—Friday, December 23rd, 2011—
Throughout One Hundred Dates, there were numerous times when distinct worlds of my life would collide, but as I approached the half-way point in my year, there had not been a date more coincidentally remarkable or as personally significant as this one.
I was in Napa Valley, California (St. Helena, to be specific), visiting my mother’s family for the Christmas holiday. It was a ritual that was incredibly special to me. Growing up, my family travelled there every other year for Christmas, and since I had been out of school, we visited annually. Historically, the time I spent with my mother’s side of the family had been sparse, and that was what made those holiday trips so significant.
It was also a reason why OHD felt compromising: Despite the limited time I had to spend with family, I needed to keep up the pace and go on a date while I was in St. Helena. I would have tried to sneak in two dates in San Francisco, while coming and going, but someone must have been looking out for me because a Napa Valley date had dropped into my inbox.
Three and a half weeks earlier, I received the following message via Facebook:
I’ve loosely followed your blog for a little bit now, and just revisited it…your vimeo video shows you going into 1633 Broadway, which is where I used to go into every day at Circle in the Square Theatre School! I also found your blog because Jess Hodge linked to it a while ago. I really enjoy it! And I love hearing every time you mention Astoria, because I used to live off the Ditmars stop and I miss it.
Keep rockin it
I did what anyone would do after receiving a kind message like that: I looked through her public pictures. She was good looking! And potentially single…so I had to ask her out.
Thanks so much for the message! I work at 1633 every day, in fact, I’m here right now. Haha.
I’m glad you enjoy the project and it’s so cool that Jess turned you onto it. I miss that woman.
Now, what are the chances you’d want to go on a date? Hah! You are very cute and clearly good people if you know Jess and send kind messages, so I have to ask.
Best and thanks!
And, obviously, she had to say yes.
Actually, why not? I have to let you know that if you still have the moustache when I see you, I will…probably…likely…tease you incessantly. Take that as a warning or an invitation, as you will.
That would be awesome! Great news!
Oh, and even better news is that my moustache is already gone, so you won’t have to worry about that. haha. I don’t think I need any more dates for December (largely because I’ll be gone for the holidays), but I’ll definitely line something up for January once I know my schedule.
And then things just happened.
Oho! Excitement I read you’re going to be in California – where in CA? I’ll be there for the holidays too!
San Francisco and Napa Valley. My mom’s family. And snap! Are you going to Cotati? [Gleaned this from FB stalking.] I’ll be in St. Helena. If that’s the case, would you want to go on a date in CA?
WHAT? Yes, I’m going to Cotati, and YES let’s go on a date in CA, why not?! Amazing that our families live so close! I grew up in Sonoma County
This is crazy! I can’t believe how the world works sometimes.
And that was how I came to be on a date with a woman who lived in my slice of Queens, connected through a friend from my Massachusetts high school, in the Napa Valley of California.
It was fairly early for me to be up on a vacation day and my grandmother was curious as to what I was up to. Well, Gram, I had to go on a date that day. I explained that she was a woman who lived in New York, but grew up in Sonoma. “Well,” my grandmother said sharply, “Sonoma is not Napa. We’re superior.” I assured her that I was merely going to Sonoma to retrieve my date and that I would be bringing her to Napa for a full day in the preferred valley.
My father, a guy who had come to terms with his son’s odd ambitions, gave me a ride to the car rental down in Napa proper. I don’t know what I had eaten the night before, but between my grandmother’s house and the Hertz, I developed a need to shit which overrode both my desire to be perfectly on time to Cecilia’s and my general aspiration to avoid shitting in a car rental bathroom. But, you do what you have to do and shitting there was a much better option than having to pull over en route or lighting up the bathroom at her mother’s house when I arrived.
Two valleys East, a bit of uninspiring FM radio and a lot of “I miss driving” later, I was in Sonoma county, pulling into a little town called Cotati. Along the way, Cecilia had been texting me sporadically and even warned me that she was a bit sick and sounded like a man.
Pulling up across the street from her house, I called her to say that I was outside. I saw the front door open and stepped out of the car to greet her. Cecilia and I hugged hello, and I found her to be quite friendly right away, excited to venture off with me as if we were old friends reuniting. She hopped into the passenger’s seat and I went to start the car, asking, “Where to?”
Though she had claimed her voice would be awful, she sounded just fine to me. Okay, maybe a little sick, but nothing terrible. It was more than strong enough to direct me to a local cafe, where we could have a bite to eat before heading out for a day of wine tasting.
Things were already going well by the time we arrived at the cafe. Much to my benefit, Cecilia was a talker and could keep a conversation moving no matter how lost for words I may have been. She was enthusiastic and silly and it took the pressure off of me within a very short amount of time. Cecilia ordered a bagel, possibly the most ironic breakfast choice for a New Yorker in Sonoma, and I ordered a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich. She got a small coffee, which was comically tiny. Maybe 8 oz? I ordered a medium to get what I would consider a small by any other cafe’s standards.
Somehow, I ended up with a bunch of bacon and cheese on an English muffin. They actually forgot the egg, which by my estimate, was the most important part of the sandwich. The woman working seemed easily flustered, so I didn’t bother bothering her and enjoyed my crunchy sandwich.
Over breakfast, we discussed our last few days. I had spent mine mostly with family and traveling, but Cecilia had been catching up with friends, orchestrating photo shoots (she was an aspiring photographer) and had even attended a fancy party.
Naturally, I wondered what a “fancy party” meant, and without me asking, Cecilia was quick to describe the idea that she and a few friends concocted to get dressed up “fancy” and have a “classy” house party. It was easy to forget that Cecilia was only 21 years old, but this was a good reminder. Not that my friends and I wouldn’t have done the same thing, just that it seemed more like an idea that people a bit younger would get really excited about.
Also, yes, I knew that going out with a 21 year old was pushing it, but she was the friend of a 25 year old friend of mine, so she had been cleared.
To no one’s surprise but their own, the fancy party ended up being a fairly off the rails affair. Cecilia assured me though, that she remained in control all night, cleaning up the mess made by the one couple aggressively making out, as they knocked things over in the kitchen. Having had such a late night, I was impressed that she was up so early for me.
On the ride back to Napa, I took the more northerly route, which was a bit more fun than the way out. It was embarrassingly enjoyable to be driving again. The pragmatic, elitist urbanite in me would have been ashamed, but fuck that guy. I don’t think I had driven since Wedding Date, nearly six months earlier, so I enjoyed it. Though, I tried to keep in mind that I had received a speeding ticket on that wedding trip. Watch your speed, Casey Jones.
Despite my enjoyment of the open road, I made sure to harp on the inefficiencies of suburban living as we debated the pros and cons of living in New York City. It was agreed upon that one certainly missed the spectacular beauty of nature when shuffling between apartment, train, office and bar in the city.
The part of the country were were driving through was irreplaceably beautiful. I admit — I had taken it for granted having visited so many times throughout my life. Despite my current preference for the big city, I know that much of my love for Northern California is tied to its stunning landscapes. And, as Cecilia proved to me once again, the people were generally a treat to be around.
The first winery we arrived to was Honig, in Rutherford. My cousin Adam, who had worked in the Napa Valley restaurant scene for years, had recommended a handful of places to me and I was hoping to make it to three that day.
There was already a sense of excitement in the car as we approached the small visitors building from the long driveway. There weren’t many people there that day, so we were able to sit at a table outside, flanked by the vineyards on both sides. Our sales associate / server / wannabe sommelier was exceedingly friendly and chatted with us at length after he started us off with Honig’s Sauvignon Blanc reserve. He had previously lived in New York and we talked to him about living there, what we each did for work and he related to us the boredom that could come with living in the Valley. But, he said, he was enjoying it for the time being.
Between tastes, Cecilia and I laughed together because it clearly looked like we were a serious couple and not two people who had met a little over an hour earlier. I doubted anyone would have questioned us, considering that we both lived in Astoria, and were out there, where she was from, for the holidays. Clearly, I was the boyfriend-in-tow, home for Christmas. We tried the Cabernet and the Cabernet reserve, all while enjoying the made up life of us as non-strangers. Finally, our server poured us a white dessert wine, which had an apparent honey flavor to it.
Cecilia and I talked more and more, and we had done a good enough job of befriending our server such that he swung by to give us a bonus pour of the Cabernet. We stayed well past our wine glasses had emptied out, but it seemed like our hosts didn’t mind, considering it was a relatively slow day. I bought a bottle of the Sauvignon Blanc reserve and we bade farewell to Honig.
Jumping in the car, we took off back down the long driveway, to the road and proceeded directly across the street to enter Round Pond Estate winery. Not a bad commute!
Round Pond was, immediately, a more physically impressive and aesthetically grand operation. Rather than a homey tasting room tucked away under trees, a la Honig, Round Pond was a large building in the middle of a vast vineyard. The ceilings were high, rooms spacious and there was a large deck for taking in the view. It looked like an upscale ski lodge in the middle of grape fields.
We were given a table just inside from the deck, since they were not seating out there that day. This time for our tasting, we were going to have some delicious morsels paired with each wine. With the white wine, we were given salmon and crème fraîche on a fried wonton. The pairing was quite nice. The first red came with roasted duck on crostini, also delicious. And the second red wine, the stronger of the two, came with a spoonful of braised short rib which was the highlight of the day thus far.
It was during these sips and nibbles that Cecilia and I began to talk about our families in earnest. My uncle Andy had been homeless for years, apparently drifting around the Napa Valley, and it wasn’t until 2005 that anyone knew where he was. He had been more or less missing for the better part of two decades before he showed up one night at my grandmother’s back door, about as disheveled as one would expect with the additional deficiencies of a missing arm (!) and a tracheotomy hole. No one knew what had happened. He was a paranoid schizophrenic, so he didn’t really tell us much.
In a way, his reappearance came at the perfect time — only about week or two before my mother died. I like to think that she went out on top — the Red Sox had recently broken the Curse of the Bambino, the Patriots had won the divisional playoffs (and eventually, the Super Bowl) and her brother had turned up alive out of nowhere.
Having gone on a fairly long tangent about my family, Cecilia took some time to tell me about hers and specifically, her father. He was a Turkish man and to say that he was not really “present” enough was probably an understatement — he had been separated from the family since around the time she was 14. Her story reminded me of Julie’s (my Comic Con Date), and I had that sympathetic connection all over again. Losing a parent, no matter if they were actually dead or merely “gone”, was something which was hard for anyone who is not you to understand, but being in the club helped. As I had thought previously, it may actually be more difficult to have a parent out there in the world, choosing not to be in your life, than to have one taken from you forcibly.
As if that hadn’t been enough, Cecilia had lost two of the most important men in her life. Her mother’s long term boyfriend, who had filled the role of father figure at times, passed when she was 19. It was the same age at which I had lost my mom. We talked about the effects of death on our lives, the losses that we had both experienced, and through it all, there was hope on both sides of the table that the tragedies in our pasts could somehow help us in our futures. But, you know — it didn’t always seem that way. Sometimes death just wore on you.
Following our wine tasting and “real-talk” conversation, Cecilia and I went out onto the deck to admire the surroundings. I took some pictures, but found myself spending most of the time avoiding my urge to kiss her. It was one of those moments when the sun hangs low in the sky, there’s no one else around and you might as well be in a goddamn postcard, but you don’t pull the trigger because you’re a shell of a man. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.
In order to prolong the magic, and give myself another chance, I suggested that we take a walk around the estate. I did not have to ask twice.
Part way down the first road, Cecilia did a cartwheel just for the fun of it. I thought, “I could get used to hanging out with someone like this.” Of course, I had to prove to her that I could also do a cartwheel, which I did, but hers had looked better. We paused in front of a large, convex mirror to take some pictures. They came out pretty damn cute and she told me to put them on the blog. I told her that she would be the first date with her image publicly revealed and she was totally cool with it.
I passed up another prime opportunity to kiss her because I was being obnoxiously timid.
Furthering our journey through the vineyard, we couldn’t help but wonder where the hell the supposed “round pond” might be. We stumbled upon a small, man-made reservoir, but that couldn’t have been it. We couldn’t even get in there to hang out with the ducks because it was fenced off. Maybe the water was just there to attract the ducks which would eventually end up as pairings for medium bodied red wines.
We walked by a couple vineyard workers and found ourselves playing in a large empty metal container, which they used to cart around harvested grapes. On our way back to the car, we passed by the produce garden and the main building, where we could see that everyone had left for the day.
The car was parked underneath a sort of latticework structure, covered in vines, which seemed to be bearing some kind of brown, fuzzy fruit. They looked like kiwis, but I didn’t think kiwis grew around there. I related my theory to Cecilia as I bent down to pick up a fallen berry. I broke it open and sure enough, the bright green flesh of a kiwifruit poured forth. I stepped close to Cecilia to show her my discovery, only to let it fall to the ground, so I could put my hand on the side of her face and pull her in for a kiss. As I released, and backed my head away, she uttered, “Smooth.” I made some dumb, self-deprecating comment, and we got in the car to leave.
There wasn’t enough time left in the day to make it to another winery, so we came to a crucial decision: Would we stop by my grandmother’s house for sampling of Ed’s Red, our family’s Cabernet Sauvignon, and possibly bump into my entire family in the process? It was tempting, and Cecilia was open to the idea, but I decided to spare all parties involved the assuredly uncomfortable experience.
Rather, we stopped into Taylor’s Refresher for a quintessential St. Helena casual bite. It was not actually called Taylor’s any longer, but Gott’s, and it was not as much of a drive in burger joint as it had been in its heyday, but it looked the part and the grill still served up great food. I had a hamburger and a chocolate shake while Cecilia got adventurous with a spicy chicken sandwich and a mint shake. By the time we were eating, the sun had set and the temperature had lowered. We huddled close to each other under the glow of a heat lamp and chowed down.
I needed to wash my hands afterward, and take a leak, so I pardoned myself to use the bathroom. When I returned to the table, I was greeted with a kiss. It was as if we were dating or something.
Back in the car, we talked about what to do next. I knew of little to do in St. Helena, so Cecilia suggested returning to Sonoma to check out Santa Rosa.
We had a nice, hour-long drive through the dark, winding roads between Napa and Sonoma valleys to further get to know each other. As we approached Santa Rosa, Cecilia told me about the influence of Charles Schulz on the town. The Peanuts’ creator had lived in the town for decades and in addition to a Charles Schulz museum, a number of Peanuts characters dotted the town in statue form. Sure enough, Charlie Brown and Snoopy both greeted us when we pull into A’Roma Roasters, Cecilia’s favorite coffee shop in Santa Rosa.
It was a cool place, and while we drank teas, I got to hear stories about high school and growing up in the area. Santa Rosa had been the closest place to do anything fun, so she had spent a good deal of time there. We sat in the corner, nursed our beverages and bathed in the nostalgia of our teenage years.
With a mild amount of caffeine in our systems, we went for a walk around the block. She told me about the bar scene in Santa Rosa. I pulled her into a deserted little doorway for some kissing. It was awesome. It was the right amount of romance with a mild disregard for what would be deemed socially acceptable.
On the drive back to Cotati, Cecilia convinced me to meet her family, mostly on the premise that I would get to see her brother do magic. I was hesitant, but unworried. I didn’t mind meeting families. It was a cool way to get to know a person and find out what they might look like in 30 years. I will say though, mothers are an easier audience than younger brothers, and she had two of them.
I met Cecilia’s mother and youngest brother right when I walked in and they were both very nice. The magician was in his room and had to be be retrieved. When he appeared, he was happy to perform some tricks for us, though I could tell that it was child’s play to him. He had been doing magic for years and even performed for money. Pretty cool for a young kid.
Cecilia, her mother and I made small talk about this and that, and the magician piped up as well — to ask what I did for work and if I made a lot of money. It made me laugh. Kids say the darndest things.
Before my presence became awkward, Cecilia offered to walk me to my car. I said goodbye to her family and we walked out into the street.
She warned me that when she was 16, her brothers would crack the front door to catch her kissing boys outside the house. We were both a bit nervous that they might be spy on us, but the momentum of the day, the night, the wine and the charm of Northern California could not hinder us.
Standing outside of her childhood home, Cecilia kissed the shit out of me, put me in my car and told me goodnight.
Under normal circumstances, I’d have been kicking myself for meeting such a great girl all the way on the West Coast, but luckily, we would both be back in NYC in no time.
(Check out all the cool driving I did that day!)