Tom hated thinking of himself as single, despite having signed the divorce papers a year ago. Doris had already begun dating, and Nelson, about to start kindergarten in the fall, seemed to have adjusted to being shuffled between two homes.
He had given himself plenty of time to mope, curse his fate, and wait for Doris to come to her senses. Still, overcoming inertia posed a challenge for a man who still referred to his favorite TV news program as the MacNeil-Lehrer Report, although MacNeil had left the show over a decade earlier.
So when his friends, Herb and Amy, said they’d like him to meet their friend, Linda, for drinks, he agreed. True, he wanted to curl into a fetal position and shout, “No! No! No!” But, he agreed.
Just drinks with friends, he reminded himself. No pressure.
As it neared eight o’clock he clicked the Guide on his TV out of habit, but clicked it off before seeing what was on. He was going to do this, damn it! He’d get out of the house and have a good time in spite of himself. What could be so hard about meeting a new friend?
He’d have to make small talk.
Oh God, small talk. He had no trouble talking to Herb about politics or sports. And Amy always peppered conversation with questions about Nelson that kept conversation flowing. But what would he say to Linda?
“Hi. My name is Tom. I’m a computer nerd who spends most of his days and nights in his home office creating software for a financial consulting firm. My wife left me because I bored her so profoundly she preferred moving in with her parents to spending another day with me.”
That should go over well.
Still, he remained determined. He dug into his closet, beyond the sweats and unwashed jeans, and found a pair of tan slacks. A little tight. No problem, he thought. He’d just inhale all night.
He chose a shirt he could wear outside his pants to cover the belly that had endured far too many pizza deliveries.
Staring at his reflection in the mirror, he concluded he wasn’t bad looking. His nose seemed in proportion to his face, two brown eyes were spaced about right and there appeared nothing drastically wrong with his mouth or teeth. He’d offer George Clooney no competition, to be sure, but his dark hair had remained thick and the lines under his eyes didn’t look like overstuffed sandbags yet. Just in case, he decided to shave again and slap on the cologne he had found in the back of the medicine closet, squeezed between the Kaopectate and Doris’s old Fish Oil capsules.
He sniffed the cologne cautiously, wondering if it might have expired.
Before leaving, he made the bed, picked up the stack of newspapers next to the couch, and emptied the trash. After all, he just might get lucky.
Tom felt his heart pound and his knees buckle. Get lucky? Would he even remember what to do? He imagined a voice in his head saying, “Don’t worry, it’s like riding a bicycle,” and he envisioned himself naked with his legs in the air, pedaling furiously.
He decided he had better odds of winning the lottery than of Linda being so overwhelmed by his charm and good looks that she’d throw herself at him. He was just going to meet friends for drinks, he repeated, as if it were his personal mantra.
Fifteen minutes later, he pulled his 1999 Volvo station wagon into the parking lot of Barney’s Tavern. Herb’s tan Camry with the dented rear fender was already there. He tossed Nelson’s toy truck into his glove compartment and mindlessly massaged the naked fourth finger of his left hand as he eased out of his car.
With a terror he hadn’t felt since his first high school dance, Tom made his way to the pub’s front entrance.
Amy and Herb waved as soon as he entered. Amy rushed to offer a hug and a peck on the cheek. Herb waved from his seat and pointed to an empty chair.
“Linda isn’t here yet,” Amy explained. “She’s been nervous all day.”
“Nervous?” Tom asked, hoping his own voice wouldn’t crack. “Why?”
“Who knows women?” Herb shrugged. Tom nodded.
They ordered a round of drinks and the men talked politics. Amy alternated between checking her watch and the entrance. “I’m calling her,” she finally said.
Tom ignored Herb’s take on the economy to eavesdrop on the telephone conversation.
“He’s here. We’re all here,” she said. After a long pause, she looked at Tom. “Let me put him on the phone.”
Tom wanted to pretend he was choking, but couldn’t admit his own fears in front of Herb. Instead, he took the phone and introduced himself. After listening to her confess her insecurities, he took a deep breath and whispered, “Do what I’ve been doing all day. Chant, ‘it’s just drinks with friends… it’s just drinks with friends.’”
They laughed and chatted a bit more before he handed the phone to Amy.
“She’ll be here in a minute,” he said. “She’s in the parking lot. She’s been there for the past ten minutes.”
Tom looked to the door and took a deep breath as an attractive woman with a nervous smile entered and looked towards their table. Amy jumped up to greet her friend and brought her to the table. Tom tried acting nonchalant, but as he stood to shake Linda’s hand he tipped over his chair.
Wayne Scheer has been locked in a room with his computer and turtle since his retirement. (Wayne’s, not the turtle’s.) To keep from going back to work, he’s published hundreds of short stories, essays and poems, including Revealing Moments, a collection of twenty-four flash stories, available at http://www.pearnoir.com/thumbscrews.htm. He’s been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and a Best of the Net. Wayne can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.