by Carlo Wolff
It’s a Saturday night in the dead of winter, and Lylah Rose and I are hungry. My wife and Lylah’s mom (they’re the same) is away. Since Lylah and I are both inept cooks, we are eager to eat-out.
We get to the restaurant first. I tell the waitress my daughter and I need a table for four. She leads us to a huge seating area at the rear.
Lylah Rose stands on the broad banquette (imagine the rolled and pleated seats in a ’50s hot rod), takes a gander up the narrow, busy room and signals her approval. Not that she articulates it clearly; she’s not even 2. But she smiles, bounces up and down and suggests she’s ready to explore the banquette some more, by crawl.
A few minutes later, Robert and his daughter, Katy, come in. Since The Yah and I are way at the back of the boisterous room, I gesticulate wildly and somehow simultaneously tell Yah who’s here. The four of us getting together is a big deal, after all.
My daughter tee-hees, looks up at me with a smile and, when her big sister reaches her, accepts Katy’s hug with joy. She even responds, squeezing back; Lylah Rose isn’t one to give hugs easily.
The occasion is special, indeed. It’s a dinner for me, Lylah Rose, Robert and Katy. I’m Carlo; Lylah Rose is the product of the love, first tortuous and problematic, now free-floating, between me and my wife, Karen. Karen is also Robert’s ex-wife, and mother to both girls. Sometimes I think of Karen as the mother of us all.
That Robert and I are able to come together to share the joy of our daughters amazes both of us. “We’re probably the only fathers like us in Cleveland,” he says. “Maybe in the state, the country, the whole world.”
Probably not. But as the girls kid each other, goof with other kids (this is a family restaurant, above all) and address their appropriately sized dishes of spaghetti and meatballs, Robert and I, too, take pleasure in each other’s company.
That is an amazing turnaround. Three and a half years ago, when I left my former wife and Karen left Robert, a scene like this would have been unimaginable, and not only to the principals.
The upheaval our families went through was incredibly stressful: The winter of 1993-4 was cold in more ways than one. And even now, my ex-wife — still husbandless and, by choice, childless, as far as I know — isn’t in the loop, despite some efforts to corral her into forgiveness, if not acceptance.
But life goes on. For me, at least, what once was soap opera now approaches chamber music.
Katy, the beautiful, headstrong child I wish had my blood, brings Robert and I together. He indulges her on weekends after Karen and I make her toe the line during the week. At various times, I drive her to school, or Karen does, or Robert. This little girl, who used to embody the distance between Robert and I — and between Karen and I, when our enervating, wondrous affair was more chasm than connection — has become, through a curious blend of affection and necessity, the family glue.
We’re all hungry. I order fettucine with mushrooms in garlic and oil. Robert partakes of a spaghetti and sausage dish with red sauce. The girls tackle their spaghetti and meatballs with hands, forks and aplomb.
The warm food is delicious to me this frigid evening, much better than the last time I visited the place.
That was nine years ago, when my then-wife and I, still fresh to Cleveland, anxious to explore its idiosyncrasies and always on the hunt for a great meal, dropped into this eatery, ate heartily — and decided the Italian-American offerings weren’t quite up to upstate New York snuff.
But that was when “family” was exclusive to the two of us and neither wanted to expand it — or its meaning.
For me, family is no longer in quotes. Having a child with the woman you love democratizes the taste buds. My inner father, whom I no longer fear, has become more important than my inner gourmet.
Robert and I clean our plates. He settles for pop, while I, giddy and tired from a day with The Yah, down two glasses of red wine. Lylah and Kate pick at their spaghetti and meatballs and, with that maddening mixture of delicacy and carelessness peculiar to kids, imbibe their Cokes.
Robert and I don’t talk of much, though he says he wants to get Katy home in time to see “Groundhog Day,” which, he informs me, was the last film he and Karen saw together as man and wife.
We talk a little more, about the hotel business (we’re journalists for hotel trade magazines). We touch on sports, a preoccupation of his that is largely alien territory to me. We marvel at the girls we share. We wrap the soiree tight so Robert and Katy can get home for the Bill Murray movie.
Such a good time was had by all, Robert said we should meet again, same place. Only this time, it should be a fivesome.
It’s a natural. Karen is willing. Now that I know the meaning of family fare, I can’t wait.