She sat at a high-top alone, nervously stirring her gin and tonic with one of those stupid, way-too-small straws. The pouring rain thumped against the window in a dull rhythm and the streams of raindrops made it hard to see anything other than opaque shapes on the other side of the glass. When she clicked her phone’s home button again, she saw that it was just after 5:40. She took a breath and forced herself to put the drink down on the table.
Sure he was a little late, but that was because she had given him such little notice. He hadn’t accepted her invitation until 4 PM, giving both of them very little lead time to get ready before the date began. Luckily, she managed to get out of the office at 5–a rare feat for her these days–and beat him to Mad Hatter so she could grab a table by the door to be ready for him. It also gave her the opportunity to order the first round of drinks and take the edge off.
The next time the door opened, he walked in. She couldn’t help but smile a bit. Just seeing him reassured her that she wasn’t making a mistake.
He looked different since she last remembered seeing him up close. His brown hair, once a long and messy mop atop his head, was now sculpted into one of those trendy undercut hairstyles. His face was a bit narrower and more defined than she remembered, and he seemed to be a bit bulkier in the torso. Not necessarily that he had just gotten fatter, but definitely thicker and stronger too. Luckily, he didn’t appear to have an incredible amount of muscle definition showing through his gingham button-down. She couldn’t take another guy who was obsessed with macros and always talked about getting a “pump on.”
“It’s so great to see you,” he said cheerfully. The baritone voice, with just the slightest hint of a Brooklyn accent, put her at ease. Even though it could seem a bit gruff, there was a softness in his words that she had forgotten.
“Yeah, I’m glad we could make this happen! I felt so bad about bailing last week.”
Immediately she regretted those words, which lead to a dragging silence between them. She hoped he would make a joke, do something to address the elephant in the room, but he just sat there looking at her. Not in a judgmental way. Just studying her, trying to see inside her. A lump caught in her throat as she tried to speak again.
“I know it was a really shitty thing to do but…well you know that Kenny and I just broke up again recently.”
He cocked his eyebrows slightly. “I didn’t know you two were back together. Last I heard you two split when you moved out west after graduation.”
“Well,” she looked down at her hands, thumbs tapping together under the table, “we did. But he moved out west too and we tried to make it work. That was like eight months ago, but he was still all in my business. It’s one of the big reasons I moved back to DC to be honest.”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Shit, what am I doing?”
She scolded herself for bringing up exes, a cardinal sin in first dates. She hoped her next statement would not only comfort her but explain.
“The thing is…I don’t go on many first dates. That’s why I bailed last week. It was just, you know, weird going out with you since we used to be friends and now my relationship ended. I’m in a new city and…I don’t know the whole thing was just feeling funky.”
“Hey, I get it. This was awkward for me too. But, you know, there’s no pressure. We can think of it just as friends getting together to talk. Catching up.”
That did make her feel better. Luckily, Bethany had gotten into a train-wreck on Saturday night. So she began to recount the tale of her best friend having to let down some new guy that she had just wanted for a warm body, but he’d caught feelings. As she tore into the story of someone else’s crumbling love life, his face began to relax, and hers followed suit.
Within minutes, the friendly rapport she remembered was back, as if years hadn’t passed between them. They laughed and joked at old stories of college debauchery. They playfully argued about the merits of the Justice League and the DC Comics movie universe. And they began to dive deep with discussions of post-grad life, work and career aspirations, and their futures. After all, they were both in their mid-20s.
It was very apparent that the last five years had changed him. She remembered him as much quieter and cautious, but the man before her was quite jovial and confident. When she made jokes he would laugh with a short and controlled cadence. When their first round of drinks was gone, he’d stood abruptly with a quick point to her and said nothing more than “gin and tonic, right?” She giggled slightly as he walked away. Nothing was sexier than a guy who takes control of the date.
And he was always smiling, just as she remembered, and she couldn’t help herself but smile back. The back and forth kept going, not only fueled by the second and then third round of drinks, but a deep, genuine connection that she’d forgotten they had. But then he playfully touched her arm after she teased him about one of the many moments they drank too much in college and she recoiled.
She hoped he hadn’t noticed the slight spasm of her arm at his touch, but his expression flickered for a second even as he kept talking. Although her mouth kept moving as she tried to keep up the appearance that nothing had happened, she felt frozen in her own body. It was an innocent touch, she knew, but she had a brief flash to thoughts of how Kenny would touch her that same way when they fought. In her mind, she could smell his whiskey-cloaked breath two inches in front of her face. Feel his breath vibrating off her cheeks as he slurred shouted insults at her.
They chatted for another fifteen minutes or so until the awkwardness of that moment had expanded its grasp to completely infect the conversation. Try as she might, she couldn’t return to a feeling of normalcy, and he could clearly sense that she was uncomfortable. So he requested the check before helping her into her coat and ushering her out into the cold, night air.
The rain had subsided, leaving an icy film on the sidewalk that made traversing the streets difficult. At one point, she slipped and grabbed onto his sleeve out of instinct to stop from slipping. When she looked up at him, wearing that dopey but adorable smile of his, the nerves seemed to vanish.
“My hero,” she said as she gripped his arm and regained her footing. Then, with a slight nervous tremble, she slipped her hand down his arm and interlaced her fingers with his.
As he held her hand and guided her down the last block to her house, she felt her heart start to race. She stole a glance at him over her shoulder and gazed at his features in the moonlight. His deep breaths fogged the air in front of him, and he licked his lips with a quick flick of the tongue. When they reached her stoop, he swallowed and turned to her, releasing her hand.
“It was really great seeing you, despite all the awkwardness.”
She smiled. “It really was, but I refuse to believe that you, one of the pickiest eaters I know, is now a Korean barbeque fan.”
“Well, I guess I’ll have to show you just how much of a changed man I am. Do you want to try that new place near Capitol Hill? Maybe next Thursday?”
“Oh no,” she gasped. “I’d like to but I’m traveling for work all next week.”
His smile faded. What she said was the truth, but she knew how it seemed. Quickly, she tried to recover.
“But, I should be free the week after that. Maybe Monday?”
“Sure,” he said with a bit of cheer in his voice. “Just let me know when you’re back and we can sort out the details.”
“I definitely will.”
They stood there in the cold, just looking at each other. Each trying to figure out how this first date was going to end.
“I had a really great time,” she finally said. “I can’t wait to see you again.”
She leaned in for a hug and felt his large body envelop hers. As they began to part, for a brief moment, they stared into each other’s eyes. She knew he wanted to kiss her, but before he could begin that fateful lean in she slipped away, squeezed his arm and stepped onto her porch.
After unlocking the door, she turned around to give him a slight wave, but he was already walking back towards the bar, his head hanging. She stepped inside and closed the door behind her. She stood there in the foyer, hands resting against the cold oak wood. She inhaled, then exhaled deeply, trying to calm herself. When that didn’t work, she slammed her fist against the door several times in anger.
Eventually, she pried herself away from the door and slumped, face-first, onto the couch. She screamed into the cushions of the sofa, still angry. When she rolled over, she stared at the ceiling, wishing she had just kissed him like she wanted to so badly. But she couldn’t understand why Kenny’s face, his voice, had kept popping into her head that night. .