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Dining in the Dark


I had finally received the paperwork confirming my adoption of two children from overseas. One was a nine-year-old girl from Guatemala and the other was a thirteen-year-old boy from Zimbabwe. The even better news was that they didn’t come to live with me right away. I would just be paying for their food, clothing, and books for school. Once they turned eighteen they would be allowed to visit if we both agreed on meeting. I was, of course, invited to visit them at anytime, but Guatemala and Zimbabwe weren’t exactly on my top ten countries to see list. I was looking at both of their solemn faces in the pictures they had sent, pleased that I had done exactly as I set out to do when buying my kids online-picking the two who looked the most upset.

I decided right then and there to call them both Earl.

The phone rang and it was my U.K. publisher calling to ask me if I would be interested in crossing the pond to do a little press for my book’s British release date. They told me my services would be needed for a period of ten days in February, which luckily happened to be one of the eleven months I had absolutely nothing planned workwise. “Bloody hell,” I told them in my best Madonna impersonation. “I’d love to.”

I called my friend Sarah, who had just been broken up with by her Cuban fianc'e, and was the one person who needed to get out of the country faster than my cleaning lady. Sarah and her fianc'e had dated for seven years, and two weeks before the wedding he decided to tell her he wasn’t in love with her. Coincidentally, he had realized this after sleeping with a waitress who worked down the street at the International House of Pancakes.

Watching your friend get news like that and seeing her go through the emotions of canceling a wedding-and the life she thought was going to come along with it-is heart-wrenching. All you want is to be able to fix it, but you and all your friends are completely helpless. It was the night of her breakup that I vowed never to have children, for fear one of them might be a girl and get broken up with. That’s why I turned to adoption.

“Wanna go on an all-expense paid vacation to London?” I asked when she picked up the phone.

“Yes, let me just quit my job.”

It upset me that I was going to have to desert my children so soon after acquiring them, but truth be told, I was exhausted. Motherhood was no joke and neither was lying awake every night wondering where in the hell they were and if they had been able to score some rice that day. The bottom line was that Mommy needed a break. My next step was to get an all-clear from my OB-GYN to travel abroad.

Once we got to London, I realized that going on vacation with Sarah was slightly more enjoyable than getting a glass eyeball installed. She had more energy than the Energizer bunny and was in nonstop planning mode, toting printed-out itineraries, maps, charts, color graphs, and recommendations for what we would do each day. There was shopping and museums, we had to go to Parliament, Bond street, Piccadilly Circus, Cambridge, and then the London Eye. The trip was turning into a full-blown nightmare, and it finally occurred to me why her fianc'e had broken up with her: He was probably scared to go on their honeymoon.

The thing about Sarah is that she can be a lot of fun to be around. She’s smart, she’s funny, she drinks like a fish, but she has way too much energy for someone without a crystal meth addiction. She’s one of those people who should either be working on a campaign trail or running a wild animal park.

“Hey, asshole,” I told her. “This isn’t a scavenger hunt. You need to relax. All these activities are making my head spin. Can’t we just go to a pub and get some bloody fish and chips?”

After only three days in London, I was hell-bent on using all of their colloquialisms, partly because I love English accents and all the phrases, but primarily because it was driving Sarah nuts. She didn’t believe that “cheers” could actually mean “hello,” “good-bye,” and “thank you,” so I spent every waking moment saying it to anyone and everyone we came in contact with. It didn’t even have to be someone I was having an exchange with. I would just say it to people we passed on the street, in the park, lifts, loos, lorries. What pissed her off even more was when people responded in kind, which was almost automatic. “Cheers,” along with “bollocks,” “blimey,” and “rubbish” became my go-to phrases in response to almost anything. It only stopped when we came home after a night of heavy drinking and ordered room service at two in the morning.

When the food arrived, I took it upon myself to scream, “Bollocks!” as I opened the door.

After the waiter regained his footing and collected our burgers that had been strewn all over the hotel’s hallway like shrapnel from a pipe bomb, I ended up giving him a hundred pounds as compensation for scaring the living shit out of him.

The next day, after promoting my book on some woman’s show who is supposed to be England’s version of Oprah, but in much less expensive clothes, my publicist informed us that we had the night off to do as we pleased.

“I’ve already made reservations for us,” Sarah informed me.

“There’s a surprise.”

Sarah had made three copies of my press schedule prior to even arriving in London. One for her, one for me, and one for the concierge at our hotel.

“We’re going to Dans le Noir. It’s going to be great,” she told me. “You eat in the dark!”

“Why?”

“Apparently, it’s huge in France, and it’s supposed to heighten all of your senses. Being unable to see, the food and conversation take a much more prominent role in your dining experience. Your ears and taste buds go into overload.”

“Are you reading that straight out of the Zagat guide?” I asked her. “Because you sound like an asshole.”

“Chelsea, it’s dining in the dark! Haven’t you heard about this?”

She hailed a cab and twenty minutes later we pulled up in front of a restaurant that looked like it wasn’t finished. Once inside, we were in what appeared to be the front room of the restaurant. There was a bar with a bartender behind it and three misplaced cocktail tables that looked like someone had thrown them into the room and left. Two homosexuals were sitting at one of them, and a large transsexual-looking black woman was sitting alone at another. An unbelieveably annoying French m^aitre d’ took our coats and greeted us unctuously. “Ladies! Welcome to Dans le Noir, vat is the name on ze reservation and vould you like ze key for your lockehhhr?”

“Our locker?” I asked him, confused. “Are we at the YMCA?”

“Ze lockehhhrs ah for your sha’kets and valubellz. Yu are not to bring anything into ze dining area!” he told us, rolling every r and overly dramaticizing every z and s sound. I had been there for five minutes, and I had already lost my appetite.

“We’re not even allowed to bring our purses?” I asked him.

“No, that iz vat ze lockehhhr is for. Here iz your key. Zen you come back and peek a look at ze menu.”

I rolled my eyes, handed Sarah my coat and purse, and headed toward the bar. “Triple Ketel One on the rocks, and lemons.” Any true alcoholic who’s been to London knows that getting drunk there is nearly impossible, due to the bartenders using an exact measurement of one ounce of alcohol per drink. It’s no wonder everyone there drinks Guinnesses. In the midst of explaining to the bartender that “triple” meant “three,” Sarah interrupted me.

“I don’t think that m^aitre d’ likes us.”

“No one likes us, Sarah, we’re American. Everyone hates us.”

“Right,” she concurred, and ordered herself a triple Bombay martini dry. I grabbed a menu and flipped it open. “Wow,” I said. “Look at the choices. There’s either ‘Duck’ or ‘Surprise’.”

Those were the two things listed on the menu. “Duck,” and underneath it read “Surprise.”

Don Juan DeMarco came over and explained that we could choose one or the other.

“That’s quite a selection,” I said, handing him the menu. “I’ll take the surprise.”

“Do you ladies have any allergais?” he asked. “Ve must know before preparing ze food.”

“Yes,” I told him. “I’m allergic to duck.”

“Aaaah, zank you, and you, madame?” he asked, looking at Sarah.

“I’ll take the duck.”

“Okay, ladies, you vill be seat-ad in just a few momenz.” I couldn’t help thinking that this man was faking his French accent. No one in his right mind could take himself seriously enough to talk in such an affected manner.

We sat at one of the tables in the front room as the door next to the lockers opened and what appeared to be a blind waiter peeked his head out and called for the two gay men who were sitting at one of the other cocktail tables. They got up and walked over to the waiter, who turned and with his back facing them, took the first man’s hand and placed it on his own shoulder, leading him into an abyss of darkness.

“This is ridiculous,” I told Sarah, watching them.

“I’m getting scared,” she said, wide-eyed and giggling like a schoolgirl.

“Aren’t you happy Albert called off the wedding? Otherwise we’d never have had the opportunity to dine at Dine la…what the hell is the name of this place?”

“Noir. It’s Dans le Noir. He’s such a scumbag. I hope he catches herpes from that waitress,” she said.

“He will,” I assured her. “And when she dumps him on his Mexican ass, I hope he loses his job and then pulls a hamstring.”

“He’s Cuban, Chelsea.”

“Whatever.”

“Do you think she’ll break up with him?” she asked me.

“Yes, I do. He’s a loser, and by the way, he’s shaped like a woman. He’s got a woman’s ass.”

“Really?”

“Yes, he has a woman’s body, and with time, it will become increasingly more and more bitchlike.”

“He did kind of have man boobs,” she said.

“Sarah, they were bigger than mine. He’s got to be at least a D-cup.”

“Oh my God, he did. And by the way, he wasn’t that good in bed either.”

“Of course he wasn’t, Sarah. Bitch tits can’t be good in bed. It makes you feel like you’re hooking up with another chick.”

A waiter opened up the door to darkness and spoke a few words before the m^aitre d’ waved us over. “Mademoiselles, I do hope you enjoy Dans le Noir,” he announced as creepily as Willy Wonka introducing all the Oompa Loompas to his guests at the chocolate factory. “Bon appetit.”

Our waiter, who was clearly blind, and looking to my left while talking to us, introduced himself as Brian. He wasn’t French, but he did have an accent of some kind that was extremely hard to pinpoint because he had the same pitch as Michael Jackson. Sarah, at this point, was of course brimming with excitement. Not only were we about to dine in the dark, but there was a real live blind man about to escort us into our bad dream.

“Put your hand on my shoulder,” he said as he turned on his heels and led us into a dark corridor. Thinking that sounded a lot like a song lyric, I put my hand on Brian’s shoulder, Sarah put her hand on mine, and Brian led us into what may have well as been a well. Not only was it pitch black, but I had no sense of anything around me and was relying on a blind man who had the voice of a four-year-old girl.

“Are you having fun yet?” I called over my shoulder.

“Oh my God, oh my God, Chelsea, I can’t see,” she whispered, squeezing my shoulder.

“Just take it nice and slow, ladies,” Brian said as he led us toward voices and clanging noises. “Okay, just take deep breaths if you feel overwhelmed.”

“You’re starting to sound like a porn director, Brian.”

“Okay, girls, here we are,” he said, ignoring my comment as he led us to our chairs. “The table is right in front of you.”

“Thank you, Brian. I would have never figured that out,” I told him, putting my elbows on the table and spreading my legs apart like a trucker. If no one could see me, I was going to take full advantage of it and break all the table manners I had grown bored with. All I was missing were a toothpick and a walkie-talkie.

Brian took our drink orders and left us alone. There were voices near us but none directly next to us.

“Chelsea, I’m getting really claustrophobic.”

“Just breathe.”

“I am,” she said, clutching my hands, “but this is freaking me out.” She was giggling, but in a very passive-aggressive way, and I wasn’t sure if there was going to be some sort of full-blown panic attack.

“Sarah,” I said sternly, “the lights are off, that is all. Just keep breathing in through your mouth and out through your ass.”

“I’m hot.”

“Drink your water,” I said, feeling around for any water and knocking the silverware onto the floor in the process. “Here.”

“I think I need to take my sweater off.”

“So take it off.”

“I can’t,” she whispered. “I have nothing on underneath.”

“Sarah, no one can see you here, who cares? Take it off and rest your tickets on the table. I’m thinking about pulling my pants down just for shits and giggles.”

“I think I may need to take it off, Chelsea. I think I’m hyperventilating.”

“Take it off, Sarah, please, I do not want you to hyperventilate,” I pleaded, and then got up and felt my way over to her side of the table. “Do you want me to pour a glass of water over your head?”

“No, no, I’ll be fine,” she said, taking deep breaths. Once her sweater was off, she started to calm down. Brian walked over to the table.

“It’s me,” he whispered. “Is everything okay?”

“Yes,” Sarah told him. “I’m just a little claustrophobic. Can I get some more water?”

“And can I get some more Ketel One?” I added. “Are you sure you’re okay?” I asked Sarah.

“Yes, I’m fine, go sit down.”

“Sarah?”

“What?”

“If you had to have sex with the m^aitre d’ for two hours missionary style, or you had to go down on Star Jones for half an hour, who would you choose?”

“The m^aitre d’.”

I found my way back to my seat just as Brian came back and put his hand on my shoulder. “Hi,” he said, “it’s me.”

“I know.”

“I’m putting your vodka on the right,” he said, maneuvering my hand to touch the glass. “And Sarah, I’m going to put your water on your right as well.”

Ten minutes later Brian came back and seated two English girls next to us. One of them was very sweet, but the other one didn’t seem very interested in mingling with Americans. I got this impression right after I said “Hello,” and she muttered, “Great, bloody Americans.”

I am very sympathetic to why foreigners think that Americans are loud and obnoxious. Many of us, including myself, are. But just because we have a president who can’t spell “cat” doesn’t mean we all voted for him. Along with a huge constituancy, I am also counting the days until Barack Obama or Ryan Seacrest takes over.

The nice girl asked us if this was our first time at the restaurant, and how we had heard about the place. Sarah jumped in and told her all about her online research and how the restaurant originated in Paris, blah, blah, blah. The nice girl seemed a lot like Sarah as far as research and planning goes, and when it’s coming from someone not so close to you, it can be more charming. I reminded myself to tell Sarah this in a private moment later.

Sarah told the girl that we absolutely loved it here and were having the best time in London. “What a great city you guys get to live in,” she said, panting excitedly.

“Yeah,” I said, trying to get in the conversation.

This is when the mean girl decided she would add to the conversation.

“Yes, it’s nice being exposed to civilization, isn’t it?”

Before I could respond, Brian walked over and leaned down above us. “Hi. It’s me.”

“Yes, Brian. We get it. It’s always you. I’m me and you’re you.”

“Ladies, I apologize, but I am going to have to ask you to put your sweater and pants back on.”

“What?” exclaimed the mean girl sitting on my right. “What are you, a couple of lesbos?” she screeched in her thick British twang.

“No,” I told her. “We’re not lesbians. We were hot and my friend was hyperventilating. We didn’t think anybody could see us, considering it’s pitch black in here.”

“Do girls from your country have any manners?” was her next question.

“You know what, mean girl?” I said. “You are not a nice person. You should be a little more open-minded and not judge people based on what country they’re from. I’m not asking you why all the men in your country refuse to get circumcised, am I?”

“Oh, that’s lovely,” she replied.

“No. Actually, it’s repulsive. They look like fucking aardvarks, and I really don’t appreciate it,” I said, getting up from the table and squeezing myself back into my jeans. “Sarah, can we go now?”

“Yes,” she said, and then screamed, “Brian! It’s us!”

Three minutes later we were in the front of the restaurant opening up our lockers. We paid our bill with the m^aitre d’, who refused to make eye contact with us. Obviously, he had caught wind of our undress and found it very disappointing. “Au revoir,” Sarah said as we walked out.

“Cheers,” I added in as volatile a way as I could muster. “Can we please just get some fish and chips?” I asked Sarah.

“Your zipper’s down,” she said, shaking her head and then stepping into the street to hail a cab. “When did you take your pants off, Chelsea, and why?”

“I was doing it to support you! It was a sympathy disrobing.”

“Oh, that’s actually nice, thank you.”

“Don’t mention it,” I told her as I turned my hand upside down and put out my middle and index fingers. “Low two?”

“No thanks.” We hopped in a cab and Sarah told the driver to take us to any place that served fish and chips.

“There also needs to be a bar,” I chimed in.

“Yes,” she agreed. “A restaurant that serves fish and chips.”

“I’m starting to become embarrassed about being American,” I told Sarah. “I feel like our only real saving grace is the Olsen twins, and what does that say about us as a whole?”

“Not a lot. Do you hate Americans too?” she asked the driver, who looked more Pakistani than anything else.

“No, of course not,” he told us. “Only the loud ones. Very good tippers.”

“Yes,” I agreed, pulling out my wallet and handing him twenty pounds.

“You might want to wait until the ride is actually over,” Sarah said. “And don’t you think twenty pounds is a little excessive for a five-minute cab ride?”

“If the only way for these people to like us is to buy their respect, than that is what I intend to do.”

“That’s very honorable, Chelsea.”

“I take you to Fish Central in de Barbicon,” our driver informed us in his Pakistani accent.

“Cheerios,” I told him. “Word to your mother.”

Sarah and I walked into the restaurant and were seated in the back, next to an older couple. “I want a cigarette,” she declared.

“You don’t even smoke,” I responded.

“Well, everyone else is smoking, and it would be nice to just fit in after the day we’ve had. I don’t understand. Everyone’s been so nice up until today, and then it seems like everyone we talk to hates us.”

“You know what makes no sense?” I asked her. “We have more foreigners in our country than anyone, and we don’t treat them like that. I would never be mean to someone who was visiting America.”

“Yeah, we let everyone in our country. I mean, we complain about the people who can’t drive, but that’s about as bad as it gets.”

“And the people who own Seven Elevens,” I added. “But aside from that, I find myself to be very open-minded.”

“I really want a cigarette.”

“Well, don’t ask anyone here. They’ll just get mad at us for bumming one cigarette and blame our homeland.”

“You ask someone,” she said. “I’m not in the mood to talk.”

I looked over at the older couple sitting to our right, who were both smoking. In my best British accent, I leaned in and asked, “Could I bum a fag?”

They were very nice and handed me one, which I handed to Sarah. “Thanks,” she said to the couple, and then leaned over. “I was too shy to ask for it myself.”

I looked at her, wondering what was the point of me asking for a cigarette if she was going to talk to the people anyway. Twenty minutes later, I was looking at her, wondering why we were still talking to this couple. And further, why I was being forced to continue speaking in a ridiculous English accent.

“So where exactly did you grow up?” the man asked. “You have such an interesting accent.”

“Yes,” Sarah chimed in, smiling, “it’s such an interesting story, tell them.”

“Well,” I began, searching my brain for something moderately plausible. “I was born in Devonshire, and my parents split up when I was five, when I moved to a little town called Lewisham, which is in South London.” The only reason I knew about Lewisham is because I had an ex-boyfriend who was from there and we had gone to visit his mother years earlier. It was the only outskirt town I really knew anything about.

“I’m very familiar with Lewisham,” the gentleman responded. “Which part did you live in?”

“Yes, Chelsea, which part?” Sarah asked.

I wanted to bitch-slap Sarah. Why was she continuing on with this when I was doing her the favor in the first place by bumming the fag? If I knew these two were going to become our new best friends, I would have spoken normally.

“Well, I don’t quite recall-I only lived there for a few years-but it was right across the park from Whiteheath.” I couldn’t remember the name of the street, but remembered there was a huge park across from a more upscale town that I thought was called Whiteheath.

“Do you mean Blackheath?” the man asked me.

“Righty-o! That’s it, I knew I was a bit off.” His wife and Sarah laughed as if they were on my side, but I could see the guy’s eyes growing more skeptical, and the questions wouldn’t stop.

“And then where did you live?” was his next question.

“When I was eleven, I was flown to a boarding school in California and I spent the next seven years there.”

“Bloody hell,” he said. “Well, how did you manage to keep your English accent?”

“I dated an English guy,” I told him. “He was pretty much the only person I talked to.”

“When you were eleven?”

“Oh, God no!” I blurted out, forgetting that had been the age I mentioned. “I was twelve when we started seeing each other.”

“Can I have another cigarette?” Sarah asked the woman.

“Really?” he asked me, with an overexaggerated question mark on his face. “Lewisham is kind of a working-class town. How were your parents able to afford such an education?”

I didn’t appreciate the rapid-fire style in which he would shoot one question after another at me, or the inappropriateness of his inquiry into my divorced parents’ income. That was none of his business, and it was clear that he did not grow up with the same etiquette that had been instilled in me by my English nun/auto shop teachers, or whoever was in charge at the boarding school I had never attended. I started to chew my fried cod slower and slower in order to give myself more time to come up with reasonable answers to my interrogator’s questions.

“Well, I got a scholarship, actually.”

“How fascinating,” his wife added. “So interesting.” I could tell she truly did believe what I was saying by her sincerity and good-heartedness, which shone through with every smile. He, on the other hand, was trouble.

“What kind of scholarship?” Hitler asked.

I knew my response had to be sharp and I wasn’t about to blurt out something ridiculous. After some consideration, I responded.

“Bowling.”

“Bowling, bloody hell? I didn’t even know you could get scholarships for that!” he wailed. That was when Sarah realized she needed to come to my defense.

“Oh, in the States, yes! It’s hugely competitive, and Chelsea is one of the best.”

“Enough about me,” I said. “How did you two meet?”

The woman, Anne, went on to tell us that she used to be a groupie of his band and they’d been together for twenty years. Sarah asked them what band he was a part of, and he said, “You’ve probably never heard of us, but we’re called the Eagles.”

“Shut up!” Sarah exclaimed. “Of course we’ve heard of you!” Even I, whose music library consists solely of Whitney Houston’s and Hilary Duff’s greatest hits, knew the Eagles were a big band. I couldn’t believe we were talking to Don Henley and his wife.

They went on to regale us with stories of touring through New Zealand and Ireland and of all the crazy drugs they had done, and parties they had gone to. I, of course, loved this part of the conversation, and asked them very pointed questions about the various strains of Ecstasy they were able to get their hands on. More important, the minute I heard the word “Ireland,” I needed to find out everything I could about leprechauns, but I knew that would be a hard word to say in a fake English accent. I was mouthing it silently to myself for several seconds until he asked me if I was okay.

“What are those tiny little green men called?” I asked.

“Frogs?”

“No, the ones that live in Ireland.”

All three of my companions looked at me, concerned, until Sarah came to my aid. “She likes little things,” she informed them. “She’s talking about leprechauns.”

“Anyway,” he went on, “we fell in love, managed to stay in love, and here we are today, past our prime, but happy as two clams at a swap meet.”

Sarah was practically drooling every time the guy opened his mouth. She couldn’t believe that we had run into such an icon at some random fish-and-chips restaurant. “This is so crazy!” she repeated, over and over and over again.

“Do you have any children?’ she asked them.

“No,” they responded. “How about the two of you?”

Sarah said no, and I was about to do the same until I remembered that I did indeed have two prides of joy.

“I do,” I told them. “I’ve got a nine-year-old and a fourteen-year-old. Different fathers.”

“What are their names?” the wife politely inquired.

“Earl…and Earl.”

Sarah interrupted me with more questions to him about all the awards his band had won and all the hit songs they’ve recorded. He was very flattered and downplayed everything. He was humble, and it was charming.

I was relieved that the attention had shifted from me, but was also regaining my confidence and wanted to give my accent another shot without talking about my personal history.

“So let me ask you,” I interrupted. “What is it like having to compete with all these other Brits who seem to be stealing your thunder. Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen, Shakira.”

“Can we get the check?” Sarah yelled to our server across the restaurant.

“Cheers,” I told them both as we got up to leave after paying our bill in a flurry.

“Cheers,” they said and kissed Sarah good-bye. They awkwardly smiled at me and opted for a handshake. Then Don handed Sarah his card before we walked out the door.

“You should write fairy tales,” Sarah said, wrapping her scarf around her neck. “I have no idea why you write real stories when you’ve obviously got an imagination on par with J. K. Rowling.”

“I prefer to think of it as quick in a bind.”

“No, Chelsea, quick in a bind is when you have to make up something fast. Your lies are completely unnecessary and, above all, ludicrous. Some of the things that come out of your mouth have never even crossed my mind.”

“Why would they cross your mind, Sarah? I’m the one who’s thinking them.”

“It’s truly fascinating,” she said. “I think there’s a pretty strong chance you could be a full-blown sociopath.”

“I wouldn’t argue that,” I replied.

Sarah took the card Don Henley had give her out of her pocket and squinted while trying to read his name. “Chelsea, what does this say?”

“What?” I asked, leaning in to look at it.

“Does this say ‘The Equals’?”

“Oh my God.”

“Oh my God, I’m so stupid. And his name is Pat Lloyd. I thought that was Don Henley.”

“So did I. By the way, I have no idea what Don Henley looks like.”

“Me neither,” she said.

“Well, I’m glad I didn’t humiliate myself in front of a music legend, that’s all I have to say.”

“I’m sure at some point you will.”

I lay awake in my hotel room later that night listening to Sarah snore and wondering why no one else I knew ever seemed to get themselves into the situations I did. I was officially thirty and wondered if there was an age when this kind of behavior should be curbed.

After much deliberation coupled with back-to-back hiccups, I decided to blame the English. They were responsible for my feeling ashamed of my Native American-Jewish-Mormon roots. Had they not subjected me to such blatant discrimination, I would never have tried to use a fake accent in order to blend in with all the other Great Britainers.

I prayed that night. Not only for England, but for my children. I hoped both Earls never had to face the adversity I had seen that night at Dans le Noir. I prayed for their future, for their well-being, and most of all I prayed for them to have manners to send me a thank-you card. I had sent them both a DVD of my half-hour Comedy Central special two months earlier and hadn’t heard from either of them since.


Big Red | Are You There, Vodka, It`s Me Chelsea | Dim Sum and Then Some