By Brendan Kiley
I don't know quite how to begin. A few years ago, I proposed to my girlfriend over a candlelit dinner. In fact, it was possible that we were already sorta-kinda engaged. Certain sentiments had been exchanged a few nights earlier in a tattered thatched hut on a Caribbean beach. But it was a chaotic moment, not exactly binding, and certainly not the kind of we-got-engaged! story you'd go home and tell your parents. Plus, we hadn't really talked about it in the days since. Maybe she'd regretted it. Maybe it didn't even count. A real-deal proposal, a walk out onto the tightrope to ask a simple yes-or-no question—a moment filled with wild hope and vertiginous fear—was required.
I quickly dropped the idea of a ring. A ring seemed too small, too token (even an expensive one), and she'd look marvelous in a string of pearls. I'd always thought her skin had a slightly pearlescent, iridescent quality, white with a flush of darkness and color beneath that changed subtly depending on the light and the angle.
When we first started seeing each other, we spent many hours at Cafe Presse eating oysters served on crystalline beds of rock salt. "Oysters are iridescent," I thought to myself. "Rock-salt crystals are a little iridescent, too. And aren't relationships iridescent in their way? The material is essentially the same but looks different depending on the light of circumstances and the angle of perspective." My increasingly fevered, proposal-minded brain was probably overheating—and overreaching—but the images were starting to come together: her skin, pearls, oysters, a relationship. A study in iridescence.
I spent the better part of a day agonizing over pearl necklaces in various jewelry shops, so clearly out of place that I was followed closely and questioned repeatedly by store clerks and security guards. (For what it's worth, jewelry-shop owners of Seattle, I wound up plunking my money down at a relaxed place where I had the breathing room to concentrate on the luster of various pearls instead of being accosted by employees.) I casually suggested to her over e-mail—I thought my voice might give me away—that it had been too long since we'd been to Presse. Why not have dinner there tonight? She agreed.
Then I hurried to the cafe and explained my plan: I'd give them the agonized-over necklace, come back at a certain hour with a certain lady-friend, and order a dozen oysters and champagne. They'd lace the necklace around the shells, over the rock salt, and bring it nonchalantly to the table. In the middle of my explanation, I caught a glint of eagerness in one of the staffers' eyes. I was inadvertently creating an audience for the evening.
The proposal was hours away, but I'd already taken my first few steps down the tightrope.
We arrived a few hours later and were shown to a table in the back room. As we settled in, two old out-of-town friends—a playwright and a comedian/musician from New York—were just getting settled at their table, practically next to us. I quietly and hurriedly explained that while we'd like to catch up, we needed a little privacy. If I remember correctly, I hinted that they should maybe sit a little farther away. I hoped that didn't sound too weird.
One of the staffers I'd met earlier that day came by. (Were her eyes too full of intrigue? Was she giving it all away?) My about-to-be-proposed-to dinner companion promptly ordered oysters and champagne. Either she'd been tipped off or this was a nice touch of luck. Either way, I'd take it.
The oysters arrived, pearls among the shells. Her eyes asked: "What is this?" I asked: "Will you marry me?" She said yes. We lifted ourselves off our chairs and kissed across the table.
We must've ordered more food and eaten dinner. But neither of us can remember much beyond the word "yes."
By Ansel Herz
I walked through Sea-Tac International Airport sleep-deprived, sweaty, and nervous. It was spring, and I'd just flown in from Haiti, by way of LAX, where I'd spent an awkward night sleeping in the airport. I'd been in Haiti reporting on politics and aid when an earthquake struck—in January 2010—pretty much destroying the country's capital city. I stuck around to cover the earthquake's aftermath.
An old friend of mine (let's call her R) called the state department and pretended to be my sister to find out if I'd survived. (They released information only to family members.) I learned this from her later, over Skype. We had mutual crushes on each other from back in the day, and it was finally dawning on us that we cared enough about each other that we should try dating. She picked me up at the airport, and after a few nights together, I wanted to do something romantic, something to counterbalance the image of the sweaty, dusty guy walking out of the airport. The only thing I could think of—I'd been away from Seattle for years and had never been atop its most famous landmark—was dinner at the Space Needle.
Pretty touristy, right? I didn't care. As darkness fell, I drove up and handed the keys to the valet like a boss. We zoomed up in the elevator.
And the view was awesome. But then they seated us away from the window. I raised hell and they moved us. Through the clear glass, the city sparkled and spun slowly around us. Because the restaurant actually spins!
"We were right up against the window, so that was cool," R remembers. "You were being all sappy-faced." Both of us remember playing footsie under the table, but not what we talked about. Time flew, and before we knew it, the restaurant was closing. "We were one of the last ones to leave," R says. "And on our way out, you saw this exit sign. I didn't really have time to be like, 'This is not a good idea.'"
I grabbed her hand, and we dashed through the exit door—exiting up. The stairway led to the observation deck. Normally it's packed with gawking tourists, but at this hour, it was just us. On top of the Space Needle. Us and the fresh night air swirling around. The city's late-night noises, its twinkling lights. The night suddenly felt extra special.
A security guard approached to say it was after hours and the observation deck was off-limits. We pleaded with him for a few minutes. He smiled and walked away. We looked at each other and laughed. "We ran around the observation deck and made out a few times," R remembers, blushing. It was exhilarating.
We've been together since. I don't know how I'll top that night when I propose. But I'll think of—or maybe I'll just improvise—something.
By Ellen Forney
By Bethany Jean Clement
We awoke early to what sounded like someone hammering forcefully on the cabin's front door. We'd arrived late, in the cold and quiet night, and failed to notice the foundation of the motel-to-be 10 feet north of us; construction was beginning, right there, at seven a.m. on Saturday.
We put pillows over our heads. A pillow is powerless against insistent, very nearby hammering. After a while, we got up.
The Washington Coast is its best self in the winter: the diffused light, the gradations of gray, the spuming, relentless surf that would freeze you in a minute. It wasn't raining, and we walked down the beach and back again, looking at kelp and shells and driftwood and the other cabins we could've been staying in that were farther from the construction. Lumpy sea stacks of rocks with firs growing on their backs stood out in the water. It appeared that we were the only ones there.
The tiny town of La Push also seemed nearly deserted. The Quileute Tribe, upon whose land we walked, had only recently become famous because of the Twilight series; the new motel would house the coming onslaught of vampire-and-werewolf enthusiasts. We looked around the docks, then found one open store, its shelves sparsely populated, and we asked the man if there was a place to buy some crabs. Or did we ask the lady we talked to who was standing on her porch? Neither of us can remember now. In any case, someone said sure, just walk down to the docks around 3:30 that afternoon—we'd see the boats coming in, they said—and we could get them right there. Bring a box or a bag, they said.
We walked back to the cabin to warm up, and we waited, reading and looking out the window. Then we went back to where the tribal fishermen were now unloading immense open-topped containers teeming with Dungeness crabs. After watching a while, we shouted, could we please buy a few? Sure, one man said. Twenty dollars for three. Aw, give them four, another said, so he did.
Four big Dungeness crabs in a paper grocery bag are calmer than you'd think, but still exciting to carry.
We put them, bag and all, in the fridge, and as soon as night fell—about an hour later—we boiled a big pot of water and cooked all four. We melted an unconscionable amount of butter, covered the cabin's little table with newspapers, and lit the candles we'd brought. The window looked out onto the beach, but it was so pitch-black, we couldn't see anything but our flickering reflection. We ate crab, united in concentration and messiness and glee, until we could not eat any more. It tasted like the first sweet smell of the freezing cold wintertime waves when you get out of the car on the coast in the night.
After the feast, we put our coats and boots on and went back outside to walk some more in the dark, and we said I love you for the first time. The next morning, there was no construction, and we made crab omelets, and it was still the best crab we've ever had.
By Tina Rowley
Eight months after our first child was born, my husband and I attempted to go to the movies. We'd been gazing longingly at Casino Royale movie times in the paper since its release. Not only were we planted in baby world 24/7, but we were living at my mom's house—effectively erasing every adult feeling from our lives. We hadn't gone on a date in six months. By this point, we were dreaming of seeing Casino Royale like the Three Sisters dreamed of going to Moscow. My mom, whose babysitting philosophy was less "You kids have fun!" than it was "Ticktock, motherfuckers," agreed to look after the baby. Here's how our date unfolded:
4 p.m.: The movie is downtown at 4:40. We should leave the house. By 4:20 p.m., we do.
4:30 p.m.: Traffic. Adrift in a sea of taillights. Commercials! Previews! We'll make it.
4:45 p.m.: No, we won't.
4:48 p.m.: It's playing in Ballard! To Ballard! Oh, it isn't until 6:45. But wait, look! It's playing at the Big Picture at 5:30! Burn rubber!
5:17 p.m.: It's playing at the Big Picture at 5:30 on Friday. Today is Thursday.
5:18 p.m.: Unprintable
5:19 p.m.: Fine. We'll go downtown and get dinner. We're an hour into our driving date. Just drivin'.
5:30 p.m.: I'm tired of driving. I make a lazy turn and bang into a curb. Whatever.
5:37 p.m.: We're in Fremont. Bored! Dave! Feel me up at this traffic light! This is a date, damn it! It's loud driving over the Fremont Bridge. It's weird and shaky. This is some weird work they're doing on the bridge.
5:42 p.m.: Flat tire. Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuu-uuuuuuuuck.
5:43 p.m.: We pull over on Dexter. How do we get the spare tire out of the thing? From 5:44 to 6:05 p.m., we read the Toyota manual page by page.
6:06 p.m.: "It says loosen the nut. Then loosen the bolt."
6:20 p.m.: Sweet god, it's cold. Didn't wear a coat on the date. Dave is changing the tire while I spaz out for warmth. There goes hour two. Ticktock, motherfuckers.
6:45 p.m.: We're at Pacific Place. We let ourselves eat upstairs at the fancy half of Il Fornaio because of struggle.
6:47 p.m.: "Would you two be interested in sitting at our Table of Honor? We pick people randomly each night to sit at a special table and the chef sends out some nice extras and the service is particularly attentive."
6:48 p.m.: Dave and I jab each other in disbelief as we are led to the Table of Honor.
6:49 p.m.: Now this is a date. Being at the Table of Honor is a bit like being a guest judge on Iron Chef. Please enjoy this surprise crab cake on its lobster and balsamic reduction. The Dessert of Honor is zabaglione. No lie: "the Dessert of Honor." Dave and I imagine ourselves visiting all the regular tables and introducing ourselves: "Hi, we're Tina and Dave from the Table of Honor. We had some downtime in between amuse-bouches, and we thought we should say hello. Oh, you just have one kind of bread? I bet you're still going to have a great time. Sorry if we seem disoriented. We're just used to looking at our red tablecloth. Your tablecloth is so blindingly white. The tablecloth at the Table of Honor is red. Oops, here come some Olives of Honor. We have to run."
8:45 p.m.: We drive home slowly on our spare tire.
By Emily Nokes
Early in life, I learned that eating before going out to dinner was often helpful, and that sometimes you have to push your food around for the ones you care about. The disappointed comments are constant: "You don't like ASPARAGUS? But ASPARAGUS is so GOOD!" "You don't eat MEAT? Then what DO you EAT?" "How could you not like EGGPLANT?" "MAYONNAISE IS GOOD." "EVERYONE LIKES RANCH."
Once I realized you could just tell a person you were vegetarian, I still felt like I needed to downplay it so people would not, oh my god please not, make a big deal out of it. Nothing makes you feel more horrible than when a kind soul goes way out of their way at their big fun barbecue to make you, and only you, a fake-turducken-burger deluxe. Whoa, no. My face turns red, my ears are hot, and I really don't want to tell you that since I have never had meat, the fake version of it is equally unappetizing. As for going out to restaurants, I truly enjoy the appetizers and salads and baskets of bread, but someone somewhere had the idea that expensive equals romantic, and expensive equals meat, so vegetarian equals not romantic. When a prom date took me to a restaurant without a single vegetarian item on the menu, not even the salad, I proposed spending whatever amount of money he was allotting for my dinner by ordering every single dessert on the menu. He was not impressed and mumbled that steak dinner was one of the reasons "to even go to fuckin' prom." He sucked.
These days, I'm much less picky—plus it's never been cooler to have eating boundaries (me? Why, yes, I eat gluten! So much gluten! Thank you for asking!)—but when a person I was reaaally swooning on announced that he was making me dinner, my stomach still started doing somersaults. Since I was already on my way over, it was too late to suggest we just eat the Skittles I had in my purse. "I made you something you'll love! It's perfectly simple! I call it PEASANT FOOD!" he said excitedly when I got there, flinging open a pot filled simply with spaghetti, garlic, and salt. I almost cried from happiness. Now I am married to this person—this person whose food preferences place him squarely in the "I'll eat anything" category (he is from Chicago, after all, the land of meat wrapped in other meat dipped in ranch and rolled in mayo). But he'll happily split the vegan chow mein with me at Moonlight Cafe—a picky-paradise spot with a vast meatless menu. Moonlight is situated in an extremely beige building across from the scenic Franz bread factory on Jackson Street; its sign proudly states KARAOKE & DANCING, though I'm fairly certain there has never been anything resembling karaoke or dancing inside. The decor is 1980s tropical (as in, the dusty fake tropical plants and neon-light squiggles on the wall have most likely been there since the '80s), and the service is often as personable as a speeding ticket, but it's the most romantic meal ever. Just me and someone who's developed a taste for imitation beef for me. Swoon.
By Danielle Henderson
The most romantic meal I ever had was born of rage, just like the rest of my love life. In 2009, I was a 31-year-old college student living in England for my required semester abroad, and the only thing that kept me sane while I was living with teenagers was the trip to Paris, Bruges, and Amsterdam I'd be taking that December with my boyfriend. Neither of us had ever traveled in Europe, and we were really goddamn excited to see some spooky underground skull catacombs and throw macarons from the top of the Eiffel Tower.
The Eurostar train system had another idea—for the first time ever, it was stuck in the damn tunnel due to inclement weather, and no one was going anywhere for the foreseeable future. I was pissed. Paris was the gateway to a two-week journey that had kept me from murdering drunk, loud teenagers for the last three months, and now we couldn't get there! My boyfriend and I silently rolled our luggage back to my dorm room and decided to get some food.
We walked into town and went to a pie shop I liked. It was full of high-backed wooden benches and narrow aisles; it smelled like a warm loaf of bread, and you could feel the steam from the kitchen settle on your skin like a damp cloth. We sat on a bench outside eating our delicious pies—my steak and onion mixed in a thick, salty gravy, a stolen bite from his pork and apple pie was a hot mix of sweet and savory goodness. Hating everything. Hating everything about the fact that we were not rocketing under the sea toward France. I think one of us broke the angry ice by saying, "How's that not-in-Paris pie?" or something, and we laughed, watching people walk by on the street. With every bite, we laughed and released a little rage on the good people of England. "Hey, look at that not-at-all-Dutch couple" and "That guy looks like he could persuade his way into Belgium, let's follow him!"
The night ended up being a lot of fun. We got drunk on cider at a pub, walked to a movie theater and yelled at the screen while watching Avatar, a shitty time-killing movie we never wanted to see anyway, and held hands a lot as we walked around the brick-lined streets of Reading. We never threw macarons from the Eiffel Tower, but after I sobered up and got cheap plane tickets to Paris the next day, my eighth-grade French got us the most amazing coq au vin, herbed Brie, and bakery treats from this shop around the corner from where we stayed. And I eventually married my boyfriend, because how you hate together is as important as how you love.
By Kelly O
I once went on a date with a beautiful Spaniard. He was tall and had long black hair and big dark eyes. He was a bartender and a painter. He studied fine arts, and I was studying graphic design. When he asked me on a date, I was impressed, because the fine-arts students were rarely ever seen slumming with the graphic designers.
We went for Italian food. Candles, red wine in those wicker thingies, the whole shebang. He looked so hot in the low lighting, I could barely concentrate. The tops of my ears were burning, and my lady parts were starting to tingle.
With his accent, he could read a recipe off the back of a Hamburger Helper box and it would sound like poetry. We ordered food. He asked me about my favorite painters. Did I prefer Gauguin or Cézanne? What were my personal theories on the Postimpressionists? I started to get nervous because every one of my answers was wrong.
I scanned the room, and my own brain, for a new topic of conversation. At this moment, two obviously inebriated guys, holding each other up, loudly stumbled into the restaurant.
I laughed and said, "Those guys look like living versions of those cartoons, Beavis and Butt-head!"
"Gross," the Spaniard said. "That show is STUPID."
"I dunno, I think it's kinda funny," I said.
Then one of the drunkards knocked into a table, tipping over a lit candle into some paper napkins.
"FIRE, FIRE! Heh-heh, heh-heh!" I said in my best Beavis voice.
The Spaniard said, "Don't ever, EVER, do that again in my presence ever again."
"You know," I said, smiling and touching his hand, "I think I need to find the restroom."
I took my purse and went out the back door of the restaurant, never looking back. Fuck that guy. I bet he works at a car wash now.
By Anna Minard
When I was 16, I went on what I think must've been my first "romantic dinner" date. It was Valentine's Day; my high-school boyfriend and I considered going out to a restaurant mandatory. I wore a ridiculously tiny dress handed down from my older sister, which caused my dad to short-circuit and become a sitcom dad. (Seriously: I came downstairs, and he took one look at my outfit and went into the other room without speaking, returning with his own full-length black wool coat. "You're wearing this," he said. "Don't take it off.") My date and I went to the restaurant to play-act adulthood, which was awkward for kids who spent most of their time hanging out in public parks, reading books, and making out. What do you do with the napkin? What could you order that wouldn't be embarrassing to eat? It went fine, but it was not a particularly romantic experience.
Adulthood hasn't been that much different. The dinners that are supposed to be special, the expensive ones, the ones with candles and someone else grinding your pepper—for me, they're just really weird. It can feel like dress-up romance. And going out to dinner can sometimes cover up for a scarcity of actual affection. Treat you like shit, take you to a restaurant, everything becomes okay because of breadsticks? That is not a math equation I would like to participate in, thanks. So I've learned to care very little for the trappings of romance and a hell of a lot for small acts of mundane, everyday love—which, it turns out, are harder to come by.
Then, suddenly, in my life, a dude appeared who made all other dudes inconsequential. And no dinner, on any continent or planet, could ever be more romantic to me than this person spending four hours cooking me dinner at our own house, stopping every once in a while to offer tastes and shout things like "I love cooking for you!"
Keep your candlelight and valentines, and give me no other date for the rest of my life than this man making me a vast bucket of gumbo without me ever leaving the couch. This gumbo—dear god, this food—is recipe-free and unnaturally delicious, inspired by childhood memories of his New Orleanian godparents' Thanksgiving entrée. Spicy and rich and god knows what is even in there—sausage, shrimp, all the vegetables ever invented, some spices that I don't understand.
What's in there is bigger than that. What's in there is an act of love that no expensive restaurant bill can touch—plus, we get to sit on the couch in PJs watching nature shows together and wiping our hands on paper towels. Homemade meals, from the most wholesome, kind person I've ever loved, feel like a promise and a reminder of the everyday love, the non-romance of partnership and goofing off and small caretaking. Sometimes, sitting quietly at my desk eating the leftovers, I think all these things and tear up a bit.
Microwaved gumbo that makes you cry at work? Fucking romantic, that's what I say.