Was this actually going to go anywhere? Did he want it to?
By Mark Souza
August 3, 2021
She was running late. The text arrived ten minutes ago: Just got off the train. Be there in ten ;). Which meant she should be arriving any second. He sipped his red wine, the tannins draining the last of the moisture from his already dry mouth, transforming his tongue into a piece of dehydrated fruit. He glanced toward the door, unsure whether he hoped to see her or for her absence to be prolonged, affording him more time to prepare. Not that it would help. Preparation wasn’t really possible. He played out hypothetical conversations in his head, practicing witticisms and bon mots which he would never deliver. He constructed Rube Goldberg machines of words that would end with him delivering the perfect line, exerting maximum charm.
He hadn’t put this type of pressure their first date. That date had gone well. The conversation flowed easily, for nearly six hours, as did the alcohol, leading to easy connection. He had left that date drunk and happy after ending a make-out session before their drunkenness allowed it to go too far. He left her apartment as she stood unsteadily in her kitchen eating a slice of white bread straight from the bag in an attempt to stave off a drunkenness that had already overwhelmed her. She swayed, her equilibrium fighting against invisible waves that tried to topple her. Just in time, she steadied herself, dropping her bare left heel, which had escaped the confines of her retreating ankle-length sock, to the tile floor of her kitchen. Her foot contacted the tile at the same time as a piece of crust that had dropped before it could find her mouth. She smiled at him as he closed the door. The afterglow stayed in his mind during his cab ride home and helped lead him into a heavy, whiskey-laden sleep. 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? Had the conversation really been good or was it just surface blather 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 missed her arriving. 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. Stray strands strained against her hair-tie to break free. Small beads of sweat dotted 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 nothing to match that dimple on her left side, just a small acne breakout partially hidden by concealer. She was beautiful.
They hugged. It was awkward, too intimate for the strangers they truly were, but also somehow too stiff considering the intimacy they had already shared. They moved to their table. It was in a corner of the room next to glass doors which opened to the street. Rain had created 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, which gave her an open view of the restaurant. His view 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 sat at the bar. They each had a glass of 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. She held it delicately, two fingers and a thumb lightly gripping as if the menu was something rare and valuable. Her fingers were thin. A foggy memory appeared to him in spurts through the alcoholic haze of their first date. Her fingers groping hesitantly, shaking with uncertainty. Then she took his hand in hers. The feeling of her hand in his somehow more intimate than any of the kissing that would follow. Did she remember it the same way? Did she remember 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? Two people find each other attractive but know nothing about one another, so they go share a meal and force themselves to talk the entire time? About what? Who knows? 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. It was a strange, extremely Brooklyn-sounding affair where she and her friends had watched a man play ambient music for two hours in a church. Apparently, he only played in churches. Something about the acoustics. It was funny. Quirky and adventurous. The sort of story that worked equally well for dates and late-night talk shows. He smiled at the appropriate times 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 lingered. People carried umbrellas, most of them shut and held at the side, but a stubborn few still open defiantly, refusing to be cowed by the rain’s absence, certain it was just a ploy. Thin layers of water coated the street, creating a reflective layer that reminded him of an oil slick. Small jets of water pinwheeled off spinning tires of yellow cabs. The scene made him sad for reasons he couldn’t articulate.
The food arrived. Gnocchi in a cream sauce for her. Pan-seared duck breast and leg confit in an orange glaze for him. His stomach roiled. He sipped more wine.
She scooped up a piece of gnocchi. He welcomed the silence that eating would bring. It afforded time to regroup. The conversation was too disjointed. Your turn. My turn. No flow. It was his fault. He was awkward, staring at the street, unable to get over the creeping anxiety that they were just marking time before an inevitable end. It wasn’t that they weren’t a good match, he actually suspected that they were, but he knew they would never find out. It was all futile. The artificiality of the scenario would swallow them up. My projection of self and your projection of self don’t fully click. Such a shame. But that’s how these things go. Persona before person. Lie before truth.
“How’s the duck?”
He looked down at his untouched food. 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. It 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 was flavorful but tough. He kept chewing. He could feel his anxiety rising. What if he had an allergic reaction to the food? He wouldn’t, he didn’t even have food allergies, but what if? Still chewing. His hands were starting to sweat and his forehead was starting to feel damp. Just the humidity. Chew, chew, chew. The duck was now just a mealy mash 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, forcing himself to swallow. His esophagus felt unusually small, but he managed to get the duck down. His leg started bobbing of its own accord. Up and down. Faster. Upanddown. 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 didn’t notice. 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.
“Are you okay? You look a little pale.”
Well I appear to be 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 and 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, no expectation, no judgement, just exist, together, and see if, maybe, we like that, and 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 her gnocchi through the 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. A bell dinged and the doors opened.
Why had the date felt so forced? Maybe it was her fault. She shifted the agreed upon time and had still been late. She told that stupid story about the ambient sounds concert which made her seem so much more hipster than she meant for it to. He joked about it, light teasing about how overly cool and hip she must be, but maybe there was truth in that 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. Her choice. Maybe he saw that as childish, immature. Certainly, he must have judged how drunk she allowed herself to get during that date. She wished she didn’t remember standing in her kitchen with her clothes askew trying to feed him bread, coming off like a crazy woman who thinks she’s dating an oversized pigeon. He left soon after that.
Did she even really like him? Did he like her? Obviously, there was some interest, or he wouldn’t have asked her out again. He didn’t find her too crazy. But was that enough?
She was so tired and just wanted a drink – though her acupuncturist had advised no alcohol. 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 make-out session of last time that preceded her eucharistic offering of Wonder Bread. This time wasn’t like that. 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.
Another ding and the subway doors closed. She closed her eyes in unison.
Something half-remembered from the first date came back to her. Him reaching out, taking her hand in his. This was in the fourth bar. He had been tentative, reaching his hand toward her slowly, fearfully. But she welcomed the touch. It felt validating. He accepted her. He wanted her. A sense of tenderness came over her at the idea of having a piece of herself enmeshed with a piece of him.
That was a nice moment.
The train started moving as she drifted off.
Mark Souza is a writer and an actor based in the New York and New England areas. He has a BFA in acting from New York University and an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. As an actor, he has appeared in over 30 stage productions in New York and Los Angeles over the past fifteen years. As a writer, his full-length play Business as Usual was produced in 2008 and he co-wrote the LA Weekly nominated web series Walk of Shame in 2013. He is currently working on a novel.