The Dinner

I’ve just settled on the barstool when Claire swoops in. I raise my water glass to catch her eye. She acknowledges me with a curt nod and begins weaving her way through the crowded room. I study her as she maneuvers through the throng. She wouldn’t like it, but I deserve one last long glance. For old time’s sake.

Everything about her exudes authority: her newly-short hair, her almost-purple nails and lipstick, her gray dress and high-heeled shoes. Even her shawl—excuse me, her pashmina—drapes her shoulders with a studied casualness. I’d admired that about her once, loved her for it. Part of me still does.

I stand as she slides up to the bar. We air-kiss like sophisticated Europeans. Tonight, it seems, we’re being polite.

“May I buy you a drink?” I ask. If nothing else, our civil war has taught me to ask rather than assume—even about simple niceties. Her pinched look tells me I’ve stepped on thin ice. “Consider it a going-away present,” I say, offering her my seat too.

She hesitates. Then she nods and slides onto the barstool. “Gin and tonic, please.”

She speaks to me like I’m the help instead of her husband, but I let it slide. I signal the bartender and give him Claire’s order. Moments later, he places a glass in front of her. I wait until she takes a sip. “I never thought you were the sentimental type.”

“I’m not.” Her quizzical expression supports her claim. “Why would you think that?”

I gesture to the room. “This place. You chose it.”

She shrugs. “I chose it because you like it. Consider it my going-away present.”

Before I can respond, the hostess calls Claire’s name. I barely hear her over the din of the bar, but Claire doesn’t miss a syllable. Our table is ready. We snake our way to the foyer and then through the restaurant to a booth along the back wall. Claire starts grumbling before we have a chance to sit down.

She turns to the hostess. “Is this the best table you have?”

The hostess remains almost unnaturally calm. “Yes, ma’am. It’s our only available table. As you can see, we have a full house.”

“This will be fine,” I assure her. To Claire, I say, “We’ll have privacy. We can talk.”

Claire grimaces, and I bite my tongue. Why did she invite me if not to talk?

Silently, we slide into the booth. Once she’s settled, Claire sips her drink and says, “So, talk.”

I blink. My mouth drops open. I quickly close it. “About what?”

She shrugs and picks up a menu. I can’t see it, but I swear she’s smirking. “You can start with why you think I’ve suddenly turned soft.”

 “I never said you were soft. I said you’d turned sentimental.” I tilt her menu down just enough to force her to look at me. “Are you telling me you don’t remember? That you have no recollection of this place?”

She puts down the menu and studies something behind me. Or maybe she’s just pretending. Then she gives me an “Are-you-stupid?” stare. “Of course I remember. I remember you liked the food here. I remember finding it . . . tolerable.”

Tolerable? “I wasn’t talking about the food, Claire.” I point to a table in the middle of the dining room. “We were sitting right there. We’d been dating for two years. You were wearing a blue dress that turned your eyes the color of the ocean on a sunny day. My hand was shaking so badly I dropped the ring in your salad—”

She rolls her eyes. “So you think this is some sort of full-circle thing? Ending our marriage where it started?”

I nod.

“Well, wouldn’t that be ironic. Except this isn’t where you proposed.”

 “Yes, it is.” How could we remember things so differently?

“No, it isn’t. You proposed to me at Bistrot Le Fleur. And my dress was teal, not blue.”

I shake my head. “Not a chance. I can’t even afford Le Bistrot now.”

Claire rolls her shoulders and straightens her posture. “I can.”

Before I can say anything, a waitress materializes at my side.

“Are you ready to order?” she asks. “Or would you like another minute?”

I’m about to ask for that minute when Claire speaks. “I’ll have the scallops and a carafe of your best white.”

I flip open a menu. “I’ll have the chimichurri steak. What do you have on draft?”

The waitress rattles off a list that I only half follow. Why do they have to give beers such crazy names? Finally, she gets to a name I recognize.

“The Guinness,” I say, handing her my menu. The waitress takes Claire’s menu and trots away. I admire the view.

When I turn back to Claire, she’s studying me with frown. My instinct is to ask how I’ve offended. Then I remember she’s not the boss of me anymore. I smile. She shakes her head and rolls her eyes. Again. Has she always done that, or am I finally seeing it? I sneak a peek at my watch. An hour, I decide. I can survive this—her—for another hour.

As if reading my thoughts, Claire whips a thick manila envelope out of her purse, slams it down on the table, and pushes it toward me. I don’t have to ask what it is. It’s the reason we’re here. Still, I hesitate. She may have no trouble shrugging off a dozen years of marriage, but I do.

She slugs back the last of her gin and tonic. She looks at me, then the envelope, then me again.

Message received.

The waitress returns as I’m sliding out the stack of papers. I push them aside and smile at her as she places our drinks and salads on the table. Claire manages an almost friendly “Thank you.”

After the waitress leaves, Claire takes a bite of lettuce and wrinkles her nose. “They could have gone easier on the dressing,” she says. “This salad is practically soup.”

I drop my fork and reach for the divorce papers. It takes me a moment to find my pen. Claire’s lawyer—or his secretary, more likely—has flagged every page that needs my initials or signature. I can’t sign fast enough.

I push the signed papers back into the envelope and hand it back to Claire. I wave over our waitress. “I’m sorry to do this to you. Can I get my steak to go?”

“No problem, sir. Would you like me to box up your salad too?”

“If it’s not too much trouble.”

She takes my plate of greens and disappears. I’ve barely sipped my Guinness when she returns with a fancy brown bag.

“Your dinner, sir,” she says, placing it in front of me. “Can I get you anything else?”

I pull a twenty out of my pocket and give it to her. “No, thank you. This is perfect.”

I slide out of the booth and stand. Smiling, I turn to Claire. “Thank you for dinner. It was everything I expected and more.”

I grab my dinner bag and walk out of the dining room, feeling lighter than I have in years. I don’t look back, but I imagine Claire watching me with her mouth hanging open. I step into the chilly night air with a grin.


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