She was running late. The text arrived ten minutes ago: Just got off the train. Be there in ten ;). She should be arriving any second. He sipped at the last of his red wine, the tannins mixing with his already dry mouth, transforming his tongue into a piece of dehydrated fruit. He glanced toward the door, not sure whether he was hoping to see her or for her absence to be prolonged, affording him more time to prepare. Not that any real preparation was possible. He ran through hypothetical conversations in his head, practicing witticisms and bon mots which he would never deliver. He created Rube Goldberg conversations which would end with the perfect line, the maximum charm exerted. He hadn’t done this before their first date, hadn’t put this type of pressure on it. Of course, that date had gone well. The conversation flowed easily, for almost six hours, and so did the alcohol, leading to easy connection. He had left that date drunk and happy, stopping a makeout session in her apartment and excusing himself from as she ate a slice of bread straight from the bag in an attempt to stave off a drunkenness that had already overwhelmed her. Even the decision to leave, when others would have stayed, would have pushed the issue, had filled him with a sense of pride. Not that going home marked some great act of chivalry, but there was something noble about recognizing the situation and making the correct choice. There was something noble about showing basic human decency. But the high of date one wore off quickly. Questioning started. Why did they drink so much? Should he have left before even going to her apartment? Just walk her home and go? Was the conversation really as good as it seemed or was it just surface blather that was colored by the excitement of attraction? Was this actually going to go anywhere? Did he want it to? Did she? How would he manage to screw up the second date?
“Hey, sorry I’m late.”
He startled. His gaze had never shifted from the door of the restaurant, yet he somehow missed her arrival. She stood in front of his barstool, slightly harried, her blond hair fashioned in a semi-stylish updo that was a sort of half-bun-half-ponytail. He noticed small beads of sweat on her upper lip despite the cold weather. Her mouth contorted into a wry smile which brought out the single dimple on her right cheek. There was no matching pair on her left side, instead just a small acne breakout that was partially hidden by concealer. He was struck by her beauty but also by the flaws he could spot, and a dull awareness came over him that those flaws, bits of nothing really, would be judged harshly as soon as initial excitement waned. Then that judgement too would fade. In the long run, assuming there would be a long run, those nominal flaws would become the lasting memories, the defining qualities. They wouldn’t be flaws but signs of a fragile humanity, a vulnerability and a bravery that comes with the act of allowing yourself to be judged by another, of trusting someone not to judge too harshly.
They hugged. It was awkward, both too intimate for the strangers they truly were, but also somehow too stiff for the intimacy they had already shared. They moved to their table, a corner table next to glass doors which could be opened to the street. It had rained earlier in the day, creating a mugginess that could be mistaken for warmth, and the restaurant had decided to open one of the two doors, straddling a line of uncertainty. She took the booth seat, her view open to the restaurant. His was only of her.
“Thanks. I came here before once, years ago, with a friend. I remember it being good.”
That wasn’t quite true. He had been here on a date. After seeing a movie in a theater that no longer existed, he and his date had walked up the block and stopped here. They had drunk wine and tried to pretend their relationship wasn’t purely sexual. They went to his place after the wine and had sex on a sagging mattress held up by a makeshift frame of wooden slats, the box spring having been sacrificed months earlier to an infestation of bedbugs. They broke up within the month.
She studied the menu. Her hands held it delicately, two fingers and a thumb lightly gripping as if the menu was something rare and valuable. Her fingers were thin. He remembered near the end of the first date, a foggy memory coming in spurts through an alcoholic haze, her taking his hand in hers. Her fingers hesitantly groping, almost shaking with uncertainty. That moment somehow more intimate than the kissing that would follow. He wondered if she remembered it the same way. He wondered if she remembered it at all.
“Glass of wine?”
“Not tonight. I’ve been sleeping poorly so trying to stay off the booze. Maybe it’ll help.”
That was reasonable, he thought as dread creeped into his stomach. He ordered another Cotes-du-Rhone for himself.
Food ordered, the date proper began. How was work? Did you have a good week? Anecdotes. Stories from the recent past. Wanna hear a weird thing that happened to me last month? Forced. Nothing was coming naturally. And why should it? What sort of crazy contrivance is a date anyway? Hey, we both find each other cute but know nothing about one another, let’s go share a meal and force ourselves to talk the entire time. About what? Who knows, we’ll wing it. Dating was a doomed proposition. And yet, the first date had gone well. Why? What was different?
He took a sip of his wine.
She was talking about a concert she had gone to in Brooklyn. A strange, extremely Brooklyn-sounding affair where she and her friends had watched a man play ambient music for two hours in a church. He only played in churches for some reason. Something about the acoustics. It was a funny story. Quirky, adventurous, the sort of thing that worked equally well for dates and late night talk shows. He smiled at the appropriate time and asked follow-up questions. He laughed a false laugh, hoping she didn’t see through him.
His mind wandered. Outside, the rain had stopped but its presence was still felt. People carried umbrellas, most of them shut and held at the side, but a stubborn few still open in defiance of a non-existent threat, refusing to be cowed by the rain’s absence, knowing it was just a ploy. Thin layers of water coated the street, creating a reflective coating that reminded him of an oil slick. Small jets of water pinwheeled off spinning tires of yellow cabs. The scene was sad for reasons beyond his comprehension.
The food arrived. Gnocchi in a cream sauce for her. Duck breast and confit in an orange glaze for him. His stomach roiled and he sipped more wine.
She scooped up a piece of gnocchi and started. He welcomed the silence the eating would bring. It afforded time to regroup. The conversation was too disjointed right now. Your turn. My turn. No flow. It was his fault of course. He was being awkward, staring at the street, unable to get over the creeping anxiety that they were just marking time before the inevitable end. It wasn’t that he felt they weren’t a good match, he actually suspected that they were, but he knew they would never get to the point of finding out. That it was all futile. They would be swallowed by the inherent artificiality of the scenario. Sorry, my projection of self and your projection of self don’t fully click, which is a shame as we, the actual people do, but you know how these things go, persona before person, lie before truth.
“How’s the duck?”
He hadn’t yet tried it. He stabbed a piece of the breast with his fork, shifting a thin layer of fat that separated the pan fried skin from the meat. He noticed the meat was cooked medium. He had asked for medium rare, but that hardly mattered. He shoved the piece into his mouth and chewed.
“The gnocchi is too. Good restaurant choice.”
He smiled and nodded, still chewing. The duck had started tasty but was a little tough. He kept chewing. He could feel his anxiety rising. What if he had a reaction to the food? Not that he would of course, but what if? Still chewing. His hands were starting to sweat and he could feel more sweat developing on his forehead. It was the humidity, that’s all. Chew, chew, chew. The duck was now just a mealy mash in his mouth that tasted like the color gray. He wanted to spit it out but knew he couldn’t, not in front of her. He reached for his water and took a large gulp, helping himself to swallow. The duck went down, though his esophagus felt unusually small. His leg started bobbing up and down, seemingly of its own accord. He wanted to retch.
“Would you like to try some?”
He couldn’t eat anymore. And he was still sweating. And his leg was still shaking. She wasn’t noticing. She was talking about new medications she was taking that bothered her sleep. SSRIs. They helped with her anxiety but exacerbated her restless leg syndrome. It kept her up at night.
He grabbed his leg, trying to make it stop shaking.
“Are you okay? You look a little pale.”
Well, I appear to having a panic attack because I psyched myself out about this date because our first date went really well and I went into it with no expectations but now I think I’m actually starting to like you and that’s freaking me out because I worry that I’m too nervous and too in my head that you’ll never see the real me and I’ll just come off as this boring nothing person and an opportunity will be lost and I don’t want that because opportunities are rare and sure this may be nothing, it’s probably nothing, but maybe it’s something and maybe someday we’ll look back and laugh at the second date where you were late and I was panicky and how silly it all was because look at us now and sure that probably won’t happen but maybe it will and that maybe is why we’re both here and I’m screwing it up by being too nervous and not being myself and you’re screwing it up by being too nervous and not being yourself and I want to find a way to cut through that bullshit and just exist in the same physical space with no expectation and no judgement, just exist, together, and see if maybe we like that, if maybe it feels like something we’ve both been missing, how does that sound, can we do that, can we just exist?
“I’m fine. Stomach’s just being a little weird. Might have to take this to go.”
He took another sip of wine, his knuckles white as he gripped the glass.
She felt the warmth from the gnocchi in her to go bag on her thighs as she sat on the subway. The lights in the car were harsh, illuminating sky blue seats. She stared at an advertisement for Fresh Direct as the train stopped at Forty-Second Street. She wondered why the date had felt so forced. Maybe it was her fault. She had shifted the agreed upon time and has still been late. She told that stupid story about the ambient sounds concert which made her seem so much more hipster than she had intended. He joked about it, light teasing about how overly cool and hip she must be, but maybe there was truth in the tease. There often was. And the place was too formal. It was a nice restaurant, but how can you be comfortable in a setting that staid? Then again, maybe he liked those sorts of places, maybe she was low class in his eyes. The first date had been bar hopping, maybe he saw that as childish, immature. Certainly he must have judged how drunk she allowed herself to get that time. She certainly wished she didn’t remember trying to feed him bread, coming off like a crazy woman who apparently thinks she’s dating an oversized pigeon. He left soon after that.
She wondered if she really liked him. Or if he really liked her. Obviously there was some interest or he wouldn’t have asked her out again. He didn’t find her too crazy. But was the interest enough?
She was so tired and just wanted a drink – though her acupuncturist told her not to. The drinking was likely a cause of her inability to sleep.
They didn’t kiss at the end of this date. Strange contrast to the lengthy makeout session of last time that preceded the eucharistic offering of Wonder Bread. This time wasn’t like that though. It was different. They were different. She wondered if he would text again. A sense of relief came over her when she imagined he wouldn’t. A sense of disappointment too.
Maybe I’m just too in my head, she thought. The subway doors closed and she closed her eyes in unison. She thought back to something half remembered from the first date. He had reached out, taken her hand in his. This was in the fourth bar. There was a tentativeness to him holding her hand, but she welcomed it. It was validating, to be accepted, to be wanted in that way, there was a tenderness to having a piece of herself enmeshed with a piece of him.
That was a nice moment, she thought as the train started moving and she felt herself drift off.