| Family First Serial |

Stand By: Chapter 5

        It was only a fifth date, so who knew what inevitable skeletons still had time to worm their way out of the closets


Dassi considered herself a dating vet, but for some reason she was stumped by Ari Steiner. He wasn’t the early disappointment she thought he would be, but self-doubt was preventing her from feeling the hope she’d felt on a couple of occasions in the past. She was so used to being the one carrying the conversation — it wasn’t her fault Hashem blessed her with blinding wit and a sparkling personality — and it felt kind of nice to be entertained for a change. And they clicked. Ari agreed with most of what she had to say, not because he had no opinions, but because his opinions matched hers.

She popped open the cap of the icy Diet Half’n Half Snapple Ari had waiting for her in the car tonight, tore open the paper-wrapped straw he’d remembered, and took an appreciative sip.

“Your attention to detail is starting to scare me a little. How did you even know I liked these?”

Ari grinned. “You asked the waiter for it last time, remember? I made a mental note because honestly who even heard of Half’n Half Snapple. And I happened to have been in a bunch of stores since then so I kept checking until I hit the jackpot!”

Dassi relaxed into her seat. It was only a fifth date, so who knew what inevitable skeletons still had time to worm their way out of the closets they were currently packed into. But for now at least, she could enjoy the attention.

Ari pulled his sleek charcoal coupé — a BMW (Dassi only noticed because her brother Yitz always asked what her dates drove with a such glint in his eye that she felt compelled to indulge him) — into the spot right in front of Filête.

Dassi wondered idly what Shira would say five expensive restaurants in five dates signified. At best, that Ari liked the finer things in life, which was obvious to anyone who spent any amount of time with him. (A thing she could probably get used to.) At worst, what? That he was using fancy food to lull her into a false sense of security before he called the whole thing off?

Dassi found herself hating that idea more than she thought she would. Shira-in-her-head, please relax.

She rested her hand for a moment on the buttery camel leather door handle, and then stepped out into the cool night. As her eyes adjusted to the dim lighting in the brick entranceway of the restaurant, the door swung open, and very small man dressed impeccably in a three-piece suit held it in place.

“Good evening, Mr. Steiner,” the man’s deep voice rumbled as he looked straight ahead, and Dassi had to bite her lip to keep from laughing at the ridiculous formality of it all, coming from a voice that totally didn’t match the man.

“How on earth does he know your name?” she whispered to Ari, as the man led them to a table in the far corner of the restaurant.

“This place is majorly on their game,” Ari tossed over his shoulder with that half-smile Dassi realized was his signature.

She handed her jacket to the maître d’ to hang up, settled into her chair, and twisted her ring nervously. She was almost never nervous, especially on a fifth date, so that was interesting. She let herself enjoy the beautiful decor for a minute. Not many people knew this about cool, low-maintenance Dassi, but she really did like nice things. Her eyes snapped back to Ari’s.

“It’s 7:30 on a Tuesday… I get that weekdays are slow in the food industry, but why is this place so empty?” Dassi kept her voice low, and kept a lookout for the maître d’, who could be hiding anywhere, at his size. There were servers crossing the room discreetly, but that was it. “Maybe the restaurant isn’t so good. When we were in Bouchon it was totally packed, and there were like ten people waiting for a table. Same with Salt of the Earth, and that was dairy. Have you been here before?”

Ari’s eyes lit up, like he’d been hoping she would ask that very question, which was… weird. “I have been here before, yes, and trust me, the food is as good as the service.” His half-smile grew into a genuine, all-out grin, which faded quickly back into his serious face. He looked at her intently, his blue eyes boring into hers. “I think we were both a little bit distracted in a room full of people the last few times we’ve been out, and I wanted to change that.” His words were heavy with meaning, but whatever he was saying was eluding Dassi’s suddenly overwhelmed psyche.

“So you… rented out the restaurant?” Dassi said with a laugh, obviously joking. But seriously, she was trying to add two and two, and somehow kept coming up with five.

Ari didn’t laugh.

“Of course I did,” he said, completely serious. He let the words hang in the air for a moment as Dassi tried to hide her astonishment, her cheeks heating. She glanced to the front of the restaurant to see if the maître d’ was listening from his spot at the host stand, but if he was, his rigid posture relayed none of it.

Her eyes flicked back to Ari. His half-smile reappeared, and Dassi breathed a little easier as the intensity of the moment eased up. “I would have preferred noise cancellation, to be honest, but those white noise machines hurt my head,” he said with a shrug. “I guess I’m looking forward to getting to know you better on a no-distractions level.” He raised his water glass as if to toast her, and took a sip. He set his glass down. “So,” he said, still looking at her like she was the only person in the room, which, in all fairness, she was.

“So,” echoed Dassi, relaxing despite herself. “Did I tell you my friend Chayala and I decided to get an apartment together?”

“See, you never would have felt comfortable saying that in a restaurant full of strangers,” teased Ari. “How did your parents take it? You’ve mentioned they’re laid back.”

“They are, they’re the best. They really want me to be happy, and Chayala was sort of stuck, so I figured, why not swoop in and play the super-friend? I got a cape and everything, and we moved on Sunday!”

“Wow,” said Ari.

Whomever his dating coach was should give a TED talk, Dassi thought. She had to give it to the guy; he knew how to maintain eye contact.

“I would never commit to one friend like that. What happens if it affects your relationship with her?”

Dassi considered the question, glad to be so firmly past the small talk stage, but also slightly freaking out that they were so clearly past the small talk stage.

“Chayala and I have always gotten along really well, but I gotta say, I was davening that she would secretly turn out to be a neat freak, and Hashem really came through for me on that one. We’re only ten days in, but so far it always feels like a cleaning lady just left,” she said with a cautious smile.

“Well, at least you know if it does get to be too much, it might not be for long,” Ari said meaningfully.

The blush that had only just dissipated crept back up Dassi’s cheeks. Did he just… drop a hint?

A waiter materialized in Dassi’s peripheral vision and placed two identical plates in front of her and Ari, breaking the spell. She looked down at the dish, which she could tell by the serving size must be very high-end, and looked up, left eyebrow raised.

“I had Filête prepare a tasting menu for us,” replied Ari to her unasked question, handing her a gilt menu printed on heavy vellum, detailing six elaborate courses. She blinked. Six courses! A girl could get used to that.

Ari picked up where they’d left off.

“So, moved out on a whim, huh? I didn’t really take you for the spontaneous type.”

“Well, me neither, but so far I love it. I’m down to checking the front door’s deadbolt only five times before I go to sleep, so obviously I’m a full-fledged adult now. We’re even having my other two friends for dinner tomorrow night, not that I know what we’re cooking yet. The only stipulation my mother and stepfather had was they still want me to date from their house, as you may have noticed, so I’m maybe like a three-quarters adult,” she amended, her eyes twinkling.

Ari took a bite of his first course (thinly sliced duck breast with crispy skin over sunchoke puree, topped with pistachio gremolata and duck demi-glace, 100 percent of which she wouldn’t have been able to identify without the fancy cheat sheet) and chewed, considering her words. Dassi twisted her ring again, and crossed and uncrossed her feet at the ankles under the fine linen tablecloth. He looked at her. “Good for you,” he said firmly. “Independence is a really important quality to me.”

Dassi let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding, oddly calmed. She was certainly not a girl who cared for anyone else’s approval, but it sure felt nice to get it.

to be continued…


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 827)

Oops! We could not locate your form.