With opening the door came the ding of a bell and a swell of chatter. Brief noise escaped the room, intermingled for just a second with the evening air, and dissipated into the night like a mist. Indoors felt like the water it had come from; a blend of casual chatter filled my ears and I suddenly became too focused on my breathing. Or, rather, my lack thereof.
My eyes scanned the crowd, and I realized I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking for. Katy had only briefly described this woman, and I had been too focused on panicking to pay close attention. I believe her illustration included mostly nondescript adjectives, like “nice” and “pretty” sandwiched between several unconvincing sentiments along the lines of, “You’ll really like her!”
I’ll be honest: I felt stupid getting that kind of “friend of a friend” romantic setup. In my book, it’s number two on the list of hopeless desperation, right below using Tinder to find a long term relationship. And if I was lame, what kind of girl would someone set me up with? No good friend sacrifices their hottest bestie for too skinny and balding in his early thirties.
Suddenly, I saw her, and my vision centered on the nearest corner of the room. A lamp above the dreaded table was the spotlight to places, and it was my cue to enter the stage and screw up masterfully.
At this angle, I couldn’t quite see her face. I did see hair falling over her shoulders. It was blonde, but it didn’t look her natural color. A sign of insecurity was my first thought, though I wasn’t one to point fingers. I had bleached my hair sophomore year of college. This was amid a breakdown; I was vulnerable enough to allow myself to be convinced I’d look like a member of NSYNC with frosted tips. This ended with my crying over a favorite shirt now dotted with bleach stains and an inability to look myself in the mirror for several days.
The first thing I saw her do was grab ahold of her cup of water. Had she ordered a drink before I arrived, irritated by my lateness, or had the water been complementary? Was it even water, or was it Sprite, the most awful soda known to man? I couldn’t talk to someone for an hour with wafting artificial lemon-lime breath, never mind bear to date them.
When her fingers gripped and lifted her cup of hopefully water, I noticed blue acrylic nails. I tried to think of what they would cost, for women’s grooming was always overpriced, as my sister would say. Maybe 40, 50 dollars? I could barely afford to have three meals a day, never mind throw it down the drain for overhyped beautification. She must have earned significantly more than me. And that persisting curiosity — How could she wipe her ass with those things?
When she lifted the drink to her pursing lips, she was careful about the straw, as if she had lipstick on. I couldn’t tell if she was wearing any, but perhaps if she had, it had been to impress me. No, too confident, maybe she wore it every day. Or she wasn’t at all and she sipped drinks very weirdly. Weird sips, weird mouth, bad mouth, bad kisser? I interrupted this train of concerns with Jesus, James, who are you kidding? None of that is happening to you. Not today, nor ever
I hadn’t been with anyone for years, the preceding attempt being a train wreck named Gertrude, though she preferred to be called Gertie. Like that was any better. What if this one’s name was worse, the poor dejected women sitting just ten feet from me? The only thing more cringe-worthy than calling oneself Gertie would be sharing my mother’s name, or my sister’s, or any woman who had the displeasure of being related to me. The likelihood of one of us having a name the other hated suddenly seemed too high, especially when I began picking names out of my past that had been long forgotten. At that point, I wouldn’t have been able to handle it if she shared a surname with that Anna bitch from first grade, the one who had stolen my favorite Spider-Man pen out of spite.
I froze. A waiter had approached the woman, his back shielding her from my view. He gestured toward my awaited empty seat, and I couldn’t gauge her reaction to a question that she deserved to be a hearty “Will you drop that good-for-nothing already and spend your evening with literally anyone else?”
Abruptly, I regretted this whole endeavor. I was already so embarrassingly late and always told poor first impressions were forever no matter how great you turned out to be. And I wasn’t great. Better to spare her eyes from my sallow and patchy face. Better to spare her ears from my too high-pitched and raspy voice. Better to spare her brain from trying to think of more conversation starters I would be unable to initiate. Better to have her go home with the intriguing mystery of me rather than the disappointing reality.
I was just turning away, telling myself it wasn’t worth it, almost convinced this was the right way to go, until I realized something. I would not be content with just the mystery of her. Even if her reality was as disappointing as mine, I didn’t think I cared.
I took a deep breath, begging myself to grow a pair in the time it took to reach my awaited spotlight.
In a moment, I found myself in front of her. I heard myself say “hello,” and who responded would indeed turn out to be nice and pretty, someone I’d like, and all of the other nondescript adjectives that would soon take a new meaning.
“Hi, are you James? My name is Gwyn,” her soft voice said, one that made my heart flutter. I had never heard someone of that name before. It was untarnished, and honey on my lips when I repeated it back to her.
I thought, for once, Hey, maybe this won’t be so bad.