Last week in my Kansas City Star column I wrote about a short story that was intended to cheer up a friend, but also helped me ignore that I had the flu and helped me to stop whining about it (if only for a little bit). In the column I had posted a small portion of the story, but here it is in its entirety. It really was a facebook conversation, and yes, I did plump it up a bit and made it more of a short story than it had originally been. Several people- including some Star readers which really tickled me to bits!- have asked to read it, so here it is. All the names have been changed, the characters really aren't even close to what my friend is like and she never did tell me the details about her strange date.
I opened the door and there was Clark. I had expected odd- I did know the man and had been discouraging such an evening for months. But I hadn’t expected this level of extraordinarily odd.
He was dressed from head-to-toe in orange. Hat to shoes. I’m not sure where he found an orange belt, I never got the nerve to ask. He looked like an OOmpah Loompah in a fun house mirror – the natural odd shape becoming a normal man shape. But that was Clark- even what appeared normal was not.
“Didn’t I tell you to wear orange?” he asked looking convincingly shocked. “I thought I made it clear,” his expression changing to sad.
“I’m sorry, Clark. I thought you were kidding with all the ‘orange you going to wear yellow and red together’ comments.”
His faced changed again to a look of hopefulness as handing me a bouquet of orange carnations. I really hate carnations. Ok, I’m snobby but they are a cheap flower and only get their color from dye so they are fake and cheap.
“Thank you, I’ll just get these in water and we can get going.” I reluctantly let him into the foyer as I hurried to the kitchen feverishly texting my friend Tammi:
TEXT ME AN EMERGENCY IN AN HOUR DO NOT ASK QUESTIONS JUST DO IT
When I came back into the living room Clark was sniffing my bookcase. Not the books – the wood, well, the composite wood. As I put the fake flowers on the fake wood I accepted not only that I was a hypocrite, but that I had to go through this date- if only for an hour. He was nice enough, right?
Clark was looking rather squiffy as he took one more hit off the top shelf and turned to face me. “Do you have an orange sweater or something Maybe a shrug?”
“Clark, no one…I mean I look horrible in orange. I don’t have anything. Why is this so important?”
“Orange is the color of joy and friendship in Lithuania,” he sure sounded convincing. “We would match and have a great inside joke forever if we were both wearing orange. Then, on our honeymoon, we could go to Lithuania. Only then we would wear green because that is the color of love.” He paused and made a face that probably was supposed to make him look sexy, only it really made him look pained. “Or puce which is the color of fertility.”
I should have made up something right then and there, or told him the truth: I wasn’t interested in him and only agreed to this date to show him how incompatible we really are- but I didn’t. Instead I grabbed my blue coat- hoping that it wasn’t the color for Ravish Me and lead him out the door.
Little did I know that this was the least strange thing that would happen that evening.
“I haven’t seen one of these in years,” I told him as he opened the door to the old white car with wood-esque paneling on the exterior, “I thought they all died out.”
He began to sing, “Chevy Chevette it will drive you happy…” and silenced himself as he closed me into his car, seeming to whistle as he rounded the hood. Strapping myself in, I glanced in the back seat and took a big sniff.
“What is that smell, it’s so familiar.” I asked as he whistled himself behind the wheel.
“Lavender and vanilla. I mix the potpourri myself, grew the lavender, too. Is it too much? I just put a new sachet in the backseat yesterday.”
“No, it’s nice. And this car is so clean, did you have it detailed, too?” I wondered how out of his way he had gone for this date that was only going to last one hour. One hour, Nikki, ONE HOUR, I told myself.
“Oh, no. I keep Chelly in mint condition. I love her and she loves me back. Lovin’ each other since 1981.” He caressed the dash.
Dear God, he named his car. I have a theory about guys who name their cars and it isn’t a good one. Tammi could not text me fast enough.
“Where are we headed, or did I miss that in our conversation, too?” I asked as he checked his rearview from all angles times and finally pulled out into the deserted street.
“No, I didn’t say. It’s a surprise, you’ll love it.” He pushed an 8-track into the player, “I hope you like ELO,” he said as he started to sing along with the music, looking over at me and karaoke-ing from the driver seat.
“The visions dancing in my mind, the early dawn the shades of time…”
“I have never heard this song in my life,” I told him.
“Really? ELO? Twilight?”
“Nope. “ I answered as he turned down one side street after another. I had lived in this town for ten years and he had me lost in less than two minutes.
“Where were you in 1981?” He asked it like it was a very important question, like what religion I am or if I ate meat.
“Ahh,” he nodded and sang along with the chorus. I stared at him waiting for him to finish.
“Ahh?” I finally asked.
“Ahh, Chelly. She wasn’t there with us,” he leaned in and spoke into the steering wheel. Names his car and talks to her…er, it. I glanced at the clock on the dash. 45 minutes until Tammi got me out of this.
He continued to sing along with ELO for two more, stopping only to ask me random questions:
What my first concert? (Corey Hart, but I lied and told him Cyndi Lauper which was a close second, sorta)
What would have been the major I would have least chosen in college? (Engineering. I suck at math.)
What color is my bathroom? (Purple, but I told him it was none of his business. Which it isn’t.)
Finally he pulled behind a strip mall that I thought I recognized and parked the car in a lot that was surprisingly full.
“Where are we? This isn’t a strip club or something is it?” I grabbed my purse tightly.
“No, of course not. I don’t just talk the talk at church, you know.” He looked hurt.
“I’m sorry. Where are we?”
He hopped out of the car, indicating with his finger to wait a moment, “All will be revealed. You’ll love it.”
“It’s not some weirdo hookah lounge is it?”
“Hush. I won’t spoil the surprise,” he answered as he closed his door and ran, no, he skipped- as he skipped around to open my door and help me out. With a flourish he bowed and offered his arm, which I reluctantly took because I figured if this was some sort of trap I could use him as a shield.
We walked to a door that was blackened from the inside and he pulled it open. The wave of warm air that washed over me smelled like exotic spices, soft jazz played in the background.
“After you,” he bowed again. I wished he would stop with the stupid bowing.
I took a few hesitant steps in, letting my eyes adjust to the low light.
A voice from beside me asked, “Hello, do you have a reservation?” I turned and saw a middle aged woman wearing a white peasant blouse and black slacks.
“Several,” I said.
“Kenneth, Clark Kenneth.” Came the answer from behind me.
“CLARK!” And then something that sounded like, “Labas vakaras!” I spun to see a round and tall man barreling our way. I stepped out of his line of fire and behind Clark.
“Mike!” And then something that sounded like “Labas! Malonu tave matyti!” The two hugged. But not Bro-hugs of the guys I know, and not romantic hugs, either- but hugs of two people who have been through a lot and love each other because of it.
I’m sort of an expert on hugs. Don’t judge.
“Who is this lovely woman?” The man asked. His voice had some sort of accent that I couldn’t place, maybe Eastern European, maybe Greek?
Clark put his hand on the small of my back and pushed me forward, “This is Nikki. Nikki I would like you to meet my good friend, Mykolas, he is the owner of this place- Little Lithuania!”
The very large man with a grey handlebar moustache stuck out his beefy hand, “Call me Mike, everyone does. Welcome.”
He turned to talk to the women who had greeted us only it was more rapid fire words in a language that I didn’t understand. Clark leaned in, “He’s getting us the best table.”
“How do you know him, this place?”
Clark winked, “Oh, I get around.”
Mike smiled big at us, “Follow Rasa, she will take good care of you. I must go put a fire out in the kitchen.” he smiled and continued with his heavy accent, “Not real fire.” And then he laughed a laugh as big as he was as he walked away.
The restaurant was nicer than I would have imagined based on the location. Yes, ok, I’m a snob. There I said it, are you happy? Tastefully decorated in what I could best describe as Scandanavian modern- polished woods with complex grains, sleek lines and a lot of white- lighting, tablecloths, candles, walls, artwork- it was very pretty. Rasa seated us on a dais that held three small, square tables. The table was set with three square vases that held tight bunches of orange carnations. I made a mental note to do this with the ones that Clark had brought.
Clark held my chair for me, then settled into his own across the table.
“Rasa, might we have two Svyturys?” Rasa nodded and headed off towards the large bar on the far side of the restaurant. “I hope you like beer, this one is my favorite.”
“I do. Hey, Clark, orange carnations. They must want us to be joyful and friendly,” I said as I put my linen napkin in my lap and settled my cellphone next to the water glass.
Clark’s smile faded.
“What? Isn’t that what you told me?”
“Yes,” he lowered his head, “but I made it up. I knew they put orange on the tables on Saturdays and I wanted you to match. I thought it would be a nice surprise for Mike.”
I figured that wasn't as odd as anything else he had done tonight so I let it pass. Besides, I was waiting for a fake emergency text. I may be a snob, but I had already learned that night not to be a hypocrite.
Rasa brought our beers, while Clark told me about the heritage of beer brewing in Lithuania, and some other things about the country.
“Are you Lithuanian?” I finally asked him.
“Oh, no, I’m a mutt. But I have been there, it is a beautiful country. I met Mike there, helped him come here and open this place. He loves America and Rasa is his wife that he met once he came here- they have three kids- natural US citizens. He loves it here- but he loves his homeland, too.”
As he prattled on about the places he had been on his several trips, my phone buzzed with a text from Tammi:
Where R U? Emergency.
I picked it up and made a decision as Clark stopped talking and gave me a saddened and worried look.
I held up a pointer finger, “It’s nothing, just let me tell her I’m busy.”
Little Lithuania. No help.
I quickly typed and put my phone back into my purse. At that point I figured that one meal, one evening with Clark wasn’t going to kill me. I might get a decent dinner out of it, learn something and then at the end I could tell him we had no sparks. Clark was a nice guy, a little odd but he had a big heart. Maybe going out with me would give him the confidence to ask other women out.
Over the course of the next hour, I would drink another beer, discover that pink borscht isn’t as Pepto tasting as it looks. I learned about Gira -a surprisingly refreshing drink that hides a little wallop of alcohol-is made from rye bread, and that my new favorite food is Bulviniai blynai- basically a potato pancake with a name that despite all the liquor, I couldn’t pronounce. It was a dinner full of dark bread, potatoes, mushrooms and cheeses…and it was amazing. I tried not to think about how many miles I would have to run to work it off.
Near the end of our dinner, a band set up at the rear of the small dance floor. The tables closest were moved back, and the wait staff reconfigured that part of the dining area to create more dance space. Two women took out and tuned violins, or maybe they were fiddles. One man strapped on a small accordion, one set a table of percussion instruments and the final member uncased his bass fiddle. The jazz that had been playing through dinner was turned off as the band began with what Clark told me are traditional folk songs.
“But they can play anything, I’m sure as soon as things get hopping in here, we’ll hear Free Bird.” He told me sipping his coffee.
“Are you making that up, too?” I asked.
He blushed, “No, they will.” He turned toward the kitchen and the smile returned to his face. “Here comes part of the show!”
Three waiters came out of the kitchen carrying trays that held cakes that looked like pine trees covered in snow. Everyone in the restaurant turned to watch the spectacle and applauded when they were placed on a long table near the band. Following them out of the kitchen were several more wait staff and Mike carrying trays of pastries.
“What is that?” I asked.
“Lithuanian tree cake. It’s a tradition, usually at weddings, but the cake is hollow and made on a spit in the oven. Layer by layer the batter is dripped over and cooked. It takes hours and Mike serves them every Saturday night on the dessert bar. He says it’s a good way to get people out of their seats and onto the dance floor.”
As I was admiring the dessert spread, a burst of activity by the hostess stand caught my eye.
She spotted me, pushed Rasa aside and ran over.
“Are you okay?” She asked as she got to our table, eyeing Clark suspiciously.
“What are you doing here?” I asked. Tammi looked really scared, but ready for a fight. Which is one of the things I love most about her- she’s scrappy and tough, and really a loyal friend.
Clark stood up, “Hi?”
Tammi cocked an eye at me, “Who is this? Didn't you get my texts?”
“I did. I answered you,” I didn't want to have to say anymore out loud and hurt Clark’s feelings, “I’m fine. There isn’t anything I needed.”
Tammi was having none of it.
“You said. Help.”
“I said ‘no help.’” I corrected her. I wanted to whisper but the music was too loud, she never would have heard me.
Tammi dug her phone out, “No, you said to make an emergency and then I did and you told me where you were- which, hello? I have never been here or even heard of it before and it was hard to find although it’s kinda cool- then you said…” she scrolled through her texts and read aloud, “Little Lithuania. No help. Shit.”
“Shit.” I agreed.
“I’m so sorry!” She dropped her fighting face, “I guess I didn't read it right.” Then she stuck her hand out towards Clark, “Hi. I’m Tammi. I thought I was saving Nikki from a bad date, but instead I am totally embarrassed.”
The other thing about Tammi? No filter.
Clark shook her hand then dragged an empty chair to the table and smooshed it on a corner, “Well, you are here now. Sit down, the fun is about to start.”
I just looked at him, “That’s it? I’m so sorry Clark…” I began but he put his hand up.
“It’s okay. You are not the first woman to fake an emergency to get out of a date with me. I know you didn’t want to come and I realized about three minutes in at your house that this wasn't going to be romance for us, but I thought it would be fun. And it has been. If I spend the rest of my evening with two beautiful women eating pastries and dancing then I will consider my evening a success.”
“Hey!” Said Tammi pointing back and forth between her and Clark. “We match! And we match the flowers on the table. I put this dress on- even though I know that Nikki says no one looks good in orange because it makes me happy. Joyful. It makes me feel like dancing! What is this music? I love it!”
In that moment I realized three things.
One: Some people do look good in orange.
Two: I judge people based on the most ridiculous, superficial reasons. That night I learned not to.
Three: That someday I would be standing here, giving quite possible the longest wedding toast in the history of Maid of Honors and toasting the two most wonderful and amazing people that I have had the pleasure to love and who love me back.
To Clark and Tammi- God bless your marriage, all of us here today wish you many long years! Buk sveika!