“It’s the only place in the world that has all five species of scallop,” says the grey old man at the table next to us.
I didn’t know there were different species of scallop. I’m eavesdropping.
The man is croaking his words and waving his hands, his fingertips inches away from a thin-stemmed glass filled with a double-pour of the house brand Sauvignon Blanc. I’m dreading the moment he’ll send his wine flying across the room.
My glass cradles a Cab, single-pour. It’s a newish brand, something the waitress subbed for the bottle my uncle requested. It’s lower-mid-tier. Nothing high-end. He wouldn’t want to seem frivolous with money in front of me.
But, at the same time, we’re sitting in an upmarket family-owned Bistro tucked into a Rancho Santa Fe plaza. My uncle took the “scenic route” on the way here so that I could look at the mansion compounds, even though it was seven o’clock and black outside. I had to squint through the tinted car windows to make out the gaudy iron gates monogrammed with illegible family letters. We took my aunt’s new Lexus, the Cold Weather model. Yesterday morning they drove four hours round trip to Palm Springs to retrieve it because it was one of the last of its kind in Southern California.
My aunt and uncle are sitting across from me: my aunt directly in front, my uncle kitty-corner. My cousin Tom is next to me. He is older than me by four years. He has refused the wine.
I finger through the leather-bound book of entree options. Filet Mignon. Alaskan Halibut. Lamb Chops. Ribeye. Should I look at the prices?
Yes. I chew back my lip when I read them.
This is our second meal of the day together. We shared a relaxed brunch early in the morning. Homemade pancakes with fresh berries and the obscure maple syrup that everyone in my family loves: Aunt Jemima’s Butter Lite.
We needed to fuel up for a day of San Diego sightseeing. My little weekend getaway. I’d driven down from Santa Barbara.
I was seated at the end of my uncle’s Ethan Allen kitchen table with a cup of rich, black coffee. Usually I add cream, but I didn’t want my aunt to fuss over the many different dairies and whether or not she had the correct one - 2%, whole, skim, almond?
When my cousin arrived for brunch, he waved at me from across the table.
“Wow, Tommy,” I’d said, “this is the first I’ve seen you in ten years.”
“Long time, huh,” he replied.
Now, at the Bistro, Tom says to me, “Do you still only eat Caesar salad?”
“What?” I say.
He’s got an awkward mouth, embarrassed that I don’t remember. My aunt and uncle are watching us.
“‘Cause of the dressing? No. I eat most salads now. But I like the dressing on the side.”
He nods and takes a long drink of his water.
“I still only eat Caesar,” he says, after he swallows.
My sharp personality wants to bite, “you’re missing out,” or “you should try not being such a picky bastard,” but I hold my tongue. The unspoken words mix with the wine residue that’s mounted inside my teeth.
I don’t want our banter to unsettle his parents, who are delicate, and naive, and expensive.
The dark depths of the Cabernet look back at me as I tip the glass between my lips. This dinner is uncomfortable. Stagnant. Nothing of interest to talk about.
The nearby table with the old man has launched into a thrilling discussion on “Alaskan cruises” and how they are “superior to the cruises of the West Caribbean, although Cozumel is lovely in the January and February months, if you know where to stay.”
“Your studies are going well?” My aunt asks me, even though she already asked a similar question at breakfast.
“Aren’t you worried about the Mexican gangs?” A woman at the neighboring table hisses at the man who knew the secrets of the scallops. I look at my aunt.
“I’ll finish my MBA this June,” I say.
“That’s wonderful,” my uncle says, as if he didn’t already know. He and his sister, my mother, talk all the time. And my mother complains about me all the time. There’s no way this is novel information.
“So, the golf course at the house is gone?”
I regret the words as soon as they escape because they insinuate I feel the value of their house has lessened, now that the country club has been dissolved.
“They’re building new houses there,” my uncle says, defensive.
“No more golf balls in your yard, though,” I say. I’m trying to make them feel better about their million-dollar hillside ranch house. As if they’d need my help.
“We started hitting golf balls off the backyard,” my uncle says. “Into the canyon.”
“We did that when she came to visit years ago,” Tom says.
“Did we?” I ask. “I don’t remember.”
“I think so.”
“That was a fun couple of weeks,” my aunt says.
“Ziplining over the Wild Animal Park was wonderful,” I say. “Remember how I got stuck? And they had to reel me in with the pole?”
“Yes,” Tommy laughs.
“Wait, you weren’t there I don’t think.”
“I was,” he says. But I know he wasn’t. Where was he?
My gut is twisting and I think it’s because the restaurant is chilly. I don’t want to put my sweatshirt on. I underestimated the classiness of their chosen dinner spot.
“It’s nothing fancy,” my aunt had told me while we got ready, and I made the mistake of taking her words at face value. I tore off my zip-up navy hoodie as soon as we’d entered the gated Italian-style patio illuminated by tinkling glass string-lighting. Casual, my ass.
It’s time to order our entrées. My aunt orders the fish special, which is the ambiguous “Market Price,” so I have no price frame of reference when the waitress turns to me.
“I’ll take the shrimp pasta,” I say. It stands in the comfortable, lower end of price tags on the menu.
“Are you sure you don’t want to order the filet mignon?” my uncle asks, because on the car ride to the Bistro, he mentioned it was tasty, and I had said, “that sounds delicious.”
“We can do both,” the waitress offers, and I’m shaking my head before she can finish getting the words out.
“The pasta is perfect, thank you.”
I imagine what my uncle would have said to my mother on the phone later had I ordered both: “Your daughter has lavish taste in food!” And then my mother would have called me and reprimanded me. No thanks. The filet isn’t worth it.
The table of old men next to us orders a second bottle of the house Sauvignon Blanc. They are discussing the weather. “I hope this damned rainy season ends soon,” says the old scallop man. He says “damned” as if it’s a delicious, naughty word. “Have to keep the new Jag in the garage. Only got to drive it once before this mess.”
I drink more of my wine.
“What do you want to do tomorrow?” my uncle asks.
“Oh, I don’t know. I don’t have plans.”
“We could take her to Jake’s,” says my aunt, “or maybe Poseidon’s.”
“What are those?”
“Nice restaurants by the beach.”
Is this what my aunt and uncle do for fun? Indulge in fine dining?
The waitress delivers hot bread to the table in a cloth covered basket. As Tommy and I reach out to grab a piece, we brush forearms.
We are no longer in Rancho Santa Fe. We are sitting in the community’s hot tub. I am thirteen and he is seventeen and their neighborhood is still a country club and not yet an in-progress old people’s housing development. My parents sent me here for two weeks of summer vacation. I am not sitting on his lap, but I am floating inches above it, and the ceaseless jets of jacuzzi water keep our bodies separated.
I withdraw my hand, fast. I wait for him to grab his piece of bread before I snake my fingers into the basket. We are in the Bistro. We are not in a hot tub. The wine is softening my blood.
“Do you still play video games?” I ask him, my tongue betraying me.
“Video games?” his face is quizzical. He doesn’t remember.
“Guitar Hero,” I say, cruelly. My eyes are trained on the bread in my hands as I pry it open. In my peripheral vision, I see his Adam’s apple bob once as he swallows.
I reach past him for the porcelain dish of flower-shaped butter pats. As I lean, my knee angles left and touches his thigh.
I am thirteen and he is seventeen. We are in the guest bedroom of his parents’ house. The television volume is up far too loud, and the door is closed so we don’t bother my aunt and uncle with the squeaks and squawks of missed notes and rock music. I’m holding the plastic guitar controller, strumming with scrawny adolescent arms and a tight mouth.
“I bet I can distract you,” he says, and my hands falter on the multicolored frets.
I’m spreading butter across the cleft in my dinner roll. The bread burns my fingertips, but I don’t put it down.
“I don’t play video games anymore,” Tommy says, “I’ve been so busy.”
I nod in response.
The food is delivered to our table as we finish the bread basket. My pasta is creamy, delicious.
“You eat mushrooms now?” my uncle asks.
“Of course,” I say. “Why wouldn’t I?”
“I thought you hated them.”
“You must be thinking of the other picky eater at the table,” I say, knocking my elbow into Tommy’s arm. Touching him.
I am thirteen and he is seventeen. We are standing in front of a floor-to-ceiling cabinet in his parents’ garage. The doors are open, revealing a dozen shelves of movies. DVDs. VHS tapes. We came out here to pick something to watch with my aunt and uncle. Tommy has pressed me into the shelves, and each piece of plywood digs into the back of my little body. He is kissing me.
Now he’s stiff, sitting beside me in the Bistro, and I know he’s never told anyone.
I scoot away from him, giving myself room to eat without inviting additional flashbacks.
As our forks and knives scrape against our porcelain plates, we talk about the food. “How is it?” “Delicious.” “Did they prepare your fish well? It was too dry last time.” “It’s perfect.” “Is the pasta any good?” “It’s spectacular.”
“Do you want to try any?” I ask Tommy. He has inhaled his plate of ribeye and his Caesar salad. Instead of speaking, he spent the last five minutes shoveling food into his mouth.
“I don’t eat cream sauce,” he says, “but thanks.”
“You ought to try it sometime,” I say.
He’s looking down at his cleared plate. I want to shatter his focus. We both should bear witness to these memories. I’m afraid to see what comes next. Can he see it all too?
I spread my feet so that the edge of my sandal bumps his right sneaker.
I am thirteen and he is seventeen. We’re sitting on the sofa in the living room with his parents. My aunt is asleep in her armchair. My uncle is engrossed in American Ninja Warrior, flashing across the flat-screen television. Tommy has covered us both up to our necks in a thick brown down blanket. His hand has worked its way onto my upper thigh. I am wearing a jean miniskirt and his hand slips between my legs, unobstructed. My gut is twisting, getting a rope burn. This is a new feeling.
I’m self-conscious of the slickness between my thighs and I don’t want him to get grossed out. I haven’t learned yet about human anatomy and being turned on and getting wet, so I think it’s just sweat, and I shift so he can’t reach me there. He withdraws his hand and does not touch me between my legs again.
In the Bistro, my uncle hands his card to the waitress. I can’t catch a glimpse of the bill, so I will never know how much my aunt’s market price fish cost, and whether or not I could have ordered the filet. When we stand to leave, Tommy looks at me with a tormented expression, haunted eyes in a skinny face. I let him go first so that we don’t run the risk of touching again.
At the table next to us, the old man is arguing with the waitress about the bill. “I believe the menu said the house wine was $38 per bottle, when this receipt clearly shows $42.”
I think he’s lying through his teeth to save a couple of dollars. Maybe he’s convinced himself, though. Maybe in his head he believes it’s the truth.