A short story by Tina Konstant
“It’s been four years, Emily.”
“Could be yesterday.” I shut my eyes and let the shop assistant squeeze between me and the rows of skirts and shirts, jackets and trousers, dresses and six inch heels I didn’t wear when Eddie was alive. Why should I wear them now?
“Four years,” Sadie repeats and holds up four fingers in case I’ve gone deaf in the last sixty seconds.
“I don’t want to go.”
“You have to.”
“I don’t know anything about him.”
“You’ve been talking online for six months. You know everything from his job to his preference for boxers over tidy whities.”
Oh, God. Now I really don’t want to go.
Online dating. Can you believe it? Sadie had set it up. That’s how she found her new guy. Soulmate, Em. I found him on the web. No reason why you can’t too.
At the time her presumption annoyed me. Eddie and I had been married for thirty two years. He was my soulmate. I didn’t want to find another one. And if I did, I certainly didn’t want to find him online like some eBayer. But Sadie, in one of her “she doesn’t know what’s good for her” fits, set up an account on my behalf. The next thing I knew I was getting emails from some guy called Paul Willaby.
“He could be a serial killing, sociopath rapist,” I told Sadie.
“Not possible,” Sadie said with a straight face. An actual straight face. “This website is very clever. It matches you to people you’ll get on with. It wouldn’t have matched you to a serial killing, sociopath rapist.”
I defy you to argue with that kind of logic. I didn’t. So she replied to Paul accepting his invitation to chat.
I should have shut it down. I should have closed the account. I should have hugged my friend then driven her off the edge of the cliff. But I didn’t.
Paul’s first message: “I’m so sorry for your loss.” Sadie had included Eddie’s death in my profile. “I’ve never been married,” he carried on, “so I can’t say I know what you’re experiencing, but if I can help at all, I’m here.”
It was a nice message. Not pushy. Not what I expected. It seemed genuine. So we chatted. That was nice too. It’s how I found out about boxers over tidy whities.
A month after we started talking we decided to do FaceTime. I guess it was a natural next step. We both needed to see that we were dealing with real people. He needed to know that I wasn’t some 30-year-old guy with Pot Noodle down my vest and I needed to know he wasn’t a serial killer luring me into the shadows.
The first FaceTime chats were fine. We laughed. We talked about everything. It was like we were at each other’s houses. He cooked. I cooked. We both ate. Had a glass of wine. It was nice. There’s that word. Nice. But it was. The third call he was late, picked up, but forgot his camera was still on. I watched him run around his kitchen in his underwear for a few minutes before I admitted I could see him. He squealed like a kid caught sneaking a midnight feast and covered himself with a dishtowel, then dropped the dishtowel and ran through a series of body building poses that Arnie himself would have envied. Not bad for a sixty year old guy. Boxers and all.
“You’ve seen me naked,” he said. “Perhaps we should meet.”
“Oh, Lord. Meet? Face to face? In person? Same room?”
“Ah, yep?” he’d said, like he wasn’t sure what “meet” meant either. The internet does that to you. It becomes such a real place that meeting outside of it feels like a whole new beginning.
Sadie had freaked. “Oh my God. Oh my GOD!” she’d squealed. “We need to dress you!”
So that’s how I ended with a blue silk trouser suit, a strappy silk top that I don’t think I’ll wear twice and a scarf that wouldn’t warm a gnat.
“It’s for decoration, Sweetie. It’s not supposed to keep you warm. That’s his job.” Sadie giggled. Giggled! I love this woman but I need new friends.
“Lunch,” she announces right after I pay £340 for stuff I don’t want.
“My choice.” In all this new, I need a bit of time wrapped in something safe and warm. “Mario’s.”
Sadie rolls her eyes but for once, seems to understand.
“Emily!” One step in the door and Mario; owner and long, long time friend, wraps his arms around me and holds on tight. “I’ve missed you.”
“I was here two days ago.”
“I know. Where have you been? Your table is ready.”
“Hello, Mario.” Sadie says from the door as Mario leads me to my favourite table. The location is perfect. It’s close enough to the window to enjoy the view, but not so far from the open fire that I miss its warmth.
I smile. Mario tolerates Sadie. “You look beautiful, Sadie. Whose heart are you wearing today?”
“Funny. Funny man. I’ll have a glass of house red and the menu.”
Mario delivers two glasses of wine and rests his hand on my shoulder, then leans close to my ear and whispers loud enough for Sadie to hear. “If you need me to get rid of her, I’ll announce a sale at the blood bank.”
I nudge him in the stomach. “Stop it, you two.”
Mario takes our orders. “Salad nicoise for Sadie, no dressing. Meatball spaghetti for my Emily. So.” Mario glances at the shopping bags. “What are you celebrating?”
Sadie sips her wine and glances up at Mario. “Emily has a date,” she grins.
Mario frowns. A small frown. Then looks at me. “When?”
“Oh.” Sadie uses one of Mario’s pristine white napkins to dab a drop of red wine from her lips. “She’s been talking to a guy online for ages. Now they’re meeting up. On Friday. You didn’t know?”
Points. Always points between these two. Sadie thinks she’s about to up her score.
“Ahh,” Mario nods then rearranges the salt, pepper and a terracotta pot of fresh white roses on the table. “Paul. He has two kids, both have grown up and left home, not that it matters, they were raised by their mother. He prefers cats to dogs. Is retiring in a few years from his job as an engineer. Favourite food is steak, medium rare. Favourite dessert, apple crumble with custard. Likes coffee over tea. Lives on his own. Has never married. Has no contact with the mother but a good relationship with his children. Has three grandkids. He’s a Scorpio. He prefers boxers to tidy whities. This is the date? The first date? You sure?”
Sadie puts her wine on the table and stares at me. “You’ve been telling him about Paul?”
I shrug. “Sure. I tell him everything, Sadie. Mario and I go way back. You know that. I come here for lunch most days. I’m not housebound all the time.”
“Why don’t I know that? I’m your friend.”
Oh, Lord, here we go. When Eddie died, my relationship with Sadie progressed from colleague to friend when she chose me as a pet project. Her mission was to get me out and about and “over” it, as she often said. Over Eddie? I’ll never get over Eddie. But she did remind me, at my lowest point, that hugging his favourite jumper in front of daytime TV wasn’t really life and that Eddie hated daytime TV. My first step out of my cocoon had been lunch at Mario’s.
Mario gathers up the menus. “I’ll go get your order. Pedro!” he calls to his son behind the bar. “More wine for the ladies, and bread and olives.”
I turn back to Sadie and I swear, it looks like she’s going to cry. “Mario understands,” I say, then empty the bottle into her glass. “He lost his wife six years ago. He knows what it’s like. He’s been here for me when I’ve felt like breathing hurts.”
“I’m here for you.” Sadie gulps her wine.
I reach over the table and squeeze my friend’s hand. “I know, Sads. It’s just that sometimes I need to talk to someone who gets that things won’t be alright again. Eddie was my life. We did everything together. Worked together, travelled together. We didn’t have kids so every part of our lives was for us only. No distractions. Morning and night. Just the two of us. He died and took half of me away. Mario gets that. There have been times when I just needed silence instead of “It’ll be fine”. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to…” Pedro puts the bread and olives on the table and tops up our glasses. “Do you understand?”
Sadie runs her fingertip around the top of the glass, then wraps her hands around it. “So Paul?” She looks at me. “Do you really want to meet him? I’ve been pushing and pushing and I never really thought you seriously didn’t want to do it. God, I’m an idiot.”
“No. No, you’re not. I mean, you can be, but you’re not.”
Sadie grins. “Shut up. I’m serious. We can call it off. He’s probably a sociopath, serial killing rapist anyway.”
“I doubt it. He wears superman boxers. I don’t think the sociopath fraternity would let him in.”
Mario wanders up to the table with two plates. A hot one for me and a cold salad plate for Sadie. “Then you’ll have the date here. Right here.” He wipes his hands on the apron around his waist. “Where I can keep an eye on things. Superman underwear or not.”
Sadie rolls her eyes again. But understands.
“This is ridiculous.”
“What?” Sadie straightens the scarf then tosses the dangly bit around my neck like a noose.
“Are you insane? I’m 54-years-old but feel like some teenager on a first date. Heavens. I think I’m going to pee my pants.”
Sadie laughs so hard she has to run to the loo.
A date? What am I thinking? Even Eddie and I didn’t date. We just met, fell in love and got married. I’ve never been on a first date. I don’t know what to do. Well, I don’t. You won’t believe me, but since lunch at Mario’s I’ve been watching every dating show I can find. How do people do it? So much to think about. Eye contact, but not too much. Touch his arm, but not for too long. Lean in, lean out, cross your legs, don’t cross your legs, laugh, but not too loud, talk about him more than I talk about me. But what if all he does is ask questions? Do I not answer them? Don’t blink too often. Blink too often? Don’t order anything with sauce. I like sauce!
Sadie gives me a final inspection at my car and nods. “Call if things get tricky.” She squeezes my shoulders. “You’ll do great!”
Great. I don’t have a high benchmark on “great”. To be honest, getting there without falling on my face would be “great”.
Paul agreed to meet at Mario’s. I arrive early. I want to be first so I’m not the one walking up to the table with him staring at me while I trip over my blue trouser suit, six inch heels and scarf that won’t warm a gnat.
“You look beautiful.” Mario studies me up and down, then links his arm through mine as he leads me to my favourite table. “You’re so tall in those shoes.”
“I’m going to fall over and break my neck in these shoes.”
“You’ll do fine.” He pulls the chair out, sits me down and pours me a glass of red. “You’ll be fine and if you’re not, I’ll kick him out. There’s a sign above my door that says I have the right to kick anyone out.”
“I’ll be… I’ll… Oh, bother… He’s early too.”
Mario follows my gaze.
Paul’s taller than I expect. Maybe even a bit better looking, like he spent the last few days doing nothing but lifting weights and swimming lengths. I can’t help wondering if he has his superman boxers on.
“Emily.” He beams. White teeth. So white. Handshake or kiss? If a kiss, on the cheek or the lips? If on the cheek, one cheek or both? Which one first? I don’t remember seeing that on the dating programmes.
He leans in for a kiss. I meet him half way. His kiss lands on my left cheek.
“Oh, God. No.” The scarf. The silly, damn scarf. The tip dips into the wine, then slops over the table and rests on my flimsy, strappy, cream top. “Oh, no, no.”
Mario moves the glass, whips the scarf from around my neck and sweeps my chair out the way. “Pedro,” he yells. “Menu and wine for Mr. Willaby.” He turns to Paul. “We’ll have her right back,” he says. “Sit, relax. Pedro will bring bread and olives.”
Mario practically carries me into the kitchen because I can’t walk in these stupid shoes. “I don’t believe it. Mario, look at this. I hate this. It’s like Eddie is sending me signs. I’m not ready. I’m not ready for this. I’m never ready to be without Eddie.”
“Emily. Em. Look at me.”
Mario wraps my face in his hands and goes from dabbing wine off my shirt to drying the sheen that’s developed on my face. Sweating! I’m actually sweating. I’m not designed for this.
“Eddie isn’t sending any signs.” Mario smiles. “It’s just a bit of wine. He’ll want you to be happy. You know that’s true.”
I nod. I do know. It’s just that with Eddie things were easy. They were right. I never had to guess. I never had to wear six inch heels or stupid decorative scarves.
“Come on.” Mario kisses my cheek. The other one. Not the one that Paul kissed. Paul’s kiss was soft and light. Mario’s is warm and strong. “I’ll do your favourite.”
“No, oh no. No meatballs. No sauce. I’ll have salad. Give me salad with no dressing.”
Mario frowns. “You sure?”
“Are you kidding? Look at me. I can hardly handle the wine.”
“Papa?” Pedro peers around the kitchen door. Mario leans me against the wall and steps close to his son. Pedro whispers in his ear. Mario looks into his restaurant. The place is filling up. It always does. There’s a hum and a buzz. There always is. It’s why people come here.
I step up behind Mario and look over his shoulder. “Something wrong? What is it? Is he leaving?”
Mario shrugs. “It’s…”
I look to my table, my favourite table. Paul is on his phone laughing, fiddling with the cutlery.
“It’s another… ahh, emm.” Pedro blushes.
Mario squeezes my hand. “Pedro heard him say he’ll meet her quick as he can. Said the date wasn’t going to work out.”
Not work out? How does he know? We’ve just met. Or not just met. Just met in the real world. Am I that much of a…
Mario wraps his big arms around me.
“Eddie. I need Eddie. He’d never have decided I wasn’t going to work out after less than a minute.”
Mario doesn’t let go. He holds me tight. Warmth from his body spreads into mine. I don’t move. I can’t move. I don’t even try.
“My nose is running on your shirt,” I whisper.
“I don’t care,” he whispers back. “Pedro,” he says over my shoulder. “Kick that jerk out of my restaurant. Do it now. Take that table away. Burn it. I’ll put a tree there instead.”
Mario lifts my face off his shoulder. “Here.” He walks to the back of the kitchen. “You left these here a few years ago. I kept forgetting to give them to you.”
Shoes. Flat shoes. Comfortable shoes. Slip on, slip off shoes. My shoes. I step out the heels and kick them aside.
Pedro leans back in through the kitchen door. “Superman has gone. There’s a new table by the window.”
Mario takes my hand. “Emily, I’ve known you for a long time. I knew Eddie a long time. You both knew my Grace. We’re just about family. I want you happy. Will you join me for dinner?”
“Not a date. Who dates? Strangers date. Me and Gracie never dated.” He takes my face in his hands. They’re soft and warm. Familiar. “Maybe it’s time we both stepped into the world.”
I press his hand to my cheek and wonder why I haven’t seen my friend before. “What about Sadie?”
Mario laughs. “Sadie will understand.”
Still at the door, Pedro grins. “Meatball Spaghetti for two,” he yells into the kitchen.