outside a Parisian restaurant at night as people walk through tall iron gate

Unfamiliar Terrain

She’d selected a restaurant nearer my office than hers and still I found a way to arrive late. Hurrying in from the piercing wind I silently rehearsed predictable excuses, excluding the shameful admission that poor time management was more to blame than rush hour congestion.

I spotted her perched atop a barstool, laughing with the bartender. Perhaps she knew him, was a regular; perhaps she’d anticipated my tardiness, even planned on it; perhaps I was not the only man she intended to see that night; perhaps I was the interloper. It was at least as likely that they’d only just met. You never knew with Maria.

She spotted me and beamed. A moment earlier she’d been luminous enough to cause a pang of jealousy; suddenly her earlier smile seemed unexceptional. She glowed–I don’t think it was just wishful thinking.

I kissed her cheek and she led me by the hand away from the bar to the back of the restaurant. It’s possible heads turned as we passed–she could have that effect–but I resisted the urge to look, or to glance back at the bartender. Gloating could easily become commiseration; I knew how it felt not to be chosen.

“You look incredible,” I told her at the table. She did, though this was not a typical greeting for us and I tried to mask the maturity of the phrase with a suavity I didn’t really possess.

She noticed. “Is that what we say to each other now?” she asked, with a quizzical grin. The dusky restaurant was so poorly lit that I doubt she noticed the blushing but there was no masking my embarrassed silence.

She laughed–mercy not malice–and rested her hand lightly atop mine. “You look incredible too.” It should have registered as the obvious, obligatory response, fulfilling the dual exigencies of reciprocity and levity, but it was the second time in as many minutes that I felt her hand touch my skin and arousal, immediate and automatic, overtook sense. She had initiated our plans for dinner, hadn’t she? Maybe I’d been granted a reappraisal since college. I rubbed my foot delicately against her lower leg.

It was a mistake. All at once she lifted her hand, shifted her leg and stared with a flat, vaguely puzzled gaze. Subtly, to spare further embarrassment, she shook her head, like a third base coach signaling caution to an over-eager runner. But before I could even begin to babble an apology she laughed wildly. “God, I’ve missed you.”

So that was it: missed but not desired. One night sophomore year, emboldened by alcohol and reckless abandon, we’d fooled around; the following morning, chastened by hangovers and poignant awkwardness, she’d suggested friendship only. I felt fine then and was fine with it still, maybe even relieved: it would be a pleasant dinner with an old friend, no more.

It was my turn to provide the obvious, obligatory response: “I’ve missed you too.” Two weeks earlier we’d bumped into each other for the first time since graduation at a cramped, noisy apartment party. Huddled together against a busted futon, we shouted to each other over the din but I was late to meet friends at a bar downtown and left a few minutes later. We said we should get together soon and while I took it on faith we both meant it, I expected little in the way of follow through. When her text arrived days later I was pleased but also surprised, curious, even suspicious. Had I missed her? Not enough to extend the invitation myself. She had though and I wasn’t quite sure what it meant. Clearly not romance. What then?

Theoretically we’d covered the basics during the party–jobs, apartments, roommates–but that conversation’s specifics were dulled by cheap booze, throbbing bass and inattentive listening and I came away with only the vaguest idea of what she was doing; fashion or style or design or something. Social media marketing for a women’s wear label, it turns out, and neither as glamorous nor creatively enriching as she’d hoped. I could relate, I told her, as banking had failed to deliver the intellectual stimulation I’d expected.

“The money is all that makes it worthwhile,” I sighed.

She frowned. “You really can’t relate then.”

“Good evening!” the waiter bellowed at our side. “My name is Todd, I’ll be taking care of you tonight!” He seemed inordinately pleased about this. “I have some fine specials I’d like to share, if you’ll allow.” Maria nodded genially, I shrugged. He droned on as if announcing the terms of an armistice and when he finished the specials he began pontificating anew on personal favorites, eyes nearly misting as he recommended the exquisitely flavored prawns. “The pork,” I said and handed him my menu. Maria shot me a look but addressed Todd: “The prawns sound wonderful. Thank you.” He collected her menu, bowed preposterously, and bounded elsewhere.

“What?” I asked. The sharpness of her look had surprised me.

“You don’t think you were rude just then?” Her tone was less angry than chiding, like a schoolmarm or scolding nanny. A small part of me was impressed by her boldness–credit to her for vocalizing what many others might have internalized. A larger part of me was furious. Her smug righteous indignation was without merit and I found it uninteresting. Todd had been overbearing and irksome, intruding upon our conversation more than he needed to or should have. I felt no guilt.

“No. Not warm but not rude.”

“Alright,” she shrugged, clearly unmoved.

Todd returned bearing her wine and my scotch and I just couldn’t help myself. “Todd, I apologize if I behaved rudely before. I just don’t love prawns. And I’d like to thank you for your truly excellent service so far. It’s been a pleasure.”

It was me at my worst, I admit it: kneejerk provocation, taunting, obnoxious and yes, undeniably rude. The best thing I can say in my own defense is that I was not proud of myself, that I regretted it immediately, the moment I’d finished, even before she responded.

As I spoke, her face had descended from chiding schoolmarm to dismayed governess, her paradigm for dealing with me obviously patterned upon that of a caretaker managing a mischievous charge. And why not? I’d acted like a small child. “God, I’ve missed you,” she’d said so emphatically only minutes earlier. How was it possible she could even like me let alone miss me?

I waited. For several moments she was silent, face rigid, no sign of softening–the dismayed governess letting her lesson sink in. She really did look incredible.

Then: “Do you remember the Night of the Sweater Vest?” During sophomore year a mutual friend returned from winter break wearing a Sweater Vest he’d received at Christmas, easily one of the ugliest articles of clothing any of us had ever seen. “My aunt knitted it,” he’d said quietly as we laughed and scoffed and jeered. We began to drink and, wounded but trying to hide it, he drank more than the rest of us. As the night progressed, the Sweater Vest evolved from embarrassment to a source of confidence. “Hey, look at my ugly Sweater Vest!” he blustered around the party more self-assured and outgoing than any of us had ever seen him.

“He had his first threesome that night,” I remarked.

“Really? I didn’t know.”

There was much to unspool in her comment–both the sentiment (how was it possible she could not know?) and her inflection (downbeat, haughty, possibly jealous) felt fraught with implication–but it all paled in significance to the good deed she’d done: lifting us from the conversational morass into which I’d sunk us and guiding us to the realm of nostalgia. It was an absolution I hadn’t earned. I was extremely grateful.

Our evening-long expedition through the unfamiliar terrain of post-college friendship was proving more arduous than I’d anticipated, hence my nagging anxiety and over-analysis of every word, gesture, pause. At last we’d reached an oasis and I succumbed to the easy comfort of old stories. It felt relaxed, unforced, automatic, almost robotic. We might have been sleeping.

Odd though: meandering down memory lane, I was surprised by how many landmarks passed by her unrecognized. It was more than forgetfulness: there were lapses in knowledge I found unaccountable, key incidents she’d been unaware of, things related to purportedly close friends she knew nothing about. The denouement of the Night of the Sweater Vest was just the first example.

Dinner arrived and our conversation tapered. I hadn’t realized how hungry I’d been. The pork–bland and overdone–consumed my attention and it wasn’t until I’d demolished half that I glanced up and noticed her staring out the window beside us.

Outside, the patio was ringed by brick walls painted grey and covered by a wooden pergola adorned with white Christmas lights. A thin film of freshly fallen snow, immaculate and untouched, shrouded the wrought iron tables and spindly chairs, arrayed as they would be on a balmy summer weekend. But for the absence of silverware and napkins it all looked perfect, the patio poised to receive an onslaught of invisible diners.

I could appreciate its beauty–a forlorn, ethereal kind of beauty–but as I looked at Maria looking outside I realized by the far-off gaze in her eyes that there was a poeticism in what she saw that I didn’t fully appreciate. Two prawns remained untouched on her plate. She seemed to have no awareness at all of my staring at her. Finally she turned and noticed and smiled, somewhat.

“My mother had her second facelift yesterday. She said she wasn’t happy with the first and wanted to correct it. There was an old lady who swallowed a fly.”

I feel compelled to insert a pause. Nothing in her demeanor till then–at least nothing I’d detected–suggested she’d been preoccupied and nothing in her voice at that moment–toneless, steady–betrayed the weightiness of her words. Yet they were weighty and came out of nowhere, completely disconnected from anything said before. On some level she must have been preoccupied, whether she telegraphed it or not.

She continued unabated. “My father wanted me to come home. I told him I couldn’t take the time off work but it wasn’t true. Honestly I just didn’t want to; I’m not sure why. To punish them, maybe, for excessive vanity. I don’t know.”

I consciously controlled myself as she spoke. I did not: fidget, yawn, check my watch, interrupt, look away. The moment felt too important for the antics of the “precocious child” to intrude. Earlier she had rejected romance; this felt like an invitation to some deeper form of intimacy.

Or perhaps not. As soon as she finished her attention returned to the patio. I may simply have been a warm body present as she spoke aloud words she wanted or needed to hear herself say.

Regardless, I was riveted. I realized that I’d been missing the point to focus on the weight of her words. What made them remarkable was their nakedness. Everything we’d said and done prior felt like it could have been lifted and, with a nip here, a tuck there, surgically grafted onto any pair of reunited twenty-somethings. But her unguarded vulnerability was rare, authentic and unique. Private anxieties had breached the levees and come pouring from her mouth. It must have felt liberating. I wanted to try it.

“I saw Carly at a party a month or so ago. She was smiling, chatting, her usual self; clearly coked out of her mind. When I said hello she accidentally knocked a glass of wine onto the carpet. It was white wine so no stain and the glass didn’t break but her face collapsed. She looked hopelessly sad. We dabbed paper towels and she seemed fine after. But her face haunts me.”

Maria wore the same puzzled, vaguely bemused expression as when I brushed against her leg earlier. Whatever liberation I’d hoped for, whatever depths I intended to reveal, whatever new level of intimacy I thought we might reach, whatever it was I’d been going for, her face made clear that I’d missed the mark.

Thoughts collided, feelings jumbled. Of course she’d look puzzled. I’d witnessed a confessional fugue, something spontaneous, genuine and beautiful, and then shoved myself into the same frame of mind, like a foot shoe-horned into a too-tight loafer. Or, more aptly, I’d again played the child, a little boy dressed in my father’s suit trying to imitate behavior I wasn’t mature enough to handle. At least I’d been honest–I truly hadn’t known what would burst forth when I began to speak and if nothing else I’d learned something about myself and how affected I’d really been by my encounter with Carly. But maybe that sincerity failed to translate, maybe I’d merely sounded catty and mean. Or maybe I’d seemed callous and self-centered for ignoring her comments and embarking straightaway on my own.

It dawned on me suddenly that no one from the restaurant had led us to this particular table, that she had taken my hand and brought us here herself, beside the melancholy, snow-covered patio. What was it she found so transfixing about the view? Why had she chosen to confide in me, of all people? Was I special? Or, thinking back on all she hadn’t known about supposedly close friends, had I misjudged the depth of her relationships all along? Was that why she’d planned our dinner? Was I there because she had no one else?

I was exhausted.

Todd returned, asked after our meals and placed the check on the table. “No rush, when you’re ready,” he said. We both were.

While we waited for Todd to bring the receipts we resorted to small talk. “Seems like a particularly cold winter this year,” I heard myself say. My eyelids felt heavy.

There were no heads left to turn as we made our way out and it occurred to me that maybe they never did anyway, that maybe the effect she had was not to make them turn but to make you think they might. And who’s to say that isn’t the greater gift?

The temperature had dropped during dinner and the wind continued to howl. She was headed uptown, I was going down. We hugged and kissed goodbye outside the restaurant and walked to subway stations in opposite directions. I had not the faintest inkling of what our next interaction would be.