The place was like a dream. Everything seemed to be filtered with a honey lens, golden light caressing every angle of dark spaces and softening every smile. All along the walls were paintings of rabbits having picnics and squiggly-lined characters frolicking in Central Park, their childish quaintness expounded by the warmth of the gold-leaf ceiling casting down its glow. The people were like life-sized dolls, primped and glossy and precisely pretty while the smell of the place gently tangled in finer scents of Chanel No 5 and Gucci Flora. I and everyone else felt a pleasant ease, wrapped in the demure ambience and soft jazz that surrounded us.
My mother and the man were nestled into a corner. She sat in a methodical pose that made her seem tall and let her hair fall just right over one eye. Between them there was a small table and lamp that stood like a buffer taking the edge off the intimacy, however the unhandsome man slumped over it taking full advantage of the closeness its size provided.
Meanwhile my hiding places were few and only barely acceptable. A corner made by a part of the wall that jutted out a foot or so gave me coverage for some time. But as I watched the couple at the table, I ducked to evade the glances of the occasional passing waiter. Fortunately though I remained invisible.
I'd never seen my mother on a date. It reminded me of the way she did business though, exacting and smart. She crossed her legs beneath the table and exuded a sense that she was always a step ahead of the man. As I watched, they had their first, second, and then third round of drinks, the man incautiously going through them faster than my mother so that by the third one she kept her glass only for show.
Eventually it wasn't enough to just watch. So I carefully crept behind a gauze curtain that hung from the ceiling to the floor. This place was a bit more concealed and I allowed myself to sit on the floor, peering from around the sheer fabric to listen to the conversation at the nearby table.
"Well, he bought me a violin," my mother was saying. "It was at auction. I don't play, but it was owned by an Italian violinist. Monti, Vittorio Monti."
Feeling obligated by the look in her eyes he replied, "Never heard of him."
"Well he was very good. Wonderful. He was never really credited for his genius though, not considering his talent. He was breathtaking."
The man smiled with a half-lidded gaze. Clearly the drinks had already begun taking their toll. "You follow that sort of stuff? Music and history, all that?"
"No," she said. "I just wanted the violin."
"A real Monti violin." His tone hinted at banter. "I couldn't name a single violinist to save my life. And you have a favorite. You must have studied a little bit at least?"
My mother flippantly replied, "I studied business, and marketing. I got into advertizing and married the president of the company."
"The president," he repeated, impressed but slightly mocking. "I guess he would be able to afford a genuine Monti violin."
My mother's expression soured. He picked up his glass and threw back the remaining drink. It stayed in his mouth a moment and then he swallowed while at the same time looking around for the waiter. When he caught the other man's attention, he raised a hand signaling his request for another drink to be sent over.
The minute and a half it took for the empty glass to be whisked away and a new one replaced was spent in quiet. My mother confidently tossed her hair and ran a hand through the thick red to smooth it back out. She didn't realize this was sometimes interpreted as flirting. Another minute passed quietly until my mother finally broke the silence.
"I did take a music class once. When I was twelve."
"Did you," the man asked between generous sips.
Beneath the table she began to gently bounce her foot up and down. "I went to a Catholic school for girls. We played those stupid things, what do you call them. Recorders. I never played though, I sat in the back of the class pretending to make sounds and tried to blend in with the other girls who actually played. I even scrunched up my face to make it look like I was trying to play well when the teacher was watching." The man smiled through glazed eyes.
She brought her glass to her lips and paused, thinking, without taking a drink. Her foot still bounced absentmindedly beneath the table where neither of them could see.
"His name was Brian Kennedy. Well, Mr. Kennedy. The music teacher." She took a careful sip and then sat the drink back down. "He was new, and young. And the only man in the entire faculty besides the principal. Every day he'd play us tapes of classical pieces and point out all the best parts, like any of us cared. The girls passed notes and whispered the whole time and he wouldn't even notice. He'd be too lost in the music. It was mesmerizing, how addicted he was to the symphonies. The virtuosos." My mother looked into her drink without blinking, that foot bouncing up and down. "I'd watch him close his eyes and shut out everything, like nothing else was happening in the whole world. I'd stare at him as he listened."
By that point the man's grin had faded to a half smirk, his attention consumed by the movement of other people coming and going around them. But he remained still, so my mother didn't notice. She was talking mostly to herself now anyway.
"We went on a class trip to the Lincoln Center to see the orchestra playing at the opera house. The other girls filled the row in front of us and Mr. Kennedy and I sat together in the the row behind them. Just he and I. He propped his elbow on the armrest between us and leaned towards my seat and whispered to me, just to me, pointing out all his favorite parts. He loved the violin best of all. It's the most romantic, the way the player and the instrument lay their heads together like lovers. And there was no one, he said, to match the genius of Monti. His head got so close to me as he talked, the sound of him whispering sent chills down my back... I've never felt so thrilled." The woman smiled privately. Her hair had slowly fallen to one side and hid her view of the man and the rest of the bar. "I wrote in my journal that night that I loved him."
Her foot stopped bouncing. Suddenly she became my mother again and the twelve-year-old girl was gone.
When she looked up the man was still staring around the room, not noticing that she'd stopped talking. For a moment she studied him, niether surprised nor disappointed, at least that she showed. A step ahead of the man. In the following dragging silence she drank until her empty glass matched his, lip prints overlapping around the top.
"Have another one?" she asked.
"Sure," he slurred out, sitting up from where he'd begun to slowly slouch in the chair. "I could drink these all night."
"Yeah," she said. "But that's the thing about drinks. They never last."
He signaled the other man and again they waited in silence for the next round. My mother looked away. She had the expression of someone ready to leave but grounded by a sense of social obligation. Or perhaps there was something else in her eyes.
"It always runs out," she muttered. "There's just you and an empty glass." Her glance lifted for a moment, flittering around the room in the usual pretty way. I'd seen Lyle's eyes do the same, when he was trying not to cry. She faked a smiled and nodded as though something sad had just happened, just as she'd expected it to. "The best nights are when you're already gone by the time the glass is empty. You don't have to decide to refill it or abandon it. It doesn't matter anymore."
The man was lost in a heady stupor, blinking at passing people and lights. My mother's words were like exhaled smoke that hit his red face and deflected off in no particular direction.
"I'm so tired," she said. "So terribly tired, like I'm sleepwalking."
From where I was I could see the man's watch. The hour was up, the driver would be waiting.
I slipped out from behind the curtain and skirted the restaurant, again unnoticed. Outside the car was parked on the street, already running. I opened the sleek black door and climbed into the dark interior. "She's taking a cab back with her date," I told the driver. Then off we drove, through the wet streets on the long journey home.