Third Date by Jonathan Curelop
We followed the hostess from the podium along a lace-curtained window to a deuce near the back of the dining room. She placed menus on the small table, smiled warmly and left. I pulled out the chair from the table with a playful flourish. Clare offered an equally playful curtsy and took her seat.
I felt confident I had chosen the right restaurant tonight. Not because it was nestled in the basement of a swanky brownstone, not because it had a fireplace and a sommelier and waiters in crisp white shirts and dark green bowties. I felt right about it because it was located a few blocks from Clare’s apartment on West End Avenue.
As I sat opposite her, a waiter placed a linen-lined basket of miniature pretzels and a demitasse of sauce in the center of the table. I inhaled the scent of cracked pepper and basil. I dipped one of the pretzels and popped it in my mouth.
“Mmmmm, that’s good,” I said. “Hot. Delicioso. You have to try one.”
“Ooh, yummy. Yes, I do.” She took one and brought it to her mouth.
“No, no,” I said, “you have to try the sauce. It’s sweet. But with zing.”
“What was I thinking?” she said, dipping and chewing.
“The great American snack.”
“Aren’t pretzels German?” she said.
“Who cares, as long as they’re tasty?”
She licked the corner of her mouth to get a bit of sauce. “Delicioso.”
“Oh, you speak Italian, too?”
“I think that’s Spanish,” she laughed.
We opened the menus. I loved menus, all the categories laid out on the page, the tantalizing descriptions of the foods – appetizers, soups, salads, entrees, sides. I always imagined what the dish would look like when it arrived, imagined the aromas, the textures on the tongue. Sometimes brief histories of restaurants were provided; I liked those, too. Even three years toiling as a waiter in college hadn’t sapped the enjoyment I felt when taking a seat in a new restaurant.
Tonight was our third date and I had high hopes. The shadows cast from the tea light at the center of the table dappled her face: a lovely face, a tomboy’s face, slightly wide, eager, perhaps even confrontational. Her long shiny brown hair draped the sides of her cheeks and offset the boyishness. A tiny patch of white skin marred the space just above her upper lip—a birthmark or mole removed.
My eyes settled on her lips and I remembered the final moments of our last date. We’d been standing outside an open cab door. We kissed. Not just a take-care, have-a-nice-night kiss. A natural, easy kiss.
When the waiter arrived to take our drink orders, I suggested Beaujolais, which had just arrived in stores a couple of days ago. It was a light wine, innocent enough since I wasn’t sure of Clare’s tastes, and it always nudged me into the holiday spirit.
“We were at my little sister’s high school graduation,” she was saying, the topic having turned to embarrassing moments. I liked listening to her talk, the rush of words and the peaks and valleys of her sentences. “Middlesex, a boarding school in Massachusetts. William Hurt was the guest speaker. You know, the actor. He agreed to meet everyone, so we all gathered around him on this grassy area and when I stepped forward to shake his hand my heel sunk into this soft patch. I lost my balance and end up on my knees.” She laughed, deep and lustily. It made me lean in closer, lured me into sharing her space, her memory.
“What did he do?” I said.
“He was such a gentleman. He tried to help me up, but I slipped in the mud and pitched forward. My face ended up in his crotch. I almost took him down with me.”
We laughed together.
The waiter set down the glasses and offered me the cork, but I just asked him to pour. I liked wine and all, but I had little tolerance for that whole cork-sniffing, wine-tasting rigmarole. For a hundred dollar bottle maybe, but not for a fifteen dollar bottle of Beaujolais. After pouring, the waiter set down the bottle and took our orders. I chose the butternut squash soup. For the main course I ordered the braised Moroccan lamb special. Clare decided on a tri-colored salad to start and the bouillabaisse as entrée.
“So, you and your sister went to the same boarding school?”
“Oh yeah. We followed Daddy’s path. Middlesex, Princeton, Harvard.”
“But you haven’t gone to Harvard, have you?”
“Not yet, but I’ve been out of Princeton a few years, so…”
“Harvard, wow. What will you study?” It was only our third date, but I couldn’t help hope that we’d still be an item when she left for Cambridge, not that we were exactly an item now. Would we pack up the suitcases and a U-Haul and travel there together? Or would she want to be alone to study without distractions?
“Business, of course. Just like father.”
“Resentment,” I said. “I can spot it a mile away.”
“You never mentioned where you studied,” she said, deflecting the conversation.
“Just a little school near where I grew up. An excellent college, actually. A lot like Harvard. Except without the manicured lawns and all those smart people running around. I mean who needs all that?”
She giggled. I liked that I made her giggle.
The waiter brought our soup and salad, then left with a quick, “Enjoy.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t go to Harvard,” I suggested. “Maybe stay where you are for a while. See how that goes.”
“Ah, yes,” she sighed, digging in to her balsamic-dressed salad, mashing a clump of gorgonzola with her fork. The soft veiny cheese rose in shards between the tines. “Merrill Lynch. The joy.”
“Sarcasm,” I said. “I can spot that, too.” Steam rose from my thick orange soup. I blew on it and said, “Why Merrill Lynch at all then?”
“You got it. He helped get me into their analyst program. And don’t think he’ll let me forget. It’s all laid out. Two to three year analyst program at Merrill, three years of Harvard Business, then join another investment bank and I’m off and running.”
“Your dad pays, I assume. For college, grad school?”
“Yes, he pays,” she said abruptly, getting testy. “Does that make it okay? He pays therefore he can tell me what to do with my life?”
“Of course not,” I said. “He sounds like a bully. I guess I was just wondering what I would do.”
Clare placed her fork on the table and wiped her lips with her napkin. She held the napkin there for a second before saying, “I think about it every day, defying him. He knows I don’t like my job, but he also knows I won’t challenge him.”
New territory, I thought. Conversation to this point had been mostly extended small talk—childhood stories, shenanigans at work. I liked that she was opening up, that we were becoming friends. “What would you do if you didn’t go to Harvard, if you left your job?”
She smirked as she stabbed at her greens. “That’s the thing.”
Her eyes seemed to harden, become small and dark. I wondered if she might cry or leave the table. “I don’t know what I want.”
She’d been chewing while talking and a thin strip of red onion accidentally peeped from her mouth, half in half out. When she realized it, her sudden burst of laughter expelled the onion onto the table.
After the laughs died down, she said, “God, I can’t believe I’m talking like this. Bitching and moaning. Such a downer.”
“No no, it’s good…spit it out.”
“Oh, hardy har har.” She wiped her mouth and rested the napkin back on her lap. “You know, I just feel far from home sometimes. Not home like where I grew up. I mean home like, like where I’m supposed to be with my life. I mean, shit, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life helping rich people get richer.”
She stopped talking to think about her next words, her face a patchwork of mottled reds and pinks, the scar above her lip glowing in marshmallow white contrast. Something was percolating behind those narrow brown eyes. I thought she was overcome with anger, that she might shout, but all she said was, “I lack passion, I guess.” She pointed at me with her fork. “I envy you. Your enthusiasm for teaching, all those kids.”
“Hey, if I could pay the rent by writing, I wouldn’t be teaching.”
“Passion for writing then. Passion for something.”
The waiter cleared our plates and refilled our water glasses.
“You said you know resentment,” she said.
“You can spot it a mile away, you said.”
“So I did.”
“You mentioned last time that your mom left your dad. Resentment there?”
She sipped the wine. I couldn’t take my eyes off her neck as I imagined the warm liquid coursing down her throat. Our kiss returned to my thoughts. I hadn’t kissed her neck that night. God, I wanted to tonight.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m prying.”
“Not at all.”
“You seemed troubled…”
“No no, I wasn’t even thinking about my parents.”
I wanted to tell her. Tell her how sweet she was, how her earlier words about her father had made her seem delicate and vulnerable. Tell her how I wanted to cup her cheeks in my hands and kiss her lips, the curve of her chin. “I was thinking of…of dessert.”
“Sometimes my brain jumps ahead.” I didn’t want to cast her question aside, especially after she’d opened up about her own problems. “My father, wonderful as he is, is a pretty dull guy. He lives for his shop. Meat, chicken, his customers. I think my mother was under the impression that when the kids got older she and my dad would travel or something, sell the store, I don’t know. But life went on the same ordinary way. Too ordinary for her. Sometimes I resent her, sometimes I resent him.”
The waiter placed a massive bowl in front of Clare. The clams and broth and saffron smelled exquisite. My lamb, moist and falling off the bone, rested on a bed of garlic-scented couscous. I can’t wait to eat, I thought. The first bite’s always the best. It tasted as good as it looked. “Here, try,” I said, offering up a small chunk of the lamb.
“Oh… No thanks.” She shook her head and for an instant I wondered if she was rejecting the lamb or me.
“You know, I got a buddy from college, heads up the Charitable Services group at one of those investment places, JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley, something like that. Maybe that’s something to look into. That way you’d be working for a place your father approves of and maybe doing something…you know…more suited to you.”
She stopped eating and flashed a gleaming radiant smile.
“What?” I said.
“I mope to my friends all the time about work. They nod and say, ‘Yeah, I know what you mean.’ None of them really offer a concrete solution.” She placed her hand on mine, squeezed my knuckles. “You’re a really thoughtful person.”
“That’s what I do, lady,” I said, snapping my fingers repeatedly. “Solving problems all day long. They keep comin’, I keep solvin’.”
“You know, I’m gonna do it!” She dropped her silverware and gripped the sides of her chair, her voice brave and giddy. “I’m gonna tell him. A new beginning.” She pointed at me. “You’re an inspiration.”
As the waiter cleared the table we decided we’d check out one of the nearby bakeries for dessert. I paid the bill and on the way out placed a couple of singles in the coat check basket, then helped Clare on with her parka.
Outside, she said, “Hey, you never told me your most embarrassing story.”
“There’re so many to choose from.”
“I want the juiciest,” she said.
“It was a blind date.” I shook my head at the memory, not sure if I should proceed. We were ambling up Broadway, our eyes darting from each other to the shop windows to oncoming pedestrians. “We were at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. This was a few years ago, right after I moved here. It was crowded so we had to squeeze by all these people who were very unwilling to move. Those theatres there are tiny.
“After we got settled, she went to the bathroom. A few minutes passed. Then the previews started and she still hadn’t returned. It occurred to me that maybe she blew me off, but her sweater was still on the seat. I remember thinking—she wouldn’t leave her sweater behind.
“She could’ve been sick so I went to the restrooms. Disrupted the whole row trying to get out. I stood outside the bathroom for a while, she never showed. The whole time I’m holding her sweater.” I wondered again if I was making an error showing myself in a negative light. But come on; we were beyond that.
“Did you see the movie at least?”
“Did you see her again?”
“What did you do with the sweater?”
“Tossed it in a trashcan.”
“You should’ve burned it. No wait!” she said, clutching my arm, eyes shimmering with mischief. “You should have plucked some loose strands of hair from it and used them to make a voodoo doll.
“An excellent idea,” I said.
“That’s what I should do with my life.” She suddenly stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and raised her arms. “I should become a witch doctor.”
“Wow. Another excellent idea. You got lots of ‘em.”
We were approaching the Barnes & Noble at 82nd and I was about to ask if she wanted to browse, but since things were going so well, our rapport and senses of humor so in tune, I said, instead, “You mentioned you live around here, right?”
“Yeah, on West End, not far.”
“I’ll walk you if you’d like.”
She paused a second before saying, “No dessert?”
The tantalizing possibility of being with her at her apartment—in her apartment—completely bulldozed the fact that we were on our way to dessert.
“You know,” she said, blowing out her cheeks, “I’m stuffed anyway.”
My heart shriveled at my error. She may have been put off at my escort offer. Damn it, if I wasn’t so eager to be alone with her, I’d be enjoying her company for another hour, sharing a tart or maybe something chocolaty. Instead of being turned away.
But hold on. She’d made no gesture to say goodnight. In fact she continued strolling, taking a left on 87th toward West End. I remained by her side. No cramped bakery for us. No dry, crummy, stale tarts. I was walking her home!
Mid-block on West End, I looked at her and wondered if the evening would end with a kiss goodnight or if the morning would begin with a kiss good-day. I wondered if her awning was visible yet. We had already passed 91st Street so we must have been close. Our hands touched. Her fingertips on my wrist. She stopped walking near the entrance to a building.
“Mitch, I think you’re really nice.” She reached out her free hand and held both of my wrists.
I smiled at the compliment. The golden glow from the lobby spilled onto the sidewalk. I took a step toward the entrance, its palace-like interior: doorman erectly poised in front of the stained-glass door, high-backed Victorian chairs and loveseats along the marble floor tiles. The inner camera of my thoughts plowed through the lobby, up the elevator and into Clare’s apartment. Images of sharing a glass of wine in her living room flashed through my head. I imagined her unbuttoning my shirt, myself peeling her blouse over her head.
She pulled me away from the doorway, toward the street.
“You live here?”
“No,” she said, still holding my wrists. She nodded south, the way we came. “Back there a little ways.” She took several steps to the curb, then slumped against one of the parked cars.
I looked down West End, confused. “What’s wrong?” I said.
She kept her eyes focused on the sidewalk. It wasn’t until she refused to lift her gaze, to look me in the eyes, that I realized I hadn’t been complimented at all: it wasn’t that I was nice; I was too nice.
I shouldn’t have been caught off guard. I’d been called nice in that fashion before. Hell, I’d heard it all my life.
- Mitch, you’re a really nice guy—
- Look Mitch, you’re nice and all, but—
I just wanted so badly for it to mean something else this time. Something important. Something lovely.
Last month I had gone on a date with a waitress from a bar I sometimes frequented. We ate dinner outside on a patio in Little Italy, stayed at the place laughing and talking long after coffee. But a few nights later I was at the bar, and when I brought up the idea of another date she just smiled crisply, said, “I don’t think so,” then started off toward the swinging doors that led to the kitchen.
She caught me as I was leaving, probably suffering from a slight pang of guilt for sending me off with so few words. Her chafed fingers kept busy with the ties of her apron. Wisps of blond hair had loosened from a black ribbon atop her head. Then she handed me the nice line. In fact, she’d said I was super nice.
- You’re so super nice—
She sounded twelve years old. And that night, just like tonight with Clare, and other nights besides, catapulted my thoughts back to Emily Cassel, who had also called me nice. And sweet. Nice and sweet.
Emily and I had dated off and on all senior year of high school and we had plans to go to the prom in a couple of weeks. Anyway, we shared the same lunch period and in the cafeteria I suggested we take a spin up to Long Lake after the festivities. It was no secret what kids did at Long Lake after the prom.
“Which would you rather have,” Emily had asked, bloated with her condescending, I’m-so-sophisticated air, “a friend or a girlfriend?”
“Um…” I responded, my elbows resting on the shiny orange Formica table.
“Don’t you think it’s more important to have a friendship than a stupid fling?” She stressed “friend” as though it were a word I might not understand. “Mitchell, you’ve got to be the nicest, sweetest boy in all of Hanover High, maybe even all of Hanover put together, but we’re friends.”
“Then why are you going to the prom with me?”
“Well, I want to talk to you about that…”
“Uhh…” I wasn’t sure if my grunt had been said to Emily ten years ago or if it came out of my mouth just now to Clare. It was a confusing and unexpected moment. A disappointing jumble of rejection encapsulating past and present.
“I should go, Mitch,” Clare said.
There she stood, sending me away because I lacked danger, surprise, cunning of some kind, and all I could think was that she looked glorious under the amber streetlight.
She was right; they all were. I was too nice.
“I’m kinda surprised,” I said. “Honestly.”
“I thought. I thought we were okay.” How could this woman who was now dismissing me be the same woman who had confided in me like a soul mate just an hour before? Who had touched me? Who had allowed me drop a hundred and seventy dollars on dinner?
“Look Mitch, I just—”
“We seemed okay at the restaurant. Talking, opening up like that. And outside the restaurant last week. The kissing. I mean, that was nice.”
“Come on, Mitch, don’t be like this. I’m being honest with you. I really like you. Just not that way.” She reached for my arm again. “You’re such a nice man.”
I found myself swatting her hand away, saying, “You said that already. Stop saying that.”
She snapped her hand back and folded her arms across her chest. I noticed the mustachioed square-shouldered doorman staring at us. Pedestrians passed, some walking around us, some in between.
“I don’t want it to be like this,” she said. “I’m not a mean person.”
“No, you’re not a mean person. You’re a nice person.” I was growing sour, angrier as I realized this date was over. My ribcage trembled as I said, “Let me ask you something. Say you found out I had some kind of criminal record. Nothing crazy. Some kind of vandalism or something. Would that make me more enticing?”
“Stop it.” She started to walk away, but I scampered in front of her, blocking her escape. “At least I didn’t leave for the bathroom and not come back.”
“Uh…” The bitch. “I know,” I said, floundering, searching for wit I didn’t possess. “Instead of pulling out your chair at dinner or helping you with your coat, should I have slapped you around a bit? Would that have made me more sexy?”
“Calm down, Mitch,” Clare said as she eyed passersby, some of whom cast glances in our direction.
“Is there some kind of good guy/bad guy balance I should be aware of?” My voice lowered, but took on a pleading quality I had no power to alter. “It’s just that our last date went so well and with you opening up tonight about your father and work and all, I really thought we were headed in the right direction.”
“We are, in a way.” She spoke quickly, jumping at the opportunity to explain herself, to prevent me from shouting again and creating a stir. “You’re so easy to talk to.” Her fingers rose toward my cheeks, but stopped short of touching them. “Like we’re good friends.”
Right back to Emily fucking Cassel. To Hanover County Public High School. It’s been twelve years, I thought, and I haven’t learned a thing. Not a God-forsaking, goddamned, motherfucking thing. I felt my face redden, my whole head flood with rage at my ineptitude, my blandness, my self.
Clare stepped toward me, said, “Goodnight” and leaned in to kiss me quickly on the corner of my mouth—a final, dismissive gesture.
I turned so that her lips touched mine. Then I bit her. Took her lower lip between my teeth and bit down. Not just a nip either; hard. She yelped and staggered back. Her fingers covered her mouth. When she removed them I saw the bead of blood, the discoloration, the tiny welt.
I was mortified by what I’d done, by the crime I’d committed. I wanted to help her, magically remove an ice cube from my coat and set it gingerly on her lip. Instead, I uttered, “Maybe I’m not as nice as you think.”
At first I thought she might scream for the cops or maybe rear back and slug me. But she just stood there, her upper lip massaging the lower. Her eyes wide.
I watched her turn slowly, distractedly away and walk down West End Avenue. She was gone, but her expression lingered. Hadn’t I noticed a hint of a smile there? A hint of…desire? Something that suggested regret at having turned me down?
It sounded crazy, but I was certain, positively certain, that I would hear from her again. Without realizing it until it happened, I smiled as the tip of my tongue absorbed the heavy sweet taste of Clare’s blood.
Jonathan Curelop is a writer and editor living in New York City. His previous work has appeared in ragingface.com, The Melic Review, Aura and The American Book Review.