We arrived at our destination — a few customers away from the opening of the stand. I zeroed in on the menu, my eyes squinted, trying to make sense of the blurry mess that sat where the words should’ve been. A reminder to myself to refill my contacts prescription or at the very least, wear my glasses. I looked over at Room 3. He seemed to be a regular here and probably knew the menu like the back of his hand — but there was no way I was asking him to recite it to me. The last thing I wanted was to boost his ego any further.
I pulled out my phone hoping to find the restaurant’s website with a menu in scalable text but just as I pulled up the search engine, the group of customers in front of us received their orders and dispersed into the crowd, clearing the way for us. He offered to let me go first but I declined and instead, copied his order, which was unusually specific, but whatever — it was better than admitting I couldn’t read the menu.
Before I could grab my debit card though, he whipped his out and paid for everything — which is so not what I wanted to happen! This, paying for my food, is date behavior and this is NOT A DATE! I tried to get the cashier to reverse the charge so that I could pay for my own meal but it wasn’t possible, she said. I then offered, multiple times, to pay him back but he rejected them all. I’m pretty sure this was his plan, some kind of ploy to get back on my good side, but it didn’t work…
Okay… Maybe it did…
Just a little.
We grabbed our food and seated ourselves at a table in the small outdoor dining area near the stand. I was starving so I dived right into my plate of Chipotle Chicken burritos — that were just as delicious as he said they would be — but he put his lunch on hold and instead dived back into our conversation, right around where we left off, only this time, using a different tactic.
“I have a proposition for you,” he offered as if we were in the middle of a business deal or something.
I took another bite of my burrito before reluctantly returning it to my plate. “I’m listening.”
“You ask me three questions, whatever you want, then I get to ask you three.”
Three random questions? About whatever topic’s floating around that investigative mind of his? That’s definitely not happening, but three of my own questions? Sure… I guess… I mean, it beats the alternative of awkwardly eating in silence — even though we were dangerously close to veering into date territory.
I paused for a moment to create the illusion that I was thinking over the terms of his proposal before presenting my own. “Counter offer?”
He smiled at the sound of that. “What are your terms?”
“I ask you three questions and you get to ask me one.”
“That’s not even remotely fair,” he laughed, “but okay, shoot.”
My first question was a simple one — the first one that came to mind really.
“What’s your job? What do you do up there in Room 3?”
“Well, my official title is Staff Writer, but my department’s in the middle of restructuring,” he formed air quotes with his fingers, “so I’m covering health and food stories right now.”
A writer? I guess I could see that. I’ve met a few of them, over the years, and he does kinda give me that up-all-night-drinking-red-bulls-working-on-his-manuscript vibe and his drink of choice for this meal let’s me know my assumptions aren’t too far off — but health and food stories? That… I wouldn’t have guessed.
“Health and food stories?” I chuckled, “You mean like those weird articles that claim eating 30-year-old ostrich eggs can make you live longer?”
“Yeah,” he laughed, “something like that.”
“So do you write in your free time too or is it just a work thing?”
“I do…” he relaxed in his seat a little, “but I haven’t in a while… Haven’t been able to find the motivation.”
He fiddled with the napkin on the table as if this thing he was having trouble finding was hidden deep within its folds and his eyes, that were once on me, were now looking away — far away — like someone who was carefully treading a sensitive topic that he really didn’t want me poking at.
He wasn’t the only one capable of making observations especially with something so… familiar.
“I get that,” I sent a comforting smile his way, “I know how elusive motivation can be.”
“You do?” he sprang forward like the possibility of learning something about me had somehow reinvigorated him, “You’re a writer too?”
“No,” I laughed, “I’m a reader more than a writer, but it’s the same… with art and stuff.”
“So you’re an artist?” he raised an eyebrow.
“Uh-uh,” I shut down his sneaky attempt at getting a question in, “I’m the one asking questions, remember?”
“No, you’re done. You asked your three already.”
“What? How? I only asked you one question.”
“No, you asked three,” he held up his hand to count down these three alleged questions, “What I do, what I do in Room 3 and if I write in my free time. Three questions.”
“Noooo, the first was a question,” I defended my stance, “the others were… sub-questions.”
“Prefix or not, they’re still questions but if you want two of them back,” he flashed a mischievous smile, “I’m open to negotiations.”
I sighed. “What are your terms?”
“We reset your questions but mine goes up to three and I get to go first.”
“Fine,” I rolled my eyes, already regretting my decision.
To my surprise though, his first question wasn’t at all what I expected. I thought for sure it would’ve been the one from before, the one that set this whole game in motion, but he had moved on to something else, well… sort of.
“So you said you’re an artist—”
“That is not what I said,” I interrupted him.
“You implied it,” he dismissed my denial,” so art, is that what you did before you moved here?”
“Not really…” I shook my head, “I mean, I guess it depends on who you ask but it was web design… that’s what I did.”
“Web design?” he sat back in his chair, the expression on his face letting me know that my former profession was different than whatever he had presumed.
“You sound surprised.”
“I’m not,” he lied, “but I am guessing that you woke up one day and realized your true calling was in the mail and packaging industry?”
I laughed, partly at the absurdity of his question but also to mask my feelings about the answer to it. We didn’t know each other like that but even if we did, spilling the details of how my train wreck of a love life uprooted my life in more ways than one, is just not something I would be okay with doing out in public, on my lunch break, in the middle of a non-date. So I told a partial truth instead.
My arms did that thing they do sometimes and wrapped themselves tight. “I… had some stuff going on and I just needed… a change, a really big one and the mail and packaging industry, as you call it,” my hands squeezed the sides of my sweater, “was the first job I found so… here I am.”
I waited to see if he would press the issue. If he could tell I was holding out and would push me for more, but he didn’t.
“I feel you on the change thing,” he brushed my elbow with his hand, under the table, causing me to drop them, “I’ve been thinking of making one myself.”
A change? Really? Was he going through his own version of a quarter-life crisis too? I gripped onto the edge of my seat, anticipating a story messed up enough to make me feel better about my own situation. It’s wrong, I know.
“What kind of change?” I asked.
“I’m thinking about getting a plant, a really big one, my living room’s kinda boring,” he said behind a huge smile.
I bursted out laughing. “Shut up.”
A plant? Really? He had me for a second.
I returned to my meal that was now much colder than before and braced myself for his next question. “What’s question number two?”
“Hmm…” he rubbed his chin, “I think imma save it for next time?”
Next time? Such a bold assumption.
“You might wanna think on that,” I warned, “‘Cause I wouldn’t be so sure there’ll be a next time.”
He smiled at my threat. “I’m willing to take my chances.”