Amber rays of late afternoon sun fall through the slats of the blinds, casting patterns of light and shadow across the bed and floor. Outside, I can hear the muffled sounds of the city: endless traffic passing beneath me, the soft cooing of pigeons, the occasional swelling of metal grating against metal as the overground train passes a few blocks away. Far below, Ronald, the man who runs the gyro truck on the corner, is yelling at the new boy who works for him. A dog barks. It is May; the first days of summer are clinging tightly to the city, holding it in a chokehold of heat and humidity.
I roll over and grab my phone from the nightstand. My skin is damp from the heat, despite having both the AC and a fan on at full blast. Everywhere, everything feels suffocating. I absentmindedly pull at the band-aid on my left shoulder as I scroll through my notifications. It has been almost a week since I received my last vaccine, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to pull the bandage off just yet – the first symbol of a return to normalcy. Slowly, I peel the sticky fabric from my skin, rolling it in between my fingers. My phone alarm begins to buzz, and I begrudgingly pull myself out of bed and head towards the bathroom.
I had imagined that the end would feel like a new beginning. So many people had promised a new lease on life. A new way of looking at the world and the people in it that would lead to some sort of promised land of serotonin. But here I was, at the end, in the same shitty apartment in the same overpriced and over-gentrified city working the same miserable job spending the majority of my time alone. I attended work video conferences and virtual game nights in a fugue state; I watched hours and hours of news while eating children’s cereals. I taught myself to paint and convinced myself I should never paint again. Lather, rinse, repeat.
The dating apps had started as a joke. I had been a little wine drunk, video chatting with my best friend who had moved halfway around the world when the end began.
Aren’t you getting vaccinated soon?
I get the first one next week, yeah.
You should go on a date! Get out of the house. Have a little fun.
I rolled my eyes, but deep down I was relieved. It wasn’t like I hadn’t considered it. With so many of my friends having moved home or in with their significant others, I had been feeling adrift. A moon knocked out of orbit by a passing asteroid. So I downloaded the apps and, one night after getting the first shot when I had had one too many beers sitting alone in my apartment, I swiped right on a mediocre-looking man with a degree in finance who told me I was “charming” and had the same interest in movies as I pretended to have.
As usual, however, now that the evening of the date is here, I am reluctant to go. My skin doesn’t feel right. I can’t remember what it is like to socialize. How can I possibly stay awake past 10:00? My mounting anxiety claws at the back of my throat as I slowly get ready.
Once on the street outside, I start to feel better. The sun is just sinking below the horizon and the air is a bit cooler. The spot we have decided on for dinner is just a few blocks away from my place, so I make my way over on foot. I wave to Ronald, who gives me an upward nod as I pass.
The first thing I realize is that I am absolutely underdressed. This is one of those modern restaurants that has a vaguely feminine name and seems from the outside to be fast and casual. On the inside, however, waiters flit around in black formalwear with crimson ties, and everyone pretends not to notice the Oscar-winner sitting in the back corner. I take off my denim jacket as I enter, hoping that the light summer dress I have opted for will look nicer without it.
My date is seated close to the entrance; he has clearly either researched the place or been before because he is smartly dressed, and his hair is impeccably styled. I slide into my seat, murmuring a hello. He looks at me discerningly.
“I took the liberty of ordering us a bottle of wine. I’m something of an amateur sommelier and thought I might be able to make the better decision between the two of us. It’s a merlot.” Without asking, he picks up the bottle and begins to fill my glass.
“I’m actually not really a red wine drinker-”
“That’s because you’ve never had anyone with taste choose a wine for you,” he interrupts.
So that’s how this is going to go.
He gives me an expectant look. I raise the glass to my lips and let the bitter cherry wash over my tongue. Stifling a shudder, I nod at him.
“It’s good.” I lie. A smug, tight-lipped smile spreads across his face. He then launches into a detailed description of the history of this particular wine, his own fascination with wine, the time he was asked to pick the wine menu for a high-profile friend’s wedding.
To be fair, I really do try. I ask questions, to which he provides lengthy responses that I half listen to. As he talks, his long, thin fingers move animatedly: a pianist who has lost his keys.
He does not press me for details about my life, but seems to prefer that, when he is not speaking, we bask in prolonged, uncomfortable silences. The hands on my watch appear to somehow move backward. He finally does bring up my art career, but only to ask what he seems to think is a joking question: do you need a sugar daddy to support your artist lifestyle? I stare at him blankly and he turns his thin laugh into a cough. A moment later, he excuses himself to the restroom.
I am looking absently out the window when, to my surprise, our server sits down directly across from me. She is a tall, elegant woman with striking hazel eyes. The way she looks at me gives the sensation that she is, somehow, looking right through me.
“Are you miserable? You look miserable.” Her mouth is curved upward slightly, and I can’t tell if she is joking. But she tilts her head forward expectantly.
“Oh, I mean, yes – have you seen him? He’s horrible.” I whisper, glancing over my shoulder towards the restroom. She laughs softly.
“I can tell. Do you want me to get you out of it?”
“The date. Do you want me to get you out of the date?” Her eyes cut quickly to the men’s room and she raises an eyebrow. “Hurry, he’s coming back. Yes, or no?”
I nod, too surprised to respond and too worried that my date might hear us. She rises gracefully just as he reappears at the table. He observes her coldly.
“We were just talking about the wine! Excellent choice.” She says, flashing a dazzling smile. He seems pleased with this. As she walks away, she turns from him and winks at me.
For a while, things are uneventful. We are sent a complimentary appetizer from the chef, which my date claims is because they are friends before proceeding to critique the dish harshly. More unbearable silences ensue. I absentmindedly peruse the menu and realize that there isn’t anything I would actually want to eat. I think about Ronald at his gyro stand.
Suddenly, seemingly from nowhere, our server materializes at my elbow.
“I hope you all are enjoying everything,” she says, reaching for the bottle of merlot which sits, half drunk, in the middle of the table. “Let me just get you a refill.”
To my surprise, my date reaches out and grabs the neck of the bottle, pulling it towards himself.
“I can do that.” He snaps, his voice shockingly cold. He glares at our server, and I see her fingers flex as she tries to pull the bottle back towards herself.
“Please, sir, it’s easier if I just –” she gives the bottle a sharp, exaggerated tug.
I watch with a mixture of horror and delight as the bottle arches backward and, seemingly in slow motion, a river of dark red liquid spills out and onto my white linen sundress. It hits my chest, flows down over my lap, and finally lands on the floor, pooling around my feet. I see my date’s eyes widen in shock as our server feigns embarrassment. I touch my hand to my stomach. When I pull it away, my palm and fingers are covered in a bloody imprint, the wine creating some sort of absurd wound.
Rather than helping me clean up, my date turns to our server and immediately snaps that the bottle cost him $35 and he will need it to be comped. As she turns to offer me a napkin, I realize her eyes are brimming with tears as she attempts to hold back her laughter.
“Oh, sir, I’m so sorry, you’ll have to take that up with my manager,” she wheezes, and now I can barely contain myself. I quickly stand and excuse myself, squishing in my wine-filled shoes all the way to the restroom. I can feel her walking closely behind me.
“Thank you,” I whisper, but she does not respond.
By the time I return from attempting to clean myself up, my date is in a full-on shouting match with a woman I presume to be the restaurant manager. He is now not only insisting the wine be comped but that he be given a gift card for future visits and that our server be fired. I grab my jacket, thank him for a lovely evening, and nearly sprint out the door.
Outside, the sky is dark, transparent indigo bordered with purple, starless, unending. The lights of the city provide the electric current that keeps everything moving. A slow smile breaks over my face and I find myself laughing into the cool night air.
“Merlot!” I am suddenly aware of a voice behind me yelling. “Merlot! Hey! Wait up!” I turn and am surprised to see the server from the restaurant jogging behind me. She has traded her short black apron for a dramatic, cream-colored fur coat. Her black hair is now loose around her shoulders, fluttering softly behind her as she runs. She catches up to me and, from the inside of her coat, pulls out a bottle of champagne.
“Thought this might be more your preference,” she smiles.
“That was…incredible. It was insane and possibly the most absurd thing that’s ever happened to me, but it was incredible. Thank you.” I take the bottle of champagne and look at her. “Aren’t you going to get in trouble for taking this?”
“I was planning on quitting anyway,” she shrugs. “Sorry, about your dress. I’ve heard baking soda helps with that kind of thing.”
“I was planning on getting rid of it anyway,” I say, and she laughs. We stand silently for a moment. Beneath us, the underground rumbles along, sending small vibrations up my legs.
“Do you want to get a drink?” She asks suddenly, her eyes darting back and forth across my face. I feel my head tilt slightly, questioningly.
“Actually,” I say, “how do you feel about gyros? I know this guy, Ronald, he has a gyro stand…”
“Sold. Absolutely. Sounds wonderful.” She says breathlessly. I pull my jacket over my shoulders and we walk down the brightly lit street, the hum of the city reverberating between us.