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.
“Eliza, if it’s something I did, something I said, anything… Just tell me and I’ll fix it, I’ll do better, I’ll– Please, Eliza, don’t just sit there, please, I like you so much, I–”
I happen to glance over and see the man at the table to my right watching me. On his face is written an alphabet of pity and scorn that shuts me up.
“Jesus,” I say, placing a hand on my forehead. Then I bend forward, voice dropping to a hiss. “You’re being very rude. This is no way to treat a person.”
These sentences fail to provoke the hoped-for reaction. My neck itches, and sweat beads on my stomach, dampening the inside of my new shirt. I’m aware of eyes on me, but don’t dare to look. Eliza gazes into the empty space above my left shoulder.
The waiter returns.
“Any decisions?” he asks, again only addressing me.
I throw my eyes to the menu, picking the first item that resolves itself.
“We’ll split the calamari.”
“I’ll put that right in for you.”
When he goes, I’m seized by restlessness, the flight instinct taking over. I stand up too quickly, nearly knocking over my chair, and linger a moment. The man who’d given me the bad look is watching again.
“I’m going to the bathroom,” I announce, though I don’t know to whom. I’m sure it won’t make a difference to Eliza whether I’m at the table, in the bathroom, or falling into an unknown dimension, as she appears to be. Before I turn, I observe that she’s become translucent. Shards of chandelier light pass through her paper skin and land on the hardwood floor.
Walking off carefully, lest my dizziness overcome me, I stop a passing busboy for directions to the bathroom. He points me to a lighted hallway branching off from the restaurant’s far corner. Just before I push through the swinging door to the men’s room, it opens the other way and I’m nearly toppled by someone exiting.
“Careful, now,” he says, before stuffing his hands into his pockets and strolling back the way I’ve come.
In a small, tiled space, with classical music emanating from the ceiling, I find to my relief that I’m alone. I go to the sink, and grip the countertop with both hands. My reflection is almost as pale as Eliza. Sips of cold water from the tap firm my gelatin legs, and a splash to the face clears my head. I’m staring into the porcelain basin and debating my options when I hear the door open behind me. I don’t raise my head until whoever it is steps up to the neighboring sink and clears his throat.
In the mirror I see the guy who’s taken special interest in my predicament; though his smile is friendly enough, I’m wary.
“Hey, man,” he says, “this isn’t any of my business, I know, but I feel like I should tell you to keep your chin up. It happens to everyone at some point; really, it does. Don’t take it as a reflection of yourself. That’s a nowhere road.”
So baffled am I by this string of words that I can’t put together a response. The man runs the tap, and starts washing his hands.
“My advice, unsolicited: don’t waste time moping. You’re already here, you got all dressed up. Might as well enjoy yourself, right? If I were you, I’d order myself a nice big steak, maybe a glass of single malt, whatever you’re into. Try your best not to think about her. Tomorrow’s a new day, yeah? All right. I’ve said more than my piece. I’ll see you out there, friend.”
He dries his hands under a stream of hot air and is gone, leaving me to watch the door swing back into its frame. After a few moments of aimless staring, I take another mouthful of water, scrub under my fingernails for no reason, and follow him.
Even at a distance of thirty feet, I see that Eliza is disintegrating, her matter making its way from the restaurant to somewhere else. The hard lines that composed her have softened and blurred, so that she resembles a loose collection of polygons, the infrastructure for a pencil drawing. Impossible, I know, but it’s happening, and I don’t question it. I cross the floor to the table and sit. Eliza is studying her vanishing fingernails, seemingly uninterested in whatever she’s undergoing.
And though I’m still angry, still self-hating, still jealous of wherever and whomever is receiving her, I manage to box it all up for the time being, though I wrestle to keep the flaps pinned.
The waiter comes over, a welcome distraction. This time he leans down toward me, so that I know whatever he’s going to say is intended to be private.
“I don’t want to embarrass you,” he says, one level above whispering, “but if you’d like I can take a card and charge you for the wine, and you can slip out. It’ll be very discreet. This may not make you feel better, but I’ve dealt with situations like this before.”
He waits. I try to speak, clear my throat, try again.
“That’s all right.”
He rises to professional height, beaming down at me like he’s just come over, like the last twenty seconds never happened. I make a fuller survey of the menu.
“I’ll have the grass-fed ribeye,” I say, “and an old fashioned.”
“Excellent choices. And still the calamari?”
“Still the calamari, yes.”
He jets off again, and I’m alone with Eliza, who’s hardly there anymore, just a silhouette. I know better than to try speaking to her. With no outlet for the bitterness in my throat, I pick up my glass of wine. I set it against my lips and, before tilting, happen to look to my right, where the man who gave me the pep talk is fully engaged with a story his date is telling. Still he catches my eye, gives me a subtle nod, and raises his own glass a few inches higher. I nod back, look away, and reduce mine to drops.
Once I swallow, the noise of a dozen surrounding conversations crashes back into my ears, threatening to overwhelm me. I close my eyes. When I open them, ten seconds later, the busboy who directed me to the bathroom is there, taking away Eliza’s unused dishes, stacking the small plate atop the large and the napkin-bound silverware atop that. He leaves the untouched glass of wine, so that, when he heads off, it might appear to any new observer that I’m still waiting for someone to join me.
Eliza’s chair is pushed slightly away from the table, just as she left it when she got up, smiled at me, and headed to the bathroom, or wherever the fuck she went.