by Jessica Barksdale
|Number Three lumbers toward Tacie, pushes away a palm frond, rounds the chair, pulls away his jacket as he sits, the restaurant chair creaking. He breathes hard and shallow, as if he just took a break from filling sand bags for a flood. He smells sweet, like fruit snacks or Jell-O.Tacie smiles and wishes she could spot her friend Deena, who sits somewhere in this dark restaurant watching her own number three head toward her.“Hey,” Number Three says, and Tacie reads his name tag: Rick. Rick in red ink.Rick is likely the largest man she’s ever met in person. He sits wide-legged so his enormous belly can perch on his lap underneath his Hawaiian shirt. But he seems happy, if a bit sweaty, his forehead and upper lip glistening.
“I won’t make jokes about you not going anywhere.” He wipes his brow with a handkerchief, stuffs it in one pocket, and takes his dating scorecard out of another. “I’m sure you’ve heard it already. But the ladies get to sit while the guys make the rounds.”
“I have heard that,” Tacie says. She wants to say more things about not going anywhere, such as, her dating life is not going anywhere by being here in this dimly lit restaurant among the bungled and the botched, the sad and hopeless and despairing, she first in line for all the terrible adjectives. She wants to point out to Rick that even though the men are moving from table to table at the sound of the bell, no one has made any progress—not yet—and probably after the evening is over, not much will have changed. Who meets the love of his or her life at a speed dating event? What else is this event but an excuse to go out and pretend to be living? It looks like moving forward but really, Tacie knows, it’s two steps back.
Rick settles and looks at her name tag. “So Tacie. Is that right?”
“Stacie without an ‘s,’” Tacie says.
As he smiles, his eyes disappear in the valleys between cheeks and forehead, but then they’re back again, dark and intent.
“So, Tacie,” Rick says. “Tell me about yourself.”
Tacie has related these things twice before and now settles into her narrative. “I teach English,” she says. “High school.”
“I better watch my grammar,” Rick jokes, and she doesn’t tell him that’s the third time a man has said those very words tonight.
“Don’t worry,” Tacie says. “I didn’t bring my red pen.”
That’s the third time she’s said that, too.
“What do you do?”
“I make hot tubs,” Rick says, and without willing it, an image of a naked Rick submerging into a large redwood round of steaming water fills Tacie’s mind. There he is, moonlit, moon-sized, glowing white in the night, the water lapping around the mounded rock of his body.
“You make them?”
He nods. “Hand-crafted and custom. One-offs.”
“Oh,” Tacie says. “Oh.”
“So what brings you here?” he asks.
“Divorce,” Tacie says. “And my friend Deena.”
She waves her hand toward wherever Deena is sitting, all these small for-two tables nested in fronds, hidden by high-backed chairs and candle light. When they met at a school district teacher-training seminar ten years ago, Tacie was married. When Tacie first left her husband, Deena was in a relationship. But now, they’re free to go to Wednesday night speed dating at the threadbare steak house.
“What do we have to lose?” Deena had said. “Come on! You’ve been sitting at home every night for months.”
“What can we lose? Self respect? Honor? Self esteem? A night in front of the television?” Tacie said.
But Deena signed them up anyway, and Tacie donned the hopeful makeup and dress of the blind date.
“What about you?” she asks Rick.
“I want a partner,” Rick says, looking at her, his eyes deeply brown, glinting in the small candle’s flickering light. “It’s hard to meet people when you’re out in the field all day.”
Now Tacie thinks of fields of wooden hot tubs in the middle of Iowa cornfields, row upon row filled with large white, bobbing men. Here comes Rick in his tractor, ready to harvest.
“Hot tubs,” Rick continues, “don’t have much to say.”
“That’s how I feel when I look at my students,” Tacie says. “Where can we meet anyone?”
For a moment, they watch each other, and then Rick shrugs. “The modern age. We’re all so isolated in our own lives.”
“Right,” Tacie says, and just as she wishes she could evaporate like hot tub steam, the time bell rings.
Rick holds out his meaty hand, and Tacie takes it, trying not to react to the wetness against her fingers. She looks hard into Rick’s eyes, forcing herself to not shudder, and nods instead. In his gaze, she sees his want and hope, and she sees her own, that same pathetic, sad need that brought her right here to this lonely two-top with the tiny red candle for a night of five-minute introductions with men she couldn’t even conjure in her imagination.
And what hits her as she stares at Rick is that she is Rick. She may not weigh 400 pounds, but she’s no better. Something inside her is that heavy. To the men who come to sit with her, she’s as odd and wrong and weird and troubled as Eduardo and Steve and Rick. She’s the forty-two-year-old woman with what? Too much eyeliner and slightly sagging breasts and hands starting to spot. She dresses too young, trying to be hip and sexy—the black knee-high boots were a mistake—when she’s anything but. The men will go home and wonder what is wrong with them. Why had they wasted their evening talking with her?
“Nice to meet you, Rick,” she says, trying to mean it.
“Same here,” he says, letting go, pushing himself up, his stomach rising like a hot air balloon over the table. “Don’t forget about me.”
She nods. So far this evening, Rick is who she will remember most.
“Christ,” Number Four says.
He sits down, his mouth open, his eyes trying to blink back the horror that Tacie herself now feels, her heart belting around her chest like a creature finally freed.
“What are you doing here?” she asks, knowing that it would be best to get up and leave, but she’s not sure that she could stand up without tipping over the small table, the candle setting the tatty carpet ablaze.
“Gee, I’m not sure. Let me think. Maybe it’s that my wife left me for no good reason and I’m trying to meet someone? I don’t know. Call me stupid.”
“But here? To this? Did you know I was coming?” she asks.
“Yeah, I’m stalking you. I signed up to do this shit instead of just going to your apartment.”
Her almost ex-husband David shakes his head, blows out air, that dismissive sound she knows too well. He pushes back his thick dark hair in that familiar one swipe, two swipe, a gesture she could mimic and win at charades. In fact, she could probably find David in a crowded room by feel and taste and touch and sound. Everything he does she knows by heart: as he stares at her, he interlaces the fingers of both hands and rests them on his lap, he cocks his head, a nerve under his left eye twitches. She lived with him for twenty-three years, and that’s enough time to know that under the table, his legs are crossed at the ankle. He’s wearing dark blue socks. Boxers, not briefs. He ironed his crisp Dockers and white shirt before he left home, but he didn’t bother to shave because his handsome, freckled face is so sensitive, he can only shave three times a week.
“Anyway, you’re here,” he says. “Trolling for love.”
Tacie feels heat flare from her cheeks to throat, odd continents of shame blooming from collarbone to ear. When she left David, she told him it wasn’t about anyone else. She promised him there was no other man, and there wasn’t, but in her heart she hoped there might be, wanting the romance they’d never really had time for, not with Rory coming so quickly after they married. Not with the bills and the fights about the bills. Not with both their hopes dashed, neither of them knowing what the others’ hopes actually were. David was always so angry, so tense. And now, just as so often during their marriage, he was tight and clenched, anger right there under the smooth surface of his skin.
“You left me for this? Really?”
Before she can reply, he says, “What are you going to do? Go out with Gigantor? He paved a swath of ruin as he left your table.”
“He was nice.”
“Nicer than me? Better than me?” David asks. “You left me so you could sit here and talk to a man who could barely walk away.”
“Shhh,” Tacie says, her whole body flushing. “Deena made me come.”
“She’s here, too?” David throws himself back against the chair. “Great.”
With that, he slumps and shakes his head. As he bites down on his back molars, Tacie can see the anger in his clenched jaw, the once, twice of his hard molar bite, his jaw working as though he were chewing gum. Waiting, she sees the sadness, too, the eye twitch, the swallowing.
“Why did you decide to speed date?” Tacie asks.
“Why not?” he says, fingering the fake cyclamen on the table. “What else to do with the rest of my life?”
“Oh, for god’s sake please,” she says, but she can’t really find her own indignation. The rest of his life, that life she’d told him she’d witness, the pact sworn to while holding hands. Over and over again, by word and deed and action, by the number of years she stayed when she didn’t want to, she sealed the deal. Her lies were her litany of guilt, the worry beads of terrible thought she kept in her pocket until bedtime when she could bring them out and finger every one.
“Please,” he says, his voice a whisper. “Stop this.”
Yes, she thinks, the failure of her evening hanging on her shoulders like a heavy coat. It would just be so easy. Finally, it would be over. All she has to do is stand up and take his hand, both of them leaving the speed dating arena and dating forever. They will go home and call their son who was away at college, Rory overjoyed that the fighting and haggling and general emotional mayhem is over.
Without a word, David will lead her back to the bedroom, and she will sit on her side of the bed on the comforter she bought at the country store in Mendocino. She will take off her clothes and put them in her drawers that are still empty. She will lay back and have the familiar, ordinary, basically pleasant sex she’s had for years with a man she knows. In less than half an hour, she’ll be right back in the spot that took her years to leave.
Later, after more promises, they will go to better therapy that might actually work, join a monthly book club, and plant redbuds and rhododendrons in the backyard. They will take neighborhood walks and go to cooking classes and travel every summer to Europe. In time, maybe ten years from now, these last two ravaged years will look like a rip perfectly repaired, the stitching almost invisible. In twenty-seven years, Rory and his wife and grown children and all Tacie’s and David’s extended family and dear friends would be toasting Tacie and David’s fifty long years together, separation and speed dating a forgotten nightmare.
Tacie stares at her still husband, so known and clear, even in the ways she doesn’t like: his sarcasm, his anger, his inability to see the important, true thing about her that even she can’t identify. But who will ever find it? Who will ever understand? David knows her better than any other person on the planet. No one will ever understand her well enough to be this angry at her again. All she has to do is stand up and take his hand. No one but maybe Deena will say a word against it. Everyone will nod and agree, saying, “I always hoped you two would get back together.”
The bell rings, and David leans closer. “Tacie,” he says. “You don’t have to do this. You can still come home.”
All she has to do is go. Someone moves the palm frond but steps back when Tacie jerks up. She looks back to David, slammed back into the reality of the dark room, yanked away from the happy ending she will never live into.
“No,” she says, and she makes herself look at him, this man she watched age from a still-boy to a man, her husband, the father of her child. She wants to reach out to touch him, but she knows she’s given away the right. Tacie holds his gaze as his anger takes over any bit of softness that might have survived if this night had never happened.
The bell rings again, and David pulls his hands off the table and pushes the chair back, the sound a viscous scrape on the wood floor.
“Enjoy your night. I hope you’re the most popular girl in the room.”
The table shakes as he leaves, the fronds flash and flicker as he pushes past. On the table, David’s score card rocks like an empty boat. And in the rocking back and forth, she sees all that’s missing in everything.
Tacie tries to follow his progress in the restaurant, strangely hoping that he’ll stay and meet someone, but she can’t track him, can’t hear a heavy, slammed restaurant door, can’t see a lone woman waiting for David, a woman who doesn’t yet know these next five minutes will be a blessed relief.
Number Five appears, a short blond man holding his score card tight.
“Hi,” he says. “I’m Jeff.”
Later after the last man has sat at the final table, Tacie waits for Deena out front, her friend chatting with her Number Ten, a man who didn’t wait for the scorecards to be tabulated or the woman who runs the event to call to see if both parties were interested. Smitten, Number Ten stayed seated at Deena’s table long after the second bell, and as Tacie looks back into the restaurant foyer, it’s clear by Deena’s big smile that her friend is not upset by this breach in protocol.
Tacie clutches her coat and purse and walks a few feet to sit on the wooden bench at the side of the door, staring out to the emptying parking lot. It’s almost fall, the summer giving way to cooler nights. Couples and singles and servers and cooks just off work walk briskly to their cars and the bus stop on the corner of Broadway and Main. She’s already scanned for David’s Lexus, but she knows he’s long gone. From the cars remaining in the lot, it appears that Deena’s Number Ten might drive either a minivan or a Toyota sedan of some kind. Not a doctor, but not unemployed, either.
The door swings open and she almost stands, but she sees that it’s not Deena and Number Ten, but Rick. Tacie sits back down but at attention, watching him, wondering if she should say something or not, hoping he won’t or, maybe, will see her on the bench. But Rick is all business. With one hand, he clutches the railing, taking each step carefully and slowly, one, two, three, four. His shoes have thick rubbery soles, and she can hear their squishy groans as he makes his way down to the paved entryway. Once he lands, he adjusts the jacket he put on over his Hawaiian shirt and takes a deep, relieved breath Tacie can hear from where she sits. Then eyes forward and with a slow, thoughtful gait, Rick heads to the remaining cars, veering toward the minivan.
Something in the way he walks makes Tacie imagine him how he might have been as a boy, fifteen, on the football field, jogging back to the huddle. Sure, he was heavy even then—a linebacker—but he was powerful, shoulders square as they are now, arms moving with a firm, serious swing. At some point later in his life—ten, maybe fifteen years—he let go of hope or faith or control, and who knows why.
Tacie can’t take her eyes off him. All evening long, he’s moved forward and on and through, not giving up, not stopping. Not one single issue in his life prevented him from driving all the way here tonight, and not one thing will keep him from trying until he finds that partner, the woman who sees him in the true way he can’t see himself.
If all Tacie does from the rest of her life is try half as hard as Rick does now, she will be okay. She’s not half the woman he is—literally—and things will be so much easier for her. One step, two, three, and go.
Rick gets in his car, a hauling, yanking process, the minivan slightly tilted on the driver’s side. Then he starts it, his lights illuminating the front of the restaurant, Tacie flowered in the yellow glare. She thinks of what she will say if he pulls up and rolls down his window, but Rick accelerates slowly, making a smooth turn in his titling minivan and drives away from her, out of the lot, and into the sparse flow of the ordinary midweek traffic.
Jessica Barksdale is the author of twelve traditionally published novels, including Her Daughter’s Eyes and When You Believe. She is a Professor of English at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California and teaches online novel writing for UCLA Extension.