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 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 – those wary of such unseemly displays of good spirit. Eli withered under such looks, having to suppress an inward shudder each time. Jen no more than flicked her eyes at him and then returned 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 polite smiles from Jen and Marie. Looking like he thought the reaction to his story was underwhelming, Craig fixed his attention on Eli and smiled. Craig’s smile was like a protuberance on his face, stuck there, overlarge and grotesque in its imitations. Eli looked away.
“So, Eli,” Craig said. “Working hard lately? Too hard to show up on time.”
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. Before Eli could respond, Craig let out his barking laugh. Marie laughed loudly as well, but then sheepishly covered her mouth. Jen gave him an appraising look as though daring him to do something, while knowing he wouldn’t. Eli was currently jobless.
Craig leaned back unhindered, expansive in his good nature, his chin untucked. He 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 and a lively mood for 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, and 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. Marie knew it was her own lustre for life that would always out-shine someone’s momentary sparkle. Like many glittering objects, once possessed, Jen would be discarded into a drawer, collecting dust and neglect. Marie was a large woman, that was true, but she had the attraction of a permanent centrepiece.
As she sat down, she smiled warmly at Jen, “That’s a beautiful dress.”
Jen’s eyes moved slowly up and down Marie’s figure, 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 someone simply cut him off in traffic, 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, expecting 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. Eli’s problem – she knew – was that he was attracted to her and so naturally became shy and withdrawn in her presence. When Craig 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.
Craig tried summoning a waiter, but couldn’t. He dismissed the consequence of his obnoxious snapping as yet another failure wrung up by society.
Jen thought it was a dingy looking restaurant and was careful to touch as little as possible. Craig was already seated, and he looked 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-satisfied smile on his face, acknowledging his own boldness. It took her a moment to realize that he meant her. She lifted an eyebrow with contemptuous disdain, and Craig seemed to take it as a flirtatious return, for he chuckled smugly.
They saw Marie arrive at the doors, and Jen watched the woman wade through the restaurant, squeezing between tables and chairs.
In a reproachful tone, Marie 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 arrived late, as he usually did. When he did arrive, Craig acted as though Eli’s existence was but a minor disruption in his compelling story, continuing as soon as everyone’s attention could be safely redrawn to himself.
There was a momentary lull when Craig finished, giving someone else the chance to speak, but Craig immediately commandeered the silence once more, aiming a petty joke at Eli. Craig laughed loudly, always the first to appreciate his own humour. Marie, demonstrating her usual lack of restraint, bubbled over with laughter too. Jen cast a 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 would notice. He was also punctual, which was why he always arrived first.
Jen was the next to arrive and he indicated the seat beside him. It was a long-standing tradition that he and Jen had a lively and flirtatious banter. He leaned forward and complimented her, knowing her dress was for his benefit and not wishing her to think 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 warmly.
After Marie arrived, Craig began one of the many anecdotes he had saved for the evening – he was a storyteller, as anyone could attest. Arriving completely late, Eli interrupted the middle of best part. Craig only looked at him, pausing briefly to let everyone’s attention return, before continuing. He demonstrated all the proper flourishes of a good speaker, and at the end, Marie and Jen looked enlivened, while Eli looked resentful.
Wishing to dispel any hard feelings, he made a light-hearted remark about Eli’s lateness. 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.