I’m just gonna swoop in and out. Two minutes. Double park. Flashers on. Quick, so I decide there is no need to dress. My formal work coat hides stained sweats. I’m wearing sneakers and a Pink Floyd t-shirt. The one you washed a hundred times.
Thursday night, Rialo’s Mexicana, three blocks off Trump Plaza Casino Hotel, Atlantic City. It’s late for dinner, but early for drinks. I ordered take-out, and you’re eating in. You are at a table, beneath Mariachi skeletons, not far from the table we used to call “our table.” Tonight your table is bigger and filled with happy strangers.
You beckon me with a single hand, and the movement makes your dark curls dance to attention like children waiting for recess. When I arrive, you don’t stand but twist to embrace me from below. I mostly hug your head. It’s unnatural, but so is this thing we’re about to do. This catch-up conversation. From where I stand, I can smell your shampoo and your tequila. I pray you can’t smell my unkempt.
I wish I had dressed, brushed my teeth. Deodorized. Sprayed some fucking cologne. Anything except what I did. I called Rialo’s, paused Madden and tucked only my Visa debit card and my keys into my coat. If I had known tonight would be the night, I would’ve prepared. Every time I’m here, I imagine running into you. On so many nights, I’ve all but willed it to be so. On nights when I was dressed from work or with a friend. But, of course, you were never here any of those times. But you’re here tonight. You’re here now, when I’m fresh from picking dress sock schmutz from my winter toenails.
“Oh my god. How are you?” You emphasize the “are,” not the “you.” I can tell you are buzzed, but not yet drunk. The cantina-style fan barely spins above our heads. The room is its usual haze, dark and stuffy. You used to say that Glenn, the manager, kept it dark so that customers couldn’t see the food.
“That’s what they get for eating at a Mexican restaurant run by a guy named Glenn,” I’d say back.
You ask about work. You tell me about work. You ask about the dog. You tell me about your sister’s kids. There’s still a picture of them and you and me on the bookshelf in my apartment. I don’t tell you that.
You introduce the hunched faces around the table. They have continued to talk without you. You hate being alone. You name them each in turn. Your introductions are too-long, over-involved. You’re nervous, I think. I hope. Or just getting drunk and giddy, maybe.
Maybe you were thinking about me tonight. Maybe your heart jumped when I walked in. As you talk, I steal glances at your lap and down your shirt. I eye the crease of your black pants against your crotch. I think of the birthmark just above your right nipple.
The women are from your firm. That’s what you call it, “your firm,” but you’re just a media buyer. One of three. The women are a blur of teeth and blonde and blinks. They smile, so I smile. I shake when they offer, but otherwise I don’t. Some of them offer hands like dogs offer paws, limp and pointed down. They seem meant to be kissed rather than shook, but I don’t kiss these hands because I don’t kiss hands. Should I have? You would know, but I can’t ask you about that kind of stuff anymore.
The women eat me alive with their eyes. We are not on even ground. They are the field trip children, and I am the zoo. I am the monkey house. I am the reptile in the tank that is scary deadly. I could kill, except that I am motionless and behind this thick glass. My God-given venom rendered useless by this venue. The women smile politely and finger their phones. They wear make-up and cool clothes, their bodies alive with perky movements and loud laughter. But I know who they are. They press their noses against my glass. They breathe their steam and tap their fingers. But they’ll walk away unimpressed and on to the next thing.
Just a half year ago, I’d be sitting instead of standing. I’d be here instead of there. I’d be your “now” and not your “then.” And then I’d be free and a little dangerous. They’d listen to my stories. My one-liners. Double-entendres. They’d giggle, and you’d giggle, from the first chip into salsa to the last creamers in their coffees, it’d be me. And they’d look me in my eyes. Cock their heads in wonder. Point their perfect bodies in the direction of my opinion.
Sometimes. Not usually, but sometimes, if they rubbed me wrong, I’d spread poison with a flash of fang. “That skinny blonde is such a fucking hipster,” I’d tell you, but later, as we’d crawl into bed in my apartment.
You’d rub cream on your hands, your contacts out of your head and into saline-filled shot glasses lined up on my dresser. Your spare pair of glasses crooked on your face. Your hair matted down by a night well spent.
“I mean, Jesus. How do you stand her?” I’d nudge.
You’d get quiet at first, as you slowly pull one of my high school t-shirts over your head. But then, as your head settled onto my shoulder, you’d agree. “She is a hipster, isn’t she?”
You’d sigh, and I’d put a single finger into that spiral of curl, the one that always sits over your left ear. I’d twist it and twist it, and set it free.
“Right?” I’d ask you, tell you. “How are you two even friends?”
But tonight I stand here and smile, goofy and still like a child about to give a recital to a table full of grown-ups. I nod and wait through your small asides and inside jokes. One of the women, the blondest one, corrects you, and you clarify, and then she turns a smile towards me, but her eyes stay on her phone. Tall Dos Equis bottles and chubby margarita glasses litter the table. Your customary water chaser front and center, parked in front a quarter-eaten veggie chimichanga with extra guac. You’re done with it, and you’ll refuse a take-home container, but you’re still hungry. You’ll eat two Quaker granola bars before bed.
The water glass bleeds clear in the heat. Your lipstick stains the rim pink. A lemon rind still rides atop your glass. You hate lemon in your water, but you also hate asking the wait staff to make changes. So you’ll give the glass back to the waitress with the lemon still sitting there. And it’ll be such a fucking waste. A crime. If I were sitting with you, I’d plop it into my own glass. I’d watch it fall against the other wedge already drowning in my water. Let its pulp float up in the water like dust floats into the air. That’s a suitable fate for a lemon. Or the lemon would wind up in my mouth. I’d wait for you to look up at me, then I’d smile a lemon wedge smile at you. I did that once. In our booth. None of these bitches are going to do that for you. You laughed so hard. Then there was that time you skewered your lemon with a fork and ran it across the table top. I drew a heart with the juice trail. I put your initials inside, and I used the lemon seeds as periods between the letters. You lifted your ass off the vinyl of the booth seat. You kissed my lips with yours tightly pursed.
Tonight, the wedge won’t be saved. It’s bound for Glenn’s kitchen trash. Bound for a Pacific Avenue dumpster and then who knows where. Such a crime.
You’re still talking up at me, and I reach down and grab your food with both my hands. It’s so sudden, the table’s motion screeches to a stop. I pull the chimichanga from your plate, careful but swift, like a professional snake-handler. I anticipate the wane, its arcing bend. I chart its path to my mouth, spilling only beans and some juice. And I take a huge, noisy bite. Deep and familiar. It mangles the chimichanga and the extra guac squirts out of the bottom. And the wrap explodes its insides. All the guac rains down. All over your shirt, your face, the table. You cover yourself with your hands and then your arms, but it doesn’t stop the guac, it comes and comes in impossible showers. It spreads over the table, and the women and the dining room around us.
“So do you still come here a lot?” you ask. And I realize that I’ve been staring. One of the women, the older one, makes a snort noise. They all giggle. Your chimichanga still perfect on your plate. Your little mouse bites the only change from the state it arrived in. An almost completely in-tact chimichanga.
“I really don’t,” I say, though I come here once a week. “Do you come here?”
“Not really,” you say, and then quickly you say, “So, yeah, well it was great chatting. I’ll let you go.”
And that’s it. I’ve fucked it up. I’ve stayed too long.
I point over to the lobby. I mutter about my food, and before I leave, I pat your arm. I don’t look back. I take my knotted plastic bag and forget sauce or a fork.
At home, Glenn’s burrito is flaky and dry. I pour Frank’s Red Hot on top. The video game Eagles are beating the video game Giants by a field goal. The game is almost over, but Manning is driving so you never know. Anything can happen, but it probably won’t. As I toss the Styrofoam container in the trash, your nephew catches my eye from the bookshelf. You’re hugging my neck over him. Your nephew is holding my hand.
Your nephew used to hold my hand. Now I don’t sit when I see you out.
I pick up the controller, and I think about our encounter at Rialo’s. Everything in the room is exactly the way I left it before I ran for take-out. Everything except for this night itself. This night now has a presence that fills the couch around me. And it promises to stay for a while.
About the AuthorJoe Costal's fiction has been awarded distinctions by Wesleyan University, Black Heart Magazine & Avant Magazine. His non-fiction runs the gamut, with dozens of online and print contributions, from leadership and politics to film and amusement parks. Joe teaches writing at Richard Stockton University in New Jersey. He lives at the beach with his wife, four children and a maladjusted dog. He is working on a YA novel. Connect with him on Twitter @JoeCostal.