The granite steps of the Outremont Public Library were cold in the shadow of the building. I moved into the sun and spread a paper bag over the stone wall before sitting back down. I didn’t want a dirty dress on my first date with Sol. The warmth from the stones relaxed me and reduced some of the nervousness I’d felt all day: would what had seemed like an exciting fantasy four nights ago become an unexpected disappointment in reality?
Switching my evening work schedule at the library for an afternoon shift meant skipping Economics, my most boring class. I hadn’t told my parents about missing school and, instead of telling them about my date with Sol, I said I was meeting a friend after work. They wouldn’t be happy knowing I was on a date with a man I’d met for only five minutes. Living at home didn’t mean my life was an open book. But, it was too late to tell them now.
The rose-colored bricks of the library glowed in the setting sun. I looked down the street toward the streetcar stop. No sign of Sol. Although he said we’d eat first, he warned me dinner might be delayed until after the film if he had a last-minute problem at work. To be safe, I’d eaten a late lunch of salad and pommes frites, but I was still hungry. Sol was already fifteen minutes late.
Yesterday I’d splurged on a new dress, despite needing every cent I earned for textbooks and streetcar fare. When I saw the dress, white with red polka dots, on sale at Eaton’s, I convinced myself this was a special occasion.
A streetcar from downtown stopped at the corner, but Sol wasn’t on it. For an instant, I wondered if he’d forgotten, but immediately pushed the humiliating thought from my mind. After all, he had insisted we meet as soon as possible. When he called, he wanted to go out the next evening. I told him I couldn’t until Thursday: too much school work to finish before then. He seemed disappointed.
I took a deep breath, convincing myself to relax. He wouldn’t forget. But I must have had a twinge of doubt. I hadn’t cut off all the tags on the dress.
When my shift ended, I’d put on the new dress in the bathroom, planning to leave my skirt and blouse on a hanger in the employees’ room. I applied cherry red lipstick, eyeliner and a touch of blush and then brushed my hair for five minutes, hoping to straighten the most intractable curls. Finally, I turned sideways to view my profile in the mirror, raised one shoulder and practiced looking sultry. My Uncle Max had once told me I reminded him of a movie star. “Don’t let anyone say you’re not—”
I jumped up from the wall, startled by his approach from the opposite direction. I brushed off the paper bag stuck to my dress. Sol looked older and more serious than he had under the colored lights in the dance hall, but his good looks were undiminished in the unforgiving glare of the sun. He wore a pale yellow cashmere sweater over a light blue shirt opened at the throat. The creases in his dark wool pants were razor-sharp. He stood with the studied pose of a model in the catalog of a high-end department store. I couldn’t help grinning as he leaned forward to shake my hand. I’d noticed a thin band of white skin below his hairline,
“You’re laughing at me already, are you?” His gaze did not allow me to look away.
“I only wondered if you always get a haircut before a date.”
He frowned at my unexpected observation. “And I wonder if you always wear Revlon red lipstick when meeting a man on the street?”
I blushed, wondering if I’d overdone the Rita Hayworth look. “Only when I think he’s handsome.” I shrugged, raising my eyebrows. “If I change my mind, I can always wipe it off.”
I never expected to feel this comfortable talking with Sol so soon. We began walking toward the Outremont Theatre four blocks away. I held out hope we’d stop for dinner along the way. Looking up at him, I studied his profile – the full lips, a straight nose with a slight downward turn—
Something in the street caught my eye! A black car rolled five or six paces behind us. I instinctively took hold of Sol’s arm and walked faster. “You were very mysterious about where we’re going tonight.”
“I want it to be a surprise.”
I looked behind us hoping the car was gone. Instead, it was now even closer. “Sol.” I pulled him away from the curb. “A man in a black car is following us.”
“I couldn’t decide what movie to see.”
Sol hadn’t heard me. “Let’s go into this store,” I said, becoming alarmed.
“There’s a double bill.” He stopped to think. “An American western and a thriller.”
“Sol, listen to me. A man in a car is staring at us!”
Sol grinned like a kid playing a joke. “You noticed. That man is our family chauffeur.”
“Your chauffeur? He scared me to death. He looks like a pirate.”
“His scar is from a knife fight when he worked on the docks in Barcelona years ago. But Carlos is a sweetheart. He’s been with our family for over twenty years.”
I was transfixed by the silver hood ornament with the double Rs. “It’s a Rolls Royce.”
“I hadn’t noticed,” he teased squeezing my arm.
I clapped my hands in delight. “This is a surprise.”
“I thought we might walk together for awhile but I see we’re attracting attention. Let’s get in the car.”
He nodded toward the Rolls pulling up beside us. The front door opened but before Carlos was out, Sol waved him back. “I’ll take care of this.” Sol opened the back door and helped me into the car. The smell of leather seats! The car had a bar with glasses and bottles, tinted glass, a carpet. A vase, hanging beside the rear door, held a miniature rose.
Sol rapped on the glass partition. “We’re ready Carlos.”
The buildings on either side of the street slipped off their foundations and slid past us. I couldn’t believe we were moving. No sound from the engine, the pedestrians, or the other cars beside us. Utter silence. We floated down the street as if the cracks and holes in the pavement no longer existed. I had never felt so carefree. Nothing to worry about. Nothing expected of me except to be myself.
“Don’t get too used to this,” Sol said. “My parents are home entertaining, so Carlos was free.”
Riding into downtown Montreal, I was unprepared for the evening’s extravagance.
My family was lower middle class although I never thought of us in those terms. My parents emigrated from Europe long before WWII, so we were better off than most of the Jewish families who came to Canada during or just after the war. Many worked in the needle trade around St. Urbain Street. They were poor. Few of my friends, like Jackie, came from wealthy families. Strathcona Academy was the neighborhood melting pot with students of all religions – Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu – except the Catholics who had a high school for themselves. A Catholic boy once told me a nun had said that Strathcona was for non-Christians. I guess that put the Protestants in their place.
As one of the managers at Woolworth’s, my father made enough money to buy a car. Nevertheless, we always took the streetcar for family trips into Montreal to visit the botanical gardens or a museum. We never went downtown to a restaurant or the theatre. We ate at restaurants within walking distance and saw movies in the balcony at the Outremont Theatre for fifteen cents.
Carlos stopped the car in front of a restaurant recently opened in the most luxurious hotel in Montreal. When Sol took a blazer from the trunk, the doorman approached to help him put it on. In the lobby, Sol paused in front of a mirror to put on a tie. Looking at my reflection, I realized, even in my new dress, I wasn’t as chic as I hoped. And I had used too much lipstick.
Sol explained to the maître’d we were earlier than expected. When he gave his name, the man almost snapped to attention. “Pas de problème, Monsieur Gottesman. La table est réservée pour vous toute la soirée.” He gave a small bow. “This way s’il vous plaît.”
Walking to our table, I stared at the other diners. Most of the men wore suits; one elderly man was in a tuxedo. The women’s jewelry shimmered in the candlelight. I guessed their dresses were from New York or Paris. When the maître’d pulled back a chair for me, I found a bouquet of mums and asters beside my place setting. Sol stood while I was seated. “Permettez-moi,” the man said, pulling out my chair. Distracted by the flowers, I almost missed Sol slipping something into the man’s hand. I felt sophisticated watching this sleight of hand. “Un menu pour la dame.” The menu with a leather cover was so heavy I almost dropped it on my plate. He left a wine list next to Sol.
“Thank you for the flowers. They’re lovely. But, Sol, why didn’t you tell me? I’m underdressed for this restaurant.” I was annoyed. He’d remembered to bring a jacket and tie for himself, but hadn’t thought it necessary to tell me, if doing so had even crossed his mind. “I stick out like a sore thumb.”
“And a very attractive thumb, I must say.” Sol leaned forward. “Your dress looks elegant in the candlelight,” he whispered. “Très jolie.” I knew his flattery was an apology, but the compliment gave me pleasure. And confidence. “Rules can always be suspended with money.”
“Like what you gave the man who seated us?” Everything was so new to me, I hadn’t stopped to think if my remark was rude.
Sol raised his eyebrows like a teacher surprised at having to explain a simple math problem. “It’s a way to say thank you.” He shrugged. “Think of it as a down payment on future service.”
He picked up his menu and studied it, his lips moving as if sampling each entrée. I tried to concentrate on the menu but kept glancing up, happy to just watch him. He seemed more handsome each time I looked at him. Finally turning my attention to the menu, I realized something was wrong. I frowned and checked the rest of the pages.
Sol peered over his menu. “Is there a problem?”
“Where are the prices?” I asked.
“There aren’t any,” he said, enjoying my confusion. “A lady’s menu never has prices.”
“I get to eat for free?” I assumed a breathless innocence. “How thoughtful.”
He tapped his chin with the top of his menu. “I can’t wait to see what happens when you leave without paying.”
We both laughed, looking around to see if we had attracted any attention. I felt like we’d known each other for months.
A waiter in a short red jacket came to the table. “Bonsoir, madame, monsieur.” Sol ordered the vichyssoise; I chose the Waldorf salad. I’d never heard of it but, with sliced apples, raisins and walnuts, it sounded delicious. I ordered steak au poivre; Sol decided on salmon glazed with a fruit I’d never heard of. “Is it fresh?” he asked the waiter.
“Bien sûr, monsieur.” The waiter sounded offended. “All our fish is fresh.”
Sol selected the wine: a Chardonnay for me, a Malbec for himself. When the waiter left, Sol looked contrite. “Do you think I insulted him? I’ll leave a little extra for him.”
“The waiter called me ‘madame.’ He thinks we’re married.”
“More likely, he thinks we’re having an affair and is being discrète.”
Sol took so long examining and tasting the wine, I began to perspire from the tension. Unperturbed, the wine steward stood motionless until Sol signaled his acceptance. The meal and service were exquisite. Whenever the waiter approached our table, we stopped talking as if watching a short performance. I felt like I’d sneaked into a theatre without paying.
Sol asked me about school.
“My favorite subject is literature, but I like the lab work in biology.”
Sol made a face. “Autopsies on worms and rodents?”
“You’re right,” I laughed. “Not a good topic for dinner.” I wasn’t used to being the center of attention. Usually, high school boys talked about sports. Or themselves.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
I was taken by surprise at his off-handed question. Was he only taking me out to dinner because I was Robert’s unsophisticated kid sister? If that were true, then everything was ruined. I suppressed a smart aleck comeback: When I grow up, I want to be a rich man’s wife.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, tilting his head, but showing no real concern.
“I don’t know what I want to be. But, for your information, I am grown up.”
He frowned as if puzzled by my sharp response. “Oh…” He leaned back in his chair. Then he understood. “Rebecca, forgive me. That sounded terrible. I didn’t mean it that way.”
“I know you didn’t,” I said, now embarrassed by my flare-up. “It’s only that my brother always treats me like his little sister, and I’m sick of it.”
“I’d never do that.”
I believed him. His expression wasn’t that of a big brother and I felt reassured. He rested his chin on his folded hands and grinned at me, looking impish with his chipped tooth.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” I asked.
“I suppose I shouldn’t tell you how cute you look when you’re angry.”
“Right. You shouldn’t.”
We ordered crepes for dessert. A man in a chef’s hat cooked them at our table. When he struck a match, the dessert burst into flames, and I jumped back. My empty wine glass rolled off the table, the delicate stem cracking when it hit the floor. Without a break in his ritual, the chef raised his hand and snapped his fingers. One waiter brushed the glass onto a tiny silver shovel; another was already pouring me another glass of wine.
How stupid of me! I always did something awkward to spoil things. I looked down at my dessert, blaming it for my mistake. Sol reached across and lifted my chin. “These accidents happen all the time. A broken glass is the least of their worries. The restaurant is happy if we don’t steal the silver.” When I looked shocked, he nodded, “Believe me, I’ve seen it.”
After dinner, Carlos drove us to Loew’s on Sainte Catherine Street. I’d only seen a theatre like this in magazines. Gold trim, mirrors and chandeliers everywhere. Even the ceiling had a painting with cherubs reclining on clouds. Now I knew why they were called palaces. The balcony tickets had different prices depending on where we sat. Sol chose a section called the horseshoe. Armed with a flashlight, a woman in a black dress and white lace collar escorted us to our seats. Sol tipped her. “Merci, monsieur.” He reached up, pulling the velvet curtains closed to prevent a patron on the side from looking in.
Before sitting down, Sol pushed his chair against mine. I wondered what he had in mind and if he would be like a high school boy with sweaty hands. I could only hope so. I’d have been happier ignoring the movie and kissing him in the dark.
But Sol didn’t do anything. I was so surprised by his passivity I forgot the point of the movie, The Last Outpost starring Rhonda Fleming, one of my father’s favorite actresses. I didn’t care for Westerns. I laughed when it wasn’t funny and caught myself yawning during the Indian attack which had everyone else in suspense. Sol sat straight in his chair, his hands on his knees. Enough of this, I decided. I reached over and placed my hand over his. A mere touch and he turned his hand over to hold mine. My brother wasn’t kidding when he said Sol was shy. He acted confident and charming in public, but in private he retreated. I’d have to take control I decided, if this relationship were to make any progress.
In the car, he remained polite and respectful, sitting too far away for a casual touch. When he walked me to my door, he hesitated on the wrought-iron steps to the porch. He seemed distracted and at the front door, reached out to shake my hand. I had a better idea. I stood on my tiptoes to kiss him on the cheek, but he turned toward the living room window and I kissed him on the ear. Without moving his lips, he said, “Your father’s watching us.”
“He’s looking through the living room curtains—don’t turn around.” Sol shook my hand and raised his voice. “Thank you for an enjoyable evening.”
I watched him get back into the car. I was embarrassed and angry at my father for feeling it necessary to spy on me. I opened the front door to reveal my father standing in the hall.
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