Gerard waited for his date outside of Isabella’s Italian Cuisine and Bar ten minutes before the appointed meeting time, smoking a pre-dinner cigarette. Succulent, spiced scents breezed towards his slouched post near a stucco wall every time the door of the restaurant swung open reminding him that he missed lunch earlier.
The restaurant was Gail’s idea, the date his. He’d met Gail earlier in the semester in his Literature of Science Fiction class when they partnered up for a presentation on Ray Bradbury and kept up friendly conversation in class even after they aced their presentation. She’s smart, funny, and sure, Gerard can’t claim any stronger emotion than fondness for her, but there’s always the chance that something stronger could evolve.
Besides, Gerard’s never been in love before, and so far he’s learned that it hardly seems to occur by standing around and waiting for a lightning bolt of liquid attraction. And maybe, Gerard figures, believing that that’s how love or anything similar works is foolish and wasteful of youth or some shit.
So Gerard bit the bullet on the last day of regular classes and asked Gail out. And she hesitated after he asked. Green eyes wide with surprise and her mouth trying to summon up words. She hesitated for a moment that stretched to eternity that had Gerard’s insides flipping in embarrassment, but before he could take it back, she said “sure” with a small smile.
His stomach twisted with something that wasn’t solely hunger as he recalled that moment.
“Hey!” Gail called from under the emerald green awning of the restaurant waving her arm wildly.
Gerard stomped out his cigarette before making his way over and meeting her smile with his own when he reached her.
“Seriously, Gerard, Isabella’s got the best spaghetti – like you’re gonna cream your pants with how good it is.” Gerard wasn’t even fazed by Gail’s less than delicate speech. He only replied with a droll “promises, promises” and was rewarded with a jab to the ribs.
This isn’t going so bad, Gerard thought, it’s just natural.
It didn’t take long for them to get seated, and it took even less time for Gerard to appreciate his surroundings. Isabella’s had refinement with dark hardwood floors waxed to a shine that complemented the marigold walls that hung watercolor paintings of quaint Italy scenes. Warm lighting was emitted from overhead and hanging fixtures creating a sense of warmth and coziness. Booths lined the wall of the restaurant, while tables topped with snow white covers sat parallel to the booths.
The hostess brisked past the motions of handing the pair their menus, pointing out the wine menu and specials, promising the prompt service of a waiter soon before heading back to post at the front of the restaurant. Before Gerard could open his menu a demure ahem caught his attention.
He looked up at Gail, “What?”
“Why are you even bothering with the menu? I thought we agreed you were going to cream your pants because of the best spaghetti in New York.” Gail’s eyes flashed with good humor.
Gerard rolled his own before allowing a smile, “Must have slipped my mind.”
“Hi! Welcome to Isa’s, I’m Frank, your waiter. What can I start you two off with to drink?” The voice that accompanied this rote introduction wasn’t anything extraordinary, an energetic, youthful timbre that conveyed laughter without effort. Frank himself wasn’t extraordinary looking, a short young man with hazel eyes and dark brown hair that curled past his ears dressed in a standard white, long sleeve button down, his black trousers hidden behind a black waiter’s apron that reached past his knees.
But as soon as Gerard glanced up at his waiter, drink order perched on his lips, he felt it: A bolt of liquid attraction.
“Diet Coke?” Gerard said dumbly. Frank’s smile widened as he held eye contact with Gerard a second or three too long before turning his attention to Gail. Gerard’s menu suddenly became an object of great fascination, even after Frank left to fetch their drinks.
“So, Gerard, are you almost done with that God awful paper for Dickson’s class?” Gail’s voice knocked some sense back into Gerard reminding him why exactly he was here. Though he was a bit ashamed that he couldn't recall the exact reason why he was on a date in the first place.
“Actually, I got most of that knocked out yesterd--”
"Here are your drinks!” A glass of Diet Coke practically apparated in front of Gerard, and he got a flash of tattoos before Frank’s hand disappeared from his line of vision.
“Wow, that was quick,” Gail said.
“We pride ourselves in quality service here at Isa’s.” How could Gerard know that Frank was smiling just by the sound of his voice, he wondered. “Are you ready to order?”
Gerard decided to man the fuck up and raised his eyes to meet his waiter’s. “Yea, we’re both having the spaghetti. Right, Gail?” It was a force of sheer will for Gerard to shift his attention to his date.
“You bet. It’s the best there is.”
Frank’s smile beamed with pride and his chest may have puffed a bit with the sentiment as well, not that Gerard was taking painstaking detail of everything Frank did. “I’ll be sure to pass the compliments to my uncle, the chef and owner.” Frank winked charmingly.
Gail was practically twittering in her seat at the news. “Oh! Please do, this is one of my favorite restaurants.”
“Who’s Isabella then?” Gerard asked without realizing he even had a question to ask.
The tingling in his veins that had dulled down after his first look at Frank quickly began pulsing sparks in him as soon as he had Frank’s attention again. “His wife. She runs the books.” Gerard figured that when Frank grew older he’d have countless of laugh lines with how freely he gave his smiles, and he’d only look better with them.
Gerard was the first to break the eye contact this time.
“Alright, well I’ll get your order out to you two as soon as I can.”
A quick sip of sweet soda cooled Gerard’s suddenly dry throat as he searched for something to say. “I’m glad we came here, Gail.” Inwardly, he cringed at the words because suddenly they rang with an implied meaning that made him feel a bit dishonest.
But a quick look to see how Gail would handle his statement revealed a woman who was biting her lip and looking at Gerard with an uncomfortable expression. His spine snapped to attention, thoughts of Frank momentarily forgotten. “Hey? What’s wrong?” Thoughts of inadequacy, the possibility of Gail being able to read Gerard’s mind in the past couple of minutes, illness, pity, raced through his head.
There was a small sigh followed by a direct green gaze. “I just … feel guilty because I feel like I haven’t been totally honest with you since we’ve know each other, but then I think it’s stupid for feeling that way since I have a right to my privacy, right?” Gerard nodded because sure, privacy, he could respect that. Maybe she’s on the run from an abusive husband or is a masked vigilante … like Bat Girl! Gail would make an awesome Bat Gi—focus Gerard. “But I figured, being here with you might mean something,” she continued, “and I would like you to know about Chris.”
Or she could be into polyamory. “Chris?”
“My son, Gerard.”
All thoughts screeched to a halt leaving room for only one reaction. “Huh?”
Gail leaned across the table clutching her hands together; Gerard couldn’t help but mirroring her posture. “I have a son, three years old. Had him senior year of high school … huge scandal you can imagine, but,” a small smile bloomed in her face, “I don’t regret having Chris.” The smile died mid-bloom as she looked away from Gerard. “Uhm, but if you are serious about trying something out with me, I figured you should know that much.”
“Why didn’t you say anything before?” Yea Gerard, go ahead and sound accusatory, nice!
Her eyes flashed back to his, guilty and a bit wary as if waiting for a cruel remark. Gerard didn’t like being the receiver of such a cautious gaze, especially from Gail. “I do love my kid. But it’s nice to just be a college student while I’m on campus, not just a has-been teenage mom. You know?” There was something in her voice that pulled at Gerard’s natural protective instincts; Mikey liked to blame those instincts the Older Brother Complex.
“No, of course. I can understand. Definitely. It can be pretty rough, huh?”
The wariness slowly receded as she quirked a smile, “Yea, sometimes. It’s worth it though. It’s been awhile since I’ve been on a date, I can tell you that much.” She gave a quick chuckle. “And listen, since I’m being honest, I’m sorry I hesitated so long when you asked me out, that must have made you feel awful, but I always just thought of you as a friend, y’know … not that you’d always be friend zoned! I mean, wait, I think I can like you as more … given the chance … maybe? Ah, I’m sorry this is hardly romantic discussion.” Gail’s skin tone was about the approximate shade of fire engine.
Gerard couldn’t hold back his laughter any longer.
“Jerk!” Gail said but not before releasing her own chuckle.
A sense of relief allowed Gerard’s muscles, which he didn’t even realize were stressed to begin with, to relax. He gazed at Gail with a familiar fondness. It had been worth a try, at least. He placed a gentle hand on Gail’s own and said, “It’s alright to admit we can only be friends.”
His date-who-was-only-really-a-friend visibly relaxed, squeezed his hand softly and gifted him with a full-bloom smile.
Frank arrived at that time laden with plates. Gerard wondered if he’d just come back from some rude guests or if he got reprimanded because his smile wasn’t as bright this time around. He felt pathetic and foolish for missing his waiter’s 1000-watt smile already.
Too soon Frank was gone again, and Gerard let himself look at his retreating back until it disappeared from view.
His first bite of spaghetti exploded in his mouth with the thick, robust flavor of marina sauce perfectly spiced and textured with tender spaghetti and small bites of smoked Italian sausage and ground beef.
“Oh my god,” Gerard said.
Gail quirked an eyebrow, “Now keep the porno noises down. This is a respectable establishment.”
Gerard flicked her off as he took another bigger bite.
Later, with half of their dishes eaten away, the continuous chirp of Gail’s cell phone interrupted her in the middle of another hilarious anecdote involving her son. She shot an apologetic look at Gerard before answering with a soft voice, meanwhile, Gerard found himself searching for a certain waiter of certain height and inexplicable charm.
“What? How high is his temperature?” Gail’s voice rose with worry distracting Gerard from his failed search.
“Oh, oh, I’ll be there soon.” Quickly and with sharp movements, Gail was picking up her purse, stuffing her phone in and explaining as she looked for her wallet, “Chris has a fever of like one-oh-two. I’ve gotta get him to the hospital before he gets worse. Poor baby. Do you think twenty bucks is enough for my plate? I’m so sorry, no really, I’m very -”
“Gail! Calm down, go to your son. I’ve got the tab. You can treat me to coffee sometime, you mooch.” He quirked a smile at her and inclined his head towards the restaurant’s exit.
“You betcha... I’ll see you sometime, right?”
Gail left with a quick kiss to Gerard’s cheek and the homing-missile directness of a worried mother ready to coddle her child.
He huffed out a small laugh and realized he should really call his mom sometime soon.
From his peripheral vision, Gerard caught Frank returning to his table, so he was able to keep his body calm as he watched him approach. “Would you like to-go boxes?” Frank asked sparing a quick glance at the empty chair across Gerard.
“Just one will do and the tab too, please?”
Frank left and returned as quickly as it took Gerard to busy himself tidying up his part of the table a bit and pluck his credit card from his wallet.
“Would you like a refill in a to-go cup, by the way?” Gerard shook his head as he frowned at the ultra polite manner he felt he was being subjected to by Frank, but that wasn’t atypical behavior from a good waiter. It just rubbed him the wrong way.
“No, she left already.” A deeper frown as Gerard distractedly hoped Chris would be fine.
“Oh? Did it not go well?” Gerard raised his eyebrows in surprise as Frank’s voice flared away from his polite monotone to intrigued and something else he couldn't place his finger on. Frank had the decency to look slightly ashamed, but curiosity was still etched in his expression, and he was still obviously waiting for an answer.
Gerard couldn’t help but humor Frank. “Uhm, it did? But not the way, I expected it to … We decided to just stay friends.” His heartbeat quickened as finally, finally the smile from earlier that evening revisited Frank’s lips. Huh, was that really all it took to make Frank look pleased, a semi-failed date in Gerard’s part? A slight shiver ran up his spine as he thought what that could mean.
Frank seemed to snap himself from whatever inner thought he was lost in. “I’ll go run this and bring it back soon.”
Gerard didn’t watch him go this time, instead he settled his gaze on the chair across from him. An inner voice coolly noted that as a waiter it was practically in Frank’s job description to be engaging for everyone he served, and it was pretty crazy to be feeling so strongly for a literal stranger.
“Don’t look so bummed, dude.” Frank’s voice yanked Gerard from his agreement with his inner voice. “You know what they say, about the sea and fishes and variety and the spice of life.” Gerard laughed which seemed to strengthen Frank’s charm. “You know, the next girl can be it.”
“Or guy,” Gerard blurted and distracted himself by opening the tab to peruse his receipt.
There was short length of silence from Frank before a soft, “Yea, or guy.” There was hesitant shuffle of feet, then a “have a good evening,” and the receding sound of Frank’s footsteps.
Gerard left with his face still glowing red, a to-go box clutched in a tight grip, and a generous tip to his waiter.
Gerard didn’t return to Isabella’s; he barely ventured out of his apartment as finals and project deadlines demanded his attention and time for the entirety of the upcoming week. He only managed quick coffee runs in which he sucked fresh, blessed air on the way to the corner Stop-N-Shop almost as greedily as his large coffees.
His mind did veer towards Frank though, in the spare breaks he granted himself from studying. Thought of him often like his thoughts were weak iron fillings pulled helplessly towards the pull of fading memories of a handful of conversations and a flirtatious smile that probably meant nothing, nothing, nothing.
The week passed in this manner until Friday afternoon brought the end of finals and Gerard’s junior year of college, and the first thing he did was drop into bed without having to set his cell phone alarm for the first time in days.
He woke up to a blackened sky peeking in from his miniscule apartment window and the incessant ringtone of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face”.
“Wha’?” Gerard answered his cell phone, eyelids at half-mast.
“I’m here in New York. Feed me.” Mikey replied.
“Time is it?”
The promise of food was doing the job of waking him up. “We can order Chinese from across the street or there’s that –“
“No.” Mikey’s tone was flat and final and something followed that sounded suspiciously like a heavy sigh. “How long has it been since you left your apartment?”
“Figured as much. We’re going out to eat, so think of something.” Mikey hung up and a second later Gerard heard the bzzzt of his apartment’s buzzer go off. As he padded across the room to allow Mikey into the building, his thoughts winded down a path to a quaint restaurant with tasteful, framed art, and then quickly shifted to the image of tattoos disappearing under the white cuffs of a dress shirt, a smile full of promise with a twist to the right, dark eyes that still caused a light shudder in Gerard even when it’s just the memory of them. As always, these thoughts came unbidden, but this time they were accompanied by a flare of courage and decision that surprised him.
Before Mikey could even make it past the threshold of the small, efficiency apartment, Gerard says, “How do you feel about trying the best spaghetti you’ve ever tasted?
The hostess was not the same woman as before, and Gerard took this as an omen that Frank too would not be at work today. She seated the brothers in a booth. A quick sweep of the restaurant did not reveal Frank, and Gerard’s spirits sank pitifully low when the hostess said that their waiter, James, would be by shortly.
Gerard cursed his sense of timing. Mikey was watching him expectantly, patiently knowing that if he looked at him long enough without blinking, Gerard would spill whatever was obviously bothering him. Gerard could never decide if how well Mikey could sense his emotions was either really annoying or the gift of having a brother.
Before he could even think of where to start, Frank appeared by his booth, hands busy fiddling with his small waiter's notepad and Bic pen. Something in Gerard settled, while his bloodstream went back to coursing nothing but fizz and pop rocks across his body. It wasn’t until later that night when Gerard wondered what happened to James.
“Hey,” Frank greeted as if Gerard were a regular, “You’re back!”
Gerard could only nod before he remembered the English language and said, “Yea, yea, my brother and I were around the area.” Mike released an audible snort that had his brother cringe and mentally promise retribution in good time.
“Well, we’re glad to have you back. What would you like to drink?” Frank asked Mikey while Gerard thought, but are you? Are you glad to see me? He could practically feel the words scurrying up his throat. Instead he only opened his mouth to give his own drink order, “I’ll have a –
“A Diet Coke, right?” Frank interrupted with grin.
Gerard could only nod as a thrill spun through him. Then he felt amazingly stupid for reacting this way when it was obvious that Frank was only exhibiting some exceptional customer service, nothing more. And he may or may not have watched Frank leave with the lovelorn gaze of the besotted. Judging from Mikey’s cackling, the former was more along the truth. Though Gerard felt immediately better when a quick kick to Mikey’s shin ceased the beginnings of “Gerard and waiter-dude sitting in a tree …”
Christ, little brothers.
Dinner was going much too fast for Gerard’s liking, and for once he wasn’t satisfied with quick, efficient service. Halfway through their food, Gerard had already summarized how exactly he met Frank about a week ago to Mikey, though he didn’t mention just how intense and like a live wire Frank made him feel with words as simple and ordinary as “Would you like a to-go box”. He figured Mikey would get the subtext, he was good at that.
“So are you going to ask him out?” Was Mikey’s only response when Gerard finished talking.
The fork, already twined with spaghetti, slipped from Gerard’s fingers and clanged against the porcelain plate as he shot a surprised look at his brother. The thought of going up to Frank and asking for his number or a date or just a simple smile for the road had his heart beating rabbit quick. He realized with some shame and resignation that he had no courage to do such a thing. “No, I don’t think I will.”
Mikey’s usual Zen face broke for an exaggerated eye roll. “Gee, you’re into him, and I’m more than positive he’s into you too.”
It took a great will of effort to tamper down the surge of happiness that coursed through Gerard at Mikey’s words. He shrugged, “I highly doubt that Mikey.”
“Why do you do that to yourself, Gerard? Put yourself down?” It wasn’t the first time his brother had asked him the question and both knew it wouldn’t be the last and that Gerard wouldn’t answer, so he didn’t.
Mikey crossed his arms and graced Gerard with an imperious look. “Well, I know I’m right.”
“Yea, like you were right about Dahlia Neeley? She punched me in the gut when I asked her out.”
“Oh come on! I was six, my powers of observation were hardly mature … and plus, I thought her relentless teasing stemmed from love. I didn’t expect her to sucker punch you in the gut.”
Gerard didn’t bother suppressing his laughter, and Mikey immediately joined in.
Frank walked by at that moment and smiled along with the brothers. “Can I take your plates?” Mikey nodded and Gerard gathered his silverware and pushed them towards Frank at the same time that the waiter’s hand reached for Gerard’s plate. Their fingers touched briefly and with a held breath Gerard wondered if the touch had lasted long enough to gain meaning other than accidental.
The moment passed and the tab was left behind as Frank left with the dishes. With a sigh, Gerard reached over for the tab, but Mikey beat him to it. He couldn’t help but quirk an eyebrow. Mikey was a notorious mooch, at least towards his older brother, but the eyebrow only received a shrug in response.
And Gerard could hardly complain against a free meal.
As the brothers left, Gerard heard his name called out and turned to see Frank gazing at him with a smile that was shy but still as beautiful as his full beaming ones - he wondered what other type of smiles Frank had in his arsenal, so far each one did things to Gerard.
Frank opened his mouth, shut it close, opened it again, before settling on, “Bye. See you again sometime?” Gerard wondered if that was hope he heard in Frank’s voice or his own wishful thinking.
He settled at smiling at Frank and saying, “Yes, definitely.”
It’s funny how you could say I like you without having to say those exact words.
Gerard left Mikey at a corner street a block away from his apartment after hailing him a cab and hugging him fiercely right after. Before he ducked into the cab, he paused, studied his older brother and said, “Don’t be an idiot.”
Gerard watched the cab merge into traffic and round a corner wondering whether to be insulted by Mikey’s final comment or to just place the matter under the file labeled Cryptic Shit Mikey Says; it wasn’t too long ago that he received a text message from Mikey that read dnt leave a pyrex dish on hot stove. Srsly. All in all, Gerard finally decided, as he unlocked his apartment, that both warnings were good advice in general.
Gerard’s cell phone buzzed in his jean pocket right as he was pulling an arm out of his leather jacket, struggling at bit because it was on just the right side of too tight; he answered without looking at the screen, pressing the cell phone with his shoulder against his ear.
A familiar voice responded. “Hey! This is Frank … from Isa's.”
The cell phone fell onto the floor. “Shit!” Gerard said, quickly scooping the cell phone back up. “Uhm, Frank?”
Gerard was too stunned to even respond back, mind racing with questions, but he didn’t have to because Frank was talking again. “So, the answer is yes.”
Excitement began to push Gerard’s bafflement to the background; he really liked hearing Frank say yes . . . he’d like it even more if things started making sense, though. “‘Yes’ to what? And … how did you get my number?”
The silence from the other line had sick, slippery apprehension win out every emotion that was battling inside Gerard. “Fuck,” Frank’s voice was small and sounded embarrassed. “Didn’t you leave that message with your number on the back of the receipt for dinner?”
“No, I didn’t even look at the receipt. Mikey was the one who pa– . . . oh.” Gerard squeezed his eyes shut and internally bemoaned meddling younger brothers.
“Ah, guess I got the wrong brother, huh.” Frank tried a forced chuckle before clearing his throat, “Sorry, uhm, just forget it.” Gerard could sense an imminent goodbye and imagined how different it would be if he allowed Frank to hang up the phone.
Don’t be an idiot.
Gerard said quickly, words speeding unthinkingly, “But if you are saying yes to what I think you’re agreeing to then yea, me too. I’d like to, too, I mean.”
A pause – It could have been a second’s pause or a minute’s, but it wasn’t too long that Gerard died of asphyxiation because he held his breath during the whole duration of that taut pause.
“And what would you like to do, Gerard?” Frank’s voice was soft and somehow had a smile hidden in its sound.
Gerard licked his lips, “I’d like to get to know you, and … take you out on a date?” He delivered a small smack to his forehead because he really should stop ending his sentences in question marks.
But Frank seemed to like it if his childish giggle was anything to go by. “Yea? Well, with that kind of delivery how could I say no?”
Gerard smiled, “You didn’t.”
It wasn’t the morning sunlight that woke Gerard up the next day, but the trilling sound that signaled he had a text message. The proof that last night wasn’t a pretty amazing lucid dream came from Frank’s name attached to a sent picture text message. He also noticed a text sent from Mikey earlier that morning.
He opened Mikey’s message first, deciding to relish the buzz of anticipation.
You can thank me with a lifetime supply of Starbucks … unless you were an idiot. In that case, you are disowned.
Gerard rolled his eyes; leave it to Mikey to sound smug even through text. He quickly tapped out a reply: Fuck you, lifetime supply of Starbucks.
As soon as he sent the text message to Mikey, he sent his brother a second text: I do owe you one though.
With that done, Gerard allowed himself to open Frank’s text.
At first, the attached picture did not make sense, but Gerard blames that on the lack of coffee. The picture was of a long, slip of white paper. The back of receipt, it struck him and on it was a message: If you’re interested, here’s my number and ten digits he recognized as his cell phone number followed in Mikey’s spidery handwriting. But below that message was another pair of words, these in simple, straight print, Frank’s.