Emily sat on the living room couch, staring out the window waiting for Marco to arrive. A neighbor was mowing his lawn in the late afternoon; the telltale hum of an engine in the distance. While she watched, Marco’s two-tone Chevy, painted light blue and gray turned the corner. A blast from the ’80s, it had seen better days. Marco passed by and looped a U-turn at the next corner before pulling up in front of their house. Emily left the house and walked to the curb.
She leaned forward and spoke through the open window of the passenger door. “Connor’s not here. He had to stay late at work with his dad.” She shrugged her arms, indicating, “Sorry.”
Marco nodded. “That’s too bad. I wanted to show him something tonight.” He thought a minute and added. “Hey, why don’t you come with me?”
“Me?” Emily startled. “Why would you want me to come?”
Marco grinned and shrugged, “Do you have other plans?”
“No, not really,” Emily answered honestly. The situation was too abrupt and unexpected to lie, but now she wished she had. Marco was her son’s friend from “the other side of the tracks,” the one she and, her husband, Don weren’t too happy about.
“Come on. It’s a great night for a drive!”
Emily now surprised herself with the spontaneous reply she would have given twenty years ago, “OK! I’ll be out in a minute.” She sprinted for the house questioning her decision, but also feeling a thrilling lightness in her heart. In less than two minutes, she was climbing into Marco’s car.
“All right!” said Marco. He revved the engine and drove away.
What am I doing? This is crazy! Emily thought. “Where are we going?” she asked.
“Ahhh,” Marco said, “It’s a surprise. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.”
At this point Emily regretted her impulsive decision, but she had her cell phone and her credit card, and she was curious what this 18-year-old boy wanted to show a 45-year-old woman. She told herself to relax. It was a lovely night for a ride. Spring was in the air and every bush, plant, and tree was bursting with fresh blossoms and greenness. They moved out of her neighborhood, circumvented downtown Princeton, and took the scenic back roads, heading west.
“Sorry, no air conditioning,” Marco commented as they passed a McMansion with an elaborate tree house big enough to be a home.
“Not a problem!” Emily smiled. “This fresh air is wonderful!” She felt surprisingly comfortable with the window down and the airflow ruffling her blonde layered style. She noticed the old leather seats were worn but clean.
Her thoughts turned to the upcoming summer, Connor’s last at home before college. She looked across at Marco. He was at least 6’2,” tall for someone with Hispanic heritage. He was blessed with plenty of muscle and a handsome face and she was sure he did well with the ladies. Now she wondered, “Marco, what are your plans after graduation?”
Marco smiled, “I’m going to Penn State on an ROTC scholarship. I’ll be in the marines.”
Emily had no idea. She felt her image of the young man shifting. “Good for you. That sounds like a great plan and a promising future.”
“Yes, Ma’am, I’m interested in electronic surveillance.
“That’s a good field. Congratulations on that scholarship!”
“Thanks, Mrs. Sullivan.” Marco tooted the horn lightly a couple of times in celebration.
Emily laughed. Don would be so surprised when he learned of this escapade. She’d been miffed in the morning when her husband said he’d be working late again tonight. She knew it was a crunch time for his printing business, but he hadn’t been home on time for dinner all week and had kept Connor working late, too. She now realized that was probably a factor in her impulsive decision. She also hadn’t made dinner tonight, since there was no one to cook for and there were plenty of leftovers in the fridge. She wondered . . . Would Don be jealous?
As the car crossed a small bridge, the sky was lit with brilliant streaks of pinks and purples. “What a glorious sunset!” Emily exclaimed, lifting her arms above her, then resting her hands on the back of her head.
Marco smiled, “Glorious like you, Mrs. Sullivan! I always thought Connor was lucky to have a mom like you.”
“What a nice thing to say,” Emily blushed, returning her hands to her lap.
“It’s the truth . . . and ‘The truth will set you free.’”
“Quoting the Bible, now?”
“It comes in handy!”
Emily laughed, “It sure does!”
She knew she was attractive. After having Connor at 27, she’d regained her figure easily and kept it. Emily knew she looked young for her age and was popular with her son’s friends. She was proud of being considered a “cool mom.” Did she have a secret admirer? It reminded her of the song, Stacy’s Mom. But really! This is Connor’s friend! She chuckled out the window at her crazy thoughts.
They drove on in silence and Emily watched the sun drop lower in the sky as she considered the things she had learned about Marco in the past half hour. The boy who lived in low income housing with his single mom had more to offer the world than she thought.
Gradually, she noticed that the country road was morphing into an urban setting. First a couple of gas stations, then several large apartment complexes, a church, people getting off the bus obviously coming home from work, a strip of bars and liquor stores, fast food joints. Marco braked for a car pulling out of a parking lot in front of him. Suddenly they were caught in rush hour traffic in a seedy area, enveloped in darkness, with the neon lights of a pair of shabby hotels up ahead. Oh my God! Emily thought, totally out of her comfort zone. Surely he’s not taking me there! She held her breath and the car kept moving.
Marco reassured her, “We’ll be there soon, Mrs. Sullivan, about five more minutes, OK?”
Emily nodded, “Can’t wait. I have no idea what to expect!”
“It’s too bad Connor couldn’t come, but I’m glad you did.”
They entered an area where older rowhomes flanked the side of the road, then turned onto a street with shops and restaurants. Marco pulled into the lot of a place called Manny’s and drove to the back, parking near the kitchen door. “We’re here!” Marco cried, jumping out and moving around the car to open the door for Emily.
“Manny’s? I’ve never been here.” Where were they? In Ewing? Trenton?
“Come with me,” Marco said, gesturing and leading her through the back door.
They entered a fascinating world of chrome counters and enormous ranges with gas burners flaming away. A dozen cooks were busy orchestrating a variety of dishes with quick, precise movements.
Manny, the restaurant’s namesake, was expediting and shouting directions. “Marco!” He said warmly. “I see you brought your guest. Welcome, pretty lady!” Other cooks looked up and smiled, a few greeting Marco. “Hey, Marco!” said a burly man.
“Hey everyone! This is Mrs. Sullivan, the mom of my friend, Connor.” Many hellos and smiling faces greeted Emily. Marco explained, “I work here. I have tonight off, but Manny said I could bring a guest for dinner. I thought you’d like to get the cook’s tour.”
Seeing where help was needed, Marco quickly washed his hands and put on an apron. He plated two half chickens that had been roasted to perfection with a crisp brown skin that glistened, then passed them to the person handling sides. Marco moved on to ladling out a couple of bowls of soup. It was obvious to Emily that this was a well-run kitchen where the staff enjoyed an easy camaraderie and Marco was well-liked and part of the team. What an eye-opener tonight has been! Emily blushed again, ashamed at the petty prejudices she and Don had held against Marco.
“Marco, get out of the kitchen,” Manny insisted. “Treat your guest to anything you like and that’s an order!” Marco grinned, “Yes, chef!” He shed the apron and escorted Emily into the restaurant.
The meal that followed was one of the best Emily had ever eaten, accompanied by pleasant conversation that revealed a great deal about her dinner companion. She discovered that he had more in common with her son than she had known. She knew they had met as members of the track team, but in addition she learned Marco and Connor both loved hiking and the great outdoors, were avid science buffs, and that Marco was also an honor student like her son.
By 10, Emily was back on the couch by the living room window, waiting for Don and Connor to get home. The night had been a revelation. Emily looked forward to sharing her adventure with her husband. When he and Connor walked in the door, she greeted Don with a smile and a kiss, saying, “Honey, there’s a restaurant we need to try this weekend.”
Wendy Dennis Lazarus lives in Montgomery with her husband, Edward, and currently works as a substitute teacher in the Montgomery Township School District. She belongs to the Room at the Table writers group.