It was a brisk Saturday night and we ventured up to Raleigh. Destination: The Cheesecake Factory.
“Shouldn’t we make reservations?” I asked.
“Nah, we should be good,” he said.
The drive was uneventful until we pulled into the parking lot of the Crabtree Valley Mall. The cars maneuvered like ants marching to a fallen morsel of chocolate chip cookie. After 20 minutes we found a spot deep in the parking garage’s Siberia section — nestled between a blue SUV and a white Ford Ranger. Taste buds at attention, we hiked to the mall and upstairs to The Cheesecake Factory. Men, women and children littered the hallways, many sitting on the floor. The noise overwhelmed my brain.
“They must be waiting for take out . . . or something,” I mumbled.
“Probably,” he said.
We filed in, took spots at the end of the line and inched up slowly. My stomach growled.
“What was that?” he asked with a laugh.
“What was what?” I said.
Pictures of luscious cheesecake covered the walls. Strawberry, chocolate, salted caramel. My mouth watered.
Minutes ticked by. We inched deeper into the chaos. Finally, we arrived.
“How many?” the hostess asked.
“Two,” he said.
“OK.” She tapped something on the screen of her computer and handed us a blinky piece of plastic.
“How long will that be?” he asked.
“Oh, about an hour and 45 minutes.”
He looked at me. I looked back and shook my head. No way. My stomach screamed.
“We’re good,” he said and handed her back the blinky thing.
We walked out, picking our way through the standing, sitting and leaning bodies, past the pictures of cheesecake — salted caramel, chocolate, strawberry.
“Where do you want to eat?” he asked.
“Somewhere without an hour and 45 minute wait.”
He took out his phone and began to search.
I willed him to hurry. My stomach rumbled like the mating call of a moose.
“What the heck was that?” he asked, trying not to laugh.
I didn’t answer.
He tapped a number into his phone.
“Hi. Uh, how long is the wait for a table for two?” he asked.
“Two hours.” I heard a voice say. I gasped.
“Thanks,” he mumbled and clicked off.
“Let’s just go to McDonalds,” I suggested.
“No McDonalds. What are you craving?”
“What about seafood?”
He tapped his phone and began searching.
“Red Lobster is 3 miles from here,” he said.
After 20 more minutes freeing ourselves from the parking garage, we were on the road to our third choice.
We parked, shuffled out of the car and walked up to the hostess stand.
“How many?” she asked.
“Two, but how long is the wait?”
“Forty-five minutes,” she said.
I groaned, but at least there wasn’t an hour before the 45. We were handed another blinky piece of plastic, and the minutes ticked by as we sat by the lobster tank.
After the full three-quarters of an hour mostly spent staring at crustaceans with bad intent, we were seated in a distant a corner. An angel appeared, eyes bright and smile wide, movements fluid and secure.
“Welcome to Red Lobster! My name is Penny. What can I get you to drink? Oh wait, I always start with the lady first.” She turned and grinned at me.
She filled my soul with warmth . . . and cheesy biscuits, creamy seafood dip and chips, boiled shrimp covered in butter, sweet coconut shrimp, and garlic lemon tilapia.
“This,” I said in between bites of pretty much everything, “was worth the wait.”
She kept appearing to fill our drinks and bring us more cheesy biscuits.
He asked her if she was in school.
“No, I’m a mommy and I work here on nights and weekends.”
“Boy or girl? How old?” he asked.
“A little boy. He’s 6.” She pulled her phone out of her pocket to show us a gorgeous kid with her eyes and smile. He held a soccer ball and grinned back at us.
He tipped her way more than 20 percent that night, and when she realized it, she bounced back to our table.
“Thank you so much! No, really, thank you!” she exclaimed.
Then it was his eyes, that wonderful blend of blue and green, that sparkled.