It was late Friday afternoon when Carmen called. I had pulled a couple of shifts at my bookstore because Angie wanted a day off, and I was tired, but Carmen insisted. She had something she just had to talk about. And of course, that meant she wanted to meet me for a drink. But it likely also meant she had found me a date and wanted to sneak him into my life on the sly so I wouldn’t say “no.” I was on to her scheme but I decided to play along anyway. Best friends can be uplifting when you’re in the dumps – where I’d spent the better part of a week.
We agreed to meet at the Onion on Riverside “around 6ish.” Everything was “ish” with Carmen. Fun-ish, peck-ish, sad-ish… nothing could be straightforward with her. Except our friendship. She’d stuck with me through the thin times over the years and now that my life had gone flush with the inheritance, the last thing I wanted to do was stint on our relationship. She deserved my time, even if I did have to fend off her hopeful attempts at mating rituals.
It was nice out, so I decided to walk down from the condo. A few blocks in the cool evening air would go a long way toward picking up my spirits. And besides, it would help me work up an appetite for dinner. I changed into a relaxed-but-not-frumpy outfit and added running shoes. “So much for sneaking me into a relationship,” I chuckled. No guy was going to like this getup. I put down a bowl of cat food for Spider, my Siamese cat, grabbed an old green cardigan hanging near the door, and headed out.
The walk was refreshing. At a slow pace, I made it to the Onion Bar and Grill in under twenty minutes. Since it wasn’t “6ish” yet, I found myself a stool at the bar and ordered a shot of white tequila with lime and salt. This was my favorite drink; simple and straight to the point. It also never resulted in a headache or illness the next morning. I’d been known to down ten of these babies with no apparent ill effect, unless my liver was upset and not talking about it. As for other types of alcohol, forget it. They all made me sick and it was not fun getting there, either. Why bother? I took small sips of the tequila instead of dumping it in one go, and waited… and waited… and waited some more.
Then it was after 6:30 and Carmen had not arrived. That was unlike her. She usually showed up close to our arranged time. It was one of the things I liked most about her. I glanced around the bar quickly and ordered another shot. I might as well enjoy myself while I waited. As I scanned the bar, I tried to review the faces of my fellow drinkers without giving anyone the wrong idea. That was pretty easy since most of these guys looked like drunks or philandering husbands or too young to be of any interest to a woman my age. Ha! My age. It hadn’t been that long since I’d turned 30, I told myself. Then I realized it had been seven, no, eight years ago that I’d endured my 30th birthday party. You guessed it… Carmen surprised me with a few honeymoon possibles and a smattering of other women to help hide her intentions. Now I was a few more years down the road, still sitting alone in the bar.
My attention was drawn to the front door, my stomach did a flip and my breath caught as a gorgeous man walked in and stood near the entrance. He was wearing a raincoat over what appeared to be a nice suit. He had a dark complexion, was of medium height and clean-shaven, and carried himself with confidence. He was a spitting image of a British actor I’d seen in several movies and TV shows over the last couple of years, in which he’s played both bad guys and good guys equally well, although it is his bad-guy roles that caught my attention. I should feel creepy about that, right? My favorite part was when he played Mark Anthony on an adults-only TV series. And now, he is playing this serial killer madman who is the leader of a dangerous cult. It’s a little over the top for my taste, so I’ve missed most episodes. Maybe I just don’t want to confront my dark side.
As I watched him while trying to hide behind my shot glass, his eyes shifted from side to side as he took in the surroundings, then he began to move toward the bar. Maybe he’s… Nah, this couldn’t be my blind date from Carmen. She’d never think of someone like this. She had a thing for wrestlers and bodybuilders. Why she thought I would share that interest I’ll never understand.
Mark Anthony took a seat at the other end of the bar, glanced around, looked at me and smiled. Every couple of minutes, I’d sneak a peek at him and frequently he was looking right at me, forcing me do look down quickly. After a few minutes of this cat and mouse game, he got up from his seat and walked straight toward me. “Mind if I join you?” he asked. He nodded at the empty stool next to me.
“Uh, no, I mean yes, uh, not at all.” I can’t believe I stammered. I felt like a school girl. Very unlike me. Who is this guy?
He slid onto the stool and leaned both arms on the bar in front of him. He glanced toward the bartender who started toward us. “What are you drinking?” he asked me quietly, over his shoulder.
“Oh, tequila. I only drink tequila. White. Not gold. I don’t like gold.” Lena, shut the hell up!
“Nice” he said to me. He smiled with half his mouth, leaned in a little, eyes gleaming. “Clean, straightforward, no pretense.”
Yikes! Was he reading my mind?
To the bartender he said “Two shots of tequila, white, with, uh…” (he turned to look at me again) “lime and salt?” I nodded and he smiled at the bartender. “That’s it.”
He sighed quietly and turned on his stool until he was facing me. “Hi, I’m Mark.” Of course you are. “And you are?” He extended his hand.
I toyed with the idea of saying Cleopatra, but sanity reigned. I took his hand in mine and said, “Lena, Lena Arnold.”
“Hmmm. Lena. Short for Leanne or Lennae?” That smile again.
“Not short at all. Just Lena.” I waited for him to offer a last name but he resumed talking.
“So, are you here alone? Meeting anyone by chance?”
“Uh, just my girlfriend. She’s running a little late it seems. And you?”
He looked back at his shot glass which was now empty. When had he drunk that? I didn’t see him down his shot. He nodded to the bartender who came with a bottle and refilled his glass. He turned back to me. “Well, I thought I was meeting someone here, but she appears to have stood me up. Women can do that sometimes. Are you hungry?”
“Sure, I mean, maybe I should wait to see if Carmen shows up. She’s only an hour late.” We both started laughing.
“Dinner it is, then, right? How about here? Do they offer good food?” he asked, apparently assuming I knew the place. And I realized he must not have been to the Onion before, or he’d likely know about the food.
“They sure do. The steak is marvelous and fish and chips is my favorite item on the menu.”
“Ah, fish and chips and tequila. Can’t beat that.”
We got the attention of a waitress who showed us to a table near the back. After ordering, there was an awkward silence, broken when Mark leaned back against the booth, took a sip of his tequila and sighed. “It’s funny how things can happen to surprise you. I mean, you can start out the day knowing exactly where you’re going and what you’re going to do. Then something happens and the whole day changes. Do you ever have days like that, Lena?”
“You mean like today, for instance? No, I never have days like today. I always know when I’m going to meet a handsome stranger and end the evening with a great dinner and conversation. Nothing ever surprises me.” I glanced up at Mark who looked like he was taking me seriously. I smiled and he grinned. Shivers. Yup, definitely Mark Anthony.
“Oh, I get it. You’re some kind of fem fatale, right?”
“Exactly!” We both started laughing again. “Seriously, though. My life is pretty normal. Nothing to write a movie about. Until recently I had to struggle to pay my bills, then my grandfather died and left me some money.” I glanced up to see if he was listening – he was. “I decided to follow one of my dreams by purchasing a small book store downtown and got a condo so I was close by in case of emergencies. That was a year ago and I’m really happy.” This time, when I looked at him, I noticed his brow was furrowed and he had turned serious.
“Hmmm. Happy, huh? Well, I’m glad to hear it. You seem like the kind of person who deserves happiness. Do you have any more dreams to follow?”
“Well, probably, I mean, sure, hasn’t everyone? I just haven’t had much time to think beyond getting the store going smoothly. It’s small but it’s still a responsibility.” I decided it was time to change the subject. “So, what about you? Any dreams you’re pursuing?”
“Yes and no. I’ve had a pretty active life and lots of chances to fulfill most of my dreams. I did have one when I came in here tonight, but it seems to have moved to the background for some reason.” He looked into my eyes and smiled faintly. “Like I said. Sometimes you know where the day’s headed but it takes a sharp turn in another direction.”
Our food arrived and we began to nibble away at the fish. I noted that he liked to dip his French fries in tartar sauce like me. That earned him more brownie points. For the remainder of our meal, we made small talk. When we were done, he offered to walk me back to the condo and, uncharacteristically, I took him up on the offer. Normally there’s no way I’d allow a stranger to see where I lived. But Mark seemed trustworthy somehow. Then again, so are some serial killers, so I was not yet totally unwary.
We arrived at my building and rode the elevator up to the third floor. At my door, Mark put an arm up above his head, against the door jam and leaned in a little, watching me as I looked for my keys. His suit jacket and coat were both unbuttoned and although he was fully clothed, seeing his shirt and chest so close seemed a little bit intimate. I could feel my face getting redder as I fumbled around in the stuff in my pockets. Finally, keys in hand, I sighed and looked up at him with a questioning gaze. “Um, can I offer you a nightcap?” I asked tentatively. What on earth am I doing, I thought? I just met this guy!
“That does sound tempting,” he answered in a near whisper, leaning closer to me. Flames leaped in my body. I could smell a light aftershave surrounding him and it made me light-headed. “Unfortunately, I have to get up at 5:00 a.m. to catch a flight for an out-of-town job I have to take care of.” He stood straight again, pulled a card from his coat pocket, and handed it to me. I glanced but all it said was “Mark Eliott” and gave a phone number to call. “In case you need to get in touch,” he added.
Rifling through my sweater pockets, I found a card from the bookstore and handed it to him. “Here’s mine, too, uh, in case you want to get in touch before I do.” Oh, brother. Keep it up, Lena.
Mark looked at me with that quizzical brow and light smile, then leaned in and gave me a quick peck on the cheek. I didn’t move, although my legs had gone weak and I knew I was shaking. He hesitated for a couple of seconds as though he had something else to say, then winked, turned away and walked down the hall.
As I watched him go, there were so many things I wanted to know about him. Yet an even more immediate question played itself over in my mind: “What had happened to Carmen?” I was dying to tell her about Mark. My stomach flipped again when I thought of introducing him to my best friend.
I entered my apartment, took off my old ratty cardigan and suddenly realized how I was dressed. “Oh, my god. What I must have looked like to him.” Spider approached from the bedroom and rubbed against my leg. “Merow,” he complained. “Oh, Spider. What have I done?” I bent to pick him up and hold him to my chest, head resting under my chin. I suddenly felt so lonely. Mark had walked into my life in an instant, it seemed, and just as quickly, he was gone. Rather than the beginning of a long relationship, it was more likely I’d never see him again.
Before long, the worst would be confirmed, but I didn’t know that yet, and for at least one night, I was going to dream of a beautiful future.