As the Maitre ‘D walked the two couples to their table, Jack took a quick glance around the restaurant, admiring the fancy marble decor and the classic red and white plaid tablecloths common in so many Italian restaurants. The place was packed full on this Saturday evening, alive with big laughter and big city life and Jack felt way too young to be in here.
“God damn, Jack Diamond, it’s so great to see you again” Eddie exclaimed as the four of them settled into their chairs. The table was small but was near the street and had a nice view as hundreds of people strolled by enjoying the warm summer evening, as hurried drivers honked their horns at the endless street traffic and as digital fare meters ticked away dollar after dollar inside the bright yellow cabs carrying passengers from somewhere to somewhere else.
“What’s it been, nine or ten years since we saw each other last?” Eddie asked. “Jack, you haven’t changed a bit, well, other than being a lot bigger and taller than I remember!”
“Well it was the summer after I finished third grade and you both finished fourth, that my family moved to Indiana” Jack answered. “So however many years that is. I’ve never been that great at math. I’ll tell you though, I’ll never forget the night my Dad pulled us all aside and told us he was being relocated.”
“I’ll never forget the day on the playground that you told me you were moving” Eddie added.
Jack turned and looked over at Eddie’s beautiful wife Brenda. He could still remember how all the boys were madly in love with her back in elementary school, at least as much as adolescent boys knew what being in love meant. It was Eddie who eventually scored the big fish.
“Damn girl, you still look as good as you did in third grade!” Jack said with a smirk.
“Oh, you always were a charmer” Brenda answered in her thick New York accent. “You were shy, but definitely a charmer. So tell us about this beautiful girl you have with you.”
Jack turned and smiled at Diane.
“Well, this is Diane” he began. “She and I met, literally the first day in our new neighborhood. She lived two houses down from our new house and the first day we were there, while unpacking the truck, she came over and introduced herself to me. I’d never have had the nerve to talk to a girl when I was that age. But she made it happen, and as they say, I guess the rest is history!”
The conversation was interrupted as a tall, handsome waiter dressed in traditional black and white approached the table. He spoke with a thick Italian accent.
“Ciao, Mr. and Mrs. Pasquale, it’s nice to see you again. Ms. Brenda, you’re looking as stunning tonight as always.”
He turned to the two new guests at the table and introduced himself.
“Ciao, my friends, welcome to Fontana di Trevi Restaurant, my name is Antonio and I’ll be taking care of your table tonight. You must have good taste in friends if you come in with the Pasquale’s.
Eddie chimed in.
“Antonio, this is Jack Diamond and his good friend Diane Jones. Jack used to live in the neighborhood, but his family moved to Indiana many years ago. We were best buddies way back then, but we haven’t seen each other in years. Jack and Diane are going to school at Rutgers this fall. Jack’s gonna be a big football star there!”
“Well, welcome to Fontana di Trevi” Antonio said with a warm, bright smile.
He turned to Brenda.
“Can I start you with a bottle of wine, Mrs. Pasquale? Red or white tonight? Or perhaps a bottle of Rosé instead?”
Without reviewing the wine list or taking any suggestions from the other guests Brenda ordered from memory a mid-priced bottle of Cabernet and a second, more costly bottle of Chardonnay, both from California.
“Kind of expensive choices don’t you think?” Eddie mumbled.
“This is a special night, we need to treat our friends to some upscale city life tonight” she said, defending her choices.
“Anyway, you were saying?” Eddie continued, changing the subject and encouraging Jack to continue his story.
“Yeah, so we were really just friends for a few years” he began again. “But then, what was it about seventh grade that we started dating?” he asked Diane.
“Yeah, it was seventh grade” she answered. “I had to ask HIM out THEN too” she said with a smirk. “But we’ve been best friends ever since, just two American kids growing up in the heartland.”
“And so, Jack, you’re gonna be playing football at Rutgers, huh?” Brenda asked. “Well hopefully now that you’re closer we’ll be able to see you more often.”
“Yeah, they gave me a nice scholarship” Jack replied. “I took a year at the community college, pretty much had just given up on football. That’s what people do there in small town Indiana, graduate from High School, maybe get an Associate’s degree, then go work at a factory or one of the seed processing plants. But then one day the coach at Indiana University called me and asked if I might reconsider playing Division One football. So I started to think about it again and I was getting ready to commit to going to IU. You know, it would have been close to home, but I guess Rutgers wanted me because they called a couple of months later and had their check book wide open. So I chose Rutgers and somehow I talked Diane into following me here to the east coast. I honestly wasn’t sure if she’d ever left Indiana!”
“That’s not true!” Diane argued, laughing at herself and her small town upbringing.
“So, enough about us”, Jack said, changing the topic. “How are you guys doing, fresh from declaring your vows, what was it two, maybe three weeks ago? By the way sorry I missed it, I’ve been buried with football training, plus Diane and I getting moved into our new apartment. It’s been a pretty hectic couple months.”
“It’s alright, it was mostly just our close families” Eddie replied. “It was quick and we didn’t give people a whole lot of notice. But we’re doing okay. It’s expensive, but we’ve got a nice little place in the neighborhood and I’ve been working at the local machine shop since I graduated. We’re just trying to make it work. You know, money’s been a little bit tight but we’ll be fine.”
We’re survivors right?” Eddie continued, glancing at Brenda with an unconvincing smile.
A brief moment of uncomfortable silence was thankfully interrupted as Antonio approached the table with the two bottles of wine. He skillfully and delicately cranked the corkscrew into the corks, then used the lever to extract each and set the bottles on the table.
“No need to taste” Brenda offered. “I know these are perfect choices as we celebrate reconnecting with old friends tonight. Go ahead and fill us up.”
Antonio glanced towards Diane.
“Red or white Ms. Jones?”
“White please” Diane answered.
“And for you Mr. Diamond?” Antonio asked while filling Diane’s glass.
“Red please” Jack replied.
“This place sure is nicer than the Tastee Freeze that Diane and I used to eat at back home” Jack joked. “Six pack of cheap beer and a couple Chili dogs is typically our meal of choice.”
“Sounds delicious” Eddie exclaimed, “kind of like Brenda and my old High School days at the Parkway Diner.”
Eddie spoke to Antonio who was waiting for the conversation to wane. “The usual red for Brenda and white for me please.”
Antonio filled the last two glasses and excused himself. “I’ll be back in a few minutes to take your order.”
“Is the Parkway Diner still open?” Jack asked.
“Yeah, it’s still open” Brenda answered. “This old neighborhood hasn’t changed a bit since you left, same families, same businesses, and same old problems. You’re born here, you die here, I guess.”
“Sounds like our little Indiana town” Diane spoke up. “Nothing ever changes. Everyone says they want to get out but no one ever does. Had Jack not gotten that scholarship we’d still be there too.”
“Guess small town rural America isn’t much different from urban America” Eddie added. “Whether it’s tall buildings or cornfields, it’s all just the backdrop to regular people trying their hardest to get by. But hey, you know what? Life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone.”
“Let’s order some food, the pasta here is delicious” Brenda spoke up, trying to lighten up a conversation that seemed to be heading in a solemn direction.
She glanced towards Antonio who briskly approached the table.
“Ready to order Mrs. Pasquale?” he asked.
“We are” she answered. “Guest’s first please.” She motioned towards Jack and Diane.
Antonio went around the table taking each of the four orders. Unlike the clerks at the Tastee Freeze who wrote everything down on little pads of green and white paper, he used nothing but his memory to note the details.