I was seven years old when I went out on my first “date.” I don’t know how to explain that it wasn’t creepy, but it wasn’t. I don’t know how to assure you that it wasn’t outrageously irresponsible of my parents to let me go, but, truly, it wasn’t.
My “date’s” name was Kevin Brawley and he was twenty-two at the time. He was a waiter at Mario’s Place, the beloved family restaurant in town — one of the “boys,” as my parents called them, who would be mentored by Mario and later go on to open their own places around town in the years to come.
Kevin would always tell me that he was going to wait for me. That he’d be my boyfriend someday. I know how wrong this sounds, but Kevin imbued it all with an innocence that made it not wrong at all. He made me feel grown up and yet, at the same time, reminded me that I wasn’t. He never, ever, even many years later, crossed any lines whatsoever.
So when he asked my parents if he could take me out for a lobster dinner for my birthday, they didn’t hesitate.
I got dressed up. I wore a long white cotton dress with a butter yellow apron, tied at the back in a bow. When he pulled up in his Jeep to pick me up, I was giddy. I remember telling him eventually that “my smile muscles hurt,” because I couldn’t stop laughing.
He took me to what I remember as a very fancy restaurant. I have to wonder if it would hold up to that description now, but I’d prefer not to pop the bubble of a cherished memory, so it will be what it was then. It’s the silly things I remember about that night. His soup had come with oyster crackers and he gave them to me, then lovingly chided me for filling up on them before dinner. When I lifted my napkin, revealing a stray cracker underneath, he admonished me for stowing it away when he wasn’t looking. And then he laughed. And laughed. And God, did Kevin laugh. He’d throw his head back and his signature gravel would give way to a hoarse guffaw. It was infectious. And loud.
When he brought me home that night, he told me that I’d now been on my first date and when the “punks came knocking in a few years,” I’d have to tell them that they had a pretty high bar to clear.
I would look back on that night years later and realize how much he had spent on dinner. He worked hard at Mario’s for his money, and he spent it on making a seven year-old girl feel special. That’s something.
Kevin would go on to open three wildly successful restaurants in town. In my late teens, he’d wink at me when I’d sneak into one of the bars, pretending to be of age. He’d find me for a hug and a hoarse laugh and a gravelly, “Hey, there’s my girl!” He’d then add with another wink, “You stay out of trouble, kid.”
He ran, as my dad would say, with a fast crowd. Hell, it was the eighties; back then, we were all a fast crowd. It was what it was. But Kevin was different. He was always different. There was just … something about him that set him apart.
I found out yesterday that Kevin passed away last weekend. Although we’d been out of touch for years, I never doubted that I’d see him again. That I’d hear him laugh again. That I’d again be pulled into a, “Hey, there’s my girl!” hug.
There was a posse of Mario’s boys across town. You couldn’t throw a rock without hitting one of their restaurants. But Kevin … Kevin always had something that made him different. The gravelly laugh. The effervescent joy that hid something far deeper. A thread of genuine tenderness running through a larger than life persona. A calling to host, to welcome, to entertain, to feed.
And the memories that he created for a little girl who would hang on to them some 35 years later.
I know, of course, that someday I’ll run into him again. And that when I do, he’ll throw back his head and laugh, then pull me into a hug and, with a wink, tell me to stay out of trouble.
Rest in peace, Brawls.
It was too soon.