Still laughing and shaking my head at my over-sight, I rushed into my room and bent in front of the shoe cabinet, trying to figure out quickly what it was that I should be wearing with this outfit. Hooking my fingers in the straps of a pair of white sling-backs, I emerged victorious from my crouch and sat on the corner of the bed and put them on, all the while oblivious to the show that I was putting on for an amused man right outside my door.
"I have to give you credit. You are quick. I had expected you to spend at least five minutes in making this decision. And yes I am speaking from experience", he chuckled at my quickened pace. For a moment I was held captive by the sparkle in his gaze and then coming to my senses, I shook my head and went back to snapping the straps in place.
"Now I think I am ready", I said, half-smiling, half-embarrassed. "But please feel free to tell me if I am missing anything else."
"You look wonderful. Although....", he trailed off mid-sentence. "It's nothing. Let's get going."
"Hey, come on. You can tell me", I protested out of curiosity.
"Well, it's just that I liked your hair better when it fell over your shoulders, like last night", he said so softly that I had to strain my ears to make out his words.
"Oh! Okay....", I mumbled to myself as I fidgeted with the clasp in my hair, still unsure whether I should remove it or not. Thinking what the heck, I took it out and shook my hair free. And somehow, seeing his obvious pleasure in the mundane act made it seem like the right thing to do.
"So.....Let's go", I said in a rush and walked towards the door, with Neil closely following me. I suddenly remembered the apartment keys on the hanger in the kitchenette, so I stopped in my tracks and turned swiftly in that direction, nearly crashing into the man standing directly in my path.
He grasped my upper arm with one hand, while supporting my back with his other arm, sending tingles shooting into the places that he touched. I jolted back slightly, not expecting this sort of reaction from myself, but he held me tight, thinking that I was still off-balance.
"Guess we are not leaving this place so soon", his voice came from somewhere above my forehead. I leaned my face back, looking into his eyes, still a little frazzled with the near-collision, trying to make sense of his words. "Huh...?"
"Are you okay? Were you looking for something when you turned back?", came his concerned reply. His eyes were amused and his laugh lines prominent as he looked me over and then removed his arm from my waist, still holding my arm, as if fearing that I would crumble as soon as he let me go.
"The keys...in the kitche...", I trailed off. "I'll get them for you", he said and disappeared into the dark space. He came back with a set off keys dangling off an antique key-ring and pressed them into my hand. "Here..."
"Thanks", I said, finally finding my voice and my equilibrium back, even though I could still feel a little fluster in the pit of my stomach.
I waited for him to move ahead of me and followed him out the door. It took a moment or two of fumbling with the key before I locked the door and put the keys in my bag.
"So where is it that we are headed?", he gestured for me to enter the elevator at the end of the passage. We stepped into the elevator and he pressed the button to the main lobby.
"There is this really cute Italian bistro a couple of blocks down. I love their pasta and salads. Really fresh and light", I said just as the elevator doors pinged open.
Again allowing me to precede him, he kept on a steady banter as we reached the sidewalk and headed towards our destination, giving me time to day-dream.
I have never done this before, ie. gone out with a man I barely know. But it does feel right. Neil seems to be the perfect gentleman, and he has such a good sense of humor, and....my thoughts trailed off when the sound of his voice interrupted my reverie...
"How much further ahead?" he asked me.
"I'm sorry I seemed to have lost track of where I was heading. It's just further down from here", I said as we moved in tandem.
As we walked further down the sidewalk, a quaint sign-board in deep-red proclaimed Nonnina's in a curly font with tomatoes and cheese chunks bordering the sign-board. The door was slightly tinted and the inside was not clearly visible to those standing outside. The guard standing sentinel outside the door was dressed in a maroon and black blazer and trousers that were overly accessorized with buckles. He bowed slightly to us and touched the brass door handle, as if asking us whether we intended to enter.
Neil nodded imperceptibly and then allowed me to lead him into the bistro when the guard bowed deeply and welcomed us through the now open door. The dimly-lit corridor widened into a naturally illuminated room of modest proportions with the sunlight streaming in through the bay windows at the back of the room. The waiters were bustling around and there seemed to be an air of expectancy in their movement, perhaps hoping for a larger clientele.
A few tables and booths appeared to be occupied by people who seemed to be engrossed in the food set on their tables, and a warm, homely scent wafted out from the oft-opening kitchen doors at the end of the room. A lady with a trolley carrying various salad cuts and condiments was serving at a table near the center of the room and her ministrations were being avidly viewed by the people being attended to by her.
Neil guided me towards a booth in the corner of the bistro and allowed me to take my seat before he slid in across from me. Looking around the room with his characteristic smile in place, he said to me, "This sure looks like a nice place. I am guessing that the food is even better, what with the aromas coming from the kitchen."
"Yeah, the food is fabulous. I come here often with my friends. I discovered this place about an year ago when I first came to the city. In fact I met my best friend here around the same time while I was looking for a job", I rambled on as a server placed two embossed menus before us.
"And what shall I get for you this afternoon?", he asked me.
"Well, I'll have the pesto cheese balls and then I'll have the spaghetti alla puttanesca. And a lemon iced-tea. That'll be all", I said without even glancing at the menu.
"And you Sir? Have you decided yet?", the server asked Neil.
"I'll have what she is having", he told the server and handed him both the menus.
As soon as the server left us, we settled down and got to talking.
"So, last night you were telling me about your family. We never got around to finishing our conversation", he asked me.
"Well, we are a mixed brood. My mom's Spanish and my dad's Indian. So it's always been a culture amalgamation for me and my brother. But very early on we decided on adopting a middle ground between two cultures with very few meeting points. No Spanish or Punjabi except when it came to food. And we all try to speak English whenever we are together, although I am fluent in Punjabi and my brother in Spanish. Another compromise. Out parents chose one language per kid", I chuckled as his eyebrows curved and then raised altogether.
"That's quite the story. I can only imagine the chaos and fun in a household like yours. And your brother, what does he do?"
"He is a the Head Coach for the cricket team at the local High School. He quit his post in an advertising firm a couple of years back when he decided to live his life's passion. Cricket. We are three years apart and he is the most obnoxious, hard-headed, interfering brother ever but one who loves me more than anything in the world."
"You sound very much the doting younger sister. By the way your brother sounds very similar to my sister, especially when it comes to being obnoxious and over-bearing", Neil smiled at me with a recent memory glimmering in his eyes.
"The elder ones are generally afflicted with those short-comings. But then I did learn to be really stubborn and rebellious by virtue of being the younger one. My dad says I have more of a Punjabi streak in me than my brother, always complaining and whining. Maybe that's why he worries so much about me, having obviously forgotten that those tantrum-throwing days are far behind me."
Just then our server appeared at our table and set down our drinks and anti-pasta dishes. I waited for him to leave and as soon as he did, I dove into the pasta dish with a fork poised to attack. "Pardon me", I said after devouring a mouthful, "But I haven't had anything to eat since morning and I am absolutely famished."
"Don't let me stop you. Better yet, I'll join you in this food frenzy", Neil laughingly imitated my sudden carnage of the pesto balls.
We ate in silence for a while, the only sound being that of scrapping forks and slurping drinks.
When we were finished with the appetizer, the server removed the empty dishes and refilled our tumblers.
I excused myself for a moment to go to the Ladies' Room and Neil got up when I did. I smiled inwardly at his gentlemanly behavior and headed towards the exit door.
This was going better than I had anticipated.