February 17, 2003
Paying The Bill

Halfway through the chicken parmagiana, we hear a cell phone ring.

David and I look at each other. Is that us? I'm already reaching under the table for my purse before I realize that no, of course it isn't us: my cell phone is deader than Michael Jackson's career at the moment, thanks to a minor billing dispute with my podunk phone company. (*They* say I haven't paid them since December. *I* say they haven't presented me with an actual BILL since NOVEMBER. We are having some difficulty seeing eye-to-eye on this one.)  And David doesn't even own a cell phone, actually. Which means that the ringing phone must belong to a member of the creepy foursome seated at the table directly behind us.

I stop chewing for a moment so I can eavesdrop properly.

The ringing abruptly stops. I think it's the older woman who answers it -- the woman with the hula hoop earrings and the missing front teeth -- but I've got my back turned to their table, so I can't be 100% sure. I caught a glimpse of her and her dining companions as the waitress led them to their table earlier: a pair of slack-jawed Suburban Goth teenagers and a slightly older, slightly worn-looking couple in matching Oakland Raiders jackets. The four of them exuded a collective aura of menace and Marlboros, as they walked past our table. But it was the older guy -- one of those annoying, beefy little pit-bull guys, all "Fudk You" swagger and Budweiser sensibility -- who gave me a serious case of the creeps. 

He looked at me with those dead, angry eyes of his, and it was like he'd just stuck his tongue into my brain. 

I was hoping the waitress would seat them at one of the empty tables on the far side of the restaurant ... but no such luck. It's the Valentine's Day dinner rush, and we're all crowded together in this microscopic dining room like Altoids in a tin. The creepy group behind us has been fighting and cursing and bumping into the back of my chair for half an appetizer and most of an entree now.

Not exactly the quiet, intimate Valentine's Day dinner of my dreams ... but at least the chicken parmagiana is to die for.

The older woman mutters something dark and malevolent into the phone -- it sounds like "I warned you not to call us here" -- and then I hear her pass the phone over to her male companion. "It's for you," she says tersely. "Make it quick."

"Shut up," he replies.

I reach into the bread basket for the last sourdough roll. "Would you like to split this with me?" I ask David. He nods, his mouth already full of pesto and gorgonzola. I tear the roll in half and carefully spread both halves with a thin layer of butter, then hand him his half across the table.

"Thank you, honey," David says.

"You're welcome," I reply, and we smile at each other lovingly.

The older man grabs the phone away from his female companion. "Hey!" he shouts into the receiver. "Where the fudk you AT, man? She got your nuts in a LIPLOCK or something?" And he slams his schooner of beer down onto the tabletop, bursting into wild, ragged, crazy-guy laughter. Thus begins a loud, lengthy, mostly one-sided conversation, filled with enough off-color imagery and four-letter language to make an Osbourne blush.

"How's your chicken parmagiana?" David asks me politely, over the hubbub.

I smile. "It's incredible," I reply. "The sauce is perfect this time. How is your gnocchi?"

"It's very good," he says. "Would you like a bite?"

I clear off a space on one side of the ramekin, and David carefully deposits a spoonful of gnocchi next to my pasta and mixed vegetables. In return, I carve off a good-sized chunk of breaded chicken and marinara sauce and pass them across the table to him, feeding him directly from my fork.

"Delicious!" David beams. We scrinch up our noses, Meg Ryanlike, and make little kissy noises at each other.

Behind us, Idiot Cell Phone Guy is leaning back in his chair, spewing obscenities into the phone. "What the fudk you wanna do THAT for?" he says. "How the goddamn fudk you gonna fudking pay for THAT? You gonna start shitting MONEY?" As he's spewing, he leans back a quarter of an inch too far, and the back of his chair bumps into the back of my chair with a solid thunk ... not hard enough to knock either one of us over, but hard enough to jostle the soda glass I'm holding in my hand. Pepsi spills into my chicken parmagiana and on the sleeve of my tomato-red jacket. I glance over my shoulder -- more reflex than reproach, really: I just want to know if he's planning to bump into me again -- and for a split second I accidentally lock eyes with the girlfriend. Her face is pinched and angry-looking. A moment later, I hear her hissing at him to lower his voice ... that he's bothering the people at the next table.

"Hey!" the man snarls. "THEY don't pay my fudking PHONE BILLS, do they? Then they can just KISS MY ASS if they don't like it!"

Shocked silence descends across the tiny restaurant. All heads turn in our direction. David hands me a napkin so I can blot the spilled Pepsi off my sleeve.

"How about dessert?" he asks cheerfully. "Should we go for the tiramisu?"

I finish wiping up the spilled Pepsi, fold the napkin carefully and place it to one side of my plate, and pick up my dessert menu. I'm torn, frankly. I love the tiramisu here, but service has been kind of iffy tonight. It took the overwhelmed teenaged waitress almost twenty minutes just to bring us our appetizer and drinks, then another forty-five minutes to bring the entrees. I don't want to spend another hour and a half sitting here waiting for a simple dessert order to be processed. "I think maybe we should just go home and have some ice cream in bed," I say. "What do you think?"

David agrees. "That sounds great," he says, winking suggestively. And he starts looking around the crowded restaurant, hoping to catch the eye of our waitress.

Behind us, Idiot Cell Phone Guy concludes his phone conversation. "I'll call you later," he says. His voice has dropped by several decibels, but now he sounds sulky and defiant. "We're gonna eat now ... if the goddamned fudking FOOD ever gets here." He hangs up -- I hear the faint beep as the connection is severed -- and he slams the phone down on the table.

"Fudk you," he mutters. I have no idea to whom this is directed. I don't really care.

Fifteen minutes later, our bill has finally been negotiated, our leftover food styrofoamed and bagged, our candle extinguished. David helps me into my coat. "Thank you for dinner," he says, and he leans over and kisses me tenderly, right there in the middle of the restaurant.

"You're welcome," I reply. "Happy Valentine's Day."

Everybody at Idiot Cell Phone Guy's table is watching us: I can feel the heat of their eyes on us as we walk out the door, hand in hand. I don't look at them. I already know what I would see if I looked at him, anyway: that stoopidly defiant expression that all annoying beefy little pitbull guys wear when they think they're being challenged. Wanna go outside and DO something about it? Frankly ... I'm just not interested. It's Valentine's Day, and I've got much better things to do with the rest of my evening. With luck, I will have forgotten all about this silly little pitbull of a person in fifteen minutes. And if, by some chance, I haven't forgotten all about him in fifteen minutes ... I can always go home and call him Idiot Cell Phone Guy on my website.

He doesn't pay my ISP bill, after all. He can kiss my ass if he doesn't like it.

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~ nil bastardum carborundum ~

dizzy!! i'm so DIZZY, my head is spinnin'!!
[thanks, bev!]