My first date was in a Tex-Mex restaurant.
Actually, I should say that my first real date was in a Tex-Mex restaurant — real date meaning the first date which had, at its conclusion, a reasonable expectation of a girl touching me where my bathing suit covered and not, later, being able to claim it was just an accident. The first date where drinks were consumed, in other words. Where I paid for everything and acted like a gentleman and pretended that I had anything on my mind other than sex, sex or sex.
My first first date was at United Skates of America, with a British foreign exchange student called Olivia Q. We held hands during a couple's skate and I felt like I was ten feet tall. That was when I was about twelve.
My second date was also at United Skates of America, with a completely different girl who would eventually become my first girlfriend and the first girl I would see more or less completely naked. She would, of course, later claim that this was an accident, hence my being on the lookout for this kind of duplicitous behavior on the part of the fairer sex in later years. The relationship ended badly, and I ended up losing both my favorite denim jacket and my first Sex Pistols pin in the bargain.
Third date? A double date with my buddy John Fiorella at Friendly's, which was most notable for the fact that all four of us were so nervous that we all ordered the exact same thing (taco salads), hardly spoke and drank Pepsis like we'd just gotten back from six weeks in the desert. It was so cutesy and all-American that it should've been the subject of a Norman Rockwell cover for the Saturday Evening Post, but that was okay, because John (who was, at the time, Barney Stinson to my Ted Mosby in every way but the Scotch and cigars) had explained to me earlier that this was just a practice date — getting us in the game and ready for the coming summer vacation. We were about fourteen.
By my first real date, I was sixteen — a heady age when most young gentlemen (myself included) ought to be stuffed in a sack, locked in a cage and fed with hunks of meat poked through the bars on a stick. I remember that the restaurant was busy. I remember that it smelled of caramelizing onions and cheap, teenage perfume. I remember that it was one of those places where the decor runs to out-of-state license plates nailed to the walls and stuffed alligators wearing sunglasses. I remember that both the girl and I ordered shrimp fajitas and (because she worked on the floor there part-time) drank about seventeen watery, blended margaritas between us. I remember that the night ended without me getting any action — which might be why I'm having difficulty remembering, precisely, what the girl's name might've been — and that I was sick for hours afterward, which is absolutely why, even today, I do not drink margaritas except under threat of violence. It's also why, soon after, I decided that dates were stupid and, from that point on, I would only get involved with girls who fell instantly, head-over-heels in love with me, therefore requiring no courting.
Amazingly, this plan worked out reasonably well for me.
Looking back, I am just as shocked as you are.
Sitting in the comfortable, colonial dining room at La Loma on a Saturday night and watching as the waitress floats through the milling crowds, bringing me a big order of mesquite-grilled shrimp fajitas served atop a veritable mountain of steaming, soft white onions, that real first date comes back whole: the Tex-Mex restaurant on East Ridge Road in Rochester, the sickly-sweet aftertaste of the margarita mix on my tongue, the onion-scented air and bespectacled alligator, and the pretty blond Irish girl with the blood-red lips sitting across from me with absolutely no intention of coming any closer no matter how many drinks she poured down her neck. It's the smell that gets me, the powerful food-memory juju of cooking onions that triggers this cascade of recall.
The waitress is friendly. She's fast with clearing my empties and quick with replacing them. She apologizes that the kitchen has taken so long even though it's been all of ten minutes since I put in my order. She smiles when I tell her that's all right. And when she walks away, I close my eyes and inhale, sucking the steam and the cooking-onion smell and the thin chaser of mesquite smoke from the crackled and blackened shrimp deep into my brain.
La Loma is almost as old as I am. Originally opened in 1973 inside a small Victorian bungalow on West 26th Avenue, it quickly gained a following in the neighborhood. It became known for its green chile and for its gigantic margaritas, for the Colorado-inflected Mexican grub dished up by the kitchen and overseen by the patron saint of the place, Savina Mendoza — grandmother to one half of the ownership group (consisting of the Mendoza family on one side and the Brinkerhoff family on the other). By 1981, La Loma was doing so well that the owners bought three houses on top of a hill a block away and replaced them with one massive restaurant.