—Thursday, November 24, 2011—
My head was killing me by the time I arrived at Penn Station for my 11 a.m. train. I was out the night before with Betsy, my Broadway Date, but I didn’t drink very much and it hadn’t been a late night, so I didn’t know what was causing the terrible headache. Probably a lack of either water or caffeine.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have any pain medication or anything of the sort, and I was cutting it close on time, so it was likely that I’d have to suffer through. My body seemed very confused as I waited in line for the NJ Transit ticket machines.
I had a window of time after I secured my tickets, so I ran to the station’s Duane Reade for pain relief and iced tea. In a flurry of travelers, pharmacy customers and standard-issue vagrants, I made my way aboard the morning train heading down the Jersey shoreline.
This was the day that I was going to meet Stefanie’s parents at their home in Central New Jersey.
Oh right, and it was Thanksgiving!
Readers may remember Stefanie as my second date of this entire project. We went to a very fun wedding together and as you can tell, she didn’t shy away from big dates, which is something I could really appreciate and benefit from.
On the train ride south, I called my father to wish him a Happy Thanksgiving. I expressed my regret for not joining him in Vermont for the holiday, but the truth was that if I really wanted to be there, I could have been. However, since the project generally ran my life during that time, I chose Thanksgiving as the perfect chance to be welcomed into an unsuspecting family’s home for a date with their daughter.
Weeks prior, I took to the internet to see if I could find a date and Stefanie came through for me.
Not only was I happy to have a date for the day, but I was happy it could be Stefanie because I knew already that she and I operated well under pressure.
By the time I arrived at my destination, my headache had faded entirely. [Excedrin, FTW.]
Stefanie sat on the hood of her car smoking a cigarette as I approached her. “Evan!” she said, greeting me with a hug. I realized that I had been to that train station before, one summer several years earlier. A friend from college actually lived nearby.
With no rush to be anywhere, Stef suggested that she give me a little tour of where she grew up, or at least show me the nearby school she attended. It was a tech school located on Sandy Hook, a narrow spit of land extending from New Jersey’s “knee”, or as Stefanie told me, “We’re on the weiner of New Jersey.” Not only that, but the grounds were a former Army base.
It was a scenically impressive place to attend high school, with the ocean on both sides and the remains of a decommissioned Army base all around. In addition to the tour, I learned about the high-quality vocational school system in the area, which was very different from the looked-down-upon voc schools near where I grew up.
On the drive to Stefanie’s place, I learned that she lived with her sister in an apartment on the top floor of her parents’ house. As such, we were going to her place and also her parents’ place, but she did not live with her parents. I was a bit confused at first but it made sense soon enough.
When I first entered her parents’ house, I was greeted by Ziggy, the exuberantly barking pup that Stef had warned me about. Despite his howling, he was very cute.
Over Ziggy’s cries, I was introduced to Stef’s mother, who was working away in the kitchen, and her father, who was watching television from his easy chair in the living room. This already had all the trappings of a great American sitcom.
While Ziggy calmed down a bit, I met the three cats of the household, one of which was wearing a cone around his head, thanks to a recent neutering. Poor little guy.
We went upstairs to the apartment Stef shared with her sister Nicole so that she could finish making her contribution to the day’s feast: pumpkin ravioli.
Before she set to work, Stef presented me with a hat, a personally-crocheted beanie* to be exact. It was various shades of blue and brown, and I realized that the hat was why she had texted me several weeks prior, to ask me what my favorite colors were. Wow. What an incredibly thoughtful thing to do. I wished I’d had something to give her in return.
Without a gift to give, I resigned to standing on the other side of the kitchen counter and making conversation as Stef worked. Consistent with our first encounter, she was very laid back and friendly, making conversation easily.
Nicky came into the kitchen, said hello, and clarified that she goes by Nicole or Nicky, which would be good to know if I was to be a part of the family.
Quite the straight shooter, Nicky asked me about my job and what I was doing with my life. I described all the boring bits to her, but made sure to tell her about the fun things too, like the holiday party I attended the weekend prior, and the comedy I performed on the side. We ended up talking about travel, and Tokyo in particular, since I’d been there recently.
I was impressed with her interviewing skills. They were far beyond those of a typical sisterly grilling. It was genuinely fun. I liked having a family member in the mix to make conversation with and to take the pressure off of us, while at the time allowing Stef and I to learn things about each other.
Stef finished cutting out her ravioli from the large dimpled sheet in front of her and put them in the fridge to chill out. She then began working on the hazelnut garlic cream sauce as we discussed college for a while. I finally took a break from standing over the counter and sat down for the first time in nearly two hours.
The ravioli was boiled soon thereafter and, just shy of 2:30 p.m., dinner was served. I knew that these kinds of holiday meals were always served early, but this was the earliest I had ever eaten dinner.
The timing, though, was not why I was surprised to be starting the meal — it had more to do with the fact that no guests had arrived. It must have been due to my own experience of always having various family and friends over for Thanksgiving that had led to the surprise, but I was astonished to learn that it would only be the five of us. Mother, father, younger sister, older sister and — me — the date. I suppose I was hoping for a larger group so that I could fade into the conversations of others and generally avoid scrutiny.
Helping to place an extra chair at the table, I felt shy for the first time that day. I was finally face to face with her father, which is always a tough thing for a young man to handle. For some reason, moms are easy. Maybe because they nurture and care for us, and I have no ill feelings towards them.
It was an intimate setting, the five of us at their modest dining room table. I waited timidly for everyone else to sit down and for the food to be passed around. Her father asked me if I liked white or dark meat, and in an effort to be easygoing, I said that I liked both. He carved up some of the breast meat for everyone. The truth is that I absolutely preferred dark meat, but I was a weak man and I didn’t want to put anyone out.
Dinner was under way and I was quieter than usual. Neither of her parents were particularly inquisitive about me, nor were they cold — they just seemed indifferent to my presence.
Considering how stressful the meeting-the-parents situation can be, I suppose I should have been happy. No questions and no prodding made me out to be a perfectly normal guy.
Then, out of nowhere, Nicky asked me how my One Hundred Dates were going.
Well, shit. This was a complete 180 from being left alone, quietly eating. I felt incredibly uncomfortable right away. I was under the impression that her parents didn’t actually know about the project, but there was no chance of that once Nicky let that out.
“It’s going well,” I squeaked out.
Her father raised his head from his plate and asked, “One Hundred Dates – what’s that?”
GAH GAH GAH. UMMMMM.
Just as I grasped for words to describe why I was at this man’s house on America’s most treasured holiday, Stef swooped in and saved me like the tiny field mouse that I am.
“It’s a social experiment, Daddy. You wouldn’t care about it,” she answered.
This was taken at face value and luckily, he dismissed it as quickly as he had inquired. The man trusted his daughter to know his interests, I suppose. Thank goodness for that.
Nicky asked me if I had attended the wedding of Stef’s friends in July, which I had, and followed with asking me if I went to college with Stef, since that was where most of the friends at that wedding had met. The conversation seemed to stall over the details as to why I had been there if I wasn’t friends with anyone, but thankfully, no one pushed me for an answer.
In regards to why I was there today, I attempted to explain that my family gathered in Vermont for the holiday and it would have been a challenge to get there and back, considering that I needed to work the next day.
Dinner continued on and eventually, Stef’s father asked me a bit about my job and where I was raised. The rest of the meal did not last much longer and I managed to get a few laughs out of the sisters and not spill any beverages or gravy products on myself.
I would be remiss if I did not mention that the food was delicious. Despite my own anxieties, it had been a great Thanksgiving meal, through and through.
As dinner wound down, there was playful banter amongst the women regarding the possibility of Dad doing the dishes. Even though I may not have been hip to the inside humor, it was clear that he had a reputation for never helping out in this regard. This was confirmed when he excused himself from the table and returned to his recliner in the living room.
The four of us remained seated for a while after dinner and I was soon hit by a wall of sleepiness. In fact, I nearly nodded off, listening to them talk amongst themselves.
God, that was embarrassing. Can you imagine if I had fallen asleep right there at the table while they carried on? I was such a tired piece of shit. It was times like this when I really questioned my lifestyle. I wished I could blame it on the turkey, but I’m fairly certain it was all the not-sleeping-enough that had gotten to me.
It had nothing to do with them either. I was enjoying what we were talking about, so long as my mind could stay present.
I came out of it as they returned to joking about Dad not helping out with the dishes. After another minute, I perked up and said, “Okay. I’ll take the hint. I will do the dishes.”
The three women immediately insisted that they were insinuating no such thing and I had to ensure them that I had only been joking. I knew they wouldn’t burden me with that. After all, I was a guest and a MAN. I didn’t clean things. That would be ridiculous.
I did help clear tables though.
Once we’d put everything in the kitchen, the women cleaned it all while I played with the animals. I swear, I was not allowed to help.
Following the clean up, Nicky took off for her boyfriend’s house. She had another Thanksgiving dinner to eat and then they were spending the weekend away somewhere. I didn’t really know where and I didn’t really ask.
Stef and I retreated back upstairs to her apartment to hang out for a bit and to have some family-free time together.
Once on the couch, as we discussed this and that, I went right back to being extremely tired. Again, I was nearly nodding off as I sat with Stef, trying to make conversation. There are plenty of times where my perpetual exhaustion is humorous, and potentially even endearing, but while on a date is not one of them.
Stef grabbed a Christopher Moore book from her bookshelf and gave it to me to borrow. I thanked her, looked it over and placed it on the coffee table.
Back downstairs, a little later, I sat at the dining room table while Stef’s mother placed out desserts and made coffee. There was pumpkin pie, pecan pie and eclairs — three desserts I did not eat. The eclairs looked the best, so I stuck to those.
Over coffee with Stef and her mother, we ate dessert and talked about how Nicky would probably marry that boyfriend of hers. It was a nice, upbeat discussion and the two and half cups of coffee helped to wake me up. Stef was growing tired as well and so she asked about my departure.
I looked up the trains on my phone and found that I had just missed one. The next one was at 9:22 p.m., a little less than an hour away.
We gathered our things upstairs, I took my leftovers and my hat, forgetting the book loaned to me, and were headed out to the car. Ziggy, the effervescent pup, had one more freak out of yelping and whining as we left. I thanked her parents for their hospitality and we made our getaway.
En route to the train, and with a little time to waste, we stopped by the home of a friend Stef knew. Over a couple beers, we talked craft brewing, eating contests and the big night out on Thanksgiving Eve. It was a nice little slice of life to end the day.
Soon enough, it was time for us to hustle to the train.
At the station, I gave her a hug and, since the black and white striped arms of the railway crossing were already down, indicating that the train was arriving, I took off jogging toward the tracks closest to me.
“EVAN!” I heard Stef yell.
I looked back.
“That way!” she shouted, pointing the opposite direction I was facing.
As always, I would be nothing without the women in my life.
A minute later, I boarded the train and slumped down in my seat for the ride back to New York.
(even later…check the hat!)
*or a toque, if you’re Canadian or something.