by Brian T. Marshall
Rule number one: let her pick the place. That way she’ll feel in control.
Tonight that place is The Righteous Path, a “plant-based bistro” in the meatpacking district that he’s already checked out on Yelp. Generally speaking, the name alone should’ve been a deal-breaker. Women who view their choice of dining options as a political act, who telegraph in advance that they can be picky or demanding, aren’t worth the time of day. And vegetarians? C’mon. If you really can’t stomach the thought of flesh, refuse to embrace the carnal, why bother with a date in the first place.
But then there’d been the mixed messages. A touch of coy innuendo, sprinkled throughout her profile. That photo, with its scarlet blouse, one button eager to pop. She was obviously issuing the world a challenge, take me if you can, and so this, their first encounter, would be an opportunity to discuss the terms of combat. A little thrust and feint. To appear open, interested, but not too interested.
He gets there ten minutes early, another trick he’s learned. Because even if she shows up right on time, the fact that he was already waiting would insinuate that she’d been late, which would in turn trigger at least a hair of self-recrimination. As for the downside, the suggestion that an early arrival might indicate a bit of over-eagerness on his part, he was willing to take that risk. If need be, he could always manage some maneuver—an urgent call he had to make, or a yawn, half-stifled—that would restore the balance of power.
He studies the menu. Sips at his water. An occasional glance towards the door. And then, just like that, she’s suddenly there, as if conjured from thin air.
He’s on his feet in an instant. Always look down, not up.
“You must be Karen.”
In a way of reply, she holds up a finger, telling him to hold on. Then pulls out her phone and starts texting a message, thumbs pecking away like birds.
A second later his own phone is humming. A throb he can’t ignore. Retrieving it from his pocket, he stares down at the screen.
Hey don guess who cant talk? laryngitis some luck, right?
He glances up, finding her face. Falls headfirst into her smile. She looks even better than her picture online, which never, ever happens.
Already her thumbs are back at it. An addendum to her first text.
thought about cancelling we still could balls in your court I guess.
For a moment he balks, sensing uncharted waters. A place where the rules don’t apply. Then, with a shrug, he nods towards the table, hand resting on his chair.
“Well, at least we won’t have to worry about you talking my ear off.”
And there it is again, that smile. One that could be with you, could be at you, but the point is you’ll take either one. And then there’s the rest of the package. The dark, tousled hair that flirts with her shoulders. The eyes that sparkle back. The curves, the contours waiting there, hidden beneath her silk jacket. If words are no longer an option, he can always just stare instead.
Sitting down, they resort to their menus. A silence falls into place. Only now does he get it, they can’t converse, not as long as her hands are full.
“So I don’t know what’s more impressive. You showing up like this, not chickening out, or being able to spell laryngitis.”
Taking the hint, she sets down her menu. Picks up her phone again.
diphtheria spinal meningitis hypo cardiomyopathy
“Wow. Now I’m really impressed.”
The waitress returns. He glances towards Karen. She gives him a small nod back. He supposes the way this is going to work, she’ll text him her order, and then she, the waitress, can read it off his screen. Only instead, ignoring her phone, Karen turns to the woman standing there, and all at once her fingers start flying. More birds, this time given wings.
He watches, mouth open, as the woman signs back. The pair of them yammer away. Finally, Karen nods towards him, and the woman begins to speak.
“She wants me to tell you she’s done with her order. What can I get you?”
It takes him a second to recalibrate. To find the voice he’s lost. “Uh, I’ll take the dahl. Please. And, uh, a glass of the Sancerre.”
Menus in hand, she disappears. He turns his gaze back towards his date.
“So what was all that about?”
Shrugging, she picks up her phone.
the staff here all speak american sign how come you think i picked this place?
“Because you don’t eat meat?” he hazards.
of course I eat meat silly
Already she’s back, their signing waitress, bearing two glasses of wine. A pale, washed-out gold for him, an opulent red for her. He’s still off-balance, not quite in the game, and she’s the first to raise her glass. A second later he toasts it with his, a soft chime like muted bells.
“To confusion,” he suggests, smiling.
Of course she smiles back.
“So you know you still haven’t explained it, why you speak sign, that is.”
She takes a small sip. Sets down her glass. Retrieves her phone from the table.
comes in handy when youre mute
Maybe if he glares long enough, her message will start to make sense. “I thought you said … no, wait, I thought you wrote that you had laryngitis.”
deaf mutes get laryngitis too
It’s the same smile, but not the same smile. A lot more at, less with.
“A deaf mute” he says, tasting the words. “You’d think that if someone were preparing a profile, that detail might get mentioned. And what about the reviews for this place? I scrolled through at least ten or twelve of them, and everyone talked about the food, or the service, or how clean the bathrooms were, but not one word about their talented wait staff. Seems a bit odd, doesn’t it?”
Another sip of wine for her. He hasn’t touched his yet.
a lot of us hide things we dont want people to know
He nods back. “Apparently so.”
Next up it’s a basket of warm bread. A ramekin of whipped butter. Their waitress throws out a quick sign to Karen, but seems to ignore him completely. Reaching out, he snags some bread, decides to pass on the butter, but before he can manage so much as a bite, his phone begins to sound.
He picks it up. Scans the screen.
what r u hiding don?
Voices hushed, or flush with laughter. The chatter of silverware. Just for a second, every sound recedes, and all that’s left is silence. What would it be like if that same void was the one thing you’d ever known? Would it leave you angry, resentful, out to even the score?
“Hiding?” he finally replies. “Well, there is my heart. A fragile, broken thing. Or are you talking about all those bodies I’ve got buried down in the cellar?”
dont ask me ask cheryl
“And who, pray tell, is Cheryl?”
The way she studies his face just then. A cold, almost clinical stare. Then again, that probably happens, if all you can do is read lips.
or amy or carla or sue
Wait, wait, there had been a Karla. About a year or so back. A sad little thing, with no breasts to speak of, and blonde hair trimmed into bangs. Of course, she hadn’t made the cut, and of course, he’d called back to say so. Or then again, maybe he hadn’t.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t suppose you could’ve gotten that wrong? That it was with a ‘K’, not a ‘C’?
The woman, his date, one more name with a ‘K’, decides to revisit her wine. Now that the hook has been set, it seems, there’s no more need to rush.
Playing that same game, he samples his own. Discovers it tastes a bit off. Wonders if he should ask for a fresh glass when their waitress makes it back. And then, as if merely thinking the word had been some kind of summons, she’s suddenly there, plates in hand. She sets the first in front of Karen. What looks like a ribeye steak. Though, of course, it’s just some clever illusion, fashioned from tofu most likely. He’s still at it, admiring the deception, when she sets his plate down next. A circular sea of white porcelain with one lonely lentil dead center.
He’s still staring down, eyes disbelieving, when Karen starts signing again. Raises them up just as their waitress finds a cool monotone.
“As a man, you must have noticed. How we women like to talk.”
A few more words, shapes and gestures, ten digits set to dance.
“And when we do, the way we like to compare notes. Keep score. Sometimes scheme a bit.”
All at once, Karen stops signing. Picks up knife and fork instead. Begins to saw away at her dinner, eyes focused on her plate. In spite of himself, he stares as well, amazed at this counterfeit, the marbled beauty of what looks like real meat, at rest in a shallow pink pool. He’s so caught up in his study, in fact, that he doesn’t even see her. A second waitress, just to his left, picking up where the first had left off.
“And another thing you may have noticed. A funny taste in your wine.”
Now it’s a third woman, working her way towards them from the bar. This one younger, shorter, with a pristine white half-apron and neatly pressed black slacks.
She takes her place with the others. Nods down towards his glass.
“What you taste,” she suggests, “could be something. Something we put in there. Or, then again, it might just be a bad cork. In the end, completely harmless.”
With her arrival, the trap is sprung. He is, in effect, surrounded. The three who work there are still standing, arms crossed, forming a rough semicircle, while their putative leader, bait not date, remains seated across the table. By now the steak is all but devoured. Juice dribbles down Karen’s chin. The sound of her jaws, teeth rending flesh, is the only sound she makes.
“Think about that,” the first waitress intones, “as you lay awake tonight. Because I doubt you’ll be sleeping.”
Not quite sure what to do with his eyes, he studies his lone lentil. Realizes they’re probably right. He probably won’t sleep much.
With a sigh of satisfaction, Karen tosses the knife to her plate. A brittle sound like breaking glass, or a bone being snapped in two. She grabs her napkin. Wipes her chin. Takes her time standing up. Then leans over, taunting him now, breasts he’ll never touch.
Her breath, when it hits him, smells like death. The breath of a predator.
“Thanks for dinner,” he hears her whisper. “Next time it’ll be my treat.”
Brian T. Marshall was born in Southern California and graduated from UC Santa Cruz. He is currently Vice-President of the North State Writers. His latest novel, Choosing the Dark, was published last spring.