Margot Loellyn sat down in one of the steakhouse’s high-backed wooden chairs as her date scooted it closer to the table. She’d recognized Carter Gilmore, already seated with a menu, when she walked in; they’d met at an office party held earlier that month by her accounting firm. He’d been coerced into coming by a woman who worked on the floor below Margot’s. After several cocktails, a rambling conversation about Margot’s Maltese-Yorkshire terrier mix, and assurances that he and Susanne were not in any kind of exclusive relationship, Carter had asked Margot to dinner the next Friday night. As she found that she had nothing better to do on that particular weekend, she had agreed.
Carter slid back into his seat and reopened the menu. The waiter came to take their orders as they made small talk about their respective employers and hobbies. Margot had been impressed when Carter told her that he was in his last year of residency at Madison Memorial Hospital while they chatted at the office party. Searching for a safe topic on what she hoped to be the first of several dates, Margot latched onto the harmless question of how his work week had been.
“It is what it always is; lots of people who need fixing,” he said, and asked her the same polite questions. He laughed at Margot’s comic anecdote about learning to use the new copier/fax machine her office had recently purchased. Unable to find the proper button to cancel a command, she had accidentally made one hundred copies of an I-9, rather than what she’d meant to do, which was to fax it to 100 St. James Way.
“And I have absolutely no idea how this happened,” she said, head bobbing back and forth with laughter. “I finally ended up just pressing buttons but, I mean, I haven’t a clue which button it was that did the copying!” Margot was the sort of mildly self-deprecating person who often laughed at herself if she told stories she thought were funny.
Margot raising her eyebrows slightly when Carter ordered a bottle of moscato, and he quickly explained that, while it might not typically be paired with their dinner, he found the dryness of most reds unappealing. The only thing he liked dry, Carter told her seriously, was a sense of humor.
Unsure how to take his tone, she laughed noncommittally. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to tell, when humor’s dry,” she confessed. “I need my comedy blatant.”
Carter asked her what television shows she enjoyed, and they spent most of the evening working their way through different comedies – he enjoyed the one with four nerd-geniuses, while she was fond of the chubby couple who met at Overeater’s Anonymous. “It’s not that I don’t like the science-y one,” she protested when he asked, “It’s just that, if the laugh-track wasn’t on, I wouldn’t always realize it was supposed to be funny!”
Two weeks later, Margot and Carter met again for dinner, this time at King Tsin’s, a local Chinese restaurant known for its dumplings. She ordered the vegetable lo mein; he had the spicy scallion chicken. By that Friday afternoon, Margot had been surprised to find herself excited about their outing, enough so that she had even reached the restaurant several minutes before he did in spite of her strict policy of arriving exactly seven minutes behind schedule on all first and second dates. Margot had initially questioned whether or not she ought to go out with Carter again when he called – the standard three days after their first meal – but her mother’s voice nagged in the back of her head, “Margot, dear, you ought to put yourself out there a bit more! You’re twenty-nine; you’re no spring chicken anymore.” Though he’d been a bit less entertaining than average, Carter had been a polite, attentive dinner partner, and the truth of her mother’s words had annoyed her.
She noticed that, this evening, he produced a small pair of reading glasses when he peered at the menu. When she asked about them, he told her he’d shown up early to the last restaurant, just to read the menu before she arrived, embarrassed about the glasses.
“Twenty-eight and I already have the glasses of an old man! Must’ve been all those nights spent peering over medical textbooks.” Margot assured him that they didn’t detract from his features. Silently, she noticed that somehow the wire frames made his hairline, slightly receding, seem a bit more prominent.
Two days after they slept together, Margot met Carter for a late night pizza. She sat where the corner of the bar met the window, spinning slightly back and forth on a checkered barstool for eleven minutes before he walked in. He apologized profusely for keeping her waiting; he got wrapped up in hospital red tape and had to fill out mounds of paperwork before leaving. She assured him that it was quite alright – even though it wasn’t, quite – and that she’d gone ahead and ordered a margherita pizza.
“I’m glad to see you,” he said over melted mozzarella, giving her knee a small squeeze.
She looked at him, with his smiling eyes and mouse-brown hair and the dimple that flashed on his left cheek. Swallowing a bite of crust, she said, “Me too.”
Later, he asked whimsically, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Margot snorted. “Me? Grow up?” He’d already seen her small studio apartment, which vaguely resembled the room of a college undergrad. Between the accounting job to pay bills and writing when she could, Margot didn’t place much stock in decorating. “Maybe when I finish my novel, I’ll grow up. After that, who knows? What about you?”
Carter pretended to stare pensively out the window in the way that people do when they’ve already thought of their answer, but don’t want to answer too quickly. “A doctor. And a husband, and a dad.”
Margot wasn’t startled: he seemed like the type of person who kept a mental checklist on life, running through the appropriate steps, striking them through with a black ballpoint pen. College, check. Job, check. Girlfriend, wife, child….check? She wondered if she just happened to be the next item to check off on his list. He was nice, sincere, a bit preoccupied with work maybe, but you can’t exactly blame a man for that. She didn’t know how she felt about being on an itemized list of Carter Gilmore’s Twenty-Two Life Goals.
Carter cooked Margot dinner on a Thursday night, inviting her up to his brownstone apartment. Margot listened as he explained, rather sheepishly, that the spacious two-bedroom had been inheritance from a late great-aunt. His apartment was sparsely furnished and, aside from the piles of medical textbooks, the furniture that was there looked as though it had simply been left by the deceased. Margot didn’t ask why he seemed self-conscious about the place; she knew it had everything to do with the state of shambles her small studio had been in – haphazard piles of dog-eared books, barking toy-sized dog, two days worth of dishes in the sink – the night she’d led him up to her four floor walkup. Margot smiled graciously, told Carter it was lovely, and broke the barest thread of tension by offering to open the bottle of moscato she’d brought.
He cooked duck – which was difficult, Margot noted – with sautéed potatoes and asparagus, none of which really ought to have been served with moscato, and Margot tried not to think longingly of the Riesling sitting in her own fridge. “What do you think?” he asked as she raised the first forkful to her mouth.
In that moment, he reminded her briefly of her dog as a puppy, wriggling and eager to please. After chewing thoughtfully – or in a way that tried to appear thoughtful – she said, “Wonderful.”
Margot offered to clean the dishes after dinner and, with mild protests, Carter allowed her to help. When she was younger, she remembered watching her parents in the kitchen. They had a sort of unspoken understanding that one would cook, and the other cleaned up after dinner. Margot liked that image, the teamwork and the solidarity of her parents’ partnership. Her thoughts turned to the man in the other room, selecting a jazz record. She was tired of doing both the cooking and the clean up of her own dishes.
When he returned to the kitchen, his arms enveloped her as she stood over the sink. “I can’t make you do all of them,” he said.
“You’re not. I want to. How about making some hot tea while I finish?”
The beginnings of a short story I’ve been working on for forever. I sort of started at the end, and now the middle is changing the end, and it’s all very confusing. But here is it; I feel like I ought to be putting something new of mine of here every few days, like it’s a cop-out if I post more than three or four things by other writers in a row.