A conversation – short story – part I

The restaurant lights were dimmed to near darkness. The atmosphere was purposefully intimate. There was a warmth that felt right. Eric got there 15 minutes early and sat at a table way in the back of the restaurant. Lina got there at 8pm, sharp, as precise as an alarm. He got up to greet her as his mother had taught him to do since he was a little boy. They embraced awkwardly and he was relieved they didn’t do more than that. She sat down first and he did the same. She was elegantly dressed with a blue satin blouse, with gray pants and red bottom shoes. The earrings looked more expensive than the shoes and one could tell she was making a 6-figure salary, given the Audi she got out of earlier and the valet promptly parked. The overly masculine Omega watch she wore on her right wrist must have been probably a gift or a souvenir from her father. Eric had to stop analyzing and decided to break the slightly uncomfortable silence.

“First blind date?”, he asked while opening the menu the waiter had just handed him.

“First and hopefully last”, she said with a smile.

“Damn! I forgot to buy a ring…”, he replied with a smile. She laughed, loudly and wholeheartedly which made Eric smile and laugh.

“Well, at least now I know you’re funny”, said Lina.

“Oh, that I am”.

“Hope it isn’t a simple defence mechanism”, and she looked at the menu. Eric was left there, a bit perplexed but not sure if he felt insulted. Lina lifted her gaze and saw Eric wearing a tremendously serious face.

“Did I offend you?”

“As a matter of fact, yes” and then he got up. “I don’t think i can continue this date with you since you have hurt my feelings”. Lina looked flabbergasted, confused and remorseful. She opened her mouth, wanting to say something and that’s when Eric smiled and sat down again.

“Dude, you’re such an asshole!”, and she let out a big sigh of relief while Eric laughed his heart out. 

“I had to mess with you a bit”.

“You do get points for that”.

“Well, that’s good to know”.

The rest of the evening went smoothly. They talked like old friends who were reminiscing about their past. It felt like a reunion, as if they knew each other for decades. They jumped in and out of subjects with an ease none of them could accurately describe.

“So…what is that you do for a living?”, asked Lina, while finishing her glass of wine.

“Nothing at the moment”.

“How come?”

“I have been dealing with some issues and that’s why I am not working”.

“What kind of issues?”

“The personal kind”.

“I assume you don’t want to tell me”.

“What gave it away?”, he said with a smile while leaning back on his chair. She didn’t smile. She looked annoyed. 

“Oh, I see. Sarcasm! That’s original”.

“Or simply a defence mechanism as you said earlier”.

“Interesting to see there are some things you don’t wanna talk about”. Eric couldn’t help but chuckle.

“Are you saying you are open about every subject?”

“Yes”.

“You miss your brother?”

Lina’s eyes opened as widely and as humanly possible, her jaw dropped and once the surprise had passed, anger was the only feeling rampaging through her body. She put her wine glass down and she leaned forward, wearing an aggressive look which had replaced the anger.

“How dare you ask me about my brother? And how do you know this?”

“I simply wanted to prove a point, not to insult you or his memory. Plus, your instagram account is open and there are abundant pictures of him. I am really sorry for your loss”.

Silence followed. Eric had crossed a line and he wasn’t proud of himself. 

“Lina, I am truly sorry. I was out of line. I wanted to prove a point but I did it in the most awful way. My apologies. Please forgive my insolence and stupidity!”

Silence followed again. Uneasiness had become the only existing thing between them, other than the table

“I am not working at the moment because I am in therapy”. Eric let that sentence out without thinking, while looking down, like a child who was caught doing something naughty. Perhaps he thought by sharing the details of his situation, he’d repair their new and obviously fragile relationship. Lina wiped a tear off her left cheek and crossed her arms. She was waiting for him to share more.

“I went through a bad break up”.

“A bad break up?”

“Is there any other kind?”

“Touché!”, she replied. “A break up that led you to therapy?”, she asked.

“Some endings are more difficult than others”, he replied with a shy smile on his face. Eric wasn’t sure how much he should share with his new “friend” he had known for 90 minutes. 

“What happened?”, asked Lina, a bit nosy. A long sigh came out of Eric’s lungs. He sat back to relax because he felt the tension in his body.

“It was a toxic relationship. We were both toxic to each other. She cheated, I cheated, we hurt each other, we lied to each other, we manipulated each other. A true chaotic, poisonous, destructive relationship, the kind no one should ever go through”.

“Were you violent with her?”

“No, I wasn’t. She slapped me a few times”.

“Were you threatening her when she hit you?”

“No, I wasn’t. Does that count as her being violent?”

“It doesn’t”.

“How do you figure?”

“Well, I assume she was smaller than you and if you ever wanted to hit her, you could really hurt her”.

“That sounds about right”.

“So, you understand that it is about the eternal dynamic between men and women, since dudes are almost always bigger and stronger than women. Men will always be a danger to women”.

Eric had to think about that last statement. He couldn’t find anything to say to refute Lina’s statement. 

“I guess we’ll always be. Don’t you think she should have never put her hands on me?”

“No”.

“Ok. Let me present my case…”

“I can’t wait to hear this”.

Eric sat back up, pushed his wine glass out of the way so we could make an uninterrupted eye contact with his date. 

“What if she had become increasingly violent and pushed me in a corner? By the way, the more I kept avoiding her, the more violent she became. What if my reptile brain had kicked in and I had slapped her once as a reflex, as someone who is under siege? Being hit repeatedly affects the brain. I mean, the violence and pressure can push someone to the brink of violence. Pushing back and defending myself is a normal response, the same way you’d defend yourself if I started poking you repeatedly on the shoulder with my finger”.

It was Lina’s turn to absorb the information and let it marinate in her brain. She sat there, in solemn silence. Finally, she picked up her wine glass and took a long sip. 

“You might have a point about the violence”.

“I know violence, so my point is valid”.

“Is that why you are going to therapy? To deal with the violence?”

“Yes, that’s part of it”.

“Violent childhood?”

“Yes”.

“Alcoholic dad?”

“Invisible dad”.

“What?”

“He was nowhere to be seen from the moment I was born”.

She let a little giggle out, like a schoolgirl who heard a really dirty joke. Eric himself couldn’t help but smile. 

“You are funny”.

“That seems to be the consensus”.

“What else are you working through the therapy?”

“Well, since I just met you, how about we save the rest for next time?”

“Who says there is gonna be a next time?”

Silence again. Their eyes met, determined to duke it out virtually. They were like kids, waiting to see who was gonna blink first so the other could call them a loser. Eric smiled and chuckled.

“Yeah…there will be a next time, otherwise you wouldn’t still be here”, said Eric almost triumphantly.

“You want it too, I can tell”.

“Your vision is 20/20, young lady”. The staff was cleaning up the tables, indicating it was closing time and there was one more table occupied and its occupants were standing up, ready to leave. Eric asked one of the servers to refill their wine glasses and he said he had to run it by the manager since they were closing. Half a minute later, the server came back with an apologetic look on his face and a brand new bottle of wine. Eric insisted the server stopped apologizing and he smiled shyly and filled their glasses. 

“The restaurant is empty. How are we allowed to stay?”

“I am a silent partner in this restaurant. The owner is my cousin and the chef is my best friend from high school”.

“Look at you, Mr. Big Shot”.

“Oh, nothing like that. My cousin is an amazing manager and my best friend simply an outstanding chef”.

“Well, thank the gentlemen on my behalf”.

“They are both women, but your sexism is noted”.

Lina smiled and Eric reciprocated. They drank their wine in silence, looking at each other with a mix of amusement, lust, perplexity, and wonder. Eric was intrigued by this woman who was far from every other woman he had dated in the past. She was strong willed, unafraid to speak her mind, and she wasn’t playing hard to get. Moreover, she breathed with the confidence of an independent woman, which excited him. 

“So, since we will be here until we finish the bottle, what do you wanna talk about?”

Lina put her wine glass down, slowly, while watching him with her malicious eyes. They were dancing, testing and pushing each other with finesse. They were playing a game and they were both enjoying it. 

“What do you think of toxic masculinity?”

Eric’s surprise was easy to spot and Lina did. She knew this question would destabilize any male over the age of 5. Yet, the surprise didn’t last long on Eric’s young face. It was replaced by a genuine smile. 

“Why?”, he asked.

“Can you answer my question?”

“And if I don’t?”

“Then this conversation is over”

“Well, Ok then”.

Silence. Their eyes met and no words were exchanged. They were doing a little back and forth yet again. The dance had become slightly more serious and heavy. It was a competition, to see who would give in first. Eric loved mind games and Lina seemed to love them just as much. The mental detente went on for a moment, neither of them could tell for how long. Finally, Eric spoke first. 

“So, one question or rather one wrong answer decides everything?”

“Pretty much”.

“You do know I could give you the most politically correct answer there is, just to satisfy your curiosity or to pass this test”. 

“Well, I am all ears!”

“See? You are expecting an answer. You want an answer, you demand an answer”. 

“I do”.

“And what happens when you don’t get your answer?”

“Then, this is as far as we go”.

“As you wish”.

Silence again. Uncomfortable silence this time. The date was turning a bit sour but neither of them appeared to mind. 

“So, you’d be fine with everything ending here?”, asked a curious Lina.

“Nothing has started yet, darling”.

“All this because you dont wanna answer my question?”

“Why is this question so important to you?”

“Because it gives me a glimpse of who you are”.

“A glimpse? What good is that?”

“Let’s just say your reluctance to answer is making me nervous”.

Eric sat up and became serious.

“Hold on. Since I am not answering, you are feeling nervous?”

“Yes”.

“Ok. Why? And I am genuinely asking, not trying to mess with you”.

“A man who doesn’t answer a simple but crucial question like that might have something sinister to hide”.

“Permission to speak freely, ma’am”.

Her beautiful smile came back for a millisecond. 

“Permission denied”.

“Well, I’ll just say it. I have problems with authority, you know…”

“Not surprising”.

“We’ll come back to that!”, he said with a smile. “Don’t you think it’s a bit reductive to base everything on a response I might give?”

“How so?”

“True players know the best answer to every question or I could even say they know the wrong answer to every question and they avoid it like the plague”.

“Are you saying you’re a player?”

“I might be. If I were, you’d only find out once I’ve played you, not a minute before”.

“That’s a good point”.

“And by the way, what are you really expecting me to say? That I live and breathe toxic masculinity? How is that gonna help me to get you in bed if that’s my ultimate plan?”

“Another good point”.

“Watch out! I might be playing you, girl!”

Lina smiled and Eric smiled back. She wasn’t comfortable yet; it was written all over her face and body language.

“Listen Lina, if you don’t feel comfortable sitting here, you could always leave. Not that I don’t wanna spend more time with you, but I would love for you to be relaxed. If you can’t relax, if there is something about me, or my demeanor that is making you nervous, which is totally ok, perhaps you might consider leaving. I wouldn’t wanna ruin the rest of your night”.

“Wow…that’s cold!”

“How is that cold?”

“It’s as if you wanna get rid of me. Perhaps I am to blame because I seem to have given you the perfect excuse”. 

“I sincerely am not. You are the one who insisted on getting an answer for your question. Apparently, not getting the answer slightly irritated you and it made you uneasy. It also tells me you like control and you don’t like when people don’t dance to your music, which is interesting”.

“You’re psychoanalyzing me?”

“Oh please! As if you haven’t been doing it from the moment you walked in and you saw me”.

“True but I wanna tell you I am disappointed in you”.

“What? Why?”

Eric felt attacked and insulted. Lina picked up on it and she didn’t hesitate one second; she went at him right away.

“Yes, I have control issues. You got that right. But, do you know where that compulsion comes from? Do you think I asked you the question to mess with your head or because I might have something in the past directly linked to a toxic male? Did you stop for one second to consider that? You chose to make sarcastic jokes without considering my feelings or my uneasiness. What’s more infuriating is that you actually caught my discomfort but you chose to not properly address it. You chose to make snide remarks. My pain and possible trauma are non factors to you. In the end, you are no different from most men”.

Lina got up and went outside. Eric sat there, in the dark, thinking, weighing everything Lina had just told him with a passion that showed she was truly hurt. He looked outside and he saw her smoking a cigarette. He used his phone and called her, even if she wasnt more than 15 meters away. She looked at her phone and picked up at the last possible second. 

“Hey…Is it ok if I come outside?”

“What do you want?”

“To continue this talk we are having. That is all I am asking”.

“I am not so sure”.

“Listen, if you don’t feel comfortable, I get it. But I just want us to continue talking. I love your honesty and you gave me something to think about, which doesn’t happen every day with people unfortunately. Can I join you?”

“This conversation might not go the way you want”.

“I don’t care. I just want us to talk, so we could clear the air a bit. And I need to smoke my blunt, so I have to come out. I will stand on the other side of the street and I will scream so we can have a nice, civil conversation”.

She turned around, looked at him and he made the universal sign for smoking weed, where the thumb and the index meet, while being pressed against the lips. She smiled and told Eric to join her. 

He hung up and got up. He thanked the server, gave him his credit card and told him to tip himself generously, 40% to be exact and to bring him the card outside.

“Well, the second part should be interesting”, Eric thought as he was walking outside to meet his date.  

TO BE CONTINUED!

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