When Eliza returns from the bathroom, after fifteen minutes that saw me sliding from calm to fretful, she looks pale underneath the low lights produced by the restaurant’s chandeliers. Moving listlessly and a little awkwardly, she drifts along until she pauses in the empty stretch of hardwood floor between the kitchen and the dense puzzle of tables. A distracted waiter nearly runs her over, apologizes, but she doesn’t notice. Her eyes roam through space like she’s forgotten why she’s there. They glaze over me, unseeing, and I raise a self-concious hand, give it a few limp waves. Eliza misses it but starts heading my way, the essence of noncommittal.
She sits down, but doesn’t pull her chair into the table. Her eyes fall on the candle flickering at its center, beside the bottle of wine, half of which has been distributed into our glasses.
“Are you okay?” I ask. I’m careful with the next sentence, lest I offend her. “You don’t look like you’re feeling so great.”
That’s an understatement. Eliza’s so pale I’m worried she’s about to fall out of her chair. She slumps back in it, half-dead in the face, and doesn’t answer my question.
“We can go if you want,” I say. “If you’re not well we don’t have to stay. I’ll pay for the wine and we’ll get out of here.”
She doesn’t say anything.
Still nothing. I lean back in my chair, brushing my cheek with my knuckles, aware that something’s gone terribly wrong.
The restaurant, which I selected, is a newish place surfing on a wave of delayed hype, the kind of place everyone talks about for a week but no one remembers to actually visit until a couple of months later. In response to rising demand, the powers that be have crammed in as many tables as possible, creating a maze through which the staff careens, running glasses and plates back and forth with manic intensity, near-misses happening all the time. It’s anxiety-inducing to watch, but beautiful in a way.
To the left and right of our table, couples dine so close I could reach out and touch their shoulders without locking my elbow. At a loss with Eliza, I shift my head to the man sitting on a diagonal from my right. Catching me, he raises his eyebrows.
“Are you really not going to say anything?” I return to Eliza to find she’s tilted her head back, to stare up at the distant ceiling. “If something’s wrong, you can tell me. I’m not going to mind.”
The woman at the table to my left is studying me, but when we meet eyes she drops hers, embarrassed.
Perhaps she’s wondering if she’s witnessing a first-date trainwreck. She’s not. Eliza and I have been seeing each other two or three times a week for a couple of months now, ever since our introduction at a brunch outing with mutual friends. It’s been going well, or so I’d thought until the moment she returned from the bathroom–well enough that I was inspired to hope for the first time since Mikayla and I broke up, plunging me into a morass of bad dates, poorly conceived Tinder messages, and too much drinking on weekday evenings. Eliza and I had similar views of life and relationships, our failures in each inspiring a healthy cynicism that still couldn’t break our natural tendencies toward optimism. She laughed at my bad jokes. I listened to stories about her narcissistic parents. We went to movies, to plays, to bars, to the planetarium. When we weren’t together, we texted regularly, sharing the little things that happened to us on average mornings and typical afternoons, things that didn’t usually leave our heads. I thought we were becoming something. When I rounded onto Congress Street and saw her waiting for me beneath the awning, in her black dress and denim jacket, the pulse in my neck started going faster, and sweat leaked out of my palms.
But now the speeding train has derailed. I observe the wreckage, which doesn’t amount to much–we were in the restaurant only fifteen minutes before she got up to find the restroom–and try to locate the fault, the crack where blame might fit. Our evening had been going well, at least as well as the others. Eliza referenced a joke from our text messages. I complained about my dentist’s appointment. She complimented my new shirt. I told her about the colors in the sky that morning, how I’d meant to send her a photograph like the one she’d sent me.
The waiter comes over. He introduced himself when he brought us glasses of water, but I’ve forgotten his name.
“How we doing over here?” he asks. “How’s the wine?”
“It’s good,” I say, taking a sip as if to prove it. When I ordered the bottle, Eliza giggled at my clumsy pronunciation. “I like it.”
“Excellent. Would you like to put in any appetizers, or should I give you a couple of minutes?”
Between my initial rapture with Eliza and my current state of confusion, I haven’t even glanced at the menu.
“A couple of minutes.”
“Certainly. I’ll be back.”
As he dashes off to tend to his other tables, I realize that he never once looked at Eliza. On the far side of the table, she’s sitting upright, with an expression of waiting-room boredom. Her roaming eyes never once land on me. And it might be a trick of the light, or of the wine, but I swear she looks less defined than she did, like she’s steadily fading from view.
“I should’ve slapped him,” says the woman to my left to the man across the table, who’s leaning on his elbows. “I would have, too, but my friend was, like, dragging me away.”
Determined to ignore Eliza as she’s ignoring me–an unsatisfying form of revenge, because I know she’s not going to care–I make a point of inspecting everything in the room with an expression of casual interest, as if that could make her reconsider how she’s treating me. Inside, meanwhile, I’m threatening to boil. In an abstract place behind my stomach, a box that doesn’t really exist contains all the worst parts of me–penchants for self-pity, revolting neediness, and narcissistic anger, all of which I can’t help but indulge, self-flagellation working as an excuse for emotional self-pleasure. These fragments of my narcissism, unleashed by whatever minor stimulus–a message gone ignored, another guy’s joke laughed at, an offhand comment interpreted as a slight–have spoiled every relationship I’ve ever managed to start. With Mikayla I became a seething, touchy, obsessive shell of a person; in the aftermath, I vowed to shut my bad parts away, to weigh them down and bury them somewhere from which they might never resurface. But as I don’t look at Eliza, with pressure mounting behind my eyes, the anchors fail and the box drifts free. Its flaps open and its contents release into my chest, where they merge into a storm. The closest point of egress is my mouth. For five seconds, I fight off words I know I’ll regret.