Dinner reservation for four. The trendy new restaurant couldn’t take us till 9:00. No worries. Drinks and nibblies beforehand at their house. Genevieve and Oliver were the perfect friends. A childless couple just like us. Except that Oliver was in love with my wife.
Oliver texted Elaine to make plans. Made the excuse –although it was true– that I never responded in time. Always arranged things so that she was across from him at the table instead of me. His hugs lasted a little too long, he gathered her too close to his body for my comfort, his hands too low on her waist. His eyes lit up when she walked into the room, the way they do when you’re in love with someone. Elaine always told me I was making a mountain from a molehill. My wife was either lying to spare my feelings or truly was oblivious.
So that night, as usual, I found myself across from Genevieve, while Oliver and Elaine talked and laughed about everything and nothing at all. Her hand touched his when he made a particularly funny remark. He refilled her wineglass as soon as she had set it down, drained. Once, I tried to interject a comment into their conversation but quickly became the brunt of one of Oliver’s jokes. I laughed wryly, intending to be a good sport, but from then on kept out of it. I turned my eyes toward Genevieve as she lifted one corner of her mouth in a sad, half-smile.
She drew a deep breath and asked me about work. I absently remarked that all was well, nothing new or interesting going on and what about her work? Fine, fine, she had said. Silence descended on our half of the table. We concentrated on our food. I watched Genevieve watching them, trying to be inconspicuous.
Genevieve was so different from my wife, Elaine. Perhaps that was what attracted Oliver. Genevieve was quiet and bookish while Elaine was vivacious and outgoing. It was what had drawn me to her myself. Elaine’s dark eyes perpetually sparkled with good humor, whereas Genevieve’s were thoughtful, sometimes faraway and dreamy. I found myself unable to pull my gaze away from those blue pools. Her suffering floated just below the surface.
Genevieve made small cuts into her steak and pushed all the bits to one side of her plate. I’m not sure she had taken one bite yet. The silence between us became awkward.
“What are you reading these days, Gen?” I asked.
She looked up from her cutting, slowly. “Do you really want to know?”
I nodded. “I do.”
She placed her fork and knife on the edge of the plate –a delaying tactic– before answering. She mentioned a book by an author I’d never heard of.
I nodded again. “Ah. Are you enjoying it?”
“As much as anyone can ‘enjoy’ a book about infectious disease and poverty,” she replied.
My cheeks heated. “Ah,” I said again, feeling foolish.
She went back to dissecting her steak into small bites. Elaine and Oliver were oblivious. I stared at my own steak, appetite gone. I said, “I’m trying to read ‘Great Expectations.'”
“On audiobook while I run. It’s the only way I can get through some of the classics.”
Now I had her attention. Her entire demeanor changed. She asked, “What do you think of it, so far? What else have you read?”
I smiled and began telling her about it. As I talked, she began placing the small bites into her expressive mouth and carefully chewing and swallowing. I loved watching her jaw muscles clench and unclench with each bite, her lips press together and the flash of white teeth as she opened for another morsel. I found myself dragging out my monologue just so I could keep watching her eat. But finally when I had no more to say, I shrugged and took a bite of my own. With a sideways glance toward our spouses –still laughing at some private joke– and a smile that didn’t reach her eyes, she said, “Thank you.”
I reached across the table and laid my hand over hers. She studied me soberly then slowly maneuvered her hand beneath mine until our fingers intertwined. I let my thumb slowly caress hers and I said, “No Gen, thank you.”
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