I tugged at the door again as the doorman slowly and politely pushed the adjacent side open, and the sounds of the dinner rush swallowed me. I heard faint music, the rustle of clothes swiping at floor length white tablecloths, menus shuffling from one set of hands to another, and paper on paper. The scene that was playing out was all too familiar to me from my years of being a regular in the location down the street from where we lived in Dallas. I had been to so many dinners from that first introduction from Mark and Steve, but I have never been to this one, the first one in New York. I asked myself, "What was it we ate, creatures of habit that we were?" Are! A warmth comes over me, and I know you would have thought the same thing at precisely the same time. Was it the chicken paillard? Or maybe it was the branzino? No, it was definitely the paillard. You never really did care for Branzino the way I do. I used to order it at business dinners back in the day, especially in Italy, but not you, even when it was prepared with that thick white crust of salt. Yes, it was definitely the paillard. How many dinners like this had I been to throughout my career? I'd been to many, too many to count, and only now, in hindsight, do I wish I had taken the time to somehow record them in some way, the bottles of wine, the main course, the companions. Funny, that the only one that has really stayed with me is the one in Sicily, at a farm during a factory visit, not remotely one of the world-class restaurants of the star-rated kind. No, this was on a farm, and it was extraordinary, but you weren't with me, so it doesn't resonate with the same nostalgia that this evening does. You would have loved it, though, the mother making everything from scratch and all the ingredients coming from the fields just outside her kitchen door, that sweltering kitchen, with the wood-fired oven baking fresh bread in the heat of the late spring afternoon while pasta dried on racks placed carefully on every open surface. My mind is racing with all these thoughts as the lovely young woman walks us to our table. I am comforted by these remembrances of us, of you, this restaurant, and nights of quiet conversation, especially at this dinner of command performance when suddenly reality invades and reminds me that my presence at this moment is required, so I put my memories aside.
Conversation flows smoothly on this, our first, dinner together. My dining companion and I frequently share near misses through the years, and the happenstance of that becomes the foundation of the evening's dialogue. Each sentence beginning with questions of 'did you know,' or 'where were you when' as glasses of rosé flow from the bottle in the ice bucket tucked neatly behind the bar, despite my pleas to the Russian waitress to please stop topping my glass. The pale pink liquid was inducing an intimacy in the discussion, not borne of trust and time, and I am cautious of being too familiar with this person of whom I know so little. But it is lovely, and this place is so comfortable, and I am relaxed and freer than I would be otherwise.
That's when I see her sitting across the restaurant, tucked in the corner just to the left of the entrance. I ask myself rhetorically if she was there when I fumbled my way through the front door, acknowledging that she has represented for me fashion and elegance for as long as I can remember. Her, with the precision haircut that seems always to be the same length, never too short or too long, and I wonder how this could be achieved. I stood there with my mess of curls that seemed in one night to go from perfect to a bush of white, unruly and unkempt. She wore the dark glasses so characteristic of her, the meme, the iconic look. I was transfixed and lost my place in the conversation between her visage and the bottomless glass of rosé.
I could not remember a time when she wasn't on my horizon, in my peripheral vision, a consideration. Anna Wintour became the editor of Vogue Magazine in 1988, just as I was launching my life in NY and a fashion career, and here she was on this auspicious night having dinner across the room from me. Safe from notice, I stared at her small and elegant frame and her perfectly coiffed hair, her impeccable dress with the commanding statement necklace, and those shades, blacker than black.
I fantasized as the waitress placed the branzino in front of me and filled my glass with wine from the second bottle of rosé. I wondered whether or not Ms. Wintour would welcome my humble outpouring of respect and my acknowledgment of the contributions she made to my life from her perch in that pristine office. I thought of how I anticipated March and September, and especially September, when the issues hit the newsstands. I also pondered the time Tom Florio came to visit me in my tiny office to pitch me on advertising and bait me with promises of meeting her. Here she was, a mere 30 feet from where I was sitting.
I have never been much of a star chaser. I remember that lunch years ago when Deb went gaga over Heather Dubrow from the Housewives of Orange County, who was sitting outside on the patio having coffee with her plastic surgeon husband. I had no problem walking up to her and introducing myself and Deb, who barely spoke two words, but Anna Wintour was something altogether different. I realized I would never approach her. I would just sit there and stare, transfixed, mesmerized. She was so small, demure, for the warrior I imagined her to be. She was swallowed by the bay window and the table full of people, almost like being one of the caged animals at the zoo. Whether by design or otherwise, I was not the only person who had taken notice, when it suddenly dawned on me that her dress was like camouflage, a uniform, maybe an armor of sorts, refined and polished over 30 years to shield her opinions, her judgments. Those dark glasses protected eyes that have seen it all and done it all, and this led me to thoughts of Fashion Fatigue, the post-traumatic stress syndrome of the style-obsessed, and I smiled at my cleverness.
Not for one moment did it dilute my thrill, for in seeing her across the crowded restaurant, I was transported to the younger me, green and naive, attempting to bite the ruby red deliciousness of this city that called me as it was calling her. Our paths were different, but I'd like to think they were no more or less extraordinary, just different. While she was a significant influencer along my journey, the final destination suited me. I couldn't live in armor, wouldn't want to, and so I return to my branzino, and when I am done, she is gone.