Sweet Jesus, how long is this guy going to keep talking?
I refer to the text of this story, but it just says “They chatted through dinner.” It doesn’t say whether I am supposed to laugh at his offensive jokes or even whether I find him attractive. I don’t find him attractive. He’s quite a few years older than me, although with his toad-like build and complexion, he could be much younger and just aging badly. I find the bartender, a man in his mid-30s with short hair razor-parted on the side, the sleeves of his white button-down shirt rolled up to his elbows, much more attractive, but in this flashback the text doesn’t mention him at all, so I can barely even look his way.
But The Toad is still croaking on about sales or projections or something business-sounding. This is a business dinner after all, even though it’s just the two of us. His bulging eyes swivel up and down, taking in my body dressed in the skirt and blouse I wore to a job I can’t remember doing. I just know that it’s in the text. I am here for work. What do I do? He’s talking about sales. Does he buy from me? Do I buy from him? Do we work for the same company?
I order another drink hoping it’ll give me another glimpse of the bartender, but instead I get to look at our waiter, a thin, well-groomed person with a very low, quiet voice. His skin is pale olive, his clothes dark, his whole presence blends in with the dark woods and understated lighting of the place.
We’ve finished dinner, although I can’t remember what I just ate. The text doesn’t say what it was, and I can’t taste anything on my tongue but Scotch. Now The Toad is leaning in, his burbling becoming lower and growlier. His eyebrows waggle at the end of most of his sentences, and he jerks his head to indicate something behind him and grunts. I have to refer to the text to realize that he wants to know if I want to have sex with him in the bathroom of the restaurant. No. No I do not want to have sex with you at all, let alone in the bathroom of what I realize is a hotel restaurant. You want to do me, but you don’t even want to take me all the way up to your room?
But the text says I acquiesce. Why? This man has nothing to recommend him. He’s not kind or interesting; he’s not funny or generous; he’s certainly not good-looking. But it’s there in the text, and I get up and make my way toward the ladies’ room. He waits in his seat as I walk away in an attempt to disguise his intentions, but before I can choose a stall and walk in, he’s coming in behind me.
He steers me toward the handicapped stall. Good choice, as his bulk would make one of the narrower stalls difficult for two to negotiate. He pushes me toward the wall with one hand while the other hand locks the stall door. Then both of them rub over my breasts, my ribcage, my hips. He’s breathing hard already, and I wonder if he might have a heart attack in the middle of things. One hand lets go, and I hear the sound of him fumbling with his clothes, his zipper coming down. He hikes up my skirt, and as he unwraps me, I’m grateful that he doesn’t feel the need to kiss me. I’m indifferent to what he’s doing now, but I don’t think I could tolerate his rubbery-lipped kisses.
As he goes about his grunting business, I consult the text to see that I am supposed to be thinking about my ex-husband, who was a much better lover. Who wouldn’t be, compared to this guy? Sadly, a colleague of my husband’s also thought him a better lover and decided that their relationship should extend outside of work hours. But did I leave him for cheating on me, or did he leave me for her? The text doesn’t say. It just says I miss him, not that I’m sad or angry or hurt. Who wrote this? I have no clear motivation for anything.
The Toad is done, and now he’s leaning against my back, heaving his own Scotch-scented breath into my ear, telling me that he’ll certainly be adding a little extra to his order this time. Okay, cleared that relationship up. I hope he’s ordering something really expensive. I’d hate to think I had sex with an amphibian for a few extra bags of potato chips or cases of paper towels.
I don’t turn around until I hear the splash of water in the sink where The Toad at least has the class to wash up before leaving. I re-dress myself. My purse fell to the floor as we came in, and I pick it up, balancing it on the handrail as I paw through it for a room key. It’s there in my wallet, but damn these modern plastic keycards, there’s nothing on it telling me what room I’m in. I look through the text, but this flashback is really short. There’s not even a scene where I arrive at the hotel, let alone any indication of what room I’m in. I’ll have to find my ID and ask the clerk what room I’m in. Have I done that before? Was it embarrassing?
Once in room 516, I want to scrub my entire body with lye and rinse it with boiling water. No wonder The Toad didn’t invite me to his room – I’m the out-of-towner here, and he’s probably married. I check the text. Yup. Married. Two tadpoles. I would feel guilty if I had wanted to sleep with him, but since I didn’t, I feel every bit as much a victim as Mrs. Toad. I peek ahead in the story, but if he gets some kind of comeuppance I can’t find it.
After my shower, I lay down to sleep wondering what day it’ll be when I wake up.
When I wake up, it’s two months later, and I’m pregnant. In one of those stomach-lurching flashbacks (the sensation is like riding a mega-rollercoaster blindfolded and backward) I see that The Toad wasn’t the only man I let console me in my heartsickness (What the hell? Who even talks like that?). There was also a weasel, a rat, and a couple of puppy dogs. No other description, nothing. I can’t force a mental picture of anyone but The Toad, and I pray for the baby’s sake that it wasn’t him.
All I can think is that I want to get to the nearest clinic and take the first abortion appointment available, but the text says that I’m agonizing over which of my lovers is the father. No hint of planning, no indication of wondering how this will affect my life apart from which unsatisfactory sexual encounter I will be contacting with The Big News. This isn’t fair! I’m not that shallow! The hunky bartender flits through my mind, and I hope for a second that he’s one of the puppy dogs. But, if my text has told me anything, it’s that I’m neither that lucky nor that discerning.
Following the text, I wander the street instead of going to work. Just as well because I have no idea where my office is or what I do. While the part of my mind that’s controlled by the text thinks about my financial situation and whether I can afford to have a child and raise it on my own, the rest of me (that is to say, the majority of my consciousness, since realizing that I don’t know how much I make or how much it would take to raise a baby takes about five seconds) thinks about what I wish I were doing with my life. I have no idea what my background or education are, but I’m apparently middle-class, I live alone in an apartment in a commuter suburb of a large city, and I’m at least attractive enough to get married once and get laid a lot. What about the other things I should know about myself?What’s my favorite movie? What kind of music do I like? Do I read? When’s the last time I went to the dentist? I have this urge to get into my car and drive out into the country and think my situation over, but I don’t even know if I own a car. It’s never been mentioned. The church bell rings noon, startling me out of my thoughts.
The text says that now I’m supposed to have lunch at an outdoor café where I’ll coincidentally meet up with one of the men I slept with, but it doesn’t say which one. Is that squidgy feeling in the pit of my stomach curiosity or anxiety? Whatever it is, it’s ruined my appetite. I want to go back to my apartment and maybe take a hot bath. Are you allowed to take hot baths when you’re pregnant? Should I even be worrying about it yet? I turn around and walk back the way I came, but when I get to the end of the block, I realize that I must have taken a wrong turn. I’m on the street with the café, a block past my street. I turn around and walk back the other way, but again, when I cross the street, I’m on the block with the café. I walk past it looking inside to see if anyone there stirs a glimmer of recognition, but I can’t see a single face. This time when I get to the corner, I turn left, but there’s the café, its striped awning waving a gentle greeting. I start to jog, going past it again and taking the next right. Same street. I take the next three rights at a dead run, circumnavigating a block that is the same street on every side. I have a stitch in my side and my feet are starting to hurt. Maybe I can wait out the whole lunch confrontation if I just stand here. I check my watch, but it seems to have stopped at 12:03. Please, please let it be my watch that stopped.
I look at the clock on the church, visible above the building across the street, and it agrees with my traitorous watch that it’s only 12:03. Feeling conspired against, I take a deep breath and head for the café. It could be my imagination, but I swear that that waiter who greets me gives me an annoyed look as he leads me to a table under a large umbrella. I’m not going to order anything. I’m just going to sit here, not making eye contact with anyone or anything, until I can leave.
Unbidden, the waiter brings me iced tea and plate with a sandwich on wheat bread and a perfectly round scoop of potato salad on a lettuce leaf.
“I didn’t order this,” I say, and he gives me a frosty smile and turns away.
I pull my wallet out of my purse. There’s no cash in it, but I have a few credit cards. Is there any room on them? Are these company credit cards? Is my credit good? I lift a slice of bread to see a heap of cold roast beef, blood and fat congealed in a pink frosting along the edges of each slice. The tang of horseradish hits my nose, and I gag. Morning sickness. The potato salad looks too perfect on its shiny, waxy-looking lettuce leaf, and I’m seized with the notion that it’s plastic and I wouldn’t be able to eat it even if I wanted to. This whole world is fake – dictated by whoever wrote this story. Nothing is real, and nothing we do matters because we don’t do it of our own free will. The notion depresses me more than it angers me, but because the text doesn’t call for it, I can’t cry.
A shadow passes over me, the chair across from me scrapes the sidewalk and I hear a voice say “Excuse me.” I look up. Taking a seat across from me is a man I’ve never seen before, but I know that he’s one of my former lovers because he can’t be anyone else. He’s in his early 40s maybe. His hair is mostly brown with a little gray at the temples. His skin gives equal time to acne scars and wrinkles, but his eyes look kind, and he’s smiling. He’s wearing clean jeans, a button-down shirt open at the neck, the kind of loafers with square toes that look like shovels. No ring. Not a great outfit, but at least it looks like he made an effort.
“Hi,” I say as he flags down a waiter.
“You’re not at work today?” he asks, his eyebrows raised in what looks like concern.
“No, I had some things to do so I took a personal day. How about you?”
“I had a few sales calls to make in the area, and I thought I’d take a break for lunch.”
I’m guessing that we work in the same office, that our fling was a one-time thing but that we didn’t leave out the possibility of more later, that he’s divorced or widowed, but not too recently. He gives the waiter his order, and I swear the waiter gives him some sort of silent signal about me, because once the waiter is gone, he leans across the table and takes my hand.
All credit to this guy, he does look like he genuinely cares. Does that mean that he’s actually a good person, or that he’s just better written than the others?
“I got some news today, and I’m trying to make sense of it.”
“Nothing bad, I hope.”
“I don’t know. It’ll have a big impact on my life, though.”
He strokes the back of my hand, a gesture more comforting than romantic. “You’re not sick, are you?”
I want to tell him, but I can’t think of how to frame the problem in a way that doesn’t sound like I’m crazy. I just became aware that I’m fictional, and the knowledge is tearing me apart. That’s partly true, but not exactly. I’m fictional and so are you, but I have just realized that the person I really am and the person I was written to be are different. There’s no way that uttering that sentence out loud will end well. At least, not for me. But the reason I can’t speak isn’t because it’ll land me in a hospital dribbling applesauce down my front. It’s because that’s not what the text has me saying, and no matter how badly I want to tell the truth about what I’m thinking, I can’t make the words pass my lips.
“No, I’m not sick. Not exactly.” I realize that my chin is still tilted down, and I’m looking up at him from under my lashes. You know. One of those Significant Looks.
“Is this something to do with that what happened at that offsite? I mean…” and his index finger wavers between the two of us, as if I might not get what he means without the visual aid. I nod my head, a coy smile on my lips despite my utter disgust for the way this whole scene is playing out.
His food conveniently arrives, covering his consternation. It’s clear that he’s trying to work something out. I consult the text, and my stomach lurches. He and his wife split up because she really wanted kids and he was left infertile by a case of mumps during college. Shit.
I excuse myself to go to the ladies’ room. There’s nothing in the text that says I can’t do that as long as I come back, because Loverboy and I aren’t through yet. Why are restaurant bathrooms always down some dingy, ill-lit corridor? Before I get to the door, the waiter appears from behind a stack of boxes that have no other purpose in this restaurant.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he hisses.
I look around, like maybe he’s talking to someone else. Like who else? There’s not a single patron of this restaurant who would use the restroom except you. They probably don’t have bodily functions.
“Using the restroom.”
“Don’t play coy. Listen, are you trying to screw this up on purpose, or are you just stupid?”
My mind is scrambling for purchase on this one. I honestly have nothing to work with. It’s like one of those nightmares where you’ve showed up for the final exam at a class you’ve never attended. I realize that my mouth is opening and closing like a fish’s.
“That’s what I thought. You’re a moron. Look, you’re going to go back out there, and you’re going to say your damn lines, and you’re not going to fuck it up, got that?”
“Wait, you know that this isn’t real?” I grab the waiter’s apron in both my hands, and he removes them with a disgusted look on his face.
“Who let you in here, and couldn’t they get someone a little less stupid? I mean, I know it’s your character, but come on!” he says to the air.
“But what about you? How do you know all this?”
He backs up and looks at me, one eyebrow raised. “Did you not read the text?”
“I read the bits I needed to read.”
“Oh, yeah. I’m sure you read all the bits about you. But did it occur to you that there just aren’t that many of them?”
My stomach lurches again. Darned morning sickness!
“I don’t think I understand what you’re saying.”
“Of course you don’t. Characters like you are all alike.”
“Characters like you”? What is he saying? My head is swimming, although that could be a pregnancy thing too.
“I think I’m going to faint.”
The waiter rears back and slaps me in the face hard enough to make flashbulbs explode all around me.
“You’re not going to faint! You’re not even pregnant! For Christ’s sake, pull yourself together. He’s out there, wondering what the hell is taking you so long. Get out there, say your lines, and quit trying to get above yourself!”
I totter out of the corridor on unsteady legs, unsure of what’s just happened. My reality has been challenged several times in quick succession, and it’s a level of disorienting that I would associate with training for missions in space. I sit down at the table again, and Loverboy looks at me, his mind apparently made up.
“Sure.” Can he not see the rapidly-purpling handprint on the side of my face?
“Good, because if you’re saying what I think you’re saying, then I’m the luckiest man in the world! My first wife left me because the doctor said I couldn’t give her children, but this is a miracle! You’ve made my dreams come true.”
Oh God is he going to cry in this restaurant? I want to roll my eyes, but instead, tears well up. My vision swims as he gets out of his chair and gets down on one knee.
“I know we’ve only known each other for a short time, but, considering the circumstances, I think this is a clear sign that we’re meant to be together. Will you marry me?”
The waiters all appear out of nowhere, surrounding us and applauding. The guy who slapped me is clapping hard, but not smiling. Customers I hadn’t seen before turn in their seats and beam at us, adding their approval to the scene.
“Yes!” It pops out of my mouth before I even know what I’m saying. He springs up and kisses me, then throws his arms around me and pulls me close to him. The crowd goes wild.
“You go home and put your feet up. I’m heading back into the office to tell them the big news!” He takes both of my hands and pulls me close to him, kissing me on the nose. If I had to end up with someone, I could do a lot worse.
He heads back to his car, and I turn toward my apartment. I’m at the corner when he drives past, blowing kisses out the car window. I wave as I step off the curb into the path of an oncoming truck.
I can feel each one of my bones breaking, my internal organs rupturing, and finally, my skull cracking and splintering into my brain. My last conscious thought seems to echo for an impossibly long time.
This story isn’t about me.
Lise Quintana is a former editor for Lunch Ticket magazine and head of Zoetic Press. Her work can be found in Red Fez, Extract(s), Children Churches & Daddies, and upcoming in SLAB. You can see more at www.lisequintana.com.