By the time they reached D'Antini's, Nadia knew she was in the company of a friend. She and Jon made small talk while they waited for the maitre d' to find them a table in the middle of the sumptuous dining room, and she almost forgot about having to explain herself to her station staff.
The appetizers were amazing, if unidentifiable. Nadia asked what was in them and Jon just smiled and held up a hand. "You really don't want to know."
Nadia almost spit out the latest mouthful, but thought twice about it as she looked around. This was too nice a place to be so rude. Her eyes widened in mirth as she tried to laugh around it and almost choked trying to get it down. She grabbed her water glass and took a drink, waving a hand at her face.
"You jerk," she laughed softly, when her mouth became free. "All right, seriously now, do you take every woman who faints in your arms to a place this fancy?"
"No," he answered, "just those who remind me of a dear friend." The smile faded from his face and he became pensive for several seconds. Then he placed a couple more appetizers on her salad plate. "Here," he said, suddenly brightening, "have some more…brown, crusty…things."
She chuckled again, pushing the plate away. "No, thanks. A moment on the lips…." She let the rest of the cliché fade away while she rearranged her napkin in her lap, trying to buy some time before she had to plow ahead. "So why am I here with you? Because you're concerned for me or because I remind you of someone else?"
"That is an entirely unfair question, Miss Velasquez. I was wondering that very thing myself. Maybe a little bit of both. Is that okay?"
"How did you know my last name?" she asked. It was not as if she were a necessarily private person, it was mainly that she hoped he would not recognize her from television. She was already AWOL. She may as well put in her resignation as soon as she got back to 'Frisco.
"I heard you lie to 'Steve,' whoever that is. When you talked about an interview with a president, I pegged you right off the bat. I've been to the West Coast on business a few times."
"That's where you saw me before. Well, that answers that, then."
"No, it doesn't." Jon looked at Nadia again, the piercing gaze locked on her face. "There's something else, and I can't explain it yet. Just less than four years ago I lost my best friend and her family…."
"Oh, I must look like her, then—"
He cut her off. "How's Phillip?"
Nadia's hand stopped halfway to her water glass. She felt paralyzed. The blood drained from her face, leaving it ice cold. The memory reconnected like a switch in her mind. The question trickled weakly from her lips, her voice quavering. "Who's Phillip?"
Jon's voice took on a steely edge. He wasn't becoming hostile, just insistent, but insistent in a way that made her feel like she was being peeled away, layer by layer under a microscope. "You know full well who Phillip is."
The trembling in her hand increased to a violent shaking. She remembered someone telling her, "It took twenty-three surgeries just to reconstruct your face." Her breath came in gasps; her voice weakened. Phillip. Phillip was— She found herself unable to get up, incapable of walking away, too terrified to run, like a bird in the gaze of a snake. "What are you talking about?"
"Why did you skip out on your flight, Nadia? Why did you come to the Staley's at 42nd and Lexington? Why at that particular time?"
The questions gushed from Jon's mouth, one right after another, and Nadia had no chance to answer any individual one. He became more agitated as he went, until Nadia thought he would reach over the table and strangle her right there in public. "Why did you order a double-decaf-mochaccino latté with a cinnamon stick? Why did you know my nickname and then faint as soon as you recognized me? Why are we sitting here right now, while the chef in the kitchen prepares Steak Hélène rare? Before the appetizers came, why were you doodling Betty Boop figures on your napkin and playing with your left ear?" Twenty-three surgeries. "Nobody has called me 'Jake' since I was ten, except for her and my mom. And you absolutely hate Merlot, don't you?"
Nadia's hand never made it to the water glass. She couldn't think. A sound roared in her head, like ten thousand voices screaming in terror. An icy spear of fear shot through her chest. Hot tears rolled down her face, and her chest heaved as she gasped for breath.
She hoped with everything inside her that no one else was watching these two terrified people having this horrible, strange confrontation. Her vision started to close in again, but she fought it off. As it was, she nearly fell out of her chair. Her voice was strange and weak. "Do…do you know who I am?"
* * * *
I'm finishing out a school on the East Coast, which afforded an awesome opportunity for a weekend day trip to New York City. So, just when I thought our picture tour of the NADIA Project was done, we're off and running again. So thanks to all my readers and fellow castaways for putting up with yet one more stop. I think I know better now to actually call an end to the tour, because you never know what might come around the corner.
So this week, we're looking at the restaurant scene from Becoming NADIA, my EPIC-Award-winning first novel.
After covering about fifty blocks on foot in downtown Manhattan, it was time for lunch. And what do we have in Downtown that's more plentiful than anything else? Restaurants. And even better, this place happened to be within about four blocks of the Chrysler Building. This is La Villa Italia, and I will definitely be coming back here as often as I can. The calamari is a plateful of awesome, and tghe sauce they serve with it tastes like they have an Italian Grandma back in the kitchen who starts making this stuff like, the previous day.
It was a Saturday just before the lunch rush when we walked in. The owner had a wonderfully thick accent, but was the essence of hospitality. Showed us to out table, brought drinks, and that was when I found out something about real Italian restaurants: You are NOT in a hurry if you're eating there.
Count on a leisurely, comfortable wait while your waiter fills your drinks and offers the best fare on the menu, with vivid details about the preparation process. In the background, two men in the kitchen are arguing in Italian. Or are they just sharing banter? It's hard to tell. All I can tell you for sure is it was so much fun to hear. I half expected to see one of them marching through the dining room waving a freshly-killed chicken.
I got up once to use the men's room, which was downstairs. Basements in Manhattan are pretty deep, I'm going to tell you. The steps went down about a story and a half, and then the hall took a right turn, past several doors marked "private." One of them opened, and a man came through, roughly a side of beef with a shave. He didn't smile, and I didn't try to start a conversation.
I was almost disappointed that we never saw a fat, well-dressed man with a napkin stuffed in his shirt front seat in the corner, watching the door with arrogant expectation.
But who's to say he didn't come in right after we left?