The hot spring afternoon was compelling the group of well-dressed Charlestonians into the small waiting area of the swanky East Bay Street restaurant forcing a jovial but uncomfortable closeness so everyone could escape the heat outside. The leaders of the group, a good-natured, middle-aged man wearing a tan cotton suit and his wife in a purple cocktail dress hovered over the podium used by the hostess discussing seating arrangements with the young girl busy scribbling notes and talking with the lead waiter next her. Behind the middle-aged man was a slightly younger version of himself dressed in a simple black sports jacket with a green polo shirt and khaki pants that would alternately make a joke at his older brother’s expense or be pushing his very young trophy wife up against the wall to whisper something in her ear. When the trophy wife was not giggling at whatever her husband had privately said she was checking the position of her strapless dress and pulling it back up to a more respectable position. Given how short the one-piece dress was the repositioning was a careful balancing act between showing too much on top or below.
After several minutes the lead waiter, who had walked back into the dining area, returned informing the hostess that the group’s tables were ready. Right after the podium the restaurant’s bar began narrowed the passageway to the main dining area and forced the group to walk two-by-two giving the impression of people walking down a fashion show catwalk. The patrons seated at the bar and sipping cold drinks watched the finely dressed men and elegant ladies pass by wondering what sort of celebration had drawn such a crowd out in the heat.
At the other end of the bar the restaurant opened up into the dining area allowing the group to fan out and take seats at the hastily arranged formation of joined tables in the center of the room that still had various waiters and waitresses adding silverware, napkins, and other table items. The precession of high style had interrupted the normal flow of the wait staff but with them seated the waiters and waitresses quickly returned to their coordinated dance of beehive efficiency centered on the counter situated close to the bar where the food and drinks were picked up to be brought to the tables. Two chefs worked behind the counter making last minute corrections to the items placed on serving trays oblivious to the fire raging in the brick oven behind them.
Most of the idle curiosity the other patrons had about the group were satisfied after they raised their newly arrived glasses of mixed drinks and ice tea in toast to one young lady sitting at the far end of the joined tables congratulating her very recent college graduation. The young lady thanked everyone for their well wishes and the number of pricey gifts and only hoped that a job would soon appear so she could put her expensive degree to some use. After the laughter died down and the young lady returned to her conversation with the people seated close to her the group sank into shared anonymity with the other patrons. That was the case until one last couple appeared escorted by the hostess that once again had drawn the attention of most of the people in the restaurant.
The late arriving man and woman, both in their early twenties, cut an even more eye-catching entrance than the rest of the trendy group. The man was dressed in an US army uniform and was still wearing his black beret inside the restaurant which was arranged on his head in a slightly out of regulation manner making him appear more striking and dangerous. Pinned to the shoulder tabs of his uniform were brand new bronze colored bars signifying a newly minted Second Lieutenant and attached to the lower portion of the lapels of his army green jacket were the crossed rifles showing he was an infantry officer. The high point of his young military career were the highly polished airborne jump wings positioned above his left pocket and overwhelming his two minor ribbon awards attached between the pocket and the coveted silver wings. On initial observation, the young soldier looked calm and confident but anyone taking a longer look could see that his eyes betrayed him showing a hint of the insecurity and nervousness about being around a group of people far more use to the rules and procedures of high society.
The blonde woman walking by his side was dressed in a blue silk dress with a tiered skirt cut short. The modest cut in front showing little in the way of skin was offset by the bold plunge in the back that had every man in the place staring as she passed. Just looking at the stunning woman the first thoughts passing through an observer’s head would be just as wrong as they would have been on her soldier companion. While she presented an air of refinement and breeding looking into her eyes and watching her graceful walk, you would have seen something akin to the beauty of a shark swimming through the water alert for prey. The gorgeous woman scanned her surroundings as confident and powerful as a queen and was not afraid to stare down anyone who looked at her a little too long.
When the young couple arrived at the tables both the middle-aged man and his wife in charge of the fashionable group jumped up and greeted the two enthusiastically. The young blonde-haired woman addressed the middle-aged man as her dad and gave him a big hug then greeted and kissed her mother on the cheek. Once his female companion took her seat the young soldier grabbed and shook the hand of the father, mother, and finally the uncle before sitting beside his girlfriend. After another round of informal banter prompted by the couple’s arrival the table soon quieted down again as waiters and waitresses began serving the meals. The returning quiet was only a brief respite from the main event that would shock everyone in the restaurant.
As the group was nearing the end of dessert, the lieutenant cleared his throat and banged his butter knife against the side of his water glass then carefully standing after moving back his chair. That had the result of silencing not only the conversations at the joined tables but attracting the attention of most everyone seated nearby.
“This seems,” the young officer said addressing the group he was a part of,” to be the best time to do this with Sally’s family all around.” With the smooth movements of someone who had practiced the maneuver countless times he pulled a small box out of his pants pocket, bent down on one knee, and opened it before his shocked girlfriend. “Sally,” he said looking with all earnest at his girlfriend, “we’ve been a part of each other’s lives since our first year in college. I have loved you from the first minute I set eyes on you and have known all along that we would spend the rest of our lives together. Please do me the honor and marry me.”
All around the restaurant the spectacle had brought smiles to most, gasps to several older ladies, and tears to a few for reasons known only to them. The air in the restaurant was electric as the moment hung heavy waiting for what everyone expected would be the happy ending as the beautiful young woman said yes to the handsome soldier. The tension only increased as the young woman cradled the rugged face of the man who had just professed his love in her soft hands and smiled at him as only an angel could.
“Jeff my dearest,” she said sweetly with everyone expecting a positive answer, “there is no way in Hell that I would ever marry you.” Silence had dominated the room with everyone anticipating a different answer but now a heavier stillness reigned as everyone could tell the hammer was about to fall with her explaining why she had crushed the man in front of her who was frozen worse than any marble statue. “Jeff I have known about your insipid social climbing ambitions since we first met, you only saw me as an avenue or tool to family riches and influence. For those reasons alone I would be a fool to marry you but your little fling with my best friend last summer alone ended any chance we had together all by itself.”
Jeff, not one to go down without a fight returned to his chair and looked at the woman who had just embarrassed in front of everyone listening. “If you thought I was only after your family’s money and social standing why did you keep me around for so long?”
“Sweetie,” Sally said looking at him like an owner might talk to a pet dog, “You were nothing but meat to me. Good in bed and fun to be around but nothing more.”
Anger began to well up in the spurned man with his face turning red and his hands shaking. The silence in the restaurant had gone on for so long that everyone knew something bad would have to happen to break it. At Jeff and Sally’s tables, most of the group was trying hard to look some other place while Sally’s dad stared at the boyfriend worried what he might do next, only the uncle was smiling enjoying the unfolding drama.
As Jeff’s hands continued to shake with his mind someplace far away and bloody Sally gently touched his shoulder. “Jeff give up the dramatics,” she said. “You are making a scene and if you do anything stupid your life will never recover. You and I can walk out of here soon and you can go your own way and be the injured party with any number of like-mined social sluts eager to take my place.”
Like a deadly storm that had changed course to disappear over the horizon Jeff’s face cleared and his hands stopped shaking. After everyone was finished and the check was paid, the group left almost as regally as they arrived. The young officer departed first and alone with his head held high. Sally left with her sister and a few friends laughing about the whole affair and openly talking about a young lawyer she had met the week before. For the rest of the people in the restaurant still stunned at what had happened, a slow realization crept in their minds that you could not pay for such high quality dramatic entertainment.
Author's note: Spent Saturday doing some sightseeing around Charleston and while having lunch with Dragonwife and Miss Wiggles at an excellent restaurant this event took place. Now understand I added a great deal of "color" to the story but the basic premise of a dude associated with the military going down in inglorious flames after asking his obviously high society girlfriend to marry him in front of everyone was real. I changed many things just to avoid any possible legal issues like names and descriptions of people in the story but anyone with a little knowledge of Charleston restaurants should be able to guess the place we were eating. The food was fantastic and I will return whenever I am lucky enough to get back down to the Holy city.