Close to 7:30, Valentine’s Day, the restaurant full.
“Remember, when Vic and Simone get here, act like you don’t know anything,” Kyle said.
“I will,” Anna said. “I told you I will.”
Anna wasn’t good at hiding her excitement. Her emotions played on her face like a movie on the big screen. She often looked like someone on the verge of bursting into song, although she never fully did.
“When they come in, while you greet Simone, Vic will pass me the ring. We’ll put it in the bottom of a flute when we serve the champagne.”
“A diamond ring in a champagne glass?”
“I want you to be the one who serves the Cristal,” Kyle said. “It’s more special coming from one of us than from the waiter.”
“What if she accidentally swallows the ring?” Anna asked.
“That won’t happen. She’d have to tip the flute all the way up and guzzle.”
“Good thing I know CPR.”
“So you know what to do?”
“First you check if the person is breathing, then—”
“I mean with the ring.”
“The ring goes in the bottom of her glass. Pour the champagne and stand back. I can’t wait to see Simone’s reaction.”
Vic and Simone coming through the door. And: Action.
“I love that skirt, Simone, you look great,” Anna said, deftly moving in front of her to shield Vic and Kyle from view.
Simone’s skirt was a black mini with a leather hem. Her legs and butt were powerful and curvy. She was a Nordic goddess, so striking and athletic, but there was also something stainless steel about her, shiny and rust resistant, as if she wore a protective coating.
“You look so beautiful, too,” Simone said. “You’re working up front with Kyle. You two look like you own the place.”
Kyle gave her the signal and Anna led Simone and Vic back to their table, guiding them past a grid of tables in the dining room and to the booth backed by a half-wall topped with potted plants and fresh flowers in vases, and whose smooth leather semi-circular bench seat offered an unobstructed view of the lake and snowy mountains. Lights from the village and the other restaurants and bars and shops illuminated the curve of the shoreline.
Vic looked as composed as ever. His features never moved much, so he didn’t give off many nonverbal signals, but he and Simone were always fun to be around. He liked to tell stories about growing up in a poor neighborhood in Montreal. Simone had all kinds of tales from the ski circuit. Vic had some of the best coke when he came in late and it was just the four of them.
That’s pretty much all she knew about Vic and Simone, except Kyle said Vic wanted to do some kind of investment with him in a new restaurant venture. Kyle didn’t explain it well—or she didn’t understand it. But they were all good friends, and this was a special night.
She stood back and let them slide into the booth. She placed menus on the corner of the table.
“I’ll check on you in a little while,” she said.
Kyle opened the box and revealed the ring tucked into a slot in a velvet bed. Anna gasped at the size and brilliance of the diamond nested in its platinum setting. She cupped the box in her hand. At the bar, she got two chilled champagne flutes from Matt and headed into the kitchen.
“Let’s see it,” Gail said.
Anna flipped open the cover.
“Holy fuck! Look at that thing!”
Her outburst drew the attention of Peter and Trish, who were in the kitchen to pick up orders. A circle formed around Anna.
“It’s so ostentatious,” Peter said. “How could anyone even wear that?”
“Don’t worry, you find a way,” Gail said. “You learn to handle the extravagance.”
“Let me try it on,” Trish said.
“What? No!” Anna said. “Are you nuts?”
“Come on, just for sec.”
“It’s bad luck to try on someone else’s engagement ring,” Gail said.
“No, I read it.”
“Bad luck for who?”
Anna lifted the ring from its bed and slipped the diamond solitaire onto Trish’s finger. A perfect fit.
Gail was next in line, even though she’d made the bad luck comment. She already wore a wedding band. The engagement ring wouldn’t pass her second knuckle.
“Okay, give it to me,” Anna said. She headed out to the waiter station and examined the diamond under the task light. It blinked a million stars deep. She resisted putting it on her finger and instead considered how to get the ring safely into the tall champagne flute. Her fingers couldn’t reach to the bottom of the glass and she didn’t want to drop it in not knowing how delicate the setting might be. She ended up tipping the flute on its side and setting the ring at the rim, then raising the glass enough for the ring to slide into place and land with a gentle tinkle.
Unless you looked straight down from above to the bottom of the flute you couldn’t see the ring because of the way the glass was cut around the stem like crystal. Pour in champagne and the bubbles would provide additional camouflage.
She carried the bottle and the two glasses. Gail had set out the ice bucket on a portable tray table behind the booth. Anna presented the bottle label side up to Victor.
“What’s this?” Simone asked.
“I thought we’d start with champagne tonight.” Vic spoke to Simone, but looked at Anna.
“Great. Grab an extra glass and join us,” Simone said to Anna.
“I will in a bit, once we slow down.” She’d like to stand here and watch the entire event unfold: raising the glass, sipping the champagne, Simone discovering the ring, Vic’s triumphant smile. Also, she’d never tasted Cristal.
She peeled the foil from the top of the neck, angled the bottle, and twisted. The cork popped releasing a fine mist. The aroma of champagne drifted up and she imagined herself standing in a vineyard in France.
“You can go ahead,” Vic said, waving off the taste she’d poured into one of the flutes for his approval.
She placed the other flute in front of Simone and quickly began to pour, easing back as the bubbles raced to the top. She poured again when the fizz settled, then topped off Victor’s glass. She sunk the bottle into the ice bucket and draped a cloth napkin over the rim, implored Vic and Simone to enjoy the champagne, and excused herself.
Back at the hostess stand a small crowd waited to be seated. She checked the reservation list, gathered menus. Guiding a three-top through the dining room, she glanced toward Vic and Simone’s table. The plants obstructed her view. She saw Vic’s arm draped over the banquette. She saw the back of Simone’s head. Simone must not have discovered the ring yet. The anticipation was like an adrenaline rush, as if this proposal were happening to Anna.
Kyle spotted Simone beelining through the dining room. She passed him without eye contact and didn’t acknowledge him when he asked if she was okay. She headed for the restroom.
Anna had seen her, too. She took the long way around to pass in front of table twenty-one, but by then Vic was marching toward Kyle.
“Where’d she go?” Vic demanded.
“The restroom, I think,” Kyle said.
“I need to talk to her. I’m going in there.”
“Please, don’t do that,” Kyle said.
“Simone!” Victor yelled at the door to the women’s restroom.
“I’m sure she’ll be out in a sec.” Kyle said.
“Simone!” His shoulders jerked, like he’d been held back from pouncing.
People in the bar began to watch, dropping their own conversations at the hint of drama in the air, not knowing what was happening, but ready to witness a scene or run from one.
How he hated this moment: a disruption at the Algonquin Grille. It shamed and angered him. He considered every glitch during his shift a reflection on his managerial prowess.
“I’m going in there,” Victor brushed past the hand Kyle had raised.
“You can’t. It’s the ladies’ room,” Kyle said.
“I need to talk to her. Right now.”
Anna appeared at his side. “Let me check on her for you,” she said, already pushing open the door.
“Tell her to come out here,” Victor said.
The women’s restroom contained two stalls and double sinks with counterspace. A long mirror over the faucets.
The stalls were empty. Simone stood in front of one of the sinks, not looking in the mirror, her face turned down as if she were examining something in the bowl, her hands gripping the counter edge. Her tanned, toned arms trembled.
“Hey, you okay? I told Vic I would check on you.”
Simone eyed Anna in the mirror, as if staring down a stranger who had rudely approached her. “What am I supposed to tell you?”
“Are you all right?” Anna asked.
Simone sniffled and her features softened. Anna could see a layer of foundation on her forehead covering the faded scars of adolescent acne.
“He asked me to marry him,” Simone said.
“You were part of this?”
“I put the ring in the champagne glass, that’s all.”
“I can’t believe he did that.” She continued to speak to Anna’s reflection.
“Lots of people get engaged in nice restaurants,” Anna said, parroting what Kyle had told her.
“I mean he proposed to me.”
“What did you say?”
“I didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t expecting it. I stammered a little, I couldn’t answer . . . He got really upset.”
“You don’t love him?”
“No, I do. I do love him. But this was a total shock. I haven’t known him that long, only six months.”
“I don’t even know myself, and I’ve been living with me all my life,” Anna said. No idea why she said that, and it wasn’t entirely true, but her words broke the tension.
“Ha-ha.” Simone found her smile.
“What I mean is I don’t think you can ever fully know someone, no matter how long you’ve been together. So sometimes you have to trust yourself and do what your instincts say, even if that’s scary.”
A knock sounded on the door. “Simone!”
Simone’s shoulders visibly tensed. “I was doing all the PT work and I was going to ski again this season. Every day I’m rehabbing.”
“Does skiing mean you can’t get married if you want to?”
This time the knock was a pounding.
“Just a minute!” It was Anna who answered.
“What should I do?” Simone looked at Anna as if expecting the answer to come from her.
“You haven’t even thought of marrying Vic?”
“I’ve thought, yes. But we haven’t talked about it. Not once.”
“Kyle and I have.”
“We talk about what our goals are and what our life would be like together. Some of it is just this game we play, but we’re being open and honest with each other. No one’s asked anybody anything yet, although we’re both thinking about it and I know what I would do if Kyle asked me to marry him, and we haven’t been together that long, either, even less than you and Vic have.”
“You would say yes?”
“Kyle and I—I’ve never felt anything else like this. This might be the first time I’ve been really happy, and I don’t want to lose that feeling.” She was inventing her story word by word, but finding the narrative fit. The line between pretend and real was blurring.
“I’m just caught off guard and I wasn’t ready to answer.”
Anna dipped into her bra strap and came out with the vial. “You want a couple?”
“Oh, God yes.” They each did two spoons. Their glimmering eyes met in the mirror.
“Simone!” Vic called, from outside the door.
“I’ll be right there,” she said. She started breathing hard. Anna told her to calm down.
“If you really love him, but you’re not ready to get married, you can always say yes to his proposal and then set a date way out. That way you’ll have plenty of time to change your mind if you want.”
Simone considered this suggestion for a moment. “That seems a little crazy.”
“But if you say no, it’s probably over right now.”
“You’re a lot braver than me, Anna.”
“I’m not braver than anybody,” Anna said.
Simone nodded, thinking. “I do love him. Vic’s a great guy, and he’s so good to me. I don’t know why I panicked the way I did when he asked me. I guess because his proposal just came out of nowhere.” She hugged Anna, told her thanks, you’re a good friend. “I better get back out there.”
Anna followed her out of the restroom. Victor and Kyle were waiting. Kyle wore an expression of worry, Victor of fearful anticipation.
Simone flung herself at Victor and wrapped her arms around his neck. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, I’ll marry you.”
Victor’s face lit up like a struck match. They kissed and held each other and rocked slowly, almost as if consoling and not celebrating. Anna stood with Kyle and watched. They didn’t clap or cheer. Kyle spoke into her ear: “What did you do in there?”
She smiled and shook her head. She’d tell him later.
Other patrons leaving the restaurant walked around them, not knowing what was going on. Kyle held the door and said goodnight. Anna seated the customers waiting for a table.
And then one more drama. Vic returned to table twenty-one, but he couldn’t find the ring. Simone didn’t have it. She’d never removed it from her glass after making the surprise discovery.
They all began a frantic search. Floor, table, between the cushions, in the plants.
Anna hadn’t put the ring on her finger when they were gathered in the kitchen, or when she was at the server station, but she did after she’d gone past table twenty-one and retrieved it from the champagne flute after Vic and Simone had both gotten up. The band was tight but she managed to guide it over her knuckle. The sparkling jewel had winked at her. She knew it was hokey but she could feel magic emanating from the ring, as if she’d been bestowed with prescient power allowing her to see into the future, and what she saw was her and Kyle together.
She’d taken off the ring and slipped it inside her bra—vial under one arm, ring under the other—because she had no pockets in her dress.
“Right here,” she said, holding up the diamond for everyone to see, she who had saved the evening. “I’ve got it.”
(excerpted, with edits, from THE SUITOR.)