"I think they need this table," he said.
Their waitress, a round hipped redhead with stray ringlets loose over her ears, was indeed hovering nearby, waiting for tables to clear so she could refill them. The cafe was small, but clean and airy, the gold fixtures and muted tans and browns making it look old fashioned without being stuffy. It was full to bursting here in the middle of the lunch hour.
"Maybe we should go," she said.
Lunch was safe, a way station between meeting and dating. Work obligations beckoned on the other side, leaving a clear time limitation on their evening. It also removed the classic end of date question of whether he would ask about sex. And how she would reply.
"We should," he said, reaching for his wallet.
It was hard to know the etiquette. In an age where she could make more than he does, it was archaic and silly to insist on paying, but he still tried. A man pays, his father used to tell him, in a tone that implied it was ever thus.
"Let me," she said, pulling her purse in front of her body.
Never owe anyone, Aunt Sara told her from the time she played with Barbies and boys were just the schoolmates with shorter hair. And especially never let a man buy you anything. They always want something in return. It was 10 years before she understood that, and 5 more before she started to believe it.
"I can't let you pay," he said, rifling through his bills. "It was my sister's idea."
It was Jane, with her huge glasses and infectious, almost annoying bonhomie, that insisted that the new girl hired in her office would be just perfect for her only unmarried sibling. She badgered the two of them in turn, dismissing their demurrals and denials until they mutually concurred, both of them concluding that she wouldn't stop until they did.
"I can pay my own way," she said softly, fumbling in her bag.
She made sure she had both cash and cards before she left that morning. She was prepared to pay for the whole thing, while she would be insulted if she had to.
"I had a great time," he said, taking out a twenty.
It was interminable, he thought. She didn't eat, and she wouldn't talk, making it impossible for him to know what she thought or how she felt. He was willing to pay for both of them, if only he could get away from her and stop talking about himself.
"Oh, I did, too," she said, drawing out her own bill.
He was fascinating, she thought, with so many funny stories about clients and colleagues. She made all the right moves, letting him talk, fluttering and making the appropriate sounds. She listened, trying not to interject, not wanting to say too much, not wanting to turn him off. That was the rule, right? You let them talk, let them lead and control the conversation. Flatter them, make them feel important. He looked great in a trim gray suit, and she already felt the stirrings. If this was an evening meal, she would be taking him home. Eagerly.
"Let's split it," he said, agreeing quickly.
Please just let this be over, he thought.
"How much is it?," she said.
Three summers waiting tables made her a good tipper. She didn't want to seem over generous, but she wanted the waitress with the green eyes to like her, while at the same time be envious of the funny, charming man across from her. She also remembered the aching legs and feet, the jealousy when a well dressed woman sat down with a man you wanted for yourself.
He held the bill so she could see.
"Forty should do it," he said.
He was already thinking about the office, the meeting that he had that afternoon. He was mentally aligning strategies, marshaling arguments as he waited for her twenty to join his. He was relieved that he wouldn't be obligated to rehash and overinterpret the lunch for a circle of friends the way she probably would.
"Absolutely," she said.
She stood up, watching the lines of his suit fall into place as he stood. She fussed at her hemline, arranging her skirt so it fell evenly. She could feel the tug, the yearning and worry beginning to creep in. Would he call? How soon? Did it go as well as she felt it did? Was this the beginning of something?
"Let's let them clear this away," he said.
Thank God this isn't the beginning of something, he thought. He made eye contact with the waitress, who started to make her way towards them, eyes on the closed leather folder. He appraised her curves in the utilitarian black they wore. No question she would have made a more interesting lunch date.
"Sure!," she said cheerfully.
She followed him as they wended their way towards the front door. Would they walk to their cars together? Where was he parked? She concentrated on her stride for a moment, trying to strike a balance between sexy sway and uptight repression. They came to the front door, and he started to head left, she noted sadly. She was parked two streets down on the right.
"Pleasure meeting you," he said.
He was starting to turn away. He was already weighing approaches, thinking about how to overcome Nancy's objections to the new plans. The lunch was already over in his mind as he wiped away the memory of her ridiculous flirtation. You had to bring something to the table, and she just made him carry the whole lunch. He filled in all the blanks in the conversation, inserting words into the silences while she grinned at him stupidly. He wanted to meet a companion, a whole person with hopes and dreams and aspirations, not a parrot.
"Oh, yes! You, too!," she said. "See you!"
She turned down towards her car, walking carefully and firmly. She wondered if he was looking back at her. She hoped so, but didn't want to turn and see. Friday, she thought. Friday would be the perfect, logical day for him to ask her out again. She started mentally reviewing her options for what to wear Friday night.
"See you," he echoed.
You won't, he thought. He made his way up the street, reaching for his keys in his pocket. What a disaster this was, he thought as he went. What was her name again? Maura? Laura? Something, he thought. Thank heavens I don't have to sit through anything with her ever again.
For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Kirsten Doyle challenged me with "Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.(Douglas Adams)" and I challenged Crosshaven Harpist with "When you begin each day by describing the look of the same mountain, you are living in the grip of delusion.(Thomas Merton)".