Wendy ran her manicured fingers along the scooped neck of her dress and finished off her glass of water. Candlelight glimmered along the damp edge marred with a hint of peach-tinged gloss and on the empty place setting on the table’s opposite side. Nudging the salt shaker, Wendy evened the distance between the pepper and flickering votive.
A gust from the restaurant’s entryway fluttered the diminutive flame, and snared her gaze. She teased her bangs as the maitre d’ appeared. He led a leggy blonde with too short a skirt for the width of her thighs. The woman draped herself upon the arm of a thick shouldered bald man who looked more like security than a date.
Sighing, Wendy sagged back into her chair as the trio traversed the maze of tables housing the other couples murmuring in quiet conversation. Some held hands. Others leaned so close the firelight played with the shadows on their faces. She looked away as a red-haired tittered and flipped her locks over a half-bared shoulder while her companion leaned forward, his eyes wandering freely.
Gathering her water glass close, Wendy circled the rim and stared at the melting ice.
“Can I give you a refill?”
She glanced up as Todd, with his perpetual grin, arrived and offered a beaded pitcher.
“Sure,” said Wendy.
“I’m guessing you’re still waiting?”
Wendy ground her teeth. I’m guessing you’re still not getting a tip, she reasoned. Instead of voicing the sarcastic jab, she gave him a lean smile and held out the glass.
Todd poured, making a show of the event by raising the pitcher to head height and back.
“I’ll be back in a minute,” said Todd.
Goodie, she thought. Giving him a silent toast, Wendy settled back and took another long glug.
“Isn’t it amazing, Rog?”
Wendy nearly spat the mouthful at the sound of Jessie’s purring voice. Forcing herself to swallow, she clutched the glass and swiveled toward the entrance as if a massive hand turned her head upon her neck. She cringed at the sequins sparking on the familiar ruby dress, the one she hung beside the maroon number and the honeysuckle pink she had donned for tonight.
“I don’t believe it,” she whispered.
Her arm shook, and she set the glass down before she spilt.
“It is pretty nice,” said Roger, towering over Jessie’s head. He adjusted his tie, the cobalt one that highlighted his eyes, and scanned the room.
Wendy fled into a rapid study of the charger and plate set before her. Roger’s face, however, appeared on the white void, while Jessie’s made-up features dotted the curved edge.
“Hey,” said Roger, “isn’t that Wendy?”
Putting her hand to her stomach, Wendy fought against its desperate plunge through the seat as it raced her heart for escape.
“Maybe,” said Jessie, her husky tone turning brittle.
Wendy shut her eyes as Roger’s steps neared.
“Wendy? What are you doing here?”
Gripping onto the tablecloth’s extra fabric, she met Roger’s gaze. She avoided drifting to Jessie, who appeared at his shoulder like a pirate’s parrot. Tightening her grasp, Wendy forced her tone to firm.
“I guess you didn’t get my card?”
Roger frowned. “Card? What card?”
“The one my roommate said she’d mail for me.”
He cocked his head to the side, and then glanced at Jessie. All the blush on her cheeks couldn’t hide the sudden blanch of her pallor.
“I put it in the mail, Wendy.”
“Of course you did.” Wendy rose, and tossed her napkin onto the plate. “If you two would excuse me.”
“Wait,” said Roger.
He snatched her arm as she began striding past. Wendy wobbled on her heels and stared at his hand, fearful of what she’d find if she actually met his gaze. The weight of the restaurant’s communal focus sent a flush of heat throughout her body, as if she roasted before a stoked fire.
“What are you talking about, Wendy?”
“Did she invite you?”
Wendy found herself meeting his eyes. “Did she or was this your idea?”
“She did,” he whispered.
“And you said yes.”
“I didn’t see a reason not to.”
She winced and lowered her gaze. With a tug, she escaped his grasp and resumed her stoic march.
“It’s all right, Rog,” said Jessie.
Wendy didn’t look back, but lifted her chin and strode from the dining room. The maître d’ jolted behind his menus and pinned himself to his stand, leaving the way to the entrance clear.
Striding outside, the fading winter night swirled, rustling her skirts and reminding her of her checked coat and the purse she’d left dangling on the chair. With her irritation boiling, Wendy stormed on. She located her car even though the parking lot wavered in her watering vision like a vanishing mirage.
She hugged her arms, and ignored Todd’s call. Working through the line of cars, she found her waiting hatchback, the growing frost softening its midnight blue. She stared at the driver’s window, at the fastened lock, at her hunched reflection in the clouded glass.
She hunched closer as Todd came up behind her.
“You forgot your purse, Miss.”
Wendy nodded her thanks and claimed the clutch with its string-like strap. Todd lingered, swaying from foot to foot like a grayscaled metronome.
“Are you okay, Miss?”
“I’m fine,” whispered Wendy.
Fetching her keys from within the indigo bag, she unlocked the car with a press on the fob. She found a few bills milling between the slim collection of makeup and her cell phone.
“Thanks,” she said, offering whatever had found its way into her grasp.
“It’s okay,” said Todd, although his gaze flicked to her hand, and hovered for a moment before returning to her face. “As long as you are.”
Wendy clenched her fist and fumbled with the door handle. She opened the car and nodded, wary actual words might shatter her thin veneer of composure. Slipping into the chilled driver’s seat, she slammed the door before Todd could offer any more consoling sentiments. She focused on stuffing the bills back into her purse until his presence vanished.
The sense of being alone rushed in on his heels.
Wendy squeezed her eyes shut around the first descent of tears. They dropped nonetheless, hot on her cheeks, and plopping like weighted stones on to her bare hands. Her shoulders shuddered as anger and embarrassment vied for command. She let both swirl, alternatively pounding on the steering wheel, while covering her wracked gasps with her hand. Thoughts of what she’d done, what Jessie’d done, Roger’s ignorance, and the consequences of the evening, rode upon the rise and fall of her nerves, sharpening rage and then deepening a sense of loss for something she might now never have.
A light rap on the window jerked her from the ups and downs. Through the mist she’d added to the glass, she made out Roger’s looming face. He squinted as if to peer inside, and knocked again.
Brushing away her tear smears, Wendy checked her fingers for mascara streaks. Dark blobs marred her skin. Dabbing her eyes, she sucked in a rattled inhale before laying a hand on the window’s control. She rotated the lever, each thud lowering the glass another inch.
She sniffed and blamed it on the cold. “What are you doing here?”
Roger grinned, a lopsided curve inspiring a tremble in her stomach. “What do you think? I’m meeting my date.”