It’s inevitable: the date who brings up his ex over dinner. The butterflies arrive with the entrée. I thought I asked for fries, not flies. The waitress got it wrong. But it’s too late; the menu reads NO SUBSTITUTIONS.
You look up from your plate and force a smile. He continues to talk as he tears into his steak, multitasking nostalgia with Knife Skills 101. The longing you hear in his voice is almost a dialect, but it’s hard to swallow. You survey the restaurant for the choking illustration for guidance in this matter. Your glasses are in your other bag, the big office bag full of gum wrappers, receipts, and old magazines you’ve been meaning to read on your commute. Tonight you’re donning a clutch with nothing more than some cards, keys, gloss, and a cell. If you’re lucky, you have mints. You begin to care less about the mints. You know, just like that, you no longer want to kiss this man. You know we all have our pasts, but we needn’t all discuss them with longing and ache. You worry if he still has feelings for her, and this is really what worries you: since when did I care? This was casual and fun, but now it’s negotiating steps. It’s more than you anticipated and planned for. Suddenly you care, and you’re wearing the wrong thing. You would have chosen different shoes—you would have worn flats.
It’s too late now. You’re across the table with a napkin in your lap, and your legs are crossed. A pointy metal-tipped shoe dangles from your foot. You’re stuck with a forced smile. You feel your head doing that involuntary head nod, signaling, “I follow you. I agree. You poor thing.” But you don’t. You can’t even hear him anymore, only your inner monologue warning: life is sometimes about timing, and yours is clearly off, because he’s telling you ex-girlfriend stories on your date. He’s describing her in detail. She has curly hair like you do. Then shite, there’s a pause. He’s waiting for you to say something; a question is hovering unanswered. You almost want to touch his hand and change the subject. Instead, you offer, “Yeah, dating sucks.” But when you say sucks, your “s” blows out the votive candle between you, and then, as sudden as that, you’re both in the dark. Though you can swear you’ve seen the light.