Aunt Tess set me up on a date with my cousin Emily, who was adjusting to Los Angeles after a move from New Hampshire. Tess had ideas about a match, Emily being just distantly related and younger. Why not? We would meet at Santorini, a new Santa Monica restaurant.
As the maître d' led me onto the patio, I spotted Emily at a small wrought-iron table, wearing an old-fashioned lace dress to good advantage. Erect posture, dark hair piled up loose, natural blush on the kind of skin Raphael could never capture.
I asked for a wine recommendation from the waiter, a smiling young metropolitan in a tux. It was red, drinkable -- I know nothing about grapes. Emily called it good but stopped after two sips.
Since the place specialized in exotic seafood, we ordered an appetizer, some rare kind of Mediterranean squid. Two arrived whole and raw, side by side on an azure-rimmed china plate. The sight made me squirm: They looked like a pair of faces, their mantles and tentacles resembling the crowns and beards of Assyrian kings. Their eyes stared at me. Weirdest, they seemed to be breathing.
"It's a special characteristic," the waiter explained. "They can live out of water for extended periods." He went on to relate how he first encountered the squid, on a trip to the Cycladic island after which this restaurant was named.
"You can rent a single-passenger submarine and dive down to their natural habitat. The sunlight filters down, and it's quite an experience. The legend goes that when Santorini's volcano erupted over 3,000 years ago, the city sank along with its inhabitants, who were transformed into sea creatures and continue to live in the ancient ruins. There was just enough light that I thought I could see the outlines of the temples." He shrugged with pleasure at the memory.
"My uncle has a passion for these squid. He flies them in and cares for them in aquariums. He owns this restaurant, by the way. He lives right over there." The waiter pointed to a foliage-obscured cottage at the edge of the patio.
As Emily showed little knowledge of football, we talked about her ambition to become a museum curator. We didn't touch the squid, whose breathing had become more shallow. They made me nervous. I ate good thick pita bread and finished the bottle of wine.
Finally I couldn't stand it. "Let's give them back," I said, and Emily nodded. I lifted the plate, and we hastened toward the cottage. The patio flagstones must have been laid unevenly, because I tripped just as we got there.
The plate spun through the air, banged against the door and shattered on the flagstones. The squid lay limp among the shards, barely breathing now. Emily stifled a gasp.
The door opened, and a small, gray man with a grim face stepped out. Ignoring us, he located the squid, scooped them up and went inside without a word.
The evening went more smoothly after that. We ordered dolmades, rice and yogurt, and I drank another bottle of wine. Emily was smiling. She visited the ladies' room and came back with the top two buttons of her dress undone.
Somehow I kept thinking about the squid. I imagined one of them extending a tentacle and placing it in a socket on the other's head. I imagined their beards as Emily's pubic hair. I imagined the gray man gazing down at them with love and recalling me with hatred.
Emily had come in her own car. I thanked her for a lovely evening and took a long walk, I can't tell you where. On my way back, I passed the restaurant and looked through the lattice -- was that Emily with the waiter, still on the patio? It couldn't be.
Getting into my car, I noticed a rip in the knee of my pants and ketchup on my jacket -- where had that come from? The suit was a recent purchase, too. Damn.
I had paid the check without looking at it, and now wondered how much it came to. Trendy Westside rip-off. All Tess' fault. I would send her the bill.
* * *
The foregoing story was all still hanging in my head when I woke up this morning. I take no responsibility for it.