I rush through the rain, open the heavy restaurant door, and crash into a burly man standing in the waiting area. “Sorry,” I say.
The restaurant is suburban Tucson, fit with sandstone walls, a mural of a sun-washed hillside, and the soft tremblings of Frank Sinatra or Michael Bublé. The man I ran into is the last in line to check in with the hostess. I count the people ahead of me. Three, including the burly man.
One walks away, shaking his head.
“Do you think we’ll still get a table?” Emily’s arrived and peeled herself away from our group. The five others stand near the door, shaking the rain from their jackets onto the fake stone floor.
“Even if they kept our reservation, we’re seven now. Not six.”
I hate being late. Reservation at 6:30 means showing up at 6:30 sharp, not 6:35 or 6:45 and certainly not 6:50 with one extra person in tow.
“They’ll hold the table for fifteen minutes,” Tiffany said as all seven of us crammed into an Uber. “Perfect, we can definitely all fit in here,” she said confidently, drowning out the objections of our driver.
Emily touched my arm and mouthed, “It will be okay.” But would it? What would seven people do for dinner if they couldn’t get a table at Olive Garden?
Another couple leaves the line, unsuccessful. The burly man is all that stands between us and dinner.
I’m close enough now that I can see the stains on the hostess’s once-white shirt, her harrowing glare when each guest announces their name. Is she irritated with the number of us or that she’s working tonight of all nights?
“Two for dinner,” the burly man says to the hostess. He doesn’t even have a reservation. How pathetic.
It was meant to be a single friends get-together. Commiserate over unlimited salad and breadsticks. Maybe drink too much cheap red wine. That was before Tiffany got dumped and invited herself to join us.
He nods and offers his name, which she adds to her ledger. It’s like a list of bad boyfriends.
“Jacob party of six,” I tell the hostess as I get to the front. The hostess checks her ledger and crosses off our name, nodding. Then I casually say, as if it’s really no big deal: “But we’re actually seven…”
The flames of a demon dragon shoot out of the hostess’s mouth. She wrestles herself under control and slams another menu onto the pile. “All we’ve got is a booth,” she says, steaming.
“Fine,” I say, relieved. I wave to the group. Their eyes dance around at the walls and floors as if it’s their first time at an Olive Garden, each of them avoiding eye contact with Tiffany, who’s recounting again how Trevor broke up by text that morning.
“But he was perfect,” I think I hear her say.
“Your waiter will be right with you,” the hostess says, scattering our menus across the table. We smoosh into the booth and hide ourselves in the menu as Tiffany dissects the troubled history of their relationship. Had it been Carl? Had Trevor found out about Carl? Or maybe about Devin?
What a mistake this night has been. How had I convinced myself to go to dinner to a bad restaurant with six (now seven) marginal (but decent) friends? It had been Emily that had invited me. She was the major selling point. We’d only had a chance to hang out a few times before this, but she was smart and cute, and I was hoping to see her again. And then she popped this question about Valentine’s Day over email, and I really didn’t have anything else going on, so a group Valentine’s date it was.
My eyes flicker towards Emily. I hope to catch her looking at me, to share a magic moment across a crowded table, to share a private space even if it’s only the air between us. But she’s staring down at her phone. The glow of the screen bleaching her face blue. Her hay-colored hair is tucked behind her mousy ears.
Why can’t I think of a better description? Something that’s romantic and flattering, that will make her feel sexy…
All night I’ve had the same thought: just tell her she looks beautiful.
There was a moment after she had answered the door when I’d first arrived. But the words stopped in my throat, sounding overbearing and unnatural. So I said nothing and still sit here mute, not having said much of anything to her since sitting down.
Which is a good idea. Fall into the bottomless pit of hyperspace, escape from this sorrow-filled table.
I feel my phone’s buzz before I see the message. The sound of Tiffany’s story falls away and I catch a few notes of a love song playing overhead. The words are catchy and familiar, but I don’t recognize it until Bono sings, “Blue eyed boy meets a brown eyed girl.” I realize it’s U2’s “The Sweetest Thing” as I start to read the text from Emily.
“I wish I’d have sat next to you.”
A smiley face sits at the end of the message, like the bow on a gift. Short and sweet. Even before I’ve finished, I’m re-reading the message, thinking it must be a mistake.
My blue eyes peek over the edge of my phone. Her brown eyes are there waiting. I’d never noticed their color before. She smiles a little, the warmth breaking my fall. I smile back, wider.
The waiter drops off another basket of breadsticks, but I hardly notice. My courage comes back to me.
“You look really beautiful tonight.”