An Evening Out
by Karina Slemko
There was an older couple sitting at Andrew's table with a bottle of champagne between them. The woman wore a silk dress and the man had a carnation in his breastpocket. Andrew forgave them for being there.
"We're really busy today," said Max. Andrew nodded at the maitre d' and followed him deeper into the restaurant. Max had been there since Andrew started showing up on Friday nights three years ago. Once it became clear to both of them that Andrew would never be anywhere else on a Friday night, it was understood that his table was reserved. Andrew suspected it was not something of which to be proud.
Max led Andrew to a rear section. "Is this satisfactory?" asked Max. He pointed to a small table in the corner.
"It's fine," said Andrew. It was next to the kitchen. "Really," added Andrew. Max shrugged apologetically.
Andrew sat down. His back was against a wall. He had a view of a handful of tables under dim lighting, a low brick wall separating them from the main dining room. Jazz music played softly while people ate braised figs.
A waiter brought Andrew a menu. Andrew didn't recognize him.
"Would you care to start with a drink, sir?" asked the waiter.
"A sherry, please. I'll have the bouillabaisse." He pushed the menu aside without opening it. He knew the soup would be salty but he didn't care. He felt reckless. One of the secretaries had commented that morning about how Andrew always wore a blue tie on Fridays and a black tie on Mondays. Her innocent remark wounded him, causing his love of routine to disintegrate from admirable to pitiful. He vowed to buy some paisley ties. Shake things up a little.
"Very good." The waiter disappeared with the menu.
All of the tables in Andrew's sight had couples. Some were mismatched, like the one to Andrew's left. The woman's hair was teased and sprayed into a pompadour that bobbed aboved stretched eyes. Her silicone lips were a painful red, insistent and distasteful. The man wore a dull and tight suit. He flinched whenever the woman opened her mouth.
Andrew played a game he enjoyed: predicting which couples wouldn't stay together. The ones who sat stiffly, forcing smiles while checking their watches to see how much longer before they'd be free, were easy. But some were puzzling. The middle-aged pair radiating stupor to his right -- would they rekindle their romance or call it even and start anew? Would the young couple playing footsies drift apart when the passion faded? Two months at the most, thought Andrew. He believed that lengthy relationships were a result of stunted opportunities, not choice.
A woman sitting alone in an opposite corner caught Andrew's eye. She had long, dark hair that matched her cocktail dress, and an oval face. Her eyes were turquoise. She sat with her chin in one hand, her head tilted thoughtfully at a painting on the wall. Femme fatale, thought Andrew, and was immediately embarrassed.
The women Andrew dated were bland, faintly anxious women who liked to watch game shows. They read People magazine and used fabric softener. When they moved on, taking their afghans with them, Andrew felt sad, but he also felt relief. Somehow, a solitary future of blandness was more comforting than a shared one.
There were advantages to eating alone. Nobody picking the food off his plate. No arguments over the bill. Andrew was no longer even sure about protocol; the last woman he dated was angry when he tried to pay, but the one before her was angry when he didn't. It had become too frustrating, flailing and slipping while trying to execute an unknown dance. He told himself he was taking a break when he stopped dating. The solitude was soothing at first, but it grew oppressive over the years. The empty seat next to him in the theatre made him sigh; Valentine's Day made him morose. He began to worry that it was too late, that a creeping paralysis had left him incapable of connecting with women. A layer of anxiety, thin but palpable, enveloped him.
A waiter, one who had served Andrew pepper jelly with his catfish the week before despite Andrew's request for nothing spicy, placed a plate in front of the woman. The femme fatale smiled. Andrew dropped his fork. His heart wobbled. He couldn't remember the last time anyone made him feel so electric.
"Your bouillabaisse, sir." Andrew's waiter placed a large bowl in front of him. Andrew looked down and saw an unnoticed glass of sherry sitting on the table.
"Thank you," he mumbled.
The bouillabaisse was thick and full of mussels. Andrew stirred it, trying to count the mussels as he stirred. He lost track after number four dipped under a potato. His eyes drifted back to the woman. She took a sip from a glass in one flawless motion. Candlelight played across her delicate collarbone.
Andrew pictured himself sitting with her. He'd tell her funny stories about his day at the office, like the time Darryl made coffee and they ended up throwing it out because he used five scoops instead of one. She'd laugh and touch the back of his hand with her fingertips, charmed and amused. Their first date.
It was odd to see such a beautiful woman alone. They usually travelled in pairs or packs, as if their own company wasn't sufficient. They pretended not to notice people staring while making sure they did. Andrew, who harbored no illusions, admired and feared them from a distance. The spectre of rejection made him tremble. He knew the sound of their responses: verbal wrist slaps. Even worse was being dismissed with a glance, as if he was invisible. He wondered if they could see only other beautiful people. He might be nothing more than a ripple in the air, a moment of visual disturbance. Something partly seen and easily fogotten.
The woman in the corner glanced at her watch. She had to be on a business trip, Andrew decided. It was possible, though, that she was new to the city. Maybe she was alone and bored, hoping to meet someone more grounded than the fickle powerbrokers she usually dated. A mist of sweat coated Andrew's forehead while he picked her name: Veronica. Classy, with a hint of vamp.
He sipped his sherry and imagined their next dates. Movies, a picnic, and a trip to Hawaii someday. Andrew went every winter for two weeks. They'd be like the couples on travel brochures, laughing in their technicolor bathing suits while frolicking on a beach. Except Andrew would wear a t-shirt. He burned easily.
"Is your bouillabaisse alright?"
Andrew looked up into the waiter's impassive face. He blinked at him. "It's fine."
His eyes drifted back to Veronica. She daintily wiped her mouth and smoothed her hair. It fell in a cascade, like on the shampoo commercials that Andrew saw every night. His favorite was the one where the lady looked right at the camera and said, "Because you're worth it!"
By the time the waiter cleared the untouched bouillabaisse Andrew had married Veronica. They lived in the suburbs in a new split-level with a row of peonies lining the front. Inside, the happy couple lounged in bed, reading newspapers in the morning sunlight, sneaking glances around the pages. Breakfast (fresh fruit and a low-fat muffin because Ronny wanted to keep Andrew healthy) could wait.
Andrew beckoned his waiter over. "I'd like to send that lady a drink." He pointed at Veronica.
The waiter looked offended.
"And what drink would that be, sir?"
Andrew was momentarily puzzled. "Whatever she's having," he finally said.
"That would be water."
Andrew began to sweat again. He couldn't send a random drink. A cocktail might be too flirty; a highball, too presumptuous. The secret language of drinks had always eluded him.
"Wait a moment." He reached into the left pocket of his pants, frantically digging for a scrap of paper. He pulled out his keys, half of a pencil, two rusty nails, and a linty gum wrapper. The waiter cleared his throat. Andrew plunged his hand into the right pocket and withdrew a crumpled electrical bill. He wrote furiously on the back of the bill:
You're going to think this is crazy but I think you're who I've been looking for my whole life. Join me and let me buy you a coffee -- I promise I don't bite!
Andrew thrust the paper into the waiter's fist. The man pursed his lips. He crossed the room on the balls of his feet, holding the paper between his thumb and forefinger.
Bells began to ring in Andrew's ears. His vision narrowed and he wondered if he was going to faint. Sending the note was like stepping out of a plane and freefalling, his linear life evaporating behind him in a smoke trail. He had a brief memory of the time he had too much rum punch at an office party and told Wendy, one of the secretaries, that he thought she looked like the girl on the shampoo commercial. Wendy thanked him and stood there as if she expected him to say something else, but he couldn't think of anything else, so she wandered off to talk to a man wearing socks that matched his khakis.
Andrew gripped the edge of the table and glanced to his left. The large-haired woman stared at him, fascinated by his panic. She stretched forward, angling for a clear view if Andrew fell off his chair. He gulped his sherry and stared back at her, wobbly but defiant.
The waiter was intercepted by a busboy. The busboy grabbed the waiter's arm and gestured toward a frowning couple at a table.
Andrew's heart pounded so loudly it drowned out the conversations around him. This couldn't be happening; Veronica had to see the note. She was the reason nothing had ever worked out for him. He had been waiting for her all those nights, alone in his apartment, silence clogging his ears, watching lights wink out in the buildings around him.
The waiter held up his hand toward the busboy and walked to Veronica's table. He handed her the note and hurried away, free of the indignity.
Andrew watched her read it, his foot tapping with nervous anticipation. His life was about to change. He was ready. He shot the woman to his left a triumphant grin, making her recoil.
A man arrived at Veronica's table. He was roughly four inches taller than Andrew. He leaned over Veronica and she wiped snow from his thick, sandy hair. She kissed him.
Andrew froze. He wanted to rewind time, go back to the moment he told Max the back table was fine. No, he would tell Max firmly, in rewound time. This will not do. Then he would march out of the restaurant and go home. He would zap a frozen pork chop dinner. He would eat it in front of the television, watching one of those shows with a laugh track and a mismatched couple. He would sit alone on his couch, safe and grateful.
Veronica waited until the man sat down before she handed him the note. He scanned it and the two of them looked at Andrew, their faces curious.
Andrew looked at the ceiling. He debated bolting and throwing some cash at Max on his way out. It was intriguing; he'd never run out of a public building before. An alternative was to ignore them. What note? I have no idea what you're talking about.
He broke into a huge smile and waved at them both as if they were long lost friends. They looked at each other and then back at Andrew, squinting.
Andrew counted out exact change without waiting for the check (he knew the prices by heart) and piled it neatly in the center of the table. The waiter had been rude, he felt.
He stood and straightened his tie. He bowed toward the large-haired woman. "It's been a pleasure," he said. She glared at him. Her husband laughed.
Andrew walked straight toward Veronica and the man. He kept smiling and tugging at his tie, approaching at a fast speed. Veronica watched him intently, her eyes glittering in the dim light, locking with his and making him think of Waikiki. She opened her mouth to speak.
At the last possible moment he made a sharp turn and began to walk away from them. He heard something musical behind him but he kept walking, past tables of anniversary parties and dates. He could smell the ocean.
Andrew couldn't find his coatcheck ticket. "I know you and your coat," said the girl behind the counter. She looked pleased, as if it was a secret she and Andrew shared. He took his coat and gave her a large tip.
"How was everything?" asked Max.
Andrew wound a scarf around his neck and slipped on his coat. "Fine, as always." Max nodded.
Andrew rummaged through his wallet until he found a fifty. He pressed it into Max's hand.
"Better than fine," said Andrew. "Fabulous."
Max's eyebrows raised when he saw the bill. "Mr. Neufeld, I can't--"
"Please, Max. Just take it."
"You're very generous." Max slipped the money into a breastpocket.
"Take care of yourself, Max," replied Andrew.
Melancholy washed over him as he stepped outside into the frozen night. He would have to find another restaurant for Friday nights. It would be trendier than Max's place, he decided, with halogen lights and industrial spools for tables. He'd meet girls half his age, their messy short hair quivering as he made them laugh. He'd be one of the regulars. Tonight was a sign it was time to move on, not a disaster. Not at all.
Andrew began to walk home. He liked the fact that his apartment was directly south of Max's; it felt like they were connected somehow. The temperature was colder than normal. Puffs of breath trailed from Andrew's mouth into the still air, comforting him. He was still going.
Andrew's boots, supposedly slip-proof, betrayed him. Both of his feet left the ground as cleanly as if someone had pulled the sidewalk out from underneath him. A streetlamp left meteor trails across his eyes; he tasted bouillabaisse at the back of his throat. He hit the ice patch on his side and rolled onto his back, the momentum turning him in a full circle like forlorn glass in a game of spin the bottle. Andrew could remember playing the game but not actually kissing anyone. North, he thought. I'm pointing north.
He thought about getting up. He thought about trendy restaurants and how he would never approach anyone with messy short hair. He thought about how much simpler it was to just lie still.
After a while it began to snow. A dog wandered by and sniffed Andrew's head before leaving. Andrew opened his mouth and tried to catch snowflakes with his tongue, trails of water running down his cheeks. He could smell the ocean.