Frog sat by himself at the table, worrying the bottom edge of tablecloth while he waited. He had dithered a bit, upon first arriving, as to which side of the table he ought to sit, but had finally settled on the booth side, though he felt somewhat selfish in doing so. The booth side would afford Toad more room to spread out, which Frog knew would be preferable to him (if he ever turned up!), but the chair side would force Frog to look into the mirrored wall behind the table for the duration of the meal, and he despised this. He hated catching a glimpse of himself gnawing inelegantly at a piece of bread or forcing a mound of gnocchi down his gullet. Mirrors were functional and meant to adorn places such as dance studios and department store dressing areas, not fine dining establishments.
Frog cleared his throat and smoothed the lapels of his jacket reflexively. He peered across the dimly lit dining room at the group now clustered near the maître d’, wondering if Toad was among them. If only he had brought a book or a newspaper! Something to make him seem more nonchalant as he sat here waiting. Frog wished now he’d at least ordered a drink. He fidgeted with the base of the candle on the table, nudging the glass base askew and then clicking it back into place.
“Hello, Frog,” said a voice suddenly and Frog jolted, sloshing candle wax onto the white linen tablecloth. It was Toad.
Frog hurriedly started to stand and greet him, but his legs were situated under the table in such a way that he only succeeded in half-standing, tilting the table forward slightly with his abdomen. Toad smiled. “Please, don’t get up,” he said. He sat down at the table opposite Frog and gave his own drink order to the waiter, who had appeared and was hovering off to one side. “Makers, water back.” The waiter handed Toad a dinner menu and looked inquiringly at Frog, who was suddenly helpless to recall the names of any drinks whatsoever. “The same,” he said cautiously and then lowered himself back down to the booth with caution. Frog never drank whiskey at all, but it seemed much too ridiculous to call the waiter back over and ask him for something else. What, he said to himself, is wrong with you?
Toad looked across the table at Frog. It appeared he hadn’t aged much at all, though his clothes had a definite Florida-retiree sense about them. It felt slightly surreal, sitting here with Toad after so much time had passed.
“It’s good to see you,” Toad said finally. “You look well.”
“I am well,” Frog said softly. “For the most part.”
Toad seemed as though he might say something else, but instead he scanned the offerings listed in the long, black leather-trimmed menu. “Market price,” he said, shaking his head and chuckling under his breath. “Think they make those up as they go along?”
Frog felt himself growing annoyed. Twelve years since they’d last seen one another and Toad was going to start out by being critical about the menu? What did he know about food prices anyway, working in tax law? He just had to find fault.
Frog took a deep breath. “Think I’ll go for the lasagna,” he said. Receiving no reply or acknowledgement from Toad he added, “It comes with salad.”
Toad nodded. He put down the menu. He looked at Frog.
“Are you,” Toad began—but then seemed to lose his train of thought somewhat. “Are you still in your same house?”
“I am,” said Frog. He searched for something else to say. “Those same geckos who bought your old house are still living there. I believe they’re Mennonites.”
“I think so, yes,” said Toad.
“But they’ve no children,” said Frog, “which I’d thought was a requirement.”
“Hm,” said Toad. “Maybe not then.”
The waiter arrived with the drinks. He took their orders and gathered up the menus. Toad promptly took a thirsty gulp of his whiskey; Frog, a tentative sip. As soon as the liquor hit his tongue Frog remembered why he never touched the stuff. It burned going down in a rather unpleasant way. He coughed slightly.
“So,” he said.
“So,” said Toad.
“How long will you be in town?” Frog asked, suddenly desperate to avoid an awkward silence. He was surprised at how difficult it seemed, coming up with things to talk about with Toad.
Over the course of the years he had imagined many times what it would be like to see Toad again, but in those imaginings they crossed paths in some sort of a breezy, offhand encounter, like an airport lounge or a gift shop off the Champs Elysees. Frog would have a linen jacket tossed casually over his shoulder, a pair of sunglasses tucked into the vee of his expensive button down shirt.
“Toad, you old so and so,” he’d say (or something better if he was able to think of it on the spot, which he’d almost certainly be able to), “What are you doing in Paris?” There Toad would be, ALONE, looking squat and lumpy in tube socks and a fanny pack. And before he would even have a chance to say anything Frog would put his arm around the handsome slender frog browsing postcards nearby. “This is my partner, Ron.”
“Y-your partner?” Toad would stutter, grasping and failing to find a neutral facial expression.
“That’s right,” Frog would say, lightly stroking Ron’s tympanum with an outstretched digit. “We come here several times a year. It’s kind of our place, isn’t it, Pet?”
Ron would giggle, blushing boyishly (while still appearing very virile and masculine). “I got you this pocket square, Frog,” Ron would say. “I think this royal blue will really bring out your eyes, don’t you, random but not-very-attractive stranger from Frog’s past whom I’ve never heard of until now?”
“Oh, Ron,” Frog would then say, his voice thick with emotion. “I never dreamed I’d have someone as special as you in my life.” Then, Frog imagined, they would kiss passionately and Toad would be left to usher himself out of the shop and back onto whatever stuffy tour bus had delivered him there. He’d stare sadly out at the street of Paris as rain pelted the bus window, the glass reflecting a single tear rolling down his face as he considered what could have been, should have been…
“But I only have to attend these professional trainings every couple of years or so, so I don’t mind too much,” Toad was saying.
Breadsticks had appeared on the table. Frog grabbed one from the basket, nodding as if he’d been following along the entire time.
The salads arrived. Toad began heaping the mushrooms on his salad off to one side of the plate. Frog took up a forkful of arugula and smiled.
“I see you still don’t eat mushrooms,” he said to Toad.
Toad glanced up and smiled. “You mean toadstools?” he said wryly, then chuckled. “Not if I can help it! Beth likes to sneak them into her cooking when she can get away with it.”
Frog rearranged his napkin. “How is… your wife?”
Toad wiped some blue cheese dressing from the corner of his mouth. “You mean Beth?”
Frog blinked rapidly and leaned back in the booth. “‘Course I mean Beth. Who else would I mean? Have you any other wives at home?”
Toad shrugged. “I just noticed you never really say her name.”
Frog waved his leg, as if to dismiss the notion right out of the air. “I’ve no need to say her name, do I?”
“Well,” said Toad, “at any rate. She’s fine.”
“Great,” said Frog tersely. “I’m glad to hear it.”
“You seem glad,” said Toad. “You seem thrilled in just about every way tonight.”
Frog took another drink of his whiskey. It seemed to be going down smoother now.
“I don’t remember you being so…” Toad gestured with his breadstick. “You know.”
“No I don’t know, Toad,” Frog shot back. “Why don’t you tell me? Being so what?”
“Testy, I suppose,” said Toad. “I thought this was supposed to be a nice reunion of two friends. But you don’t seem to even want to be here.”
Frog dredged a cherry tomato around his plate for a moment. “Maybe I shouldn’t be here,” he said. “What I want from you I’ve never been able to get. Why should tonight be any different than the last 15 years?”
Toad looked sad. He rubbed his leg across the back of his head for a moment, then sighed. “Look,” he said. “I’m not the toad I was when I lived here. You know—”
Suddenly a voice called out from across the dining room. “Frog!!! Hey, Frog, what’s up buddy!” It was Mouse, arriving with some friends for dinner.
“Shit,” Frog muttered to himself. “This guy is such a meathead.”
Mouse strode over to the table and stretched out his paw for a fist bump, in which Frog begrudgingly took part. “Wasssup you bastard? I hope you ordered the scallops because if not you are a fucking CHUMP and that is NO lie; the scallops are fucking unbelievable in this place, Broseph.”
Frog smiled thinly. “Mouse, this is my old friend Toad; Toad, this is Mouse. He’s a day trader.”
Mouse nodded an acknowledgement to Toad as he filched the last breadstick from their basket. “Hedge fund manager,” he corrected Frog, punching him in the shoulder. “It’s all the same to this guy, amirite? His idea of high finance is double coupon day, the warty bastard.”
Toad watched as Frog took a gulp of his whiskey. He kept smoothing the lapels of his jacket compulsively. It seemed to Toad that Frog had shrunk down to half his size in the presence of this Mouse.
“Nice to meet you,” he said to Mouse, a bit shortly. “How do you two know one another?”
“We both like butt sex!” shouted Mouse. “KIDDING! Ha ha! ‘Course this guy plays for that team and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, but I am straighter than an arrow shot from the bow of The Duke himself, Mister John Wayne.”
Frog looked horrified. Toad nodded dismissively. “Good for you.” He gestured to the table. “Well I hate to be rude but if you don’t mind…”
Mouse stuffed the last of the breadstick in his mouth. “Loud and clear homeslice, anyway I got a couple of honeys waiting for me over in the smoking section!” He made a sizzling sound with his teeth. “Get it!? SMOKING! All right, all right, catch you dudes later. Frog—see you at the gym Saturday. We’ll blast those lats. PEACE!” Mouse flexed in the manner of a WWE wrestler and went back to his table.
Toad suddenly felt tired. He never slept well in hotels. And being back in this town, here with Frog—it made him think about a lot of things he never usually had to think about, didn’t want to think about. What sort of creature was he? Who was his essential self? Had he done the things he really wanted in his life or had he blindly stuck to the path out of fear or rigidity? Just what did Frog want from him?
Across the table, Frog was remembering the terrible night 12 years ago when Toad had announced his plans to marry Beth and move away with her, to take a job in her father’s real estate business. He had announced it to Frog as if it was nothing, as if he was announcing that he was going to bake cookies or plant a garden or go out for some ice cream. Frog had cried, he had pleaded—he begged Toad to reconsider. “You don’t love Beth,” he had cried. “She doesn’t know you, she can’t make you happy. You don’t belong with her!”
Toad had seemed disconcerted and confused by this outpouring of emotion. “She’s a lady toad,” he had said. “Who else do I belong with?”
The waiter brought their entrees. Frog stared down into his plate of lasagna, thoroughly uninterested in eating it. Who would he be, he wondered, had Toad never been his friend, never been part of his life at all? Frog and Toad, Frog and Toad—for so long it had been Frog and Toad. Until it wasn’t.
Toad considered his entree, a plate of balsamic glazed flank steak, resting under an enormous pile of mushrooms. He was just doing the things he was supposed to do, wasn’t he? Why make it so hard, why push back against fate? You were born, you lived a little while, then you died. It really wasn’t any more complicated than that, he thought. It really isn’t anything so remarkable.
He cleared his throat. “Waiter?” he called over, and the waiter appeared at Toad’s elbow. “I changed my mind,” Toad said, not meeting Frog’s gaze. “I’d like to order the scallops.”