He was 30 minutes late.

So, she texted him – and ordered a drink so the server wouldn’t hate her.

The server was cute, but seemed angry, like he didn’t want to be there. She didn’t want to be there either. Maybe it would make him feel better if only he knew she was more miserable than he was.

So, she ordered, with a pleading smile that said, “please talk to me so I don’t look like I’m getting stood up.”

“How’s the Malbec here?” she asked instead.

“It’s okay, I guess.” He was looking over her shoulder. She turned around and looked too – maybe her date had shown up.

He had not.

The server was just looking out the window at the birds that were sitting on a parked bike outside. She turned back to the server, who was much younger than she was, she could see that now.

“What do you like here?”

“I don’t know – it’s all good, I guess.”

“Malbec, then. Thanks.”

“Five or nine ounce?”

Cute.

“Nine” she said. Almost a little too immediately.

And he left. Not even a smile. Not even eye contact. Not even a canned, “Great choice, you make great decisions.” Way to make her feel like her best years were behind her.

She wasn’t overly fond of Malbec, but it was a conversation piece. She figured, if there was an awkward pause in the conversation, she could mention, “Did you know that the Malbec grape was originally from France? It was considered a filler, to make cheaper wine – they mixed it in with the superior grapes. Then the Argentinians jumped on it and now it’s like their signature wine. Isn’t that funny?”

Was it funny? She hoped he thought it was funny.

She’d been single for over 2 years, so sitting alone in an elegant bistro wasn’t strange for her anymore. But waiting for someone was. Waiting for someone who was late and not answering messages, including the one she’d sent earlier to confirm this first date – that was new.

Alone by choice was one thing. This was entirely another thing.

He would tell her if he changed his mind, wouldn’t he? He seemed nice on the phone. Why would he change his mind?

It was a practice date, anyway. How depressed could she possibly get over someone she’d never met face-to-face?

Still, she could feel a gross heat washing over her. This was not her shame to bear, she gently reminded herself, but something was simmering.

The couple a few tables down were planning their long weekend. The discussion was getting intense because they had to navigate between 4 family gatherings over the course of 3 days, and there were miles in between. They had pulled out a map and were trying to plot a course to pleasing everyone. A fight was brewing.

The server returned with her drink. “Will you be ordering food?”

“I’m waiting for someone.” Wasn’t it obvious? Who gets dressed up and pays $18 for one glass of wine so they could drink alone?

She wondered what her cat was doing at home – probably having a grand time. This is what you get for stepping out of your comfort zone.

Her shoes were uncomfortable, but they looked great. It was a practice date, but she was all in.

If she was going to get back in the game, she would do it right, she had told herself. New earrings. Got her nails done.  Shaved her legs. Shaved EVERYTHING. Not that anything was going to happen but just to do things right.

That’s what “all in” meant.

Was she not worth a text if he was going to cancel? She checked her voicemail. Nothing there either. She checked the app.

Crickets.

Stupid.

The couple with the map might have noticed her listening in, so she turned her attention away. Back on the judgemental server. He was smiling now, chatting with a table of girls who were ordering fruity cocktails. They were in their twenties, and infinitely more interesting than she was. She was twenty once, but she couldn’t remember ever being that interesting.

She could feel someone in her blind spot looking her way. At first it was glances, and then it was a burning stare. She ignored it.

The map couple started arguing. If they didn’t want her to eavesdrop, they could at least keep it quiet. They could at least put away the ridiculous map.

Her drink was almost finished. She was getting hungry, too. Keeping a tiger hungry is a good way to get your hand eaten off.

Of course, she could never allow herself to be one of those… emotional women. His profile specifically said no drama.

Maybe the restaurant she picked was too expensive. And that scared him, because it made her look like she was expensive. Maybe she was? After all, why work hard to be successful if you can’t have nice things?

She didn’t expect him to pay for her. Should she have told him that earlier? She’d read that emasculates men, if you don’t let them pay. But letting them pay also makes them feel like they are being used.

She’ll tip the waiter high, maybe that will teach him respect.

The gaze behind her got stronger, searing into the back of her neck. It was distinctly masculine, she could tell. She was adept at sensing a person’s energy. It came in useful in the boardroom; she would adjust her intensity to accommodate her mark, and then close a sale. It was easy for her. Not innate – a skill she had cultivated over years of climbing the corporate garbage chute.

A new server approached her – a young woman. She was smiling and very sweet.

“Anything else for you today?”

“Oh, I had a different waiter.”

“He just ended his shift. I’m Laurie! I’ll be serving you the rest of the night.”

Outside, the bike was gone. The birds were gone too. And, the sun had gone down. It had been well over an hour.

“Guess I’ll settle up.”

The waitress bounced away.

There was a distant crash from the kitchen, and a profound “FUCK!” from an unseen player in this very boring and drawn out show. No one wanted to be here tonight. Show was over. Did it ever even start? The reviews are in and they are terrible.

Too bad, it was such a beautiful place. And the menu looked good. And jazz music was playing softly. She had forgotten that she liked jazz, because her ex loathed it. So, she stopped enjoying it, as doing so was somehow a betrayal to him. Eventually, the music stopped playing for her.

It was playing tonight, though – like a long-forgotten friend.

She could stay. Alone. Alas, she was somehow spent. No longer wanting to be in this beautiful space where no one wanted to be. It felt contrived.

Go where you are desired, she told herself. That was her mantra since her divorce. She wasn’t going to invest in time or spaces that weren’t willing to invest back.

She slid her freshly painted nails across her phone screen and deleted his number.

Now, she was alone by choice. Sigh of relief.

But she still felt that pressing heat. Maybe it was the Malbec on an empty stomach. Or, maybe it was something else.

Emptiness? Boredom? Embarrassment? Her heart breaking? They were all the same, just pick a card.

She once again felt the strong, expectant stare behind her. What did he want, anyway? Did he see what she had just done?

Defiantly, she turned around. She would meet him eye-to-eye. Was it judgement? Was it shame? Was it acknowledgement or appreciation? An invitation?

It didn’t matter. Because whatever it was, it was not allowed to affect her.

The tiger would not be rattled. Come closer if you want to lose a limb.

Their eyes connected, unflinching. Cold, but connected. That was the first thing she noticed.

The next thing she noticed – and this surprised her – it was a woman, not a man. A poised, confident woman who in one glance told her to sit taller and stop waiting for validation. She was someone she did not at first recognize.

And then finally, she realized that this whole time, on the wall behind her was a mirror. And it was in fact her own reflection that had been searing a hole inside her.

The tiger crouched in its corner and shed a silent hot tear. She would miss the person she once was, but this was all for the best.

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