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Just home from dinner with Manda and had to write you. I couldn’t stand the uncertainty anymore – I finally told her how I felt.
I took her to that Italian place on Prince St. that I love. We ordered wine and were just about to ready to order dinner.
I decided to say something before the waiter arrived. So I told her that I thought there could be something between us – that I was open to exploring whatever it was, and that, regardless of how she felt, I considered her someone very special in my life.
She didn’t say anything. I think at first she was flattered.
Then she was angry.
She said the whole thing was in my head.
The waiter came over, and we had to order. It would have made more sense at that point to get up and leave. I didn’t particularly want to eat dinner directly after being rejected.
I’m sure it wasn’t any less awkward for her. I’m sure she didn’t want to be having dinner with someone who’d just revealed his feelings for her – especially feelings she didn’t share.
But it would have been too dramatic to get up and leave. What would we have done? Told the waiter we weren’t hungry, put on our coats, walked out into the freezing cold, and stood awkwardly on the sidewalk looking for a way to say goodbye forever? It sounds like some scene from a stupid show – and you’d think that, as people, we could be intelligent and respectful enough to find a better way out.
I know the real question is actually how we got into the situation. I mean – why were we sitting there at a tiny table drinking wine and discussing whether we should order a cheese plate or antipasti to share? And why did I feel like this meant so much to me – like it was meaning so much to me – while she just thought we were on some casual outing?
Let me be clear: We’ve been doing this for nearly a year. That’s plenty of time to stop answering my phone calls or ignore my texts. Plenty of time to say she didn’t think this was something that really worked for her. Plenty of time to say anything. But never – not a single word – about us, and so I felt I had no choice but to finally bring it up. I mean, someonehad to say something.
And I’m not saying she had to feel as deeply as I did. I’m not even saying she had to like me. I’m just saying that the complete denial of the possibility that anything could have been happening between us – that the time we spent together was something more than just “time we spent together” – that some deeper thing was happening the whole time, that’s what drove me crazy. You can certainly say you don’t think there’s a romantic connection with someone. But can you say that there’s no connection with them at all? Isn’t that a little much?
It’s true: She’s younger. But young people aren’t inhuman. And this is a question of human feelings. You simply don’t spend a year seeing someone regularly and then, when they bring up their feelings, tell him it’s all in his head. You can’t.
So there we were: The waiter comes, we order the antipasti to share, I order my usual pasta, she orders a salad, and now we’re back to our conversation with our two glasses of red wine.
Now here’s the thing. I just told her that I think there can be something between us, and she just denied that this was even a possibility. So there’s this impasse where I feel like I don’t even understand why we’re at the restaurant together anymore.
And she still says nothing.
She just sits there staring at me, her body leaning back onto her seat, her head tilted down, her eyes looking over her glasses straight into mine. She just stares. Like I’m the one who’s supposed to say something.
So I said something. I asked her what she thought all these dinners were about.
And what did she say? She said that dinner was about dinner.
I almost lost it. She couldn’t have actually meant that. I mean: What does that even mean?
But what are you supposed to do when someone says something like that? Are you supposed to insist that dinner means more than dinner? Meals with others is about as basic as it gets when it comes to human relations, to culture – maybe even to civilisation. How can someone with a minimal degree of sensitivity say something like that?
Unless the whole point is to say something that will make any feelings or emotions impossible. Which I guess is what it might have been about.
I looked at her as intently as she looked at me – and decided I wouldn’t say anything else until she did.
The antipasti came. I’m sure the waiter noticed the silence between us as he set the plate down. He made an effort to smile. He’s a nice guy, and he’s worked at this place for all seventeen years that I’ve been going there. I don’t know why – but he seems to never age. Anyway, he knows his business and he left quickly.
As he did, Manda called him back and asked for some bread and olive oil. She couldn’t say a word to me – but she could ask him for bread! She hadn’t lost her voice. That’s for sure.
He brought the bread and left, and she took a slice from the basket and put a sliver of roasted zucchini on top. She bit down with all her strength and then put the remains of the slice down on her plate.
She chewed slowly, and after she swallowed she said, “The food’s good.”
“I know,” I said. “I’ve been eating here since I’m sixteen.”
“We never came here before,” she said.
I looked at her and simply couldn’t believe her words. She referred to the two of us as we. We never came here before. That’s what she said. It was like she couldn’t even hear herself.
“I come here all the time,” I said, emphasising the I.
I don’t know whether she even understood what I was trying to say. When I think about it, I’m not sure she understood anything I told her. But I have to believe, deep down, that she did. I have to believe that the person I felt so much for – the person I feel so much for – is someone with a minimal amount of emotion.
I’d decided not to say anything about the situation itself until she did – but now I saw that she couldn’t even get into talking about anything. I felt like I had no choice but to try and give her another chance.
“Let me ask you something,” I said taking a piece of roasted sweet potato from the antipasti plate. “Why did you send me all those late-night text messages with all those hearts and smileys? Don’t you think that when you wish someone good night that way it means something?”
She’d finished her zucchini but still had some bread left, so she took some roasted bell peppers from the plate and took another bite.
Guess what she told me when she stopped chewing.
“I’m a nice person,” she said. “I like to wish my friends good night.”
A “nice person” – that’s what she had to say. A “nice” person.
“I’m a nice person too,” I said, “that doesn’t mean I send everyone I know late-night messages. That’s not nice. It’s confusing.”
“I send messages to all my girlfriends,” she said. “No one else seems to find it confusing.”
And that’s how I was told that I existed under the status of “girlfriend.” Never mind that I’m a man – or that I’m ten years older. The simple fact that I am the only human being who is not like any of the others in her category of “girlfriends” should have stopped her from making that comment.
She’s young. But she’s plenty of other things. She’s sharp. She’s extremely accomplished. She’s come to me whenever she’s needed help with any dilemma. She’s heard out some of my own dilemmas and made some solid suggestions. She’s observant and perceptive when it comes to evaluating people’s personalities. She’s quick and sensitive to her surroundings. She’s ambitious, she works hard. This is not someone who should be calling me one of her girlfriends.
Our food came. I wasn’t even hungry – I’d barely touched the antipasti – and now I had a big plate of hot pasta in front of my face. I always order the puttanesca. It’s my favourite pasta. But suddenly it seemed disgusting. All the salted fish and pickled capers and dark olives. And it smelled. I looked over at her salad – it was fresh and clean and healthy – and I wondered what had happened to me that I suddenly couldn’t enjoy my favourite dish.
I think that was my first clue that something had gone deeply wrong. Not that I didn’t have a reason for feeling how I felt. But that how I felt was disconnected from what was in front of me. Why did it take me so long to realise that this was an extremely unappetising dish when considered from someone else’s perspective? Not that I had any intention of changing it for another dish. But I’d never seen myself as someone who ordered stinky food.
I looked at Manda. She had her eyes set straight on her plate. I could tell that my food was outside the limited tastes that she could ever enjoy. And then I understood: I hadn’t seen her limits. Suddenly the young woman in front of me turned into a different person. A separate person.
I looked down at my food and somehow felt like a child – one who hated anything dark and stinky. When had I become a person who liked grown-up pasta? And why hadn’t I noticed it while it was happening?
I looked at Manda again. She ate her salad carefully. I would almost say considerately. She seemed very conscientious when it came to her salad.
“What about those emails I sent you?” I asked, less to provoke her than to understand. “They were very personal. You never told me not to send them. You never said anything. I waited for some response – something that would tell me whether you welcomed them or not – but there was never any response. It was very confusing.”
She put her fork down and took a sip from her wine. Then she picked up her fork again.
“I never understood those,” she said digging into the leaves on her plate. “I just ignored them.”
I sat back in my chair, and only then did I realise how tense my body had been.
“You ignored them?” I said. “Is that what a friend does?”
She squinted her eyes and squeezed her fork until the tips of her fingers went bright white.
“You’re putting something on me that isn’t there,” she hissed. “And it’s really not fair.”
It was the first thing she’d said about anything I’d told her. And it was a reprimand.
I looked at this young woman and realised I’d hurt her. I wasn’t sure how. It certainly hadn’t been my intention. You tell someone you have feelings for them – and somehow you’ve betrayed them. You cross a line that words aren’t supposed to cross. It felt very selfish.
I hadn’t intended to be selfish. And I hadn’t intended to impose myself. It’s just that I’d reached my own limit. She’d hurt me, too. She’d ignored an entire side of me. The male side. The lonely side. The man who was interested in her as a woman. She hadn’t done it on purpose: She simply hadn’t seen. But that didn’t mean it didn’t hurt.
It’s hard when someone you care about doesn’t see you. But you can’t really blame them for something they’re not capable of doing. You can recognise it and distance yourself. But you can’t really hold them responsible.
I realised all this as I ate my pasta and she ate her salad. It was the kind of realisation I wished I’d had at home, alone, before going out of my way to arrange a dinner at my favourite Italian restaurant. It was the kind of realisation you want to reach on your own without having to involve a whole other human being. The kind of realisation I wished I could have had without having to hurt her.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
She took a sip from her wine and put the glass down.
“For what?” she asked, digging into the remains of her salad. “You didn’t do anything.”
It seemed she preferred to ignore the whole situation. That was hard for me. I wanted her to acknowledge what had happened. After realising what I’d done, I wanted her to forgive me. But I didn’t insist.
Manda finished her salad. I’d barely touched my pasta. Not that it wasn’t good. I just wished I could’ve enjoyed it with someone who could relate.
Then she asked: “Should we order dessert?”
I was floored. The whole thing had been so slow, so painstaking, there’d been so much distance between us. And now she wanted to order dessert.
“I can skip it,” I said.
She hesitated, and I got the sense that she was trying to prolong whatever was happening. I think it was pretty clear to us both that this was going to be our last meal together for a while. I wondered whether I’d been right – whether things hadn’t been as simple as she’d led me to believe. Whether she had more feelings than she was willing to admit.
But then I told myself that it didn’t matter. I didn’t want to spend time with her feelings. I wanted to spend time with her.
“I’ll ask for the check,” she said. “It’s my treat.”
I insisted that we split the bill, but she refused. In the end, I decided to let it go and accept what felt like a peace offering.
She paid the bill and then we got up and put on our coats. The restaurant was full, and we had to squeeze our way past people waiting for a table. We walked outside into the freezing cold and stood on the sidewalk. We were looking for a way to say goodbye. But we didn’t find one.
“Thanks for dinner,” I said. “I’ll get the next one.”
She pursed her lips into a half smile.
“Sure thing,” she said. And then she left.
I walked home alone thinking about everything that had just happened – and decided to write you as soon as I got back. I just couldn’t help but keep thinking about how sad it was to lose a friend. Not the one I thought I had. The one who was actually there.