A few years back, I enjoyed a dream-like experience. It was like something out of the most ridiculous rom-com starring… oh, let’s say, Amanda Seyfried as me, the protagonist, and Channing Tatum as Mark, my strapping love interest.
I’d been on a I-just-broke-up-with-my-boyfriend-let-me-get-away-from-it-all vacation to San Francisco. I stayed with a friend, wandered around, ate good food, drank high-end coffee. I spent a lot of time complaining about what the humidity was doing to my hair. One afternoon, I wandered into a local coffee shop for one more five-dollar latte, and there was Mark. Think: Not as hot as a mid-90s Jared Leto, but close; think: mid-90s Jared Leto’s slightly less attractive cousin.
Mark asked me what I was reading, and this launched us into a two-hour conversation on everything from over-priced coffee to over-indulgent pet owners to which U.S. cities are the most self-delighted. He explained his facial hair wasn’t usually so unkempt, I explained my head-hair wasn’t usually so frizzy. In short: It felt like meeting of the minds. Like I’d somehow – impossibly – dodged the bullet of single-hood; like I’d get the gift of slipping seamlessly from one relationship into the next. Sure, Mark lived in San Francisco and I lived in New York. But we’d bonded on the subject of indulgent pet owners. We were so clearly meant to be!
Mark and I had a week before I returned to New York, and we spent the better part of it together. Two days before I left, we were strolling along the Golden Gate Bridge all the while discussing the manner in which people exploit their children on Facebook, when he suggested a rather extravagant farewell.
“So here’s a thing,” he said. “A friend of mine waits tables at one of the top rated restaurants in the country, which is an hour or so away. I think I might be able to get us a table. What if we went there for your goodbye dinner?”
Let me explicitly state: Nothing like this had ever happened to me before. I’d never enjoyed a vacation romance. I’d never enjoyed fewer than eighteen months between boyfriends. I’d never been asked to dinner at a restaurant of this caliber. So on the one hand, I was so overwhelmed by the romance of it all, I had to work actively to remind myself it wasn’t a movie. On the other, I felt a flicker of anxiety. This restaurant, no doubt, was uber-expensive; I’m talking, like, a couple hundred dollars a person expensive – and I wasn’t in a position to afford it. And while it was implied and/or likely that Mark would pick up the bill, a lady never wants to presume such things. Mark, soul-mate-y material that he was, must have clocked that flicker of anxiety. For he immediately followed up by saying, “Dinner, of course, will be on me.”
“Well, if the gentleman is buying,” I said in the old-time-y voice of what I meant to be a 1940s movie star, “then the lady is indeed available.”
Here it bears mention that my old-time-y, 1940s movie star voice is one I use when I feel in incapable of adequately expressing gratitude, when the experience of looking someone in the eye and saying as sincerely as I can, “Wow. That’s amazing. Thank you,” feels somehow too overwhelming.
Mark and I arrived at The Restaurant. The dining room was beautiful and elegant and the majority of the other couples there seemed to involve a) a serious age gap between gentleman and lady, and also b) a high-class hooker. High-class, I said. I’m not being rude.
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“Holy crap,” I said.
“I know,” Mark said. “My friend says this place is crazy.”
I was handed a menu that had no prices. I did not comment upon the lack of prices to Mark because I was so overwhelmed by the environment – so aware I didn’t belong – that I didn’t have the wherewithal to do so. The waiter arrived and took our order. I chose some crab thing-y to start, and some steak-y thing as my main course. Mark ordered whatever he ordered. We enjoyed the food, which was delicious, and ogled the various older gentlemen and their seemingly younger ladies of the night.
Having finished the meal, I got up to go to the bathroom. This involved traipsing through the lobby and past a display case displaying the menu. This menu had prices. The cut of beef I’d ordered had cost no less than one-hundred and seventy-five dollars.
“OH MY GOD!” I screamed.
“Oui, Madam?” asked the maitre’d.
“Nothing!” I cried. “I’m totally fine!”
I rushed back to the table in a full sweat. “OH MY GOD, MARK!” I screamed. “I JUST SAW THE MENU IN THE LOBBY. IT HAD PRICES. MY MENU HAD NO PRICES. I DIDN’T KNOW HOW MUCH THE STEAK COST. I DIDN’T KNOW, I SWEAR! I’M MORTIFIED! DO YOU FEEL TAKEN ADVANTAGE OF? DO YOU? I AM MORTIFIED!”
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “That’s a thing in old-school, fancy French restaurants: They presume the man’s paying, so they don’t put any prices on the woman’s menu.”
As though possessed, I sat there rocking and repeating, “Ahundredandseventyfivedollars. Ahundredandseventyfivedollars.”
“It’s okay,” said Mark. “Really. Did you enjoy it?”
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“Ahundredandseventyfivedollars,” I answered. “Onehundred. Andseventyfive.”
Mark and I would spend the next few months trying our hand at a long distance relationship before realizing that, whatever chemistry there was, it wasn’t enough to bridge four thousand miles. Nonetheless, things ended amicably. In his final, romantically tinged email, Mark wrote, “We’ll always have your onehundredandseventyfivedollar freak-out. Which was amusing enough to be well worth the price-tag. All my best, Mark.”
“Sara Barron is the author of People Are Unappealing and the forthcoming Eating While Peeing: and other adventures.”