The finest restaurant in town, Dinner at Eighteen, was at the 18th green at the golf course. Jake and I had agreed to pool our depleting resources to take Grannah to a dinner in the fanciest place in town on the night before were to leave after the summer. I had heard that Dinner at Eighteen was difficult to get into, so I made reservations two weeks before we were to go—three persons under the name of Ellis at 7 p.m.
Grannah was on Cloud Nine when we told her that we were going to take her out to a special dinner the night before we left. We had told her a week ahead of the day of our reservation, and she had spent the week beaming and making us all nature of our favorite foods, both to thank us for the paint job and for the upcoming dinner, I thought. In retrospect, given how good a cook she was, we probably got the better of the deal food-wise, but spirit-wise there was no contest: she was ecstatic.
It was an incredibly hot Friday the day of our reservation and the day we finished cleaning up after painting her house. Grannah was ready a full two hours before our reservation. Actually, I think she was ready many days before our reservation just in case the date got moved somehow. She seemed to be in the kitchen ironing her skirt every day for a week before our dinner. The skirt and top were perfect, but that didn't stop her.
On that Friday, she sat primly and patient-acting, fanning herself with a church fan that advertised a mortuary, dressed in her peach-colored outfit, including a small matching hat on her head. It only took 15 minutes to get to the restaurant, but she wasn't going to be late. Jake and I showered and put on our finest clothes.
We arrived at the golf-course restaurant 10 minutes before our reservation time, parked and walked inside to a welcome blast of cool, air-conditioned air. Tables with white napery and gleaming silver and glassware descended in tiers, like Las Vegas theater seats, to an enormous set of windows that overlooked the 18th green of the golf course and a small pond populated with ducks. The room was about 75 feet wide at the bottom, narrowing slightly to about 50 feet at the top. From the ceiling, which must have been 15 feet high, soft lights beamed on the tables. The side walls were polished hardwoods lit with sconces aimed at the ceilings. Large displays of fresh flowers sat at the entranceway and on side tables in the dining room. It was an impressive room.
The tuxedoed host was concentrating on something below his nose as we walked up to the greeting stand. He was a lean man, with dark, slicked hair, a prim mustache and a French accent, maybe real. We waited a short moment before he looked up. Though trained for virtually any contingency, he was not prepared for two young men and a small black woman between them on their arms. I saw him flinch ever so slightly.
"Will you excuse me a moment?" he said as he quickly left the stand and walked toward the kitchen. We were left standing for about three minutes. I leaned over the stand and saw the name Ellis and the number 3 written in grease pencil on a window table on the plastic-covered diagram of the restaurant tables. Two other couples came in the front door and waited patiently behind us.
The host returned, examined the same diagram that I had been looking at and said, "I'm sorry, there has been a mixup in your reservation. We are full tonight. Perhaps you can come back some other evening." He started to turn toward the next guests lined up behind us.
"Look," I said. "I made this reservation two weeks ago and confirmed it three days ago. We are leaving town tomorrow, so this is the last time we are able to come." I saw the glimmer of a smile flash across his eyes.
"I apologize, but there is nothing I can do," he said, peering down his nose. A fourth party, a well-dressed couple, came in the main door. The new man towered over us and over the other waiting guests standing immediately behind us trying to act as if nothing untoward was happening. The male in the new party must have been 6' 6" tall.
"Moreover," I continued as my voice rose sharply, "on your restaurant diagram right there..." and I reached across the stand and pointed to the name Ellis..."you have written my name, so you do have the reservation." I didn't realize it then, but raising your voice without shouting in a place where privacy is at a premium can do wonders for getting your point across.
The host simply shrugged his shoulders and turned again to the next guests.
I raised my voice even more: "We will stay here until we are seated." I looked at Grannah to see if she was getting uncomfortable, but her face held a determined look as she nodded at me. The maître d' apparently decided to ignore us entirely—the ultimate putdown. We didn't move. The people immediately behind us looked around nervously.
At that moment, the tall man who had most recently entered pushed forward from the back of the line, looked at us and approached the host, who recognized him. "Good evening, Mr. Stuart," the host said, smiling. "I'll be with you in a moment."
Mr. Stuart had a scowl on his face. "May I speak to you privately?" he asked.
The host looked at the people waiting in line behind us, and said, "May I seat these people first?"
"No, I want to speak with you privately, right now, before the situation gets worse," Mr. Stuart insisted.
"I'm sorry," the host said to those behind us. "Please excuse me a moment." Obviously, we were not even worth the courtesy of an `excuse me.'
The host and Mr. Stuart went to the side of the room where no one was seated. We watched them talk with animated gestures, mainly made by Mr. Stuart and mainly toward the maitre d's chest. The maitre d' became increasingly subservient. The private talk lasted only about two minutes.
Mr. Stuart turned around and walked back toward his place in line. As he passed us, I saw him wink and give a thumbs-up gesture that no one else but the three of us could see. He leaned over and whispered in my ear: "I'm the restaurant and golf course's attorney. You will have no further problems, I assure you." He turned to Grannah, put his hands on both her shoulders and looked down onto her upturned face. "I remember you fondly. Do you remember me?" Grannah nodded.
Behind us, the host cleared his throat. "I will seat you now," he said to me. Several of the busboys, who were mostly black, smiled and gave us the high sign.
The host's demeanor had changed—like night to day. The amazing thing was that it was as if nothing had happened and we were upper-crust white people from the right side of town. There was not a clue that he had acted any differently towards us five minutes earlier. He showed us to the window table that had been marked on the diagram and handed us menus and the wine list before graciously bowing and moving back to the host stand.
After we sat, Grannah explained to us—a twinkle in her eye—that she had taken care of Mr. Stuart as a young child. She said she hadn't recognized him at first; he had grown so tall.
We had been seated for five minutes, studying the menu and the wine list and looking out the window enjoying the sunset across the numerous shades of green of the grass and trees surrounding the golf course when the waiter approached the table. In his hand, were three tall glasses and a bottle of Champagne in an ice bucket.
"There must be some mistake," I said. "We haven't ordered anything yet."
"The champagne is compliments of the gentleman over there," the waiter said, pointing across the room to the table where Mr. Stuart sat. The waiter then went through the bottle-opening ritual—showing the label, which meant absolutely nothing to me, pulling off the retaining wires and the lead foil, twisting the bottle and holding the cork until it popped off; then he poured me a taste and obtained my approval before he filled the other glasses, finally topping mine off. By the time I had taken a second sip, my eyes were closed in ecstasy, it was so good. I really felt I had died and gone to heaven. I raised my glass again and clinked it against Grannah's and Jake's.
"To the end of a wonderful summer," I toasted. "May it be the turning point—for the better—in some young people's lives." Grannah glowed under her peach-colored hat so neatly placed upon her head; Jake's eyes shone, and we drank.
After our toasts, I took time to examine the label. It was worth remembering. The champagne was a 1959 Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill Cuvee, which I noted later on the wine list cost a week's pay for an average joe. Not your everyday drink.
Just then the waiter arrived with an enormous plate of crayfish, looking like they had just been pulled from a kettle of boiling liquid, and drawn butter. "More compliments of Mr. Stuart. And, please accept the restaurant's apologies for the inconvenience we put you through. The rest of the dinner will be on the house."
Apparently, Mr. Stuart had really read the riot act. We clinked again and turned to Mr. Stuart, caught his eye and raised our glasses. He and his wife smiled back and raised theirs.
The dinner went famously. Grannah couldn't stop smiling as the waiter courted her with service as if she were still 21 and the most beautiful woman in the state. Grannah sat back and enjoyed the fuss—the endless pieces of silverware and dishes, the glistening of fine glasses, the instant replacement of a napkin that fell to the floor. I couldn't think of anyone else who deserved it more—who had given so much over the years to her family and neighbors. Tears of happiness rose in my eyes when she smiled from some particular attention, and I noticed Jake taking quick swipes from time to time at the corner of his eyes.
We left the restaurant arm in arm—two strapping young men with a short brown woman in peach-colored clothing between them—warm smiles on our faces, full from the finest in Southern cooking and proud that one more barrier of discrimination had fallen. Would that all the battles been as enjoyable as this one, but I appreciated that the fight to get there had been fierce.
But that was earlier in the evening.
Now, there was Jake's hand sending erotic signals through my groin. And there was my uncertainty and hesitancy about what to do about it. Was his hand there inadvertently? Was it just the random result of him tossing and turning in this overly hot night?
Or was it there deliberately? No, it couldn't be, I thought. Or could it be? And if it was, what would that mean? If it was deliberate and I responded, I suspected my life might take an entirely different course. Was I ready for this kind of change? I lay there thinking of the pros and cons of the options. My penis was thinking really hard about only one option. And to make it worse, the breeze from the fan now caressed each hair on my leg and chest like a gentle erotic hand, sending incredible signals directly to my sexual being.
If I obeyed my libido, all I needed to do was roll slightly onto my right side, towards Jake's hand and turn the choice, if any, back to Jake. Maybe he was asleep and unaware of how he was turning me on. Or maybe not. And if it was signaling a change in direction, was it to be a one-last-night stand or was it to change me for longer—somehow.
As you can see, I think too much.
Nonetheless, I was in a quandary, disinclined to go further, wanting to go further. My erection was telling me: "Go for it. Go for it." My mind said: "Hold off; it's way too big a change."
However, it wasn't entirely a change. As an adolescent I had spent a few nights and furtive afternoons with a neighbor boy, with us touching and feeling, holding each other's erections, stroking each other off. But then was different, and there was never anything approaching love in that teen-age relationship. It was all raw physical sex, but not even much of that. It was fun, but it ended, I thought forever, when we both went off to college.
Now it was something decidedly different. Now my cock was getting harder and harder because of feelings that were fundamentally different. Lust? Yes. Love? Oh! God! God! Concentrate on something else, I told myself. Maybe it will go away. Try poetry recited rapidly in my head, oh English major me. Maybe that would relieve the tension.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
Bad choice of words, given my arousal. Everything has double meaning when you're 20.
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth
Bent? As I said, everything sounds erotic when you are horny. Besides, mine was mostly the straight kind—except for the slight bend at the end, of course. And the undergrowth was there as well.
I paused in my mind's recitation. I wasn't sure the other road was just as fair and that these paths were equal. No, the path of turning away was clearly the path most traveled by.
And, in the end, I was terrified of the other course, and I wasn't ready for it.
And so I turned away. I got up, slipped on my boxers, tucked my erection under the elastic and went to the bathroom and jacked off, an exercise that took about three strokes, the cum bursting forth from the head of my cock as if pressurized. But that wasn't enough. My erection would not go away. So I ended up doing it again. Then I sat on the toilet, reading a magazine that had been lying on the top of the toilet tank until I was ready to masturbate a third time. Sexually sated, finally, I returned to the bedroom and slept fitfully for the remaining hours of night.
* * *
The next day our teaching project officially ended, and we left Mississippi for what has turned out to be separate lives. I have thought many times about that summer and that long hot night in bed, especially as my life has taken its twists and turns.
The last thing I remember of Jake was when I took him to the bus to go north before I headed west in my loaded car. He pulled me to him in a hug, and I heard him say quietly in my ear, "Thanks for being in my life, Robbie. Love ya." Then he gave me a butterfly kiss on the cheek. He pulled back and looked me straight in the eye, his hands on my shoulders, both of our eyes glistening. Jake jumped on the bus before I could react. It had been a remarkable summer, and he was a remarkable man, and it was the last time I saw him.
I did get a postcard from Jake a year later saying that he had been drafted into the Army, then another postcard three months later saying he was being sent to Vietnam, then nothing. I sent him a card announcing my marriage and another one for the birth of Alec, our son. A couple of years after the last postcard from him, I checked the casualty lists for the war, but, to my relief, there was no entry for John Edward Cantwell III.
Now, 12 years later, my divorce final, I write this story as a form of therapy in hopes that my life would finally returning to a semblance of tidiness if I could set all the past pieces in order. I have always wondered what would have happened if I had turned the other way that warm Mississippi night—towards Jake's hand. Instead, I took that more traveled path.
Copyright 2003, 2016. Comments will be welcomed at email@example.com
 Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken