Between you and the restaurant ahead, a dark building entrance. White male there, loitering possibly. Maybe sheltering from this October drizzle. You locate your cell phone, just in case. From under your umbrella, you register his clothing. Shorts. T shirt. Yet his white beard’s trimmed, meticulous. He smiles.
Your dinner date.
His getup isn’t what you envisioned in front of your mirror half an hour ago, when you inserted a silver earring post and spritzed perfume where scent could waft at only you.
He’s not waiting in the high-end restaurant he suggested, where he made the reservation, where you insisted on going Dutch. He doesn’t greet you in muted light and reach forward to hold your coat. He stands in an unlit doorway, stepping down, smiling again. You smile too, because damned if you’ll lose your balance over this.
He’s trouble you’d normally see coming. You’ve lived through seven decades, though you suspect he doesn’t suspect. You use a good nighttime moisturizer. You exercise. Yet here you are, facing him.
As he emerges from the doorway in sneakers, no socks, you wonder why his ankles don’t sport burst capillaries. He works construction and at the local butcher’s to afford excellent cameras. To photograph homeless who trust his affection, let him click and withdraw as they seek good injection veins, comfort at dawn. He told you this over the poultry counter and at his art-filled, no-frills apartment, where he hosted a gathering to elicit feedback on his images. You attended and were supportive.
So he invited you for tonight. A thank-you for embracing his work. For communicating while ordering boneless chicken breast. He said he was still new at photography, so you reached across air-chilled hen corpses, shared encouragement, shed some solitude. He handed you meat in brown paper. You urged yourself to keep talking.
He leaves the doorway behind and you feel overdressed; then sense the soles of your leather boots protecting your feet. Because everything’s a mitzvah now. Mornings awake. Breathing in and out. Stinging air after your shower. All treasure before it decays. Yet, wearing no socks, your date squanders his beauty.
Beside him on the rainy brick sidewalk, you chat your way into the restaurant. It smells of lemon, olive oil, ironed napkins. Heat on cloth invokes arthritic hands that once held you fresh from the womb. Glancing at your knuckles, you catch your earring’s flash in the elegant bar mirror.
You and he settle into a booth near the wine rack, where management stocks a smooth cabernet blend. The proprietor seems puzzled that you are here with this man who laughs about his clothes, saying he wore what’s clean. He and the proprietor banter about kitchen staff. Your date’s been here before. Maybe delivering squab. Or bananas, as your grandfather did early last century from Chicago’s South Water Market.
You begin sharing food, ritual articulate as preparing a tea house for ceremony. If your date overlooks ritual, you don’t care. Any more than you cared forty years ago about entering NYC’s subway shirtless beneath a sheer plastic rain poncho. To please a transgressive, pansexual boyfriend. You’ve discovered a sameness among transgressive men. You’ve survived them in an unearned, responsible life easier on reputation, stomach lining, heart.
No intimacy expected tonight, surely. Your mirror spits back undertones of Asia Minor and every crease these seventy years engraved around your lips. Your date mentions his male lover. You’re instantly free to enjoy your meal.
Conversation turns to your companion’s heroin recovery. He trusts your compassion. He’s helping his sensitive son overcome addiction. His daughter is elsewhere, deciding what she wants to do. The cabernet blend has been good. Fewer car headlights streak across the bar’s mirror.
You divulge your late husband’s overdose death. It clashes with who you’ve become and who you were when you married, yearning and privileged, in midlife. You touch your lobes to check both earrings. You sometimes lose them in your hair. No longer dark. Silver, like your jewelry.
You were angry after your husband died, you say. And before, when addiction snuffed his spirit. Stopped your child’s reach for his father’s hand. You withhold your husband’s name, having never loved anyone again as you loved him.
Your date is gentle. “Weren’t you sad?”
“Well sure, but angry too.”
“But sad, right?”
You don’t say, “My young friend, are you telling me what to feel?” Instead, “Sure. I was very sad for what we had lost.”
Another table’s still occupied, so you finish your cabernet. You remember sharply your husband’s NA counselor, who sobbed when he called to check in and you said your husband had died. The counselor cried, wracked, as your dinner date might have cried. Exactly that way.
When the tab’s paid, he says he hopes a friendship’s begun, pulls out twenty dollars on the walk home to give to three young people laying sleeping bags in an electronics shop’s doorway. You carry no cash. You wait till he leaves, then tap in the code to your apartment building.
You’re enraged. He’s detoured your anger, sidestepped horror. Handed you his longing, rare liquid in antique porcelain. Stuck, you must carry it with both hands, can raise neither in self-defense, nor absolution, without spilling his prayer that addicts and homeless are people, too.
God, yes. You can’t whisper, “So am I.”
No screams about cremating what you once lay alongside at night. A quarter century’s cleanup, palms scarred from holding lives together. Anger helped you decide to survive. It was the purest fuel.
Avoid buying chicken for a while. Avoid him and the choice: Hurt him or betray yourself.
Walk down your bedroom hallway. Feel rage tunnel backwards.
Turn on the bathroom light. Take out your earrings, one by one, and lay them in a small basket on the vanity shelf. In mirror lights, see no furrows around your mouth. Hair dark as the day your husband died. Brush it slowly and remember how very much it hurt to be young.