Madeline was late and her absence, though not surprising, shot right past fashionable and landed somewhere near insolence. I checked my watch and felt for the tiny box in my coat pocket. Still there. An abundance of starch, in both clothes and character, appeared at my table: “Perhaps you’ll be dining alone this evening?”
The possibility seemed more likely by the minute. “Perhaps,” I said, attempting an aristocratic air, then added, “And perhaps…not,” aware my attempt had failed. I sipped wine and recalled our first encounter. Her gaze corralled my attention, forbidding me to look anywhere else. I wondered what she wanted, a refill or maybe my wallet, so I crossed the bar to find out. “My name’s Alan,” I said, and she said, “I know. I’m Madeline.” And the memory ended just as it began, with a sip of wine.
“Please, sir,” said the waiter, “do tell me when you would like to order.” I scanned my surroundings. Dark bricks in the dining room took us to an artificial dusk. The bar had filled with hopefuls waiting for a table, many wondering if my two-top would be the next to turn. I wondered the same.
“It’s only for a few days,” she said, and though she said it a week before, her words hung fresh, like ripe fruit weighing down branches.
“But he’s going to be there,” I said. “Him!”
And with this I lost composure. I said I didn’t trust her and momentum swung my way, but she swung it back by saying she never asked me to.
“Sir,” said the waiter, “I’m going to ask that you order or relinquish the table.” I checked my watch and felt for the tiny box in my coat pocket. Still there, but in that moment I wished it were anywhere else. I retreated to the bar, our last conversation retreating with me: “Darling,” she said, “how are you?” But instead of waiting for my reply, she kept talking. “I’m having a dreadful time, most dreadful.”
“Is everything okay?”
“I’m fine, but miserable, really. I feel horrible for saying those things.”
I urged her return and she said she’d be back Friday, then asked if we could meet for dinner. “How about Chez Helene?”
Countless times I’ve replayed that question and the different ways I could’ve answered, but I said the only word my lips would allow: “Okay.”
“Perfect. I’ll see you at eight.”
But I would not see her at eight. The first scotch went fast and I sipped the second. “Sir,” said the barkeep, “are you waiting for a table?”
“The table I’m waiting for is five-foot-four with long, red hair.”
“What kind of place is this?” I stood and stumbled. “Who names a restaurant Chez Helene?”
The bartender poured two glasses of wine and served them to a couple nearby, then returned his attention to me. “To find the answer to that question, I suggest you ask someone in that restaurant.”
I sobered. “What do you mean?”
“Chez Helene. It’s across town. You’re in Chez Louise.”
Nine forty-five. I felt for the tiny box in my coat pocket. Still there. I paid my tab and left, thinking about Madeline waiting for me. And this thought, though never needed before, failed to make me feel any better.