Reflection of a Girl Remembering How to Feel Alive
A tortured past, a blooming love, and a glass of Merlot.
She didn’t need to scan the menu long because a different guy had taken her here just last week. Of course, she couldn’t tell that to her current date. Instead, she said, “I can’t choose. It all sounds so good.”
He had been here before too, but she only found that out when he said, “The crab ravioli is my favorite.”
Had he been here last week? she wondered. Had he seen her get drunk and spill her wine across her date’s lap? That one had texted her the next day to say it wasn't going to work out. The nice guys never ghosted her, no matter how horrible she’d been.
“Shall we get a bottle of wine?” she asked.
Her current date opened his mouth in surprise. She liked causing that look. The one that flashed across a man’s face as she defied an unspoken rule of gender dynamics—how dare she ask for what she really wanted on a first date?
“Absolutely.” He fixed his gape into a smile, then called the waiter over. “We’ll have a bottle of the Merlot, please.”
“How could you be sure I’d want a red?” she asked once the waiter walked away.
He adjusted his watch and clasped his hands on the table, his sleeves rolled up to his mid-arms—to signal he was casual, you know. “We chatted about it in our first exchange,” he said. “Your first message to me was ‘white or red,’ and when I said ‘red,’ you said, ‘thank God’ because you would never date a chardonnay drinker again.”
“That sounds like me,” she said, returning his playful smile. They held each other’s gaze for the first time that evening. She liked the way his green eyes were surrounded by a smattering of freckles. She liked the way he brushed his auburn hair back from his forehead when he talked. She liked the way his smile raised more on one side than the other. She scanned his face and forced herself to remember it all.
Her cheeks burned, holding his gaze. She looked down and suddenly felt self-conscious of her appearance. She had stopped sending pictures of her date outfits to friends about one year ago. Anymore, she just grabbed something slutty from her closet knowing her true objective on these dates was simply to get into the guy’s bed. This evening, she chose a dress with a deep-V opening to her sternum. Her eyeliner had smeared slightly on one side, but she hadn’t bothered to fix it.
She had stopped talking to all the friends that were worried about her.
She knew they didn’t understand what she had been through and why she tried so hard to forget it. By going on dates. Dozens of them a month. Trying to force the memory of her trauma out with a deluge of new faces, new bodies, new souls. She remembered all their names, memorized their eye color, their facial hair (or lack thereof), the way they walked, their opening hellos, the way they kissed—desperately trying to squeeze out the one memory in her mind she couldn’t bear.
The waiter arrived with the Merlot and poured them each a modest glass before setting the bottle on the table.
“Cheers,” her date touched his glass to hers, smiling his slightly crooked smile.
“To non-chardonnay drinkers.”
She was surprised by how easily the conversation flowed as they waited for their food. Normally on these dates, her end of the conversation was dotted with (fake) too-enthusiastic giggles, (fake) smiles, (fake) interest in the stories she goaded the men into telling. She learned early on that if she asked enough questions, she’d never have to talk about herself. Most guys could take a question about their watch and turn it into a twenty-minute ambling story about their work, or their travels, or their grandfather who fought in the war. (She never asked which war, it was always just “the war.” She wondered if they even knew.)
Yet with him… she found herself wanting to make him laugh. Their banter felt like a chess game, each trying to outwit the other yet getting a thrill from the unexpected dance of the pieces. The rush of conversation made her feel fully present and alive in a way she hadn’t in so long. For the first time in a year, she heard herself genuinely laugh. She almost didn’t recognize the sound.
“I’ll be right back,” he said, excusing himself to the restroom.
As soon as he turned the corner out of sight, she picked up her spoon and held it before her face, using it as a mirror to fix her smudged eyeliner and smooth her hair. She pressed the back of her hand to her face and relished the warmth of her flushed cheek. She had forgotten how it felt to blush.
As she waited, she gazed around the gold-and-red décor of the restaurant, sipping her Merlot (it had been a good choice). She smiled as her eyes traveled over an elderly couple holding hands as they ate. A group of four middle-aged women drinking cosmos. A man pulling the chair back for his date (was it their first too?).
A woman and a ma—
Her eyes darted down to her table. It wasn’t him, she thought, just someone who looks like him. Her breathing began to catch in her throat as she gripped her hands tightly.
Slowly, her eyes traveled up again.
It was him.
Talking to a woman with bleach-blond hair (she could only see the back of her head).
Head slightly tilted down yet eyes gazing at the woman’s face (you know, that beneath-the-eyebrows gaze men think is sexy).
Sitting about thirty feet away. From her.
She swallowed hard, again and again, and felt the room constrict around her. Her vision blurred until that the only thing she could see was a swirl of gold-and-red and…. Him.
Her date sat back down.
“So, I was thinking, I know we haven’t gotten our entrees yet, but we should order dessert tonight. After dinner coffee. Heck, maybe even a scotch,” he said.
She managed a small smile.
He took a sip of Merlot. “This might be too forward but I… just don’t want the evening to end.”
She looked into his eyes, green, kind. She wanted them to arrest her, make her feel like nothing else in the room existed. But instead, they traveled, without her control, over her date’s shoulder, and froze on… him.
Why now? she desperately asked herself. Of all her dates, of all her other experiences, why did she have to see him now? It was as if he had orchestrated this, manipulated it into being—as if he had sensed she would begin to fall for someone new and had wanted to rip the possibility of healing away from her.
Her breathing quickened. Her eyes filled with tears.
“Amanda,” her date said, “are you okay?”
“No,” she whispered between labored breath. “I have to go.”
Just then, the waiter approached the table. “The crab ravioli, for the lady, and the risotto, for the man,” he said, setting the plates down.
Her date interjected, “Actually, we’ll take these to go.”
The waiter, surprised, picked up the plates again. “Of course.”
Her date looked at her, eyes fully of worry. “Amanda, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing, I… I don’t know, it’s nothing.” How could she explain? How could she possibly translate into words the trauma that ran so deeply through her veins? Wouldn’t he just blame me for it, hate me for it? she thought.
“Do you want to go wait outside? Maybe some fresh air would help…” Her date grabbed her hand and gently rubbed his thumb across her palm.
She looked in his green eyes. And suddenly, she felt calm. Her breathing slowed. Her tears ceased. Her gaze traveled over her date’s shoulder once more, to him, but instead of the desperation she felt only a moment ago, she now felt anger—the most intense ire of her life igniting her soul and quaking across her body.
She smiled at her date. “I think I’ll be okay,” she said. She filled her wine glass to the brim with Merlot. Then stood.
Her date watched her, but didn’t say a word. Didn’t try to intervene.
Calmly, she grabbed the glass and walked over to bleach-blonde woman, and him.
He… he stopped mid-sentence and looked at her. Silence. His face fell, then in a gesture of masterful manipulation, he contorted it into a surprised smile.
“Amanda! Long time no see!” He forced his grin wider as she stood there, silent. He had the audacity to act embarrassed for her. “To what do I owe this —"
Coolly, as though she were watering a plant, she raised her glass above him and poured the Merlot over his head. The blonde-haired woman shrieked and backed away from the splash. A gasp rose across the restaurant as everyone witnessed the red wine cascading over his posh haircut, down his grimaced face, across his white dress shirt.
“You bitch!” he screamed, jumping up. “What the hell is wrong with you? What has always been wrong with you?”
Without saying a word, Amanda turned and walked back to her table, her date, and their boxed-up entrees.
“I’ll get the check,” her date said. Was that admiration or disgust in his eyes? she wondered.
. . .
Outside, her date called a cab. “Let’s get you home,” he said.
In the car, he held her hand, still rubbing his thumb along the palm. She leaned her head against the cool window. Maybe he doesn’t think I’m crazy after all… she thought.
“Did they charge you for that?” she asked, embarrassed.
“No, no…” he said.
She looked at him, skeptically.
“I left a massive tip… and we’re banned from the restaurant.”
“Oh, god, I’m so sorry,” she squeezed his hand.
“Don’t be. Their crab ravioli is absolutely overrated.”
She smiled at him, then tilted her head back to the window just in time to see the Brooklyn Bridge pass by.
“Stop the car!” she said.
“Come with me.” She handed the cabbie a twenty and jumped from the car.
Grabbing his hand, she pulled him to the waterfront. A series of wide cement-steps led down to the East River, lapping its waters against the edge of Manhattan. Overhead spanned the Brooklyn Bridge, and across the dark water rose the lights of Brooklyn. On the steps, beneath the streetlamps sat groups of friends, couples, owners and their dogs. Laughter and talking filled the air, mixing with the distinct, warm aroma of the water.
They sat on the steps. She squeezed her eyes shut and tilted her face back, as though offering herself to the light breeze of the night. She wondered if he thought she was crazy yet. But when she opened her eyes, she noticed he wasn’t judging her; he was mirroring her. His head tilted toward the night sky, his eyes closed tight, his hair fluttering in the breeze.
He was simply existing beside her.
“This used to be my favorite place in the city,” she said, letting the wind carry strands of her brown hair across her face.
“Why did you like it so much?” he asked, taking her hand once more.
She breathed deeply. For a moment, they simply listened to the laughter, the lapping water, the cars passing by overhead.
“See how the lights from the bridge reflect against the water?”
“The lights by themselves would be pretty enough. But the fact that they’re reflected in the water makes them all the more beautiful.” She bit her lip slightly, thinking. “I always thought how maybe that’s true of us too. We can be good on our own, but maybe there are people who mirror us, in some sense, who make us all the more beautiful because they’re in our lives.”
Gently, he brushed a strand of hair away from her face, behind her ear. “I think you’re right,” he said, looking into her eyes. “Can I ask… why did you stop loving this place?”
She paused, unsure how much of the truth to offer. Feeling her heart beating fast beneath his hand, now resting against her neck, she decided to try to find the words.
“Because he … he did something to me. He made me think that maybe the people in our lives only made us uglier. Worse. More unworthy.” A tear ran down her cheek. “He made me think that it was foolish to ever believe life could be beautiful. Foolish to ever believe I could be beautiful…”
He put his hand on the side of her face and wiped a tear with his thumb. “I’m so sorry that happened to you. I wish you had never had to go through that.”
They were silent after that. Holding hands, they gazed over the river. Its soft ripples made the lights look as though they were dancing. The people around them trickled away, slowly, over time. The laughter and talking grew fainter until it stopped altogether.
And it was just them. And the bridge’s lights reflected on the water. And the feeling of something blossoming again in her heart – a love that had laid dormant for so long began to animate her soul once more.
Beneath the lights of the Brooklyn Bridge, she gazed into his eyes, and for a moment, she didn’t see him. Instead, as she looked into his eyes, she saw herself reflected back. All at once she was reminded that she existed. That she was real. All at once she felt the full force of someone looking at her and seeing her—of someone opening their heart to her and reflecting pieces of her own she thought had died long ago. Staring at her own reflection in his eyes, she began to think that maybe, just maybe, she could learn to see herself as beautiful again.
She smiled and leaned her head against his shoulder. She gazed at the water. Maybe the love blooming in her heart was partly for him. But not fully, no. At least some of it, she was sure, was for herself.
He mimed raising an imaginary glass into the air. “To non-chardonnay drinkers.”
She held up her hand, pretending to clink his. “And to Merlot.”
***If you liked this story, please give it a heart! I still can't believe people are reading my writing and liking it, so each heart makes my own heart beam. :) Also, to read more of my stories on Vocal, check out Pinky Promise or Brilliant Boy.