The waitress came from behind the bar and placed two porcelain cups on a marble tabletop where a man and a woman were seated. Then she brought sugar and cream with silver spoons. All very nice.
The woman at the table looked at the man who sat with her. Or, rather, she regarded him. Not bad looking. Older, but not so much that it would ever trouble her, if it came to that. And good cheekbones, plus hands strong and athletic, but, she noticed, without final shaping or finish. Something redolent of a bad state university—a place with fluorescent lighting, plastic chairs, and those wretched little blue exam books—lingered about the man. He talked about interest rates, football, and cars. He described a motivational seminar he had attended. He mentioned money a few times.
“Sugar?” he asked her.
“Yes, I need it sweet,” she replied.
The man continued, his words flowing out into the café where they sat that fall afternoon. She was listening, or trying to, but her eyes were empty. She remembered the concert violinist she had met last month, and the museum director who took her to dinner at the great hotel (and knew the wine). Or the brilliant surgeon, the man with all the patents for—she couldn’t remember exactly. But he had matriculated at Princeton. That’s what he said—matriculated. She sipped her coffee.
No, this man wasn’t bad looking, but he wasn’t good looking either. And the woman knew the difference, knew it so well she felt slightly nauseous.
The man talked more over his coffee. He summarized an editorial from the newspaper. He held forth on lawn care. He brought up money again. The woman noticed tiny lines on his face as he talked, which she imagined deepening into wrinkles and shadows with time. Her hand moved to her own face, to brush away a wisp of hair, and she touched her cheek, her own skin. A great aunt had told her that as the flesh weakens and fades, it better retains the fragrance of good perfume—a comment she never forgot. She wasn’t sure why this memory came now.
“You look nice tonight,” the man said.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” the woman replied. She examined her hands as the man talked, noticing the blue veins which surfaced just last summer. She wondered where they’d been all these years, waiting beneath her skin, waiting to deceive.
“Nice outfit, by the way,” he continued. It was a new blouse.
The woman provided a smile. She felt fake, but it didn’t matter. She’d come to a point in her life where she wasn’t wrong often. She even trusted her boredom, and knew enough, understood enough to suit herself, a circle drawn carefully around her life, the line too familiar.
But outside this realm? A world of chance, chaos, ecstasy, or despair awaited. One could be swept away in an instant and dashed on the rocks. Signs flashed in her mind like giant billboards: Danger Ahead! Wrong Way! Sometimes there were no signs. But if she kept herself in check, she would be safe and give it no mind. Then she recalled a word the brilliant surgeon had used, or maybe it was the violinist with the exquisite hands—circumscribed. She knew the meaning of the word. It didn’t have a nice sound. Circumscribed.
The waitress came again to the table. “Everything okay?”
“Honey?” the man said. “Some chocolate for your coffee?”
The woman shook her head. The waitress retreated. The man shifted forward, his elbows against the table, his eyes level. Okay, maybe he was handsome, she sighed, in the way a German shepherd was nice to look at. Maybe it was the ample shoulders and straight teeth, a kind of bland health like he’d always done it right: square meals, fresh air, plenty of sleep. He’d actually done all that.
“It’s good, isn’t it?” he said.
“Good?” she asked. “What’s good?”
A cloud appeared on his face. “The coffee, dear. Your coffee.”
“Oh, yes, good,” she replied. “I suppose it is.”
She stared out the café window at the people on the sidewalk. All well dressed, obviously going somewhere. Maybe a show was opening nearby. No, the man wasn’t bad looking, but that was all. It may have been easier if he were ugly. That might be something to work with. The woman’s heart sat perfectly still. It made no move at all. But she could hear it.
The waitress came back.
“I think I’ve had enough for now,” the woman said. The man gazed at her, searching. She wouldn’t meet his eyes. Her interest flagged. She felt she knew everything about the man there was to know and realized it was all inside the circle. Circumscribed.
The waitress left a bill on the table.
“No, please. I’ll get this,” the woman said as the man reached for it. “You’ve been kind, bringing me here. It’s a nice place.”
No, she wouldn’t be wrong this time. The man was too right, too appropriate, completely inside the circle. She accepted it. They rose from the table and left the café. Outside, it was a fall afternoon and getting dark as they walked to the man’s car. He opened the door for her, smiling, and she remembered the German shepherd. As they drove, the man talked again, and the woman watched the city passing by, noticing the days growing shorter, and she wondered if she had time, if she had enough strength to be wrong again. At least one more time.
This is a beautifully crafted piece, made more effective by what it doesn’t say through its silent dialogue. A “quiet desperation”–trite phrase–permeates her self-consciousness. Trying to square her circle, and wondering how and whether to protect it. I want to read more from this author as my own writing matures!
I like how the man’s perspective was shown without his saying much, and her ambiguity up to the end. Good character driven slice of life.
Well done. Caught me right away. The tension of the decision-making is compelling. Propelled me to read to the very last word/thought.
Loved, loved the story and its insight!
I feel I know the woman. She reminds me of several friends lamenting their string of dates but then are so particular and critical of the men. She is not mean but not kind either. She is not looking for someone to start a home with, but rather a nice match for her: attractive, smart, good conversation. They will sparkle together and people will remark: “what an attractive couple!”
Several great words/phrases that I liked: the blue books! the German Shephard and he mentioned money several times (she noticed as it was on her mind too).