UnBEliEVably Best Birthday
"Unbelievable," I brushed tears away from my cheeks.
"You like it?"
"I love it... You know I'm going to write about it."
"You knew it when you picked it."
His grin grew...............................................................................
This time of year has always given me anxiety... Christmas, New Years, followed shortly by my birthday... So by the day before my birthday, I was jittery with worry- Afraid I would melt down, run away, fall apart... But somehow, when I got a text from Victor asking if an Italian restaurant would be okay for my birthday dinner- I calmed myself down. Be positive. Whatever it is- It will be perfect... Even if it is chaos- It will be a perfect day.
He called me the moment I hit send on the my response, "Hey... Oh, is this you answering my text? What did you say? ...Sorry, I didn't want to wait to make the reservation- So, I called."
He sounded excited.
"Yeah- I said, anything sounds good to me- as long as we can order something with chocolate for dessert," I was smiling and starting to convince myself that it was all going to be okay.
"If not- I'll take you somewhere else for dessert... But I think you're going to like this spot."
.........Not much later, he came home. As we made dinner and ate, he asked whether we ought to go buy beer to celebrate at midnight. So we bundled up and took a brisk walk through the freshly fallen snow. "It's beautiful!" I exclaimed, "Did you order it just for me?"
He laughed, "Sure."
"Oh, thank you!" I clung to him as my boots slipped on the concealed uneven pavement.
By the time we came home with the beer, we were in a creative mood. We played guitars... I began writing lyrics... Victor went to his computer and began programming drums. By his second beer, he had a plan. "I'm going to make something really silly."
At first the jumble of experimenting to select specific sounds did not seem musical... I paused in my process to put away the leftovers. My mind wandered to other things... Life, plans, philosophy- Then seemingly suddenly, dots began to connect. Ideas began to come full circle. Should I be writing any of this down? I realized then that Victor had found his groove, and it was taking me along for the ride. "It sounds good, babe. I like it!"
I went to his side and kissed his cheek. He smiled but barely pulled his gaze away from his work. He was on a roll and keeping momentum.
"I'm gonna hop into a quick shower, okay?"
In the shower, where beat sounds meshed with the white noise, melodies mumbled out of my mouth- erupting from some unknown source. There was no way to capture them... Should I wrap myself in a towel and get some of this recorded into my phone? I don't want to disrupt Victor... Let's see where this goes before I start to impose...
By the time I rejoined him in the living room, Victor was tinkering on his guitar and asking, "Whenever you're ready to throw something on this..."
My mind was suddenly blank, "Well, I was... When I was in the shower, but now it's different... and I didn't want to interrupt."
"Go ahead," he began to set up the mic.
"I will... When I hear something again."
"Whatever you have is fine... I'm going to autotune it."
"I know, but it's gone now. Every time you add something, it changes," I felt I was failing him, but I told myself to be patient and let it come on its own. "I will."
..............................................................It was a natural pause.
Right where it was supposed to be... I saw him stand up from his chair, regaining perspective, clearly feeling embarrassed for having completely geeked out for more than a moment. Now, returning to reality, self-conscious... Remembering it was now after midnight. He came to my side, trying to make me feel like all his attention was mine for these twenty-four hours.
He made a ceremony of showing me he was giving me my birthday wish- Our phones powered off for a full day. Then he kissed my cheek, "Do you want to record now? ...Or you can wait-"
I could have backed out. There was a temptation to be meek. But I felt an impulse... I grabbed the scribblings that I was already forgetting had I not written them down... After briefly giving him a preview of a few melodies, we started recording. Without any structure in mind, I ran through all the lyrics without stopping... Letting my vocals continue and trail and trickle, as I knew the autotune would blend them. I felt silly... ridiculous! I wanted to stop and blush and laugh as myself, but I pushed through. I told myself to let go- and I was singing the lyrics, "let go". Some adlib escaped- Where did that come from? Actually, I can't believe I liked that... The rush ran through me, out my mouth- And when it had passed, I looked down to Victor, sitting in front of the computer. His eyes asked me if I was finished.
I laughed, "There's still more time?"
He clicked the stop button, "It's enough." He began mixing... toying with my voice.
I watched in amusement and amazement as he worked his magic. We giggled and listened to it through all the different speakers in the apartment, tweaking and discussing what else we might try...
How on Earth am I supposed to not love you?
....................................The following morning of my birthday, we awoke to roads paved with dirty white snow. I had suggested that we have brunch at Reading Terminal Market. This turned out to be a brilliant idea! Victor and I wandered the aisles for hours. He introduced me to Halvah, a sesame based candy that I had never heard of before. I found gummie bears with twelve different flavors for my friends who love anything gummie. We picked up cheap produce to start a week of healthier eating, following a very indulgent holiday season-
Since I had two weeks off from my speech therapy job, I thought that I would devote more time to my other ventures... However, only so much progress could be made- So I filled some of my free time making home cooked meals for us. Christmas eve-eve was single-serving chicken pot-pies... Which turned out to be single-serving for Victor but twice the pie I could eat in a sitting. I made many omelets, lots of hand-cut homefries... biscuits and gravy. I found fresh Amish sausage for the gravy. When there was leftover chicken and vegetables from the pot-pie, I turned it into soup... and each night we had chocolates for dessert, courtesy of Victor's clients, for Christmas.
We had saved my birthday to be the final big extravagance for the holidays... My special surprise from Victor...
On our way home from the market, we paused in the SEPTA trolley gift shop, browsing like tourists in our own city. The snow made the ride home a long and motion sick one… So we spent the couple remaining hours before our dinner reservation recuperating with cartoons and British comedy. Feeling refreshed, we braved public transportation once more to South Philly.
On the train, we discussed a dance performance we had recently attended. He had composed the music for the choreographer. What we enjoyed about the pieces, the performances. We discussed what other ways we could bring dancers into what we do for more exposure; Where they might perform to gain his compositions more of an audience.
As we ascended the subway staircase onto the sidewalk, Victor told me, “This way- Those lights. That should be it.”
Lights, yes, and a few people standing outside… As we approached and the sign became legible, I began to feel the excitement arise in my gut. Is this the place? Or a coincidence? I looked at Victor, “This is where you’re taking me? Victor Café- Music Lover’s Rendezvous?”
He was smiling and watching me unravel into an ecstatic teenager. “That’s part of the surprise,” he hinted.
“Wow. Wow.......... No words. Victor Café!”
…This is the point at which I must digress to remind my readers that- if you don’t know me, you may not realize that ‘Echo’ and ‘Victor’ are not our real names… (Although we have laughed more than once when he's been called this.) It was something more or less randomly assigned after I named my band, went crazy, and started fictionalizing my life into a blog. It was as if he had reached into my mind and manifested the restaurant just for my birthday dinner! …except of course- It is real!
“What’s a music lover’s rendezvous?” I asked rhetorically, as we walked in.
A hostess walked us through the length of the restaurant to a nice table in the back. Our waitress introduced herself, “Hello, my name is Iris. We’ll be sharing this experience together this evening.”
I noted this introduction to be somewhat odd but assumed that she had a certain manner of speaking. She was middle-aged, wearing the same black and white uniform as the other staff. Her hair pulled back. Her eyes obscured by large black-rimmed glasses. I laughed a little to myself about how Clark Kent it seemed.
We ordered drinks and began reading the menu… It was the kind of menu we really wanted to spend some time mentally tasting as we read each description.
“Wow. Wow. This looks wonderful. I can’t believe you found this place!”
I was peering around the room, covered in pictures, like you would see of old fashioned movie stars. I could see that Victor was still waiting for the other half of his surprise. Is it something I am supposed to see? Is he waiting for me to find it? Is it small? He remembers I'm near-sighted, right?
"Yeah, I would like to find more opportunities to work with dance and theater... Have you seen any opera in Philadelphia?" he asked.
"Opera? No. I am sure there is... But I have only seen an opera singer one time live."
Before we could order our meals, a loud bell rang. The room became silent. A waiter introduced himself and explained that he was going to perform a piece from an opera. He briefly summarized his character’s motivation then sang a lovely tenor piece. I was wiping tears out of my eyes at the end.
“Wow,” I repeated.
“I was wondering when that was going to happen!” Victor smiled and gripped my hand in his.
"That was a surprise!" I giggled, "You're silly. Innocently asking me about opera... How did you find this place?”
“I was just looking around online… at a couple of Italian places actually. I wasn’t even really looking at the names until I saw this one.”
Iris brought us bread and pesto dipping oil. We began devouring it, trying to save our appetites but absorbed in the depth of the flavor… Then the bell rang again. We looked up to see Iris, with her glasses off. As she began to sing, she became her role. Her arms extended. Her eyes narrowed. The entire of her being became the emotion in her voice. I have no idea what she was singing in Italian, but it was heart-breaking beautiful! ...Then, within minutes of her performance concluding, she donned her spectacles again and resumed serving.
We ordered crespelle capraiccio- “Prosciutto stuffed with herbed crabmeat béchamel, baked with reduced balsamic”. They looked like little crispy prosciutto eggrolls that fell apart to reveal melting crabmeat in rich white sauce. I gobbled up the bed of baby spinach and balsamic they came resting upon.
“Have some lemon,” Victor squeezed the wedge onto my meat dumpling. “It brings out the flavors even more.”
“Mmmmm…” My taste-buds were dancing.
…Then we had a special, not on the regular menu- eggplant rolotini. They looked like ravioli in a red sauce, but when you cut them apart you could see they were tender thin strands of eggplant rolled up with cheesy deliciousness inside. I barely had to chew, the eggplant was so well cooked- not at all mushy, just perfectly prepared.
The bell rang again. This time it was an older gentleman, who did not work there. He explained his picture was one of the many on the walls, and someone had requested he perform a tune. He obliged.
Lastly, we shared a pasta entre, ravioli titta ruffo- “Porcini mushroom ravioli in gorgonzola cream garnished with tomatoes and toasted walnuts”. Victor tried to talk me to ordering more, but we were glad we had not when I could barely finish half of my portion.
I was overwhelmed by the richness of the sauce, “So buttery, mmm… If I finished this plate, I would fall asleep right here.”
Victor did not let the remainder of my ravioli go to waste, including every last drop of the precious cream sauce with the bread. I saved the tiny bit of room left in my tummy for Tiramisu.
Two more opera pieces were performed by two other staff members. One memorable performance was a petite soprano singing, “The Doll’s Song”. More than once mid-song her character, an old fashioned toy, wound down, requiring the assistance of another waiter to wind her up again. It was delightfully theatrical!
As we savored our dessert, Victor and I mused over which of our family members would enjoy the food and the ambiance of our new Philly find… which items on the menu we looked forward to trying next time.
“Good birthday, baby?” Victor asked.
“Best birthday ever…” My cheeks hurt from all the involuntary smiling. “I have no words. Thank you!”
“Good… I am surprised I never heard about it before.”
"I love it... You know I'm going to write about it."
"You knew it when you picked it."
His grin grew...........................................................................
When we awoke the next morning, I breathed in the last few fleeting moments of phone free time. How to hold on to that feeling………….?