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Four Late Dates

    Aaron arrived early, as was his custom.  Fourteen minutes was a little more than normal, but he’d never been to the place Caryn had chosen for their first date.  He wanted to give himself ample time to find the sushi restaurant, park his car, and make sure she wasn’t waiting for him.  
   Aaron felt a slight chill as he walked from his Civic to the entrance to Kikugama’s.  He’d worn an argyle sweater with khakis but hadn’t brought a jacket.  He was new to the city, which was located at a higher latitude than those in which he’d previously resided, and hadn’t expected the air to be so cold already in October.  
   “Can I help you?”
A woman’s head barely appeared over a podium.  It looked like the wooden structure was her body.   
   “I’ve got a reservation for 7:00.  I’m waiting for . . .”
   “There’s no one waiting.  Would you like to be seated at your table or wait at the bar until your companion arrives?” 
   Aaron hesitated.  Neither option sounded appropriate.
   “You don’t want to block the entrance, do you?”  
   A much taller woman wearing shoes with two-inch heels stood beside him and stared straight into his eyes.  Without waiting for a response, she looped her arm around his and dragged Aaron from the podium lady.  The leggier Asian led him to a fork where a choice was to be made.  
   “I guess I’ll sit at my table.”
   The woman let go and appeared to shove the air so as to propel Aaron to a table by a window.          “Jackie will take care of you tonight.”   
   Jackie appeared without being summoned.  She offered him the first smile since his arrival.                 “Would the gentleman like to start with a drink?  Or perhaps see the wine list?”
   Aaron had only been to a sushi restaurant once before.  He recalled people drinking sake.  And beer.  Aaron looked past Jackie to see if he could tell what other patrons were drinking.  
   “Do you have any Japanese beer?”
   “Sapporo, on the way.”
   Aaron looked at his watch and wished he’d asked for a menu to occupy his time.  He wondered if he’d be able to recognize Caryn from her online photo but was fairly certain she’d become the most attractive woman in the place as soon as she arrived.  He looked about the room but tried to avoid staring or making eye contact.  Jackie returned after he’d finished half his beer to ask if he would like to order some sushi while he waited.
   When Aaron hesitated, she lightly laid her hand on his shoulder.  “She’ll never know.”
   “What would you recommend?”
   “If you’d like something that’s cooked, try the eel.”
   “Sure.  That and salmon.”
   Aaron ate the sushi quickly, fearing being caught mid-bite.  He was still hungry but with an empty plate and glass at 7:28 when Jackie returned to his table.  Maybe he looked annoyed because she didn’t ask if he wanted anything else.  
   “Can you bring the bill?”
   “Of course.  I’m sorry.”
   Aaron left fifty dollars on the table without waiting for change.  He looked at an older couple with champagne glasses before them staring at him as he got to his feet.
   “You’ll find her someday,” the woman with pearls said as he passed the table.
   Aaron’s answering machine flashed when he got home and told him he had two messages.  One person had called at 6:29 but had not left a message.  The other was an angry message from Caryn.  She apparently had called from the restaurant.
   “I called to tell you I was running late but got your stupid machine.  What kind of idiot doesn’t have a cell phone?  If I….”
   Aaron didn’t bother listening to the end.  He hoped Jackie had told Caryn he’d waited almost a half hour beyond the meeting time they’d set.
   Aaron washed his face, then grabbed a beer.  He started drafting an email to explain but ultimately decided not to send it because he thought it sounded angry and defensive.  He turned on the TV to watch the Yankees and Padres playing in the World Series.  He considered calling Caryn but imagined that would only give her another chance to vent.  
   He drank another beer before returning to his computer and drafting an apologetic email.  He sent that one right before he went to bed.

   Caryn called Aaron around noon the following day.  She monopolized the conversation, alternating between reminding him how his actions had caused them to miss their date to sweetly suggesting they give it another try.  Aaron wanted to tell her no because he knew, or was fairly certain, this was not a woman with whom he could have a relationship, but she was stronger than he.     He equivocated while she persisted.  So Aaron found himself at one of the city’s most expensive restaurants on Sunday night.
    Caryn emerged from a taxi at their appointed hour.  “You stuck it out this time, I see,” were her first words.
   She waited for him to open the door at Ocho, but she had already given her jacket to the coat check worker by the time Aaron approached the hostess still wearing his.
   “Don’t tell me you’re one of those guys who gets cold inside.”
   Aaron looked to the hostess for assistance.  
   “I can take it for you, Sir.”
   Aaron was escorted through the sort of white tablecloth establishment that made him uncomfortable.  He feared he would not know many of the items on the menu, certainly not the ingredients used in their preparation.  Having a waiter twice his age did nothing to dispel Aaron feeling out of his element.
   “Would the two of you like to see our wine list?”
   “Hell yeah.”
   Aaron looked at his dinner companion.  In person, he thought she was physically attractive but not very pretty.  Her face was more rectangular than round; her cheeks somewhat sunken as if from an eating disorder; her posture so perfect it gave her body a cold impression.
   “I’ll leave it with you and give you a few minutes.  We have a sommelier if you have questions.”
   Aaron thought of asking: what is a sommelier? but assumed they would interpret his attempt at humor as a serious question.  He lifted the heavy tome, then thought better of it and returned it to the table.
   “Do you have a particular type you like?” he asked Caryn.
   “Sauv blanc.”
   Aaron was only familiar with cabs and chardonnay.  He turned to the first page and blinked twice.  “I was thinking of a cab myself.  Do you just want to order a glass?”
   “They serve the worst stuff by the glass.”
   “That’s not true, Madame.”  Their waiter positioned himself exactly between the two of them.  He kept his arms clasped behind his back.  “We do not pour anything but quality.  It’s true we do not open our most expensive bottles for a single pour, but we have a variety of price points on those we do.  If you would like some assistance…”
   “If I wanted assistance, I would have waved to the sommelier.  Who asked for your opinion anyway?”
   “So sorry.”  The waiter bowed and took his leave.  Aaron wished he could do so as well.
   “Can you believe that guy?  The hired help these days, right?”
   Years later, Aaron liked to think he would have handled the situation better. Taken his leave immediately with or without some parting bomb for Caryn.  He would have apologized to the waiter, the hostess, and others during his exit.  And he would never have communicated with Caryn again.
   As it was, he didn’t say much.  He ordered a meal but didn’t enjoy it.  He listened to her complaints that the restaurant was overrated and overpriced.  He mumbled a response or two when she asked him less offensive questions.  He paid the entire bill after an intentional moment of delay to see if she’d offer to contribute.
   Eventually, he found himself outside the restaurant wondering how they should part, some way to sum up the evening.  He thought she looked at him with contempt.  He didn’t understand why.  She might have been a little better looking than him but not enough for such condescension, as if it were appalling for her to even be seen with him.
   “You’ll at least hang around until I get a cab.”
   Aaron nodded, the second-to-last gesture her shared with Caryn.  As his last, he held up his hand to the window of the taxi right before she shifted her body away from him, anxious, apparently, to move on as quickly as possible.

   Aaron took a break from dating after his experience with Caryn.  He didn’t review any new profiles and only casually glanced at those who contacted him.
   After a month, he thought he’d incorporated his lessons.  He decided to approach someone more mature and hoped she’d be more stable.  Bree was a college professor, not a corporate professional. She listed her age in a range slightly older than his.  
   Aaron decided to take the lead this time.  He thought he’d feel more comfortable on familiar ground, so he chose a British pub near his office.  He’d previously been inside The Queen’s Palace with a number of people from his firm.  He asked Bree to meet him on Saturday because those same co-workers had asked him to join them at another Happy Hour, but Bree told him Friday worked better with her schedule.  
   He again arrived early, seven minutes this time, and told the host he’d wait near the door, rather than at his table or the bar.
   The bar was where the action was.  People gathered in groups near the mahogany rail and stools. Although it was only a little past 5:00, men and women had their hands on or around one another’s shoulders and shouted loudly about having a good time, as if they’d already been drinking for a couple of hours.
   Every so often a couple or group entered and were shown a table, but mostly individuals and small groups moved directly to the bar.  No families entered.  There may have been a day and time for Mom, Dad, son, and daughter to have fish ‘n chips but it wasn’t Friday Happy Hour.
   Bree told Aaron her last class ended at 2:30 on Fridays and meeting at 5:15 wasn’t a problem but by 5:25 she hadn’t arrived.  His feelings while people-watching changed from enjoying the camaraderie to envy to displeasure to wondering if he were being played again.
   Aaron walked out with his head down at 5:29.  He didn’t see Bree until she was almost on top of him.  He hadn’t expected the gray hair as that wasn’t the color in her online photo.  He wondered if she’d accurately reported her age.    
   “You don’t remember the 5, 10, 15 rule?  You wait five minutes for adjuncts, ten for assistant professors, and fifteen for full professors.  I just received tenure.”
   “I’m not your student.”
   “Not yet.”
   Bree laughed in a way that allowed Aaron to overcome his annoyance and appreciate her attempt at sexual humor.
   “Sorry I was late.  I was meeting with a couple of students and lost track of time.  Can we go back inside?”
   Aaron refrained from saying that only one of them needed to go back but nodded and followed her.  She stopped near the host and asked him if they had a reservation.  He told her no, uncertain if that was a lie or a true statement given that the earlier reservation may no longer have been valid.        Aaron wanted to test Bree with a drink and small talk first.  Mostly, he wanted to be at the bar.
He found a small opening, only wide enough for one person.  He squeezed in and turned to ask Bree what she wanted to drink.  She looked up, clearly unhappy with her location.
“Do you want to change spots?” Aaron asked.
   “I’d like us to get a table.”
   “After a drink.”
   “White wine.”
   “Doesn’t matter.”
   Aaron ordered a glass of chardonnay and a beer.  She held out her glass for a toast, but he only saw it after he’d already taken a sip.  He then clanked her glass.  “Here’s to Fridays.”
   Bree kept her eyes on Aaron even as she took the smallest of sips.  Aaron relaxed a little after he’d downed half a pint.  He leaned towards her and asked what class she had taught earlier on the day and whether she was a mentor to the students with whom she’d met.
   Bree responded politely but coolly and without elaboration.  Her questions were also pro forma without much interest.  She’d only taken a second sip by the time Aaron placed his pint on the bar and waved at the bartender and pointed to his glass as a sign that he’d like another.
   “Would you like to get a table now?”
   Bree’s long delay told Aaron that she’d decided this was the one and only time they’d get together and that she was merely calculating whether it was worthwhile to prolong the inevitable.  In the end, hunger might have gotten the best of her because she agreed to sit with him.  They had a cordial dinner without sparks or confrontation.  She insisted on paying half of the bill, despite Aaron consuming more than his share of the beverages.
   “We both learned something today, didn’t we?”
   They were standing outside, letting people pass between them when Bree spoke.
   “What’s that?”
   “First impressions are really important.”
   Aaron agreed.  That’s the message his firm was imparting each day.  First time you met with a client or a perspective client, you had to be on.  The first work you did for them better be great. Whether it was fair or not, you usually only got one shot.  You better make it count.  

   Aaron barely paid any attention to the dating site for the next couple of months.  He focused on work and socializing with his coworkers and friends at the firm.  He only responded to a fraction of the women who contacted him and only more than once with one of them – a graduate student named Hannah.
   Despite enjoying her wit and rhythmic banter, Aaron delayed proposing they go on a date.  He also hesitated in accepting Hannah’s invitation to try a new restaurant that had opened close to where Aaron lived.  He initially put her off, hoping they could establish some sort of relationship prior to their first date but ultimately feared her moving on if he continually provided her with excuses over a failure to meet in person. 
   It was a cold February evening.  He walked the three and a half blocks to Sabrina’s and only arrived a couple of minutes early this time.  The tapas bar was decorated in bright orange, yellow, and red.  The hostess wore a low-cut, white top and a short, black skirt.  She told him Hannah had yet to arrive.
   Aaron sat on a bench near the entrance.  He watched and listened to large groups of noisy guests come and go for five minutes before a sadness set upon him.  He got to his feet at 7:07 and walked outside.  He waited a couple more minutes, then looked to his left and to his right to give Hannah one last chance.  He placed his gloved hands to his uncovered ears.  
   Aaron didn’t see Hannah waving from across the street or even when she darted into traffic.  She literally had to bump into him to get his attention.
   “I’m sorry I’m late.  I live in a different part of town and got lost and … I’m sorry.”
   Aaron stared at the woman whose strawberry blond hair was curled exactly as it was in her online photo but whose large smile was transforming into a look of concern.
   “I feel bad.  I intended to arrive early.”
   Her sincerity caused Aaron to shake loose the frustration that had been building.  He smiled and hers returned.
   “That’s all right.  They should have our table.”
   Hannah held the door for him.  They were seated at a table in a quieter part of the restaurant.  
   “You look just like your picture,” she said.
   Aaron looked down at his striped shirt and wondered if it were the same as the one he wore online.  He couldn’t remember.
   “It means you’re authentic.  Plus, I like your brown eyes.”
   Aaron quickly lost track of time.  He and Hannah spoke about her studies and career interests and his career path and post-college activities while sharing patatas bravas, lamb meatballs, roasted cauliflower, miso sea bass, and glasses of sangria.
   At some point, Aaron ordered more food, maybe dessert, and remembered his server stopping by the table now and then.  He did not realize until Hannah pointed out that no one besides the workers were in the restaurant and some of them were not too subtly sweeping nearby.
   “What time is it?” he asked
   “Almost 9:30. They close at 9:00.”
   “That’s early.”
   “We can continue somewhere else.”
   “I think there’s a small Irish pub around the corner.  They have live music on Saturday night.”
   Hannah took Aaron’s hand and led him out of the restaurant and into the pub.  Because they were only having drinks, they were provided with a table just big enough to fit two pints.
   “I heard they actually had the bar made in Ireland and sent over here.”
   Aaron looked at the bar but couldn’t distinguish it from those in other pubs he’d entered.  “I hope to go sometime.  Maybe then I’ll have a greater appreciation.”
   Hannah reached over his shoulder and grabbed a large photo book from a shelf behind him.               Aaron shifted in his chair so they could look at it together.  Hannah flipped through pages of green land, blue sea, and white sheep.  “So beautiful.  I’d like to go too.”
   Aaron looked into her eyes and thought she meant together. Three hours into their relationship.
She pressed his forearms and squeezed.  “The band’s about to start.”
   Aaron looked up and saw four musicians crowded onto a small stage.  They played well but loud, effectively halting conversations until they took a break.  Aaron and Hannah easily shifted in and out of the changing dynamic until once more they had worn out their welcome.  
   This time they left along with others who carried their booze-infested conversations onto the streets.  Aaron accompanied Hannah to her car.
   “Are you okay to drive?”
   “Haven’t had anything but water for the past couple of hours.  Haven’t needed it.”
   Aaron gave Hannah a short, soft kiss, which she returned before getting into her car.

   Elle looked out the window for the tenth time then stomped her bare feet.  She held her shoes over her shoulder in one hand and her phone in the other.  
   “Why would he do this to me?”
   Her mother and father looked at each other.  She shrugged.  He tilted his head towards their daughter.  She got off the couch and took their daughter’s hand.  “He’s not that late.”
   “He’s not coming.”
   “How do you know?”
   “He’d text if he were.”
   Elle collapsed onto the floor and sobbed.  Her mother tried to protect the junior prom’s dress from wrinkling.  “You’ll ruin your makeup if you cry.”
   Aaron watched a beaten Kia Soul pull in front of their home.  “Must be him.”
   “I’m not going.”  Elle left her shoes and raced upstairs.
   “I’ve got makeup.  You tackle the interrogation.”
   Aaron nodded at his wife, who pursued their daughter.  He found a seventeen-year-old with a significant amount of acne on his chin and forehead with a shaky hand reaching for the doorbell.           Aaron had met the boy once before, after one of Elle’s soccer games.  Edgar didn’t play but had come to the game.  Aaron had wondered who he was there to see given that he sat alone.  He was surprised when Elle skipped past him to Edgar right as she left the field.
   “You’re a little late.”
   “Hi, Mr. Davis.  I’m sorry.”
   “Don’t apologize to me.”
   “Is Elle mad?”
   “I think her last words were: ‘I’m not going.’”
   Aaron placed her arm across the boy’s drooping shoulders and led him to the couch.  “I wouldn’t worry too much about that.  She just has to re-get-ready.  Mrs. Davis is upstairs with her.”
   “I should have texted.”
   “Why didn’t you?”
   “I actually got here way early.  I planned to ride around the block and somehow got lost.”
   “That’s your story?”
   “It’s the truth.”  Aaron knew it to be true.  Edgar was incapable of lying.  He hung his head between his knees.  “If I texted her and said I was lost she wouldn’t have believed me.  I’ve driven past your place like a hundred times.”
   Aaron waited for Edgar to lift his head and look at him.  “I appreciate your honesty.  That said, you could be more judicious about what words you allow to spill out of your mouth.”
   “Here she is.”  Aaron pulled Edgar to his feet.
   Elle took half steps coming down the stairs and crossing the room with her arms folded across her chest.  Earlier in the evening, she had waved them frantically in anticipation.  Aaron looked past his daughter and saw his wife throw her arms up in the air to signal she had no idea how this would play out.
   “I’m sorry I’m late, Elle.”
   ‘You shouldn’t treat me like that.  You should have texted.”
   “I know.  I…”  
   Edgar turned to Aaron, who moved between the young couple.  “He’s here now, Elle.”
   “I know, but I wanted tonight to be perfect.”
   “Who’s to say it won’t be?” Hannah said.
   Aaron looked at his wife with love.  He wondered if she thought their life were perfect, had been perfect.  He didn’t think so but only because that was impossible.  In the world of possibilities, it was better than perfect.
   He reflected on their first date and wondered where he’d be, and with whom, had he exited Sabrina’s a minute or two sooner.  Or if she’d arrived a minute or two later.  
   Aaron kissed his daughter’s forehead.  “I’d give him a chance.  You should be so lucky if the worst part of the date was being kept waiting a little while.”  
 Kevin Finnerty earned his MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia College Chicago.  His stories have appeared in Eclectica Magazine, Mulberry Literary, Newfound, Variety Pack, The Westchester Review, and other journals.
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