It’s inadvisable to go out to dinner on Valentine’s Day if you don’t have a date.
Common sense, you say? A nugget of knowledge so blatantly obvious that it need not be spoken?
Perhaps. But unfortunately, I speak from experience.
Unattached and dateless — and working at a new job in a new town — I decided one evening to check out the local dining scene. I’d been living on my own cooking for nearly three weeks, so I was undernourished and ravenous for edible fare.
The inspiration struck on a Tuesday in February. After work I went home, spruced up, and wandered across the highway to a Mexican restaurant in a neighboring shopping center.
A waitress greeted me with a large smile. “Are you meeting someone, sir?”
“No,” I said. “Just me.”
“Oh.” Her face fell, and her upper lip started quivering. “Yes, well … I’m so sorry. Please, follow me.”
She grabbed a single menu and scurried through the restaurant, keeping her gaze on the floor. I followed, feeling perplexed. I’d eaten here alone twice before. Why was the waitress acting so squeamish?
As we wormed through the restaurant, I noticed candlelights on all the tables. And there were no families or children; only couples sitting across from each other, some holding hands and gazing into each other’s eyes.
I passed one booth, and I noticed a man fastening a silver bracelet around his date’s wrist. She was smiling as the diamonds sparkled orange from the dim dining-room light.
Now, I’m not the most observant person. I don’t connect the dots in a given situation as easily as, say, Columbo or Matlock.
But walking past the patrons, I started to piece together a series of what should have been obvious clues:
Happy couples. Candlelit dinners. Glittering jewelry. A Tuesday evening in early February.
Oh no, I thought, as the realization struck. It’s Valentine’s Day.
I’d completely forgotten. As a freewheeling bachelor subsisting on Swanson TV dinners and Grey Goose vodka, Valentine’s Day wasn’t exactly a holiday I had circled on my calendar.
My cheeks flushed as the waitress continued to guide me to my table. She led me to a booth in the middle of the restaurant, in full sight of all the other patrons — which is exactly where you want to be when you’re eating out alone on Valentine’s Day.
I swore she sniffed as she set down the menu. “I’ll be back for you drink order, sir.”
“Please,” I said. “And I suspect you’ll be making a few return trips. Keep them coming.”
I glanced around the restaurant, then gazed down at the table. A candle flickered before me. I resisted the temptation to blow it out.
For the first fifteen minutes, my aloneness wasn’t so obvious. I imagine the other diners suspected my date was running late. In my head, I could hear the unsolicited advice of a nonexistent bystander:
“Oh, you know how women can be, son. They have to doll themselves up before a big date. Romantic evenings like these are very special to them. I wouldn’t worry — I’m sure she’ll be here in no time.”
But once twenty minutes came and went — and my aloneness became more apparent — the surreptitious stares started coming. Discrete glimpses pierced me like pinpricks. Sideways gazes stabbed me like lightsabers.
One woman even stared at me with a hand held to her mouth, as if I were a two-legged dog dragging its haunches across the floor.
I read and re-read the menu. It was as if I was lounging on the beach with a page-turning novel. It’s amazing how fascinating entree descriptions can become when you’re awkward and uncomfortable, and you have no one else to talk to.
But then when the waitress took my order and whisked the menu away, I was left with nothing but the saltshaker to capture my attention. Individual grains beaded from the lid.
So I took out my iPhone and set it on the table. I scrolled through the headlines on Google, but didn’t really read them. I’d look up every now and then just in time to catch another patron looking away.
And when my dinner came and I started picking at my food — still sitting there, alone — I could almost hear a collective shudder escape from the crowd. It was like the live audience on a sitcom when the main character experiences a moment of anguish.
On this most joyful and romantic of holidays, everyone’s heart was breaking — and it was all my fault.
I swallowed some refried beans, but couldn’t taste them. It was like gnawing on a mouthful of mush.
I was tempted to rise, clink my fork against a glass, and make a quick speech:
“Can I get your attention, please? Folks, I know how this must look. But I assure you, I’m not a hapless loser who’s been stood up — or worse, didn’t have a date to begin with. I genuinely forgot about the holiday. I swear. See, I just moved to town and started a new job, so my entire focus has been on settling in and adjusting. It’s not like I couldn’t get a date if I tried. I mean, once I’m settled and get everything unpacked, I intend to renew my eHarmony subscription and hit the local dating scene hard. Aside from the untrimmed goatee and hair that needs cutting, I have a lot of desirable traits. I’m passionate. I like long walks on the beach. My ideal Friday evening would be cuddling on the couch with my lover, watching a romantic comedy. So please, don’t get the wrong idea. I’m just as much dedicated to the pursuit of soulful intimacy as the rest of you. My quixotic yearnings run just as deep. My heart, too, burns for the passionate embrace of a loving kindred spirit, with whom I’d promise to share the rest of my life.”
Instead, I flagged the waitress. “Excuse me. Can I get a box?”
“A box, sir?” she asked.
“Yes — and the check. As quickly as possible, please.”
I scooped up my dinner and scurried out of the restaurant like a mouse running along a wall. Returning home, my one-bedroom hovel never looked so cozy and inviting.
I turned on the latest episode of Top Chef and finished the remains of my Valentine’s Day dinner. In the privacy of my apartment, it tasted delicious — especially when washed down with a generous glassful of Grey Goose.