by Jef Coburn
When Neil meets Jade, he is struck by her exceptional personality. But Carly is a long-time friend who becomes available for more than friendship. Suddenly, Neil has to decide whether to pursue the promising relationship or the surprise romance. He has to adjust when he learns there’s more to someone than he had thought. In the absence of a sure thing, how shall he gamble?
Chapter 1: The Den of Uniquity
Good lighting is overrated. Sometimes you can learn everything you really need to know about somebody in the dark. That sounds dirty, but I didn’t mean it that way. Let me back up and start over. I can’t correct my mistakes, but at least I can do it with this story.
Carly and I worked in the same building. We chatted in the elevator occasionally and, whenever some folks at the office were planning to go somewhere after work, we would let each other know. It was the only time we hung out, but we became pretty good friends.
One night, some folks on her floor were supposed to meet up at the Den of Uniquity, a tapas bar somebody had heard about. Carly and I were the only ones who showed. That wasn’t weird for us. Carly’s boyfriend didn’t strike me as the jealous type, and Carly wouldn’t be dating him if he were. People had raved about the place’s vibe, and that made us curious.
They had not lied. The lights were so dim we were taken by surprise. I wasn’t afraid I’d bump into a table or anything, but I thought the darkness might be too distracting for good conversation. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
As our eyes adjusted, I saw that the walls and ceiling were sparsely strung with multi-colored lights. They were bigger and farther apart than Christmas tree lights and bathed the different parts of the room in single colors. The hostess, who looked red in the light at her station, welcomed us and, seeing us looking around like lost children, asked if it was our first time there.
“Yes,” I said with a smile as Carly, who also looked red, nodded politely.
“Welcome to the Den of Uniquity. We have communal seating, so just find a place anywhere. I think we still have some spots in the back.”
As I gestured to Carly to go first, I whispered, “What’s communal seating?” I could tell by the way she laughed that she didn’t know either.
The only empty seats left were in the booth in right-hand corner. A woman was sitting alone in the corner position, bathed in warm green light. I didn’t know what to ask. “Are these seats taken?” didn’t seem right because it was a curved bench, not seats. “Are you alone?” felt a bit invasive. “Can we sit with you?” was too high-school-cafeteria. Unable to decide, Carly and I just smiled awkwardly and said, “Hi.”
“Hi,” she said cordially. “Please, join me. Have a seat!”
We thanked her. Carly sat against the back wall, and I slid in on the other side, against the side wall.
“Welcome to my little corner of the world,” the woman said. “This is my favorite seat. It’s great for people-watching.” She held her hand out to Carly. “I’m Jade. It’s nice to meet people who want to talk. Sometimes people come in and just want to eat or drink without chatting. You can do that anywhere.”
“I’m Carly. Nice to meet you. I agree. If you don’t talk to strangers, you’ll never meet anybody.”
I tried to remember which of us had spoken first when we met on the elevator.
“Exactly,” Jade concurred, already turning to shake my hand.
“Neil. Pleasure to meet you.”
“Likewise. Of course, sometimes they just want to focus more on each other because they’re on a date but, fortunately, that’s not an issue here.” That last part surprised me.
“Do you know what you want?” a voice asked. That surprised me as well, but it was just the waitress. I hadn’t even noticed her emerging from the darkness or the menus on the table.
“That looks really good,” said Carly, admiring Jade’s salad. “I’ll have that and water, no lemon.”
“Yeah, I’d never had apple slices and cheese on the same salad till I tried this, but it’s one of my favorites now.”
“Same,” I said to the waitress. Then I looked at Jade. “How do you know?” I asked.
“Well,” she said innocently, “I order it all the time, so it must be one of my favorites.”
“No, I meant—”
“I know what you meant,” she said with a mischievous smile. “I’m just yankin’ your chain. I could tell you weren’t on a date the same way I knew you’d enjoy talking. There was enough room on each side of the booth for the two of you to sit side-by-side, but you sat with me between you.”
I guess I’m a little unnerved by being analyzed without warning, but all of us do it on some level, and something about the way Jade did it intrigued me. She was very attractive, and normally I’d be especially guarded about making a good first impression, but having my cards on the table left me with a feeling of nothing to lose. It usually wouldn’t, but it did with Jade, and that’s when I should’ve known I was in for more than I’d bargained for.
We talked through our salads. I made sure to keep my eyes on Carly whenever she was speaking. I didn’t want her to catch me staring at Jade. I told myself I just didn’t want to be rude, but I might have been lying. There’s a difference between giving yourself the benefit of the doubt and lying to yourself. A lie is a lie because you know it’s untrue but tell it anyway.
My eyes were fully adjusted by now, and I could see Jade’s features a bit more clearly. She had dark hair; black, I supposed, though it was hard to be sure in the green lighting. Her eyes were expressive. Here again, the color was anybody’s guess, but even the whites of her eyes were captivating.
Most guys don’t realize how much the whites of a woman’s eyes matter. It’s all about the iris for most guys, but when a woman’s eyes get larger and I see more of the white, it’s engaging. Maybe that’s just me. Her nose was not noticeably large or small, and when she smiled or laughed, her nostrils flared just the slightest bit.
Her mouth went straight across — no happy or sad resting face — but looked like it was smiling thanks to those eyes. She had a Mona Lisa thing going on with that. She had dimples when she smiled, which she did often, and her jawline was strong without being imposing. Even the unnatural lighting suited her. She would make a lovely painting, green and all.
Carly had to stop for some groceries before the store closed, so after about an hour she excused herself.
I wondered what Carly would think if I stayed. I knew it shouldn’t matter, but I caught myself considering it just the same.
I pondered my next words for a moment and decided to be sincere at the risk of sounding corny. “Well, Jade, I don’t know what the etiquette is here, so I’ll just say that I’m enjoying our conversation and would like to stay a bit longer but, if my being here without Carly is uncomfortable for you, I completely understand.”
“Are you uncomfortable being here without Carly?”
“No, of course not! Why should I... wait. You’re yankin’ my chain again.”
“A little bit. You catch on fast.” She paused. “But you do find her attractive.”
“Wow,” I said, both amused and taken aback. “You don’t pull any punches.”
She grinned confidently. “It’s okay. You don’t have to talk about it.”
“Oh, no. You’ve pulled the thread. Now the sweater’s gonna unravel all over you.”
“What does that even mean?” she asked with a laugh.
“It means my command of metaphors clocked out at five.”
I realized she had given me an out, but I took a good drink of water and plowed through anyway. “Okay, Jade, here’s the deal. Carly and I are friends. We work in the same building. We only hang out together at office after-work stuff, but we get along great.”
“That sounded more like a disclaimer than a confession.”
“Okay. When I first met her, before we became friends, yes, I probably would’ve asked her out.”
“If only she hadn’t mentioned having a boyfriend.”
“Ouch. Shot you down with the b-bomb.”
“A-ha! Bombs don’t shoot! Who’s bad with metaphors now?”
“Maybe you’re a bad influence on me,” she said with that grin.
“I should be so lucky,” I said before I could filter myself.
Jade did a mock gasp and pretended to fan herself dramatically. “Sir, you’ll make me blush.”
“That’s okay. If there’s one thing the lighting in here proves, it’s that you look good in any color.”
The smile dropped from her mouth and eyes.
Too far, I thought.
“You’re very kind to say so,” she said, recovering quickly. “So you were saying, she told you about her boyfriend.”
“Yeah, but it’s not what you think. She wasn’t really shooting me down. He came up naturally in the conversation. I get it. I know sometimes a woman makes a point of mentioning her boyfriend in the first five minutes. Women don’t think men see through that, but we’re keenly aware of it. Eventually, at least.”
She laughed at the last part, and I was relieved to hear her laugh again after my flirtatious gaffe.
“And why do you suppose we do that?”
“Mostly so we won’t make it awkward for everyone involved by asking you out. I guess it allows you to be yourselves and be nice without feeling like you’re leading us on in some way.”
“That’s very astute,” she said, not joking at all. The earnest way she said it almost made me lose my train of thought.
“Anyway, even when I don’t recognize that little trick in the moment, I always recognize it in retrospect, so I can confidently say Carly mentioned her boyfriend without any... agenda.”
I thought about stopping there, but I didn’t. “In fact, I may be kidding myself, but I think I’m on Carly’s ‘if-list’ — the list of people she’d date if she weren’t already dating somebody. Every non-single person’s got one. I tell my non-single friends that, and they deny it. They don’t get it. They think I’m attacking their character, but I realized a long time ago that an if-list is not about infidelity. It’s not about regret. It’s not about restlessness or dissatisfaction. It’s about acknowledging that you find certain people attractive and, if you’re wise enough, learning about yourself from that. You explore your fascination with a particular... allure in that person, and then you begin to emulate it or avoid it, if it’s toxic.”
“And so you become more self-aware,” Jade said, walking through it out loud, “which enables you to grow, which, ironically, can make you a better catch for your significant other.”
“Right. The real trouble starts when people in a relationship that’s already stagnant or broken start looking for a plan B — or when you feel that attraction to somebody other than your signif and think you’re in love simply because—”
“Because we’ve all been conditioned to equate the two.”
“Don’t you think there are times, though, when people — even happy, well-matched people — have to cut ties with someone else for the good of their relationships?”
“Yeah, sure, sometimes you have to avoid temptation, and maybe that means steering clear of that person completely. I know a guy who did that. He was afraid he’d cheat on his wife, so he changed jobs to put some distance between him and the other woman.”
“Well, that was years ago, and he’s still married. When he told me about it a few weeks back, I asked him, ‘Looking back, do you think you really needed to change jobs?’”
“What did he say?”
“He said, ‘I don’t know, but I’m okay with not knowing.’”
“Mmm,” she said with a slow nod.
“I think those cases are rare, though. If we weren’t so repressed about being attracted to other people in the first place, maybe we wouldn’t give ourselves a huge blind spot of denial. We’d recognize it, accept it, and channel it in a positive direction. Ignoring the elephant in the room is the best way I know to get a tusk where you didn’t want one. You’re not in love with that other person. You’re in love with the same person as you were yesterday. That hasn’t changed.”
“Right,” she said. “If you’re in the wrong relationship, that new person probably won’t be the right one, either. If you’re in the right relationship, you take a good, long look at your signif and realize that nobody else can compare. You appreciate your signif more than ever. You’re not a bad person.”
“No, you just found someone who belongs on your if-list. ‘If’ doesn’t have to mean ‘when.’”
“So... why do you think you’re on Carly’s if-list?”
“It’s no one thing, really. Like I said, maybe I’m kidding myself.” Again I paused, but again I pressed on. “Do you want to know the truth?”
“It’s kind of my default setting. When in doubt, I always tell myself I’m on someone’s if-list.”
“Most people would think that’s pretty conceited.”
“Well, luckily for me, you’re not most people.”
“Truer than you even know,” she said with a little laugh. I wondered what she meant but felt I shouldn’t ask.
“This is how I look at it. Carly seems happy with Ben — That’s his name, by the way — so I figure I’m not hurting anybody by telling myself I’m on her if-list. Not only does it bolster my self-esteem, but it causes me to give my female friends things they usually get only from romantic suitors. I listen better in conversation. I make better eye contact. I ask, ‘How’s it going?’ as an actual question and not just as a ritual greeting. I tell them things I like or admire about them — not made-up stuff but real stuff.”
“You said earlier that you and Carly only hang out together with people from work, but tonight it was just the two of you.”
“The others all flaked. That’s happened once or twice. Usually there are about five people. I think one time we had a dozen or so.”
“Maybe you and Carly came to the wrong place,” she mused. “Maybe the others are thinking you flaked.”
“If there are two establishments called the Den of Uniquity, that would be super-ironic.” I held my glass up in front of me like I was making a toast. “Besides, I know we came to the right place because if we’d gone elsewhere, we wouldn’t have met you.”
She clinked her glass against mine in acknowledgement.
We didn’t discuss Carly further that night, but we talked about practically everything else — cooking, economics, TV shows, politics, books, tourist attractions, religion, films, movies, the difference between a film and a movie (we agreed there are differences), accidental inventions, time-travel theory, music, sports, and probably a few other things as well.
Sometimes we’d pause — not because we didn’t have anything to say, but because we didn’t have to say anything. We’d look out at the table of yellow faces smiling as they shared a dessert or the blue people in the booth across the room.
I couldn’t make out the blue people’s faces through the darkness in between, but I could tell by their body language that they were both nervous and that she liked him. It occurred to me that the reason I could see them at all was that the tables were emptying as the hour grew late.
“I should probably head home,” I said, looking at my watch. It was eleven. I could talk to Jade for hours and, apparently, I had just done so. I took some cash out of my wallet and put it on the table for the waitress.
“Yeah, I’m gonna sit for a few minutes, and then I’ll probably call it a night.”
“Jade, I know it’s a cliché, but we should do this again some time.”
“We should! I’ll be here again tomorrow night. Stop by if you like.”
“I’ll do that.” I took one more good look at her in case tomorrow didn’t pan out. “Goodnight.”
I got up, smiled, strolled up front, paid the hostess and walked out, fighting the impulse to look back and wave.
Copyright © 2021 by Jef Coburn