Valerie Stauffer


Free Lunch at Il Paradiso



Barbara can't believe she's going on a date, her first in 48 years. She's given away almost all her clothes, deciding she'll age gracefully in a single turquoise, polyester pantsuit for drinks with the girls or wear her basic black shift for the relentless parade of funerals. And then this new friend found her in the Lucky's Supermarket express lane. At least she still has one go-out-to-lunch dress.

A last look in the hall mirror. She dabs another layer of rouge to perk up her pale cheeks, considers and rejects mascara for the third time, and gazes at herself in the lavender silk she's kept around, just in case. Just in case something came up. Not bad at all for 76.

The buzzer shrills. She drops her best blue leather purse, spilling keys and a monogrammed linen handkerchief. She stuffs it all back in and opens the door to her gentleman caller.

George Wilson looks even better than he did that day at Lucky's. He's in a snappy gray suit and a satin, pink flowered tie. Perhaps a bit overdone for lunch, but he's certainly handsome.  Not a single gray hair among the black.

"Great little place you have." George glances around the room, focusing on the New England antique lowboy with Barbara's collection of figurines. 

"I like these statues," George says and picks one off the shelf. "I bet they're real valuable."

"Oh, I guess so. My husband Dan brought the netsukes back from Japan. They're ivory, you know.  Lots of memories." Barbara hopes he won't drop the little snake he's holding.  That was from the Chinese Year of the Snake, the year she and Dan celebrated their fortieth anniversary with a party for more than a hundred friends. Less than five years later, Dan was dead of a stroke.  After that she couldn't bear to live in their rambling Connecticut farmhouse.

She flew to California to visit her friend who lived in a retirement community. Within two days, Barbara had put down a deposit on a tiny cottage in Edmont Manor. California had seemed like a good idea. She'd make new friends and start a new life. And so she moved into this squat Spanish cottage in a village of old people. Her best friend is now in a nursing home, her mind a fog of confusion. Good friends are hard to find. Conversations are all about arthritis, knee replacements and heart problems.

"Now, tell me where we're going. I love going out for lunch."

George laughs. "I've got a real nice place for us.  Il Paradiso down on the San Diego harbor. Great views. Great eats."

"I've heard it's rather expensive."

"I'm set on Il Paradiso. Never been there," George says.

Barbara can hardly believe she accepted an invitation with practically a total stranger. But why shouldn't she go out to lunch? It isn't as if she has anything else to do all day.

Barbara carefully locks her front door, and they step into the brilliant California sunshine.

"I came for this perfect weather," she says. "Crayola-colored blue skies and green grass."

"You don't miss family back East?"

 "Dan and I never had kids. Just one of those things."

He leads her to his gray Toyota. This battered one has seen better days.  Her second ride with him. He'd been so charming that first time when he offered to drive her home from Lucky's.

"I was rude the other day," Barbara apologizes. "I guess you didn?t know the express lane is for customers with less than ten items. You were cheating, you know.  Oh, but I told you that, didn't I."

"Sure did, Barbara.  Loud and clear.  But no punishment.  My reward was getting to drive you and your bag of groceries home. And take you out today."

"I miss my car so much," she says. "I was going to buy a brand new Mercedes, an adorable little white sedan. Then California took my license away. I didn't really hit anything, just touched someone's fender."

"You walk everywhere? You must not get out much."

"The Manor runs bus trips to stores and theaters. But you know, these other people are rather dreary."

They drive along the Manor roads, past identical little white stucco boxes.  Ghostlike video friends flicker through the picture windows.

"Barbara's such a formal name. You must have a nickname. Babs? Barbie? Barb?"

"In college, I was Barbie, but then that doll arrived. I went back to Barbara.  Dad was the only person who ever called me Babs."

"You'll be my Babs. Let's be young and foolish!"

Outside the Edmont Manor gates, Barbara sees joggers and small children.  Everyone looks young and happy. George cruises down the San Diego Freeway, asking about her, discovering she loves Danielle Steel romances and gets up early to walk around Edmont Pond. She tells him she wishes all the other residents at the Manor wouldn't plan their days around the TV soaps. 

At the Il Paradiso gates, a red-vested valet opens their car doors, and a beaming maitre d' leads them to a terrace above rolling surf and a sandy beach. Overhead, white seagulls fly.

 "It's a paradise all right," George says and turns to a waiter. "Two margaritas, lots of salt."

"I never have a margarita before evening. But I would love one." She isn't driving. There's no reason not to enjoy herself with George.

Barbara reads the over-sized menu from right to left, just as her mother instructed her years ago. "Nice girls don't order the most expensive foods," Mom always said before Barbara's dates.

"Two Paradiso Lobster Supreme," George tells the waiter.

"I'd be happy with a salad," Barbara says.

"No salads. We'll have the special lobster."

While they sip margaritas, George says he builds office buildings, rents them, sells them, manages them. He has deals all over San Diego, up the Coast, even in L.A. 

She finally dares to ask, "Did you ever marry?"

"I was sort of married, but it didn't quite work. You know how it is."

Barbara doesn't know how it is.  Her marriage was forever. But people in California are different, and men are shy about explaining their personal lives.

She wonders if George is younger than she.  He looks fine and fit, no wrinkles, and that black hair?

He rambles on about his daily jogs and then mentions he hasn't yet reached the Medicare Milestone. That means he's more than ten years younger than her 76.

Barbara concentrates on picking out the lobster meat from the claws, hoping he won't ask her age.

And he doesn't. George is polite. And delightful.

"Another drink? Or a cappuccino?"

"Perfect. There?s not a food or drink here that I ever have at the Manor."

With the cappuccinos comes the check. She hopes the lunch wasn't terribly expensive.  Of course, George knew all about this place.

He studies the check and searches his pockets.

"Hey, Babs, I have a small problem. Must have left my wallet at the office."

"It's probably in the car. You wouldn't leave your driver's license at the office," Barbara says.

"I keep my license in the glove compartment. I'm sorry. I'll need to use your credit card."

George isn't asking; he's demanding.

"I never carry a credit card," she explains. 

 "All women have credit cards.  You know. AmEx, Visa.  We've had a great day. Just help me out."

 George eyes her blue pocketbook on the table.

"I'm really sorry, Babs. Be a sport.  You must have cash on you."

Barbara reaches for her purse, glad that she went to the bank last Wednesday before Lucky's. She pulls out some tens and then realizes that she needs all her twenties and the fifty.  "Lunch is a hundred-and-twenty-three dollars? That's a lot of money."

"And a tip, Babs. Twenty percent would be right." He searches through her purse for the last few dollars.

"Please, give me my bag." Barbara takes her pocketbook and snaps it shut.

Barbara can't decide if she's silly. Of course, she can afford the lunch, and George will pay her back. Still, he should have remembered his wallet.

Then, as they turn the corner of the hall out of the restaurant, George kisses her lightly on the cheek. He's all musky aftershave and smooth sandpaper.

"M-m-m, so lovely," he whispers.

In the car, he stretches his arm over the seat and around her shoulders.

Is she being prissy? Tears well up in her eyes.  She reaches into her purse for her handkerchief. Not there. It must have dropped out when George took her money. A tissue box could be in the glove compartment. She opens the little door and sees it-- not a hankie box but a worn leather wallet.

"Oh, good news, George. I've found your wallet."

"Give it here." George grabs it, stuffs it into a pocket. The Toyota swerves, nearly crossing into the far lane of the Freeway.

"Aren't you glad? You'll pay me back, and the day will be perfect," Barbara says.

"Sure, but not while I'm at the wheel." George smiles and gently squeezes her shoulder.

"Let's talk about another time, Babs. Today's been great. Right-o?"

Today has been fun.  If George hadn't invited her out, she'd have eaten her usual sardine sandwich on whole grain, satisfying her calcium and nutritional needs.

They pull up in front of her cottage, and George starts to get out of his seat.

"Now that you have your wallet, we should get things settled," she says. She's embarrassed, acting like a bill collector, but of course he means to pay her back.

 "Oh, Babs, you understand. I can't afford an expensive lunch. My business isn't going too well this year."

"But you invited me there." Barbara knows she's right. Why should she feel guilty?

"What's the problem? You've got money. It's not every day that you go out on a fun date, Babs."

"Don't call me Babs."

George is charming again, jumping out of his seat to open her door, reaching for her arm to escort her into her house.

"We?ll do this again, Babs. It's been a fabulous day."

Another time? How can he dare to suggest it? She puts her key in the lock and opens the front door just enough for her to squeeze through.

Barbara takes off the lavender silk dress and tosses it onto a chair. She wraps a pink paisley robe around her and settles into the comfy wing chair in front of the TV. One Life to Live isn't a bad show. She tries to follow the romantic entanglements on the screen.  Then, with sudden determination, she turns off the foolish video romance.

She's had her own romance today, well, definitely not a romance, but maybe a romantic adventure. In a way, it was exciting.

The ringing phone startles her. Probably a neighbor calling to check up on her fiasco of a date.

"Hey, Babs, it's your buddy, George. Great lunch today."

"You owe me an apology."

 "Of course I'm sorry. You know I'd pay if I could, but I told you I'm just a little short of cash right now."

"Why are you calling, George?"

"I've got a fun plan for us, Babs. Dinner and a show. Midsummer Night's Dream is playing at Balboa Park Theater."

The Dream is one of her favorites.

"You'll like the show, Babs. I'll pick you up at five-thirty tomorrow. Right-o?"

"No, George."

"I thought you'd like an evening with Shakespeare, but I can come up with something else. No problem. How going to the Embarcadero to hear the San Diego Pops?"

For a minute, Barbara can't make her tongue say the words. A Pops concert has been on her wish list since she moved to California. She takes a deep breath. "No, George. I won't be going out with you."

"Don?t be foolish, Babs."

"Never, George." She bites her lip. "Never. Ever," she says and pushes her thumb down hard onto the disconnect button.

Barbara takes two steps across the room to consider her dress lying on the chair. She might take it to Diego Cleaners. Instead she smoothes out the wrinkles, folds it into a rectangle of shimmering lavender silk and puts it in a brown paper bag that she'll donate to Goodwill. She should go this afternoon, before she changes her mind.