Dinner with a Perfect Stranger
Chapter Two: The Seating
“Dinner for one, sir?” The maître d’s appearance from behind the wine bar dashed my option of bolting before anyone noticed me. “Sir? Dinner for one?”
“No, I’m… I’m supposed to meet someone. I’m Nick Cominsky…”
“Ah, Mr. Cominsky. Right this way.”
He grabbed a menu and led me past the wood lattice that bordered the single dining room. The place hadn’t changed since I had brought Mattie for Valentine’s two years back. Two staggered tablecloths, one white and one red, covered each of the tables. Large mirrors created the image of a side dining area. The windows on two sides of the room overlooked the Ohio River. I could see lights from the Kentucky side reflecting on the water. The current provided nice background noise, like those ocean CDs you can buy to help you sleep. Unfortunately, some lame Andrea Bocelli song that Mattie loved virtually drowned out the river.
Tuesdays looked slow at Milano’s. Guests occupied only four tables. I inhaled the smell of toasted bread as we passed an older party of six laughing at a front table. A couple in their early twenties held hands and made goo-goo eyes at each other in the far right corner, the guy oblivious to his shirt sleeve dangling in his ravioli. In the middle of the room, two weight-challenged women giggled as they plunged into a monstrous chocolate torte. And in the far corner on the left, a thirty-something man in a blue business suit sat by himself, perusing a menu.
The maître d’ led me over to him. Rising from his chair, he stuck out his hand and firmly grasped mine.
“Nick Cominsky,” he said. “Hi. Jesus.”
In retrospect, a thousand comebacks were possible—“Jesus H. Christ! So good to finally meet you!”…“Are twelve of our party missing?”…“I didn’ t know they buried you in a suit.”
The absurdity of the scene, though, stunned me into silence. What do you say to that? The man and I continued shaking hands a little too long, until I issued a weak “Uhhuh.” He released my hand and sat back down.
My eyes caught the maître d’s. He quickly averted his glance and picked my napkin off my plate, cuing me to sit. He placed the napkin in my lap, handed me a menu and, with an “Enjoy your dinner,” left me alone with…
“Thanks for meeting me,” the man started. “This probably wasn’t the most convenient time for you, middle of the week.”
We stared at each other. Well, I stared. He resumed looking at his menu. He had an average build and was a little shorter than me, maybe five foot ten or so. His complexion olive toned, his hair dark and wavy, cut short and combed forward. His bushy eyebrows (Mattie would make me trim those,
I thought) hung over deep eye sockets and brown eyes dark enough that you couldn’t quite tell where the iris ended and the pupil began. His slender nose and thinnish lips matched a chin that receded slightly, as if knowing it couldn’t compete with the brows above. He wasn’t GQ
cover material, but he definitely spent more time in the gym than I did. His suit wasn’t Armani, but it wasn’t Discount Warehouse, either.
He looked up and caught me scrutinizing him, but he didn’t seem the least bit uncomfortable. Since my eyes provided few clues as to what this whole thing was about, I decided to give my ears a shot.
“Excuse me, but am I supposed to know you?”
“That’s a good question,” he smiled, to himself I guess. “I would say the answer is yes.”
“I’m sorry, but I’ve never met you, as far as I can remember.”
I looked around the room, waiting for the guys to jump out from behind the lattice or maybe from the men’s room. But no one hid behind the lattice. As for the men’s room…I turned my attention to the guy across the table.
“Come at me again. You are…”
“Jesus. My family called me Yeshua.”
“Your family, from…”
“Well, I grew up there. I wasn’t born there.”
“No, of course not. That would have been in…”
“Bethlehem. But we didn’t stay long before we left for Egypt.”
That was about all I needed to hear. This guy was a nut. Without saying a word, I got up, retraced my steps past the lattice, took a right, and entered the bathroom. Mr. Ravioli was rinsing off his sleeve, but besides him, no one. Backing out, I momentarily considered cracking the door to the women’ s room but dismissed the thought as premature. I took a left and peeked through the circular window to the kitchen. Nothing. I paused, scanned the restaurant, and, deciding this warranted a more direct approach, returned to the table.
“Look,” I said, sitting on the edge of my chair, “I’ve got better things to do tonight than have some mystery dinner with… Who are you really, and what’s going on here?” My question had an unintended edge. After all, the guy hadn’t done anything to me except meet for dinner.
“I know this isn’t quite what you expected. But I think if you give this evening a try, you’ ll find it meaningful.”
“Of course!” I retorted. “Who wouldn’t find a dinner with Jesus meaningful? Last week I had dinner with Napoleon. Socrates the week before. But Jesus! Thank you so much for coming all the way from the Holy Land!” I realized my voice was carrying more than I wanted. The two women had turned our way.
He sat silently.
“Hey”—I rose again from my chair—“I need to get home to my wife and daughter. Thanks for the invitation.” I stuck out my hand in a conciliatory gesture.
“Mattie went out to a movie with Jill,” he said without flinching. “She got Rebecca to baby-sit Sara.”
Okay. Finally a few pieces were starting to fall into place. He knew my wife. He knew Jill Conklin, the wife of my best friend, Chris. He knew our regular baby-sitter, Rebecca. He knew Mattie and Jill had gone to a movie. Once more I reclaimed my seat.
“Did Chris put you up to this?” I couldn’t imagine how Chris could be involved; it was way too weird for him.
“No, he didn’t.”
I returned to my original suspects. “Are you a friend of Bill Grier and Les Kassler?”
He slid his menu aside and leaned forward. “I’ll tell you what. If you stay for dinner, I promise to tell you at the end who set it up.”
The last time Bill and Les had done something like this, I ended up wearing fake cement overshoes and getting tossed into a swimming pool on Halloween. A heated pool, fortunately. Now I was having dinner with some guy claiming to be Jesus.
The waiter interrupted my contemplation, addressing the man across the table. “Have you selected a wine, sir?”
“I think I’ll let my friend decide,” he responded, turning to me. “Would you care for some wine?”
“Okay,” I replied, “sure.”
I opened the wine list and scanned thirty or so offerings, none of which I recognized. I was tempted to order the most expensive one on the list, but instead I pointed to a midrange white. “We’ll take the Kalike.”
I handed the wine list to the waiter. He looked back at my host, who gave a slight nod.
“The Vermentino di Gallura–Kalike ’98,” the waiter confirmed to me. He departed, passing a busboy with a water pitcher. The busboy filled my glass first, then the other guy’ s, eliciting a “Thank you, Carlo.”
We both picked up our water glasses and took a drink. I had to admit, this guy was good. Where did they find someone willing to play Jesus for an evening? And in such an unassuming way, as if he were just a normal guy. My coworkers had outdone themselves this time. But why? What was the point to all this? Les and Bill weren’t particularly religious. Bill went to Mass on Christmas and Easter, when his wife dragged him there. As for Les, he worshiped only at Western Hills Country Club.
Glancing back over at the pre-honeymooners, the mirror caught my eye. Could the restaurant have a two-way mirror? That seemed a little far-fetched but no more so than the evening had been thus far.
Our waiter appeared behind me with a bottle of wine, opened it, and set the cork down for me. I picked it up and took a whiff. “Smells good.” I looked up at him, detecting a slight roll of his eyes.
He poured a small amount into my wineglass and'handed it to me to taste. Mattie and I frequently had wine at home but not in this class. “Very nice.”
He poured me a full glass, then one across the table before leaving the bottle, prompting a “Thank you, Eduardo” this time. Is he on a first-name basis with the entire wait staff? He must come here weekly.
I was tempted to ask, but I had already decided on a different strategy. I leaned back in my chair and turned to “Jesus,” suppressing my customary sarcastic smile. “So your family called you Yeshua?”
“Most of them. James called me a few other things.”
“Well, Yesh— Do you mind if I call you Yesh?”
“Whatever suits you.”
“Yesh it is, then. Tell me,”—I held up my wineglass—“can you turn this wine back into water?”