The restaurant was dimly lit, with a disagreeable babble of noise. Eli heard a distinct and familiar laugh trilling unashamedly from one table, and saw that the others had already arrived.
He took his seat, muttering an apology. Craig stopped speaking with much deliberation, as though to say Eli’s presence was always an unspoken, but agreed upon, disruption. Marie smiled warmly; it was her laugh that often rose above the crowd, drawing looks from other diners – looks of disdainful suspicion, wary of such unseemly displays of good spirit. Eli withered under such looks, having to suppress an inward shudder at the contemptuous glances of people that, he was sure, he did not care about. Jen no more than flicked her eyes at him, before returning her gaze to linger on Craig.
Not for the first time, Eli wondered why he agreed to come.
Craig continued his story as though Eli had not sat down, and finished to the polite smiles of Jen and Marie. But looking like he thought the reaction to his story was underwhelming, and that it was Eli’s fault, Craig fixed his attention on him. Craig’s smile was like a protuberance on his face, like it had been stuck there, overlarge and grotesque in its imitations. Eli looked away.
“So, Eli,” Craig said, “You haven’t been working late, have you?”
Although they were level across the table, Craig had tucked his chin into the fold of his neck and gave the appearance of looking up at Eli. Unable to contain himself for long, and before Eli could respond, Craig let out his barking laugh. Marie laughed loudly too, but sheepishly covered her mouth as Eli looked at her. Jen gave him an appraising look, as though daring him to do something, while knowing he wouldn’t.
Craig leaned back, unhindered, his chin untucked, expansive in his good nature, and raised his hand to snap imperiously above his head. When none of the waiters took notice, he waved his hand dismissively, “One simply cannot expect good service anymore.”
The restaurant had romantically lit chandeliers, but a lively mood of music and conversation. Marie saw Jen and Craig had already arrived, and made her way to the table.
Craig was wearing a tightly fitted shirt, the fabric looking strained in every inch. His hair was thinning, but he had it combed in a way that flaunted the fact, as though daring someone to think it bothered him.
Jen was wearing an accentuating dress, but one that accentuated her insecurity as much as it did her slight and attractive figure. It was Marie’s lustre for life that would always out-shine Jen’s momentary sparkle. Marie knew, that like many glittering objects, once possessed, Jen would be discarded into a drawer, collecting dust and neglect, to be remembered only on seldom occasions. On the other hand, Marie was a large woman, that was true, but she had the attraction of a permanent centerpiece.
As she sat down, she smiled warmly, “That’s a beautiful dress.”
Jen gave a tight-lipped smile, and her eyes did a slow up and down, as though searching, deliberately, for anything to repay the compliment. “You look so good,” she said.
Craig began speaking at once. In his usual way, he took ordinary moments of his life, and embellished them with heroic importance. It was never the case, for instance, that he had simply refused to let someone cut him in a lineup, it was how he was one of the few bastions still fighting for an orderly and civilized society. A civilization evidently at risk in the most innocuous moments. He swelled and puffed as he spoke, whenever he expected appropriate sounds of approval.
Marie was the first to notice Eli slouching across the restaurant. She thought Craig was not going to stop speaking, but he paused long enough for Eli to sit down and offer a quiet apology for being late. Eli’s problem, she knew, was that he was hopelessly attracted to her, and so grew quite shy and withdrawn in her over-shadowing social presence. When Craig finished his story and made a joke about Eli’s lateness, she had laughed, but seeing the crestfallen and hurt look on Eli’s face, she attempted to cover her mouth behind her hand.
Craig tried summoning a waiter, but couldn’t. He dismissed the lack of consequence of his obnoxious snapping as yet another failure wrung up by society.
It was a dingy looking restaurant, and Jen was careful to touch as little as possible as she walked to their table. Craig was already seated and looked like he had been ballooned up and stuffed into a child’s shirt. He smiled and gestured to one of the seats, as if giving her permission to sit. She fussed with her jacket long enough to make it clear that she paid no attention to his ushering hand.
When she finally sat down, Craig leaned confidentially closer, “Very fetching,” he said, with a self-amused smile on his face as though acknowledging his own bold remark. It took her a moment to realize that he meant her, that she was the very fetching. She lifted an eyebrow with contemptuous disdain, and Craig seemed to take this as a flirtatious return, for he chuckled in a smug, self-satisfied way.
Marie arrived next, and Jen watched her wading through the restaurant, squeezing between tables and chairs.
In the resentful tone that Marie often had, she commented on Jen’s dress. Jen looked at Marie, who was wearing an outfit that resembled pillowcases stitched together, and said politely, “You look so good.”
Eli was late, as he usually was. If anyone disliked these reunions more than her, it was Eli. When he did arrive, he looked like he was giving his best effort to enjoy himself, even offering an apology as he sat down. Craig acted as though Eli’s existence was but a minor disruption to his compelling story, and continued on as soon as everyone’s attention could be safely redrawn to himself.
As Craig finished his story, and there was a momentary pause, where someone else might have the chance to speak, Craig interjected again, commenting on Eli’s lateness.
Craig laughed, always one of the first to appreciate his own jokes, and Marie, demonstrating her usual lack of restraint, bubbled over with laughter. Jen cast a brief, sidelong look at Eli, letting him know she understood.
Not allowing a moment to pass without taking command of the situation, Craig began snapping his fingers above his head. It was only a small comfort that none of the waiters paid him any mind.
Craig briskly said his name to the host, and was taken to their table. He was a big man, but surprisingly nimble, as anyone watching him walk would notice. He was also punctual, which was why he always arrived first.
Jen was the next to arrive and he indicated to the seat across from him. It was a long-standing tradition that he and Jen had a lively and flirtatious banter, along with, it could hardly be denied, a barely concealed sexual undertone. He leaned forward and complimented her, knowing her dress must be for his benefit, and not wishing her to believe it went unnoticed. He always had a careful eye for the efforts people made, and when she raised an appreciative eyebrow in return, he laughed, good-naturedly.
After Marie arrived, he began one of the many charming anecdotes he had saved and revised for the occasion – he was a great storyteller, as anyone could attest. He was interrupted in the middle of his story by Eli. Eli was not a punctual man, and he muttered something incoherent as he sat down. Craig looked at him, as if to say, when speaking, don’t speak as though your audience is hidden in your shirt pocket. Eli could learn a lot from Craig, if the man ever worked up the humility to ask for his advice. He continued his story, demonstrating the proper flourishes of a good speaker. When he finished, Marie and Jen looked enlivened by his words, and Eli looked resentfully jealous.
Wishing to dispel any hard feelings, he made a light-hearted remark about Eli’s lateness. But if anything, the man looked even more sour. Craig sighed, some people would never learn.
Leaning back, he signalled that their table was ready to be served.