldn’t have started winding down soon enough. Brenda and her minions slyly started kicking people out of the gallery and packing up our stuff. Marty offered to help carry stuff out to the car and I graciously accepted. When every last cracker, platter and serving spoon were locked into the car, Marty packed himself up to go.
“Get some rest. Don’t call me until you’ve slept,” he said. “You did a good job tonight. I’m proud of you.”
He kissed me and was off to his house around the corner.
Matt and Andy decided to keep company with Brenda and her lady friends they managed to pick up and went to a bar down the street.
“Your boy is lovely,” said Brenda. “He’s very manly.”
“Marty’s a nice guy,” said Matt. “He’s a little bit of a silver fox.”
“I wouldn’t call him a silver fox, but his hair is gray, yes.” I said.
“Where’d he go?”
“He went home.”
“Why isn’t he trying to get you naked?”
“That’s a good question. I don’t know. He lives three blocks away.” I was pretty sure Marty liked me, but I wasn’t certain that he was attracted to me. This compounded the uncertainty.
Although I was tired and needed to sleep in my own bed, I really wanted Marty to at least want to sleep with me. It seemed like the obvious progression of the evening, but I was still getting to know Marty and figuring out his logic was a futile pursuit. Regardless, I was deflated.
Lena, Lucy and another woman were going to go out to a bar near my house so we all got in a cab together. Awkwardness of sharing a cab with Lucy added to my distress from being tired, but she was congenial and complimented me on my salmon crackers.
I got home at 11:30 and didn’t bother to brush my teeth or wash my face before collapsing in my bed. I slept until 8am the next day. I was not at all refreshed but I had to be ready to make pie.
Pie. Yes. Apple pie. Because that’s what Marty said he would ask for instead of cake for his birthday when he was a kid. It was a tiny pie with a crumble topping. I wasn’t sure if he liked oats, so I left them out. I did two things wrong: I accidentally put too much lemon in the filling and I forgot to put baking powder in the crust. Marty wouldn’t know the difference, and I didn’t have time or energy to start over, so I corrected the errors as best I could. I assembled the pie and put it in the freezer until it was ready to bake Monday night and present to him on his birthday.
Tuesday snuck up on me, nudged me awake, but forgot to give me the caffeine I needed to get me through the day. By the time I got to Marty’s house that night, my eyes were open only because it was light out. Surely, if it had been dark out and all the lights were off, I would have been asleep. I wanted desperately to be fun and make Marty’s birthday memorable, but I used the last of my energy to pack the pie and his presents into a canvas gift bag (which was a good idea in theory, but terrible in practice as there was no acceptable second use for it) and write a card. I couldn’t even think of what to write on the card beyond “Happy Birthday.” I was feeling puny. Hope was the only thing that could get me through dinner.
I was so tired that I failed to realize there was a huge hole in my leggings until we were on our way to the restaurant. It was embarrassing and impossible to disguise no matter how awkwardly I stood. I was a miserable date and I felt bad that I was ruining a monumental birthday for Marty.
But the food was alright. We got oysters to start and tried to figure out the flavor nuances between Clevedon Coast Oysters from New Zealand and the Deer Creek oysters from Washington and the Caraquet oysters from New Brunswick. We weren’t the most enthusiastic or satisfied oyster eaters, so we came up with no differences. Then came the clam chowder and kimchi sliders followed by a lobster roll and crab cakes. Overall, the dinner was a big old MEH. Marty probably would have said that about the company as well, but I didn’t have the energy to try anymore. He did, though.
“I want to help you with your pies,” he said. “We should talk about it.”
I wanted his help so badly, but I felt weird about accepting that kind of help and I wasn’t in the right physical shape to get excited.
“OK,” I said. I was being unintentionally unreceptive and I could feel his disappointment.
“Why don’t you look around on the internet for logos that you like and send them to me?”
“I think I can do that,” I said. “I don’t know where to start, though.”
“It’s ok. Just find a couple so I can get an idea of what you would like.”
On the way home we passed a restaurant on the Eater 38 list. He told me he’d been on a date there once — which opened the door to a broader conversation. He asked me if I’d ever slept with someone on the first date.
“I’m sure I have,” I said. “But I don’t make it a practice. I’m pretty weird about physical intimacy. I’ve told you, it takes me forever to do things, so I won’t even kiss someone on the first date and it may not even happen on the third date. And forget about sex. That’s like date ten. Do you sleep with girls on the first date?”
He suddenly got agitated and said, “You say that as if I’m currently going out on dates with other people. I’m not going on dates with other people.”
“OK,” I said and tucked the information into the back pocket of my brain as we pulled up to his apartment.