Years ago, I watched a relationship dissolve over dinner.
My wife Ashlee and I were still dating, and one night we stopped by our favorite seedy hibachi restaurant — one of those where a chef grills and serves food to you there at the table. Seating allowed for up to eight guests, but that night, we were joined only by a young couple, seated next to me. The four of us ordered drinks and I scooted my chair closer to Ashlee.
The grill master stopped by to cut on the grill and collect our names. I caught theirs — Joe and Melissa. I overheard Joe tell the chef they were recently engaged, and he grinned as he fingered the white gold band on his finger. Melissa flashed a smile that died quickly. The four of us exchanged nods, and I turned to watch the chef as he organized his workstation and gave the salt and pepper shakers a flick over a bed of sizzling rice. Ashlee smiled at me between sips of Diet Coke.
“You going to save some for me tonight, or are you planning to clean your plate again?” Joe asked Melissa. I noticed Melisa grimacing in the corner of my eye.
The chef broke the sudden tension with a loud crack of his blade on the grill, signaling the beginning of his knife twirling routine. He waved his spatula around his finger like a propeller as if his finger was magnetized. He flipped the knife from behind his back, over his shoulder and caught it gracefully. I reached over and held Ashlee’s hand. She squeezed mine back like a stress ball, even though she’d seen this routine dozens of times.
“How much college did you have to go through to learn to do that?” Joe asked the chef. Melissa ribbed him. No one laughed except for Joe, but the chef was a good sport and smiled. I wondered if he’d ever let his knife slip in the direction of rude guests.
“I don’t know why you brought me to this place,” Melissa said . “You know I don’t like Japanese food.”
“Well, I like it. I hear this place used to be a strip club,” said Joe. “Tell you what. If you promise to put out tonight, I’ll pay for your dinner.” He laughed. I couldn’t tell if it was a joke. Melissa stared into the rising grill flames, expressionless.
We all sat quietly as the grill master prepared onion volcano: he stacked layers of onion one on top of the other and filled the center with oil (or maybe lighter fluid). Steam whined from the onion stack like a tea kettle. The chef lit a match over the top, and the steam morphed into flame. Then came my favorite part: the chef sliced into the onion volcano with a knife large enough to chop down a small tree, and the stack collapsed into a boiling stew of oil and milky steam. For a moment, I’d forgotten about Joe and Melissa.
“Why are you being such a bitch tonight?” Joe asked Melissa, as if this was something he asked her often. I turned to Ashlee and gave her a look that said, did you hear that? But she returned a look that said, hear what? and sipped her Diet Coke peacefully, lost in the white noise of chatty restaurant guests and sizzling fat. I realized that I was alone, a voyeur, in this little hell with Joe and Melissa.
“Excuse me?” asked Melissa. She waited a moment for a response from Joe that never came, then said, “I’d be fine if you shut the hell up for the rest of the night.” Joe heaved a sigh and took a long drink. I started to look in their direction out of instinct — like watching a tornado touch down outside a window — but I overcorrected by looking down at my crotch for no reason in particular.
“Look, ever since we got in the car, you’ve been acting like a terror. What’s going on with you?” Joe asked.
“Now’s not the time or the place, Joe,” said Melissa. I gulped my drink and focused on the grill master like a hungry dog as he sliced freshly grilled chicken into cubed chunks.
Joe replied, “I don’t care, Melissa. Tell me what your deal is.”
“Right now? Seriously?”
“Yes. Right now.”
And then Melissa said in a curt whisper, “I’m cheating on you.”
I coughed up flat Coke and soy sauce. The grill master flipped browning scallops; they smelled burned. Ashlee sipped the last of her Diet Coke, which bubbled: more, please. I wondered if Melissa and Joe noticed my reaction, but they gave no indication.
After a hellish pause, Joe asked, “How long?”
“It’s with Reggie, isn’t it?”
Melissa, seemingly by accident, nodded.
“Melissa, my best friend? What the hell? And you waited until tonight to tell me this?”
Melissa sat quietly. “It’s funny,” Joe said to fill the silence. “When we walked in, I bet everybody in here wanted to be us.” I wondered if it was bad timing to roll my eyes. “Now nobody does.”
The chef inserted himself into the conversation as he shoveled steaming food onto the four empty plates. I ate three bites and retired my fork. Melissa thanked the chef, then calmly placed her napkin on her plate and walked out of the restaurant. Joe remained, stupefied. He motioned for the check, paid, and left the table quietly, ashamed.
More surprising than the cheating was that the tone of my neighbors’ conversation hadn’t risen above a mild exchange: no yelling, no tears, no violence — two composed adults just casually ruining each other’s lives over dinner. Looking back, I sometimes wonder if it was all a sick joke, some perverted public fantasy.
Ashlee held a fork of rice and shrimp up to my mouth. “Try it,” she said. I bit down, closed my eyes, and thought, thank you for Ashlee.