We made our way to the table, taking off our wet coats and mussing with our hair. It had been so cold outside that the inside felt warm and cozy, as if we were sitting at a campfire.
I ordered a caprese salad and a diet Coke. When Ben ordered a pasta dish and a glass of pinot noir, I remembered that the whole point of this place was the wine bar.
“Oh,” I said. “Cancel the diet Coke. I’ll have the same.” the waiter grabbed our menus and walked away.
“You don’t have to order wine if you don’t want wine,” Ben said.
“Well,” I said to him. “When in rome!”
Our glasses came shortly after, filled halfway with dark red. We swirled the glasses under our noses, smiling at each other, neither of us having any idea what we were doing.
“Ah,” Ben said. “a faint smell of blackberry and . . .” He sipped his drink in a reserved, taste-tester sort of way. “It has a woodsy quality to it, don’t you think?”
“Mmmm,” I said, sipping mine and pretending to contemplate. “very woodsy. very full-bodied.”
We both laughed. “yes!” Ben said. “I forgot full-bodied. Wine people love saying things are full-bodied.”
He started to chug his down. “Honestly,” he said, “it all tastes the same to me.”
“Me too,” I said, as I sipped mine again. although, I had to admit that while I couldn’t speak to the tannins or the base notes or whatever else people that know wine know, it tasted wonderful. after a few more sips, it started to feel wonderful.
Our food had just been served when Ben’s phone rang. He put it through to voice mail as I took a bite of my salad. He started to eat his pasta and his phone rang again. again, he ignored the call. I finally caved and asked.
“Who is that?” I said.
“Oh,” he said, clearly wishing I hadn’t asked. “It’s just a girl that I dated a while ago. she drunk-dials sometimes.”
“It’s not even seven thirty.”
“She’s a bit . . . What is the correct way to say this? she is . . . a party girl? Is that the polite way to say that?”
“I guess it depends on what you’re trying to say.”
“She’s an alcoholic,” he said. “that’s why I stopped dating her.”
He said it so matter-of-factly that it caught me off guard. It almost seemed silly because it was so serious.
“She calls from time to time. I think she’s trying to bootycall me.”
I wanted to laugh again at him using the expression bootycall, but deep down, I was starting to get jealous and I could feel the jealousy moving its way closer and closer to the surface.
“Ah” was all I said.
“I’ve told her I’m with someone. trust me. It’s annoying more than anything else.”
The jealousy was now hot on my skin. “okay.”
“Are you upset?”
“No,” I said, breezily, as if I truly wasn’t upset. Why did I do this? Why not just say “yes”?
“Yes, you are.”
“You’re doing that thing.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Yep, your chest is getting red and you’re speaking in clipped tones. that means you’re mad.”
“How would you even know that?”
“Because I pay attention.”
“Okay,” I said finally. “I just . . . I don’t like it. this woman you used to date—which by the way, let’s just acknowledge means you used to sleep with—I don’t know if I like that she’s calling you to do it again.”
“I know. I agree with you. I told her to stop,” he said to me. He didn’t seem angry but he did seem defensive.
“I know. I know. I believe you, I just . . . look, we said we would be exclusive for these five weeks, but if you don’t want to . . .”
“What?” Ben had long ago stopped eating his pasta.
“When was the last time you saw her?” Why I asked this question, what I thought it proved, I do not know.you don’t ask questions you don’t want the answers to. I never learned this.
“What does that matter?”
“I’m just asking,” I said.
“It was a bit before I met you,” he said, looking down into his wineglass, sipping it to hide from me.
“How much of a ‘bit’ are we talking about?”
Ben smiled, embarrassed. “I saw her the night before I met you,” he said.
I wanted to reach across the table and wring his neck. My face flushed with jealousy. My chest felt like my lungs were a bonfire. I didn’t have a good reason. I couldn’t rationalize it. I wanted to yell at him and tell him what he had done wrong, but he hadn’t done anything wrong. nothing at all. It didn’t even make sense for me to be this jealous. I just . . . I wanted to believe that Ben was mine. I wanted to believe that no one had made him smile until I did, no woman had made him yearn to touch her until I had. suddenly, the woman calling took on a personality of her own in my head. I saw her in a red dress with long black hair. she probably wore black lace bra and panty sets. they probably always matched. In my head, her stomach was flat. In my head, she liked to be on top. Instead of admitting my jealousy, instead of telling the truth, I scoured the facts and tried to find a way to blame him.
“I just don’t know how much I believe you’re really pushing her away. I mean, a woman doesn’t call over and over if she knows she’s going to be rejected.”
“It’s my fault she’s a drunk?”
“You’re telling me you don’t know any women that are so confident in their attractiveness that they don’t ever hear no?”
“So now you’re saying this woman is hot?” I challenged.
“What does that have to do with this?”
“So she is,” I said.
“Why are you being so insecure right now?”
What. the. Fuck.
It wasn’t necessary. I could have stayed at the table. I could have finished my meal and told him to take me home and stay at his place. I could have done lots of things. I had plenty of options. But at the time it felt like I had one option and that option was to take my coat, put it on, call him an ass**le under my breath, and walk out.
It wasn’t until I was standing in the rain without the valet ticket that I started to realize all of the other options I had. I saw him through the restaurant’s front window. I saw him look around for a waiter. I saw him flag one down and hand over a wad of cash. I saw him grab his jacket. I just stood outside in the cold rain, hugging my jacket tighter around myself, shivering a bit and wondering what I was going to say to him when he came out. I was starting to feel pretty stupid for walking out. I was starting to feel like the stupidity of my walking out had eclipsed his insensitivity.
As he headed out to the front door, I saw through the window that he checked his phone and it was lit up again. I saw him put the call through to voice mail for the third time in ten minutes, and I grew angry again. Jealousy was so ugly. It made me feel so ugly.
I felt the gust of warm air as he opened the door and came out. When it shut, I went back to being freezing cold again.
“Elsie—” he started to say. I couldn’t read this tone. I didn’t know if he was going to be contrite, defensive, or irritated, so I interrupted him.
“look,” I said, closing my jacket tighter, raising my voice to be heard above the sounds of car wheels speeding through shallow puddles. “I may not be conducting myself all that well right now, but that’s a hell of a thing to say to me!”
“You can’t just walk out on me in the middle of a goddamn restaurant!” he yelled. I hadn’t seen him yell like that before.
“I can do whatever I—”
“No!” he said. “you can’t. you can’t punish me for something that happened before I met you and you can’t punish me for what amber—”
“Don’t say her name!”
“This is not a big deal!” he said to me. “If you knew the way I think about you and the way I think about her, this would not be a big deal.” He was choking over his words as the rain snuck into his mouth.