Table For Two


Anne Organista


 
© Copyright 2018 by Anne Organista


 

Photo by Stefan Johnson of a table set for two.

Sometimes all we need is a second chance, because time wasn't ready for us the first time.
--- Anonymous

Michael looked at himself in the mirror, all suited up. It has been years since he had gone on a date. He wondered if he was still up to it. Dates were for young people, those with a future and with a reason to live. If it wasn’t for Annie, he wouldn’t have agreed to this set up. He’d made up his mind that he was too old for such petty and senseless activity. It couldn’t be anything but an exercise of futility.

This is crazy, Annie. I’d look stupid at this dating game. I wouldn’t even know what to do,” Michael said, almost begging.

Annie, fixing her brother’s tie, gave him a piercing look. “You don’t need to do anything. Just be yourself and enjoy.”

Michael knew Annie meant well. She had always looked out for him since they were small. Married to her thriving legal career, she had insisted on continuing the task after Jane, his wife, died in a car accident five years ago. They had only been married for three years when the accident happened. Jane was a fashion designer, a damn good one. She loved her work; maybe even more than she did him, Michael sometimes believed. Her clients came from around the country, people from the higher echelons of society that Michael always thought were too snobbish for their own good. That had been a point of their many disagreements; and to Michael’s dismay, perhaps the reason for the accident. 

You’re going out again? Now? You can’t be serious?” Michael stared at Jane, not quite sure he heard her right. 

Michael, this is important! Abby wouldn’t have called if it wasn’t. Her husband’s receiving the William Ladd Medal for pediatric surgery. You realize what that is, right? It’s almost the equivalent of the Oscars for surgery!”

Her husband’s receiving the award, not her. Why does she need you there?” Michael tried to control himself but Jane was doing it all over again. Her clients always came first. 

Seriously? We’ve been down this road many times before. I’m a fashion designer, Michael, or have you forgotten?” 

Of course I know, you never allowed me even for a second to forget it. But where does it say that you need to dress her up? She could very well put her own dress, couldn’t she?” Michael’s gaze followed Jane as she gathered her purse and put on her coat. He knew it was a losing battle. 

Jane had her hand on the knob, one foot out the door, when she turned, shaking her head in obvious exasperation.“Oh my God, Michael, if you haven’t figured that out after all this time we’ve been together, then maybe you never will.” 

Oh believe me, I have! But I’ve always thought you loved me enough to make some compromises. This whole time, I’ve always taken the back seat, given you the chance to fly and spread your wings, go after your dream. Am I even part of that dream, Jane?”
No, you don’t get to do that. Don’t use the self-pity card on me now, Michael. You know that’s not what this is.” 

Michael held out his arm and waved her out. There was nothing he could say to stop her. He knew that now. 

Look, I’ll be back in an hour, two tops. We’ll talk then, okay?” 

The chance to talk never came. That was the last time he saw Jane alive. And the pangs of guilt had taken over. 

You still know how to have a good time, Michael, don’t you?” Annie’s voice brought him back from the brief episode he had tried so hard to forget. 

Michael smiled, gave his sister a soft peck on the cheek and drove out. He rolled down the car window and allowed the cool air to breathe life into his pallid face. Memories of Jane had faded with the passing of years and for a while, he thought he was all right. But tonight ushered many memories, most of them unpleasant. They had brought Jane back in his life more than he’d care to remember. 

It wasn’t your fault,” Annie told him repeatedly, but memories of his last conversation with Jane left him unconvinced. He had fought the pangs of guilt for years. Now, he wasn’t sure if he had been over it after all. If he had been more patient that night, if he hadn’t lost his temper, if he had just gone along with what she wanted, maybe Jane would still be alive and they could’ve fixed things somehow. But he didn’t do any of those things. Instead, he had lashed out on her and put her in a precarious situation when she drove away. 

Michael believed he was to blame for what happened and therefore didn’t deserve to have his own life back. For how long, he didn’t know. He just knew he was stupid to go back to this dating game. A dinner date wasn’t going to change anything.
He spent the next ten minutes circling the parking lot, toying with the idea of canceling but Annie would never forgive him. And this woman wouldn’t forgive Annie either for such humiliation. Well, no point stretching this ordeal even more, he told himself. Best get it over with. 

He entered the restaurant with a lump in his throat while beads of sweat gathered on his brow like tiny blisters. This is silly, he thought to himself, I feel like a teenager going to the prom! He promised himself he’d never let Annie fix him up again. This was going to be the first and the last. 

Excuse me?”

Michael turned and found a woman in a fine, woolen navy blue suit standing in front of him. Her blue eyes smiled even as her eyebrows knitted together in obvious disbelief. Michael’s eyes flickered, shifting his gaze from the woman’s wavy, brown hair to her deep-set eyes down to the soft blush of her cheeks and her thin, red lips. Glued to the floor, he recognized the woman Annie had talked about for days. Her face was bright and the soft wrinkles around her eyes only made her more attractive. She was as he remembered her; simple, feminine, graceful.

Sweet Pea?” The words were out before he could stop himself.

The woman blushed at the recollection of the name.“Oh my God, Michael, is it you? I haven’t been called that in a long time!”

Oh ... yeah ...” he stifled a cough, feeling uncomfortable and flustered yet pleased and delighted at the same time. “I never thought I’d see you again.”

Me neither.”

Can’t believe my sister put us up to this,” he said, as the waiter led them to a corner table overlooking the river.

Same old Annie.” She took the seat the waiter held for her and flashed a smile that he knew so well. “Hasn’t lost her touch at minding other people’s business.”

Beneath the table, Michael’s damp fists crushed the soft fabric of his shirt while his worn-out leather shoes tapped a rapid cadence.

I’m sorry. I should’ve known. She’s my sister after all.”

She rested one hand on the table and tucked a wayward strand of hair behind her left ear with the other. “Don’t be. It’s not like you knew ... you didn’t, did you?”

Of course not!”

His abruptness took him by surprise. What if he did know? Would he have said no? Or would it have saved him the uneasiness he felt the whole week since Annie persuaded him to go out tonight? He didn’t bother answering. He knew the moment he heard her voice. His heart raced as he swept his eyes over her face. She was as beautiful as the day they first met.

You’re Dr. Miller’s student assistant, aren’t you?”

Michael was locking his bike on a rainy Monday morning when a young woman in blue jeans, a Nike hoodie, fatigue green parka and knee-high leather boots, shielded him from the pouring rain with a bright yellow umbrella.

Yes?”

I’m Robin,” she flashed him a smile that disarmed Michael more than he realized.

Yes?” he repeated, towering her as he straightened to his full height, knocking the umbrella out of her hand.

I was wondering if you could squeeze me in for a consult with the professor? I really need his ...”

Michael shook his head and cut her off. Pretty as she was, he wasn’t falling for it. “Sorry, there’s a line of students begging for his time and you can’t jump that line.”

He started to walk away but her voice trailed behind him. “Well, I would do that if I wasn’t freaking running late!” she blurted.

If you had scheduled a consult earlier, you wouldn’t be freaking late!” he countered in frustration.

Robin’s bold character was a match for Michael’s cold, no-nonsense ways. Despite their initial encounter, he found her interesting and her gutsy, spirited ways, quite engaging. Still, he stood his ground. Robin ended up swapping with another student for the professor’s time and she never let him forget it. Their constant bickering soon turned into a friendly repartee; a squabble of sorts with neither one allowing the other to have the last say.

Must be some good stuff on a man’s mind to forget the otherwise good company he’s in,” Robin said, raising her glass to a toast, her tongue making a lap around her lips with one smooth motion.

Sorry,” Michael muttered, “I seem to be going off too many times these days.”

Not on my account, I hope.”

No, not before, no.”

And now?”

He paused for a moment, then looked her squarely in the face, his eyes, warm and steady. “It’s good to see you, Robin.” 

How are you?” she nodded, agreeing for the moment to his change of topic.

I’m terrible,” he laughed. “I just can’t get over that I’m sitting here with you, after all these years. You haven’t changed!”

Really?” her eyes teasing him. “I’ve gotten old like everybody else.”

That’s true, but the years seem to have been kinder to you.”

Michael took a sip, glancing at her from the rim of his glass. Behind her, the soft moonlight cast its deep glow and an image of Robin from years before sparked a tingle in his bones. A rush of memories washed over him, as if a light switch had been turned on. Memories of the tiny, dank apartment where he used to live and where they had spent many days, she crying over her idiotic boyfriend, complaining about her crappy part-time job, asking his help to proofread her thesis while he watched out for her every time she needed, and even when she didn’t. This was a time when he thought the world was a better place because they were friends and she had given him much reason to smile. These thoughts belonged to his past, to memories that now, he realized, was casting rays of light into his dull and lonely world.

I bumped into Annie last week,” she offered, filling in for the awkward silence. “She looked quite the successful lawyer. I didn’t know she moved her practice down here.”

The soft hum of her voice relaxed Michael. And for the first time in years, he felt alive. Robin awakened something in him and the ill memories of Jane that he had over an hour ago faded away. He didn’t care about anything else but being with her at this moment. He felt like he was in a daze, that the universe had conspired with Annie and was giving him another chance. After all these years, who would’ve thought they’d find each other again?

For most of the night, he let her talk. He liked the sound of her voice. She told him she had married soon after college, had kids, worked for a while and now lived in the old house by the sea.

You’re back in the old house? Here in town? Since when?” he asked, visibly surprised. He could have kicked himself but thought he’d look sillier if he even tried to pretend.

Mom wanted to sell the old house but I couldn’t get around to doing it after she passed away. Then after Sam left home for university, I thought it better to sell the house and keep Mom’s instead.”

So you live here now? For good?”

Is anything wrong with that? What about you? Why are you back here?” her question sounded like a challenge, like when she used to dare him in their never-ending arguments, playful though they were.

Michael remembered it was this friendly banter that had brought them together. He had forgotten how much he enjoyed them. They were at it again, like nothing changed. And before he could stop himself, the words just fell out.

I should have kissed you that night before you left ...” his voice trailed, “but ... “

But?”

We were best friends ...”

And?” her eyes swept through his whole face, hanging on to every word.

And best friends don’t kiss each other,” he continued.

Like the Robin he’d always known, her eyes shone as she rested her elbows on the table and cupped her chin in her hands. “We’re not best friends anymore, are we?”

A pianist struck some keys on the piano. A haunting love song filled the air, as the soft oohs and aahs from the low, hushed voices of its patrons left them their own bittersweet memories of days and years gone by.

But for the couple at the corner table, nothing else mattered, except the present.

*****

Anne Organista is a freelance ESL teacher, writer and proofreader. She has written and published articles on education in various magazines. A frustrated writer, she still dreams of publishing her own book someday. Anne lives in New Jersey with her husband.


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