A couple of greasy girls with scalded complexions eyed me from behind the counter at Panera's first with impatience and suspicion then gradually dawning pity and mild embarrassment.
I hung back, not even pretending to read the menu boards or do more than glance at the baked goods piled on plates and scattered like glutinous treasure, waiting to be bought up and devoured.
None of it appealed to me. I had no appetite, hadn’t eaten since lunch and dinner just never happened. I couldn’t eat, didn’t want to eat. My stomach felt like it was packed with steel wool.
Standing a little too close to the door, I looked out of place. The outfit, while very natural, seemed a bit contrived for the location: A Captain America t-shirt and a second hand sports coat. This was my best t-shirt and my best second hand sports coat, but I worried that the bulls-eye star logo on the shirt didn't somehow make me look, just a little, like one of the Star belly Sneeches.
While assembling this dubious fashion concoction, I'd also slipped on a pair of motorcycle boots. I do not ride a motorcycle, but I own the boots, which made me feel exactly two inches more confident.
I'd thought it all out; what I was wearing, at least. I hadn't actually been on a date in almost a decade and this, for all intents and purposes, was what this was: my first date.
I wanted to put my best foot forward. The shirt was my best because it looked the best on me. It clung to my torso in a way I thought didn't look too shabby for a guy who only got the gym about half the time. The jacket, of course, negated the effect, but at least the boots were cool.
The point was to look different, but comfortable. I wanted to stand out and that seemed to be working in spades.
The girl in question, my date, was late --late or maybe not coming at all. The girls selling bread and soup on the other side of the register seemed to have picked up on that. I was no longer a potential customer. I was some light entertainment.
They might have wondered how this would play out? Would I just order something, perhaps the richest, sweetest thing on the menu, grab a seat and pretend, just pretend, everything was fine? Maybe I’d get coffee, find a corner and stare darkly at the door until the joint closed down.
Did my presumed date even exist? What kind of a lunatic did they have on their hands?
I considered some of the same questions and decided I'd probably just wander off in the direction of the parking lot, disappear and never step foot inside the restaurant again.
There was booze at the house. I could take up smoking. Rejection didn't need to be lethal.
I'd offered up Panera because I was looking for safe, neutral ground. I wanted a place where we could sit without the music blaring or without the distraction of a movie. I’d offered dinner, but she’d seemed hesitant: too much and she knew just enough to go running, screaming in the other direction.
I told her I’d been married, that the marriage had abruptly ended in the middle of the summer and that the legal parts of it were being slowly resolved.
She was kind about the whole thing and that was what drew me to her. I needed kindness.
A few weeks before, my grandmother had passed away. It wasn't exactly a surprise, but it was a shock and I came home from Michigan a little battered from the experience. My date had been part of a tiny minority who'd reached out, whose response wasn't the usual two-dollar card signed by the entire office. It didn't feel like a knee-jerk reaction.
Still, I kept my expectations modest: an opportunity to test the waters maybe, the chance to feel what it was like to sit across the table from someone new. If I was lucky some conversation and a few easy laughs. Just a couple of hot chocolates at a chain bakery.
Safe. Public. Unpretentious.
She bustled in almost half an hour late, wearing a jacket that I'm not entirely sure was black and a thin scarf carefully wound around her neck. I don’t know what else, including the jacket. I never looked down past the scarf.
She was beautiful, even more so than I remembered.
She apologized for being late. I didn’t care. It didn't matter.
We ordered a couple of drinks and took seats across from each other at a small table. We talked.
She apologized for being soft-spoken, but we never stopped talking, not even when she discovered her hot chocolate didn't taste very good. I hadn't noticed it tasted like anything at all. Neither of us had more than a sip.
Talking felt easy. We joked back and forth. She told me about her job. I told her about mine and what I did with the Cancer society. She told me she was one kind of geek. I told her I was another. Finally, she worked up to asking me how old I was.
“I’m 24,” she said. “Almost 25.”
Swallowing hard, I blurted out I was 41.
It surprised her a little, but not as much as she expected, I think. The comic book t-shirt might have worked in my favor maybe.
We chatted and laughed on and on until it became apparent that the crew running the restaurant would like to go home now, please. I walked her to her car.
In the parking lot, I thought, well this is still early. We could go somewhere, but I couldn’t think of anywhere, not anywhere just to talk. Inviting her home seemed incredibly stupid and besides, I wasn’t ready for that. So we said good night.
On the drive home, I laughed and made lists of places I wanted to take her. On her drive, she texted a friend, telling her she didn’t think I was that interested. I hadn't asked for a phone number.