Afternoon Tea Date

—Monday, January 16, 2012—

I always appreciated a long weekend, and throughout One Hundred Dates, having a Monday off from work was even better than usual. It meant I could get some sleep, catch up on writing or go on a date. I did all three of those things on Martin Luther King Jr Day 2012. I needed some reason to celebrate, besides the life of a legendary civil rights leader, following a roller coaster of a weekend.

On Friday, I’d gone out on an excellent Blind Date, but woke up early Saturday to head to Boston. My family was celebrating my father’s 60th birthday with a little dinner and I was planning on seeing Julie as well. It had been a month since I’d last seen her and I was looking forward to it a great deal.

Julie and I had been in contact about my visit for weeks and, long story short, we didn’t end up seeing each other. Between making myself available, and her apparent indifference, I felt like I’d gotten the short end of the stick. I was upset.

I had planned to stay through Sunday and use my Monday off as a travel day, but feeling frustrated and discouraged, I bought a bus ticket Sunday night and returned to NYC a day early. I didn’t want to be anywhere near Boston.

The bus ride back wasn’t all hurt feelings though, and that was thanks to OHD, which had often been the source of both delight and disappointment for over six months. Returning early meant I would be free for a date on Monday, and so I texted Tori — a woman who had found me about a month earlier on OkCupid.

This was the the woman who texted me while on my last date and asked to reschedule our date for the following weekend. I knew it might be pushing it, but I thought maybe I could move the date up rather than back. Luckily, she was available on Monday for afternoon tea. This was the same woman, you may recall, who told me that I had already taken her roommate out on Acupuncture Date.

As was the case with many dates, I didn’t know too much about Tori before meeting her, but everything I did know made me very interested. She was a dancer and photographer, fun to text with and super adorable. Also, since I’d already dated her roommate, I was very interested to see what the whole apartment thought of the Evan Barden Experience. She would also be the second ballerina I’d gone out with in as many dates, and the first one was great, so my hopes were high.

We’d been texting for the last five days, and after she Facebook friended me, I was able to see pictures other than those on her dating profile, which were always skewed in the most flattering ways. Her less curated photos were, however, no less impressive. Tori’s pictures told me she was beautiful and the text messages we’d exchanged made her out to be flirtatious and thoughtful. Several days prior, I had been so enchanted with her that I emailed my coworker Phil a photo of Tori with the caption, “She has to be crazy, right?” I couldn’t understand why a woman like her would be going out with me unless she was absolutely bonkers. There had to be something wrong with her, and I didn’t know it yet, but I was happy to throw caution to the wind.

I was excited for the date, to be sure, and that was a welcome change from how I felt when I woke up, thoughts of Julie still swirling in my thick skull.

IMG_1558

As soon as Tori arrived in Union Square, she texted me, saving me from the book I was skimming about how to trick people in to thinking you’re smarter than you really are (things like referring to “family shit” as “domestic affairs”). I spotted Tori on the sidewalk and saw that she was shorter than expected. I don’t know why I’d thought she was taller — I’m sure her profile told me her exact height — but I must have willfully ignored it. Anyway, it wasn’t a negative at all, only a change of expectation. It’s incredible how I chose to notice only what I wanted when online dating. I had paid more attention to her pictures than to her statistics.

We greeted each other and I noticed the thing I’d been waiting to discover. The thing that might be why she was on a dating website and not constantly in the arms of a dashing young man. The reason why someone like her might go out with a guy like me. The reason I needed to exist so that I could stop her from being perfect and bring her down to my level.

That thing was her voice. She had a peculiar way of speaking. I don’t know exactly how to describe it, but the best thing I could think of at the time was “a lisp.” I had practically asked for there to be something wrong with her and then immediately felt guilty that I’d “found it.” As if having some kind of speech impediment were wrong. 

God, what an asshole. It wasn’t even off-putting, just overtly “different” enough that it made her stand out in a way that could be considered unflattering. Not by me, of course, because I was a good guy. The truth is that if I hadn’t put her up on this pedestal, I probably wouldn’t have labeled it a “thing” and I probably wouldn’t be writing more than one sentence about it.

But no, there’s some part of me that needs to acknowledge it and say “I don’t care” so that I can both de-glorify her and also make sure that everyone knows I’m not a monster.  It’s just that, with even more close-minded men out there in the world, I know that she was probably very aware of it when meeting a new potential man for the first time and I want to say, “Yes, I noticed it and it’s totally okay.”

I could only hope for the same metered reaction when every woman I met glanced up at my hairline and recognized that I only had a couple decent years left.

Aside from her perfectly different way of speaking, Tori was immediately kind, so I had no reason to think she’d be anything other than the amazing woman I’d been excited to meet.

IMG_1560

We walked east on 17th Street, in the direction of Irving Place, and I asked her about the rehearsal she’d just attended. She told me it was good, especially since their director, despite recently losing his father, had been present. They had been prepared to have only a rehearsal director lead them. I didn’t know rehearsal director was a position, but Tori filled me in, teaching me something new.

As we turned up Irving, Tori asked if I’d been to the tea place before. I hadn’t, and in fact, I didn’t really know where it was beyond its address. We stopped walking and looked around at where the place should have been, but didn’t see any signs for it. After some iPhoning, street crossing and close searching, we spied a small, golden faceplate which read “Lady Mendl’s” and had an etching of a tea cup. It otherwise looked like plain old Manhattan brownstone. We climbed the stone stairs and entered through the heavy, old wooden door.

We had entered Lady Mendl’s Tea Salon and I was impressed immediately. It smelled amazing in there — some kind of candle or incense, I guessed. It seemed essentially, to be an old Manhattan home converted into a boutique hotel, with Lady Mendl’s occupying the front end of its first floor. Stepping into the room to the right of the front door, we were surrounded by antique furniture in some kind of greeting area complete with fireplace and a man who seemed to be in charge. I gave the man my name so he could confirm our reservation, handed our coats to an attendant and we were instructed to sit down and wait. It appeared that we were the first ones there for the 5 p.m. tea.

Sitting down on an appropriately uncomfortable, but pleasant enough, piece of Victorian-era furniture, Tori was quickly fascinated with the diminutive, elderly keyboard to my left. She wondered if it worked, but judging from its approximate age and the fact that the foot pedals were not connected to anything, I doubt it did. She asked if I could play piano, but I only knew chords and, if I thought hard enough, perhaps a major scale. I had this bullshit class in high school called Music Workshop, which was essentially a study hall in the music room, so I taught myself a tiny bit of piano.

Happily, Tori thought that was impressive enough, since she never learned any kind of instrument, but she was a professional dancer, so she didn’t need to prove her artistic or creative worth to me. She was clearly far more driven than I was in my teenage years and she told me all about pursuing dance whilst making her way though school. 

Tori and I discovered very quickly that, although she was raised primarily in Manhattan and the Bronx, she attended middle school and high school in the same town I attended college: Fairfield, CT. We talked about the town of Fairfield itself and the off-putting, over-privileged denizens of wealthy Southern Connecticut. I couldn’t remember the people I knew who were from the town of Fairfield, so I couldn’t play the name game, but we did find that I knew right where her dance studio was located. She was in a junior conservatory program there, or something like that. The Fairfield thing was a surprising connection to make and seemed to unify us ever so slightly.

The Fairfield tangent was brief, and what she really spoke about was her high school experience. She was able to modify her schedule so that she could dedicate significant time to dance. By her account, the Fairfield administrators were pushovers compared to city officials, and she was able to get the curriculum she wanted by fighting for it.

Not only did she have to work to make her schedule accommodate dance, but she also had to work simply to take her desired classes. As I came to find out, Tori was hard of hearing, so the school would try to hold her back from certain things, like language classes, but she fought for the right to take Italian and learned it in spite of them. It wasn’t easy, but she got by with C+’s.

In a moment, I had gained so much admiration for Tori. There I was, wondering why she spoke differently than most people and all along, she was compensating for an impairment which made it difficult to communicate. I really was an asshole.

She went on to tell me how she always had to fight for what she wanted. Her middle school years were isolating because those suburban kids, while squeaky clean on the the surface, were not very kind to the new girl who was hard of hearing. It didn’t help that wore hearing aids at that age, not yet able to get by without them. She said the city kids were more kind and in some ways, smarter. They thought she was cool because the teacher would have to wear a little microphone that went to an FM transmitter Tori wore, so even when the teacher left the room, Tori could hear what they said. 

Middle school could be a terrible time for most any kid, and like many of us, Tori had, by the time she got to high school, found a solid group of friends which made her feel welcome. This included a few large men on the football team who ensured she wasn’t hassled. I told Tori that they probably all loved her, but she said she always thought of herself as a little sister. I was still skeptical. I was once a high school boy, after all. They were most likely too scared and too shy to admit how they felt. Finally, Tori said that she went out with one of them “a year or two ago” and he admitted that he had always liked her. I knew it.

Already, I found Tori to be very friendly and candid, which comforted me. Especially after she opened up to me about her hearing, I no longer felt shy around her and flirted a little more than I normally might at that point in the date. That is to say, all we’d done so far was wait in a waiting room. I also felt like I could put aside all my pre-conceived notions of her, along with her very real imperfections, and get on with getting to know her. I’d spent most of the date up to that point feeling various waves of guilt, but that was unnecessary. I was enjoying myself and as far I could tell, so was Tori.

We talked about ancestry — she had a one grandmother who was French and Indian, but Tori’s makeup was predominantly British and Italian. Whatever her exact background, it was an interesting combination. I would not have known where to place her had she not told me, though something about her short, dark hair and the way it was styled, had me thinking French. She said she used to have long curly hair when she was younger and it made her look even more confusing. People would often think she was Latina, especially given the section of the Bronx she was living. As I’d told dates many times before, I was just a white dude from the land of whites.

It was amongst all the talk of family and background that I found out that her mom was mostly a single mother, or at least, that was the impression I got.

Moments before 5 p.m., a well dressed Indian man came over and, in the most polite way, told us that we were ready to be seated. We were brought into a room across the hall and chose a table in the front corner of the room, closest to the fireplace. My previous date had involved a fireplace too, so I must have been on some kind of good luck streak. 

The room was elegant by today’s standards, but I’m sure that the tea room was casual compared to other parts of a Victorian house.

A server handed us tea menus and, looking at it, I was clueless. Neither of us knew what we were supposed to be choose. Did we pick one tea for the table? A tea for each of us? Or was it a one tea per course kind of deal? Neither of us had any idea. We talked about the different tea options, and which ones sounded intriguing, until the server returned to us. I asked him to clarify the process and found that we would each order a tea for ourselves. Tori chose a chai and I ordered something herbal and pepperminty.

I didn’t quite know what having “afternoon tea” meant until I had looked it up for the sake of this project. I knew it involved drinking tea and possibly having some tiny, crustless finger sandwiches, but I did not know that it was considered a meal in some instances. In the case of Lady Mendl’s, afternoon tea was a five course meal lasting about 90 minutes. (You can find out more information on the internet.)

Over tea, there was frequent eye contact. Tori’s eyes were intense and beautiful, so I had no problem looking into them time and time again.

The first course was a petite mushroom tart, which Tori didn’t eat because she doesn’t like mushrooms. I told her it was okay, especially since I was picky myself, and likely wouldn’t enjoy some of the other food. British food, in particular, was fairly terrible. They were the kind of monsters who put mayonnaise on a caprese sandwich, which was a real buzzkill because I generally did not like foods that were white and creamy. 

We talked a bit about travel and food as I ate and we waited for subsequent courses to arrive.

Getting back to music, I told her which instruments I played and a bit about the bands I’d been a part of. I was unprepared for what she told me next. Tori said that, for the longest time, she thought that her father was involved in the music industry, living in LA and touring around the world, but that she one day found out that he was actually a British secret agent. He had long been an on-again, off-again agent in Britain’s elite MI6 operations. It was a deeply undercover scenario and even her mom never knew. His story always made sense to her mother since she had met him at a concert. Tori still don’t know everything about her father’s life, though it sounded like she had only found out about his secret a couple years prior.

It was so incredible to sit there, nibbling on a cucumber sandwich, while she told me about her father. Apparently, he had written a tell-all book about it under a pseudonym and had gotten in some hot water with the British government for dishing dirt. Obviously, secret agents weren’t supposed to go writing books about their experiences, but he must have felt it necessary. Maybe the release of the book had been her father’s impetus to tell her and her mother, but I didn’t ask too many details. However, she did tell me that she designed the book cover and that he was, at the time, living in Nice, France with his girlfriend.

There was a great deal to take in, given what she’d just confided in me. While I was sure that many people had reacted to her story with some amount of excitement, likely mentioning how cool it was to have an international spy for a father, I sensed that Tori’s experience had been less exuberant. She went on to tell me that everyone always loved her dad, when he was actually around, especially her friends. He was a charming, gregarious man who knew how to get along with most anyone. She tempered this description with one of a father who wasn’t there much, had lied to his family and likely hadn’t kept up with the basic responsibilities of being a good parent. In several ways, her father reminded me of my own, and I told her so. There were major differences, of course, namely that the hammer my dad employed was found on his tool belt and not at the rear end of a gun barrel.

Months after our date, I bought and read the book that Tori’s father wrote. The most interesting part was trying to read the book from her perspective and noting all the passages I would hate to read had he been my own father. Also, noting the absence of Tori from his writing — he didn’t mention a daughter until something like four or five chapters in. He came off as arrogant and narcissistic, bragging throughout the book of his numerous skills, great endurance, high intelligence and apparent sexual prowess. It wasn’t too fun of a read when you knew he was someone’s father.

His book has actually made me question my own writing. As someone who writes about my life and my experiences, I am aware that I am prone to naval-gazing and I seek ways to avoid it. But in the end, “I” is always a capital letter and I am always the narrator of the story. How do I make it so “I” doesn’t destroy me? You see what I just did? I’ve even taken the most important part of Tori’s story and somehow made it about myself. This is next level narcissism.

Let us, for the time being, put my identity problems aside and get back to tea.

The food, despite being British, was actually quite decent. I enjoyed some of the sandwiches in the second course and the scones in the third course were a delight. The jams that came with them were particularly delicious. Tori wondered if I would eat the clotted creme that came with the scones because yes, it was indeed, white and creamy. It turned out to be an exception to the rule and I ate some of it happily — it was quite good. The scones were definitely the best course of the meal.

The fourth and fifth courses were both, essentially dessert. Cake was served first, which was nice, and then a variety of cookies. I ate the chocolate one but the rest didn’t appeal to me much. 

Tori and I sat there talking longer than any other party in the room, until we found ourselves to be the only ones left. The tea pots were empty and the last few cookies were not going anywhere. I paid, we retrieved our coats and exited our make-believe Victorian home to reengage with the realities of 2012 New York.

I had an improv show that night, but there was still about an hour before my call time, so I suggested we have a drink. Tori had previously been to a wine bar just across the street, so we decided on that, settling into a cozy table for two in the dimly lit Pierre Loti.

Initially, we both had our eyes on the same wine (a Tempranillo), but Tori eventually selected a Pinot Noir instead. She told me it was her aunt’s favorite wine and that she typically avoided it in family settings so that there wouldn’t be a fight over it. Without her aunt in the picture, she was free to enjoy a guilt-free glass of Pinot Noir.

Over wine, I asked her if she was an only child, as it seemed like she might be from the stories I’d heard. Essentially, she was an only child, though she did have a half-brother. I got the sense that it wasn’t something I should dig into, so I left it at that. 

She then asked about the makeup of my family and that qA when I told her that the next day was the anniversary of my mother’s death. She was very sympathetic and exceedingly kind in response. I told her I was okay and she commented on how different it might be for her if she were in my shoes. Her mother was her best friend and life without her was unimaginable. I could understand, with all the twists and turns of her family life, why her mother was indeed her rock.

As we continued talking, past the sadness of the coming day, the yellow and orange of the wine bar’s dim lights danced in Tori’s bright eyes and our hands found each others’ on the table. I could have carried on there all night with her.

Alas, I had a show to get to and by the time we’d asked for the check, I only had about 15 minutes to get to the theater. I asked Tori if she wanted to come, but she declined, saying she should get home. It was the reply I expected, but a part of me hoped it wouldn’t be goodbye just yet.

Standing outside, on the side of the street, Tori and I hugged. The kiss that followed came effortlessly, since we’d both had a sincerely nice time together, as the hand holding had indicated. It wasn’t easy to tear myself away from kissing Tori — such a beautiful, endearing woman — but after a couple minutes, I regained my hold on reality and hailed a cab. One more kiss before I said goodbye.

As my car passed her walking on the sidewalk, half a block later, I waved to her and smiled. Minutes later, my phone buzzed with a text from Tori and we continued those messages until we both said goodnight.