Dillon started to chew the nail on his index finger while he was waiting for his lunch date to show up. Twenty minutes went by. Half an hour. He sat there, mouse-like, gnawing and waiting. Then, when the woman finally phoned to say that she’d be there shortly, he suddenly felt the need to check his outfit one more time. The last woman had suggested he iron his shirt. This time, he had even sent the shirt to the dry cleaner. He had polished his shoes. He thought he had better make sure his fly was zipped. Just as he lifted his head up, the lunch date walked by the restaurant window, heading for the front door. She was tall, with loosely curled brown hair, and she was wearing the agreed-upon green jacket. She looked even more attractive in person than she did in the photo she had posted on the We’re So Smart dating website, a matchmaking service restricted to graduates of elite universities.
She looks like a Fragonard, thought Dillon. Or maybe a Watteau. He had taken art history as an elective, but he always confused those two.
“I went to the wrong place,” said the Fragonard look-alike, breathlessly, as she approached his table. “I had it in my head that your email said, “Sergio’s” not “La Tarantella.”
Dillon smiled and told her not to worry, but then he could think of nothing else to add. Nothing. Even though he had practiced that very morning, while shaving, many of the conversational “ice-breakers” proposed by We’re So Smart. He rose slightly and fumbled to shake Miss Fragonard’s hand, then realized she had already tossed off her green jacket and seated herself so that his outstretched hand practically brushed her left breast. He felt his face grow warm. She was wearing a scooped neck blouse, with the straps of a camisole exposed at the top. From her earlobes dangled small jade earrings. He quickly sat back down and gulped.
He told himself to make eye contact, to resist the urge to stare at the tablecloth. The last person he had met through We’re So Smart had observed that his eye contact was a little sketchy. She had actually used the word sketchy, which Dillon had first taken as a compliment. Sketchy like a Durer print, he had thought, until she explained what she meant in one final caustic email.
Dillon clamped his eyes onto Miss Fragonard, or was it Miss Watteau? Blue. Her eyes were blue, he told himself. Not quite periwinkle, but definitely towards that end of the spectrum. Pervanche. No, they were Cornflower. Kornblume, as the Germans say. Or azul. What exactly was azul? Dillon’s mind flittered here and there among languages. Then he began to wonder how his own eyes appeared. Were his glasses clean? Perhaps they were smudged. Hadn’t he wiped them this morning?
He still could think of nothing to say aloud.
The woman looked directly at Dillon with her bright blue eyes. She smiled. Then she gave a toss of her head, and glanced around the restaurant.
“This looks like a nice place,” she said, cheerfully, as the waiter dropped off two menus.
She mentioned her fondness for Italian food, which led her to describe a trip to Milan last spring, where she had given an academic paper. Dillon managed to nod and acknowledge that he, too, enjoyed Italy. He had gone once to Florence during university and then again three years ago, right before his thirty-sixth birthday. The trip was a gift from his parents. Miss Fragonard/Watteau raised one perfectly arched eyebrow, and asked if Dillon still lived with his parents. He assured her that he did not.
The waiter reappeared at the table wondering if they were ready to order. The woman asked the waiter to describe the house salad, in detail. Dillon couldn’t take his eyes off the perfect row of white teeth which were visible when she said the word “insalata”. The waiter, his pen poised, turned to Dillon. In all this time, Dillon had not even looked at the menu. He quickly zeroed in on the first item he saw printed at the top of the page. Scungilli Rusticana. Only much later did he remember he was a bit frightened of squid.
“Oh, you’re adventurous,” she said. “I’m just going with what I know. “
Dillon grinned, thrilled to be called adventurous. He stammered out a protest, but she continued.
“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that you like adventure. You must go on a lot of digs, in exotic places. That’s pretty wild.”
He had never really thought of his work as adventurous. Most of it took place in dusty libraries or in the caverns of museums. But she maintained otherwise.
“It’s a quest, right?”
He had to agree.
“And what exactly did you say your specialty was?” she continued. “Neo-Sumerian history?”
Dillon was delighted that she recalled this bit of information from his written profile. A good sign, he told himself. It means she was interested. In him. In his work. He asked, hesitatingly, if she had ever heard of Tappeh Sialk. She shook her head. He wanted to tell her all about his research. But, suddenly, all he could think about was his thinning hair. He wondered if he should have parted it on the other side. Was his male pattern baldness that obvious? Would she take it as a sign of his virility? His mind whirred. He had been an archeological historian for fifteen years, but he couldn’t even come up with the names of the two Frenchmen who had excavated Tappeh Sialk. For some reason, he found himself talking about archeological brushes. When he realized he wasn’t making a lot of sense, he grew silent.
“May I have a breadstick?” she suddenly asked, breaking his reverie. She leaned over to take one of the breadsticks propped up in a pottery mug. He caught a whiff of her perfume, or maybe it was her deodorant. She smelled like a field in Provence, or maybe just like the lavender sachets his mother used to stick in her bureau drawer.
“You had mentioned something about the ziggurat at Tappeh Sialk, “ she continued, delicately snapping the breadstick with her perfectly white teeth.
The ziggurat. Of course. Considered, by some, the world’s oldest ziggurat. In Iran. A special site. But when he thought of the word site, his mind went back to the dating site where he had found her. We’re So Smart. He started to think about the logo, two cerebellums entwined around two hearts.
Then he suddenly remembered one of the We’re So Smart guidelines: Conversation should be like ping-pong, going back and forth.
He realized that he needed to ask her about her own field.
She was happy to describe her work. “Although I’m not married to it, “ she said with a laugh. She described her doctoral thesis and then her research. He nodded vigorously, but he had to admit that he had forgotten a lot of advanced chemistry. He had only a vague idea of what she was talking about. When she mentioned that her particular interest was recyclable carbohydrate polymers, his mind again went elsewhere. To carbohydrates, plain and simple. The kind he ate. In great quantity, too much of the time. Chips. Biscuits. Chocolate Box Cake. He couldn’t stop thinking about his paunch, flopping its way over the top of his chinos. Had she noticed when he stood to greet her? He tried to suck in his stomach, but gave up when he realized that his belly was now quite hidden by the table itself.
When the main course came, she dug into her insalata and Chicken Diablo. Dillon watched her lips grow redder with blotches of tomato sauce. He took his fork and moved the rubbery scungilli around on his plate.
“You’re kind of quiet, aren’t you, Dillon?” she asked, sponging up the last of the sauce with a slice of ciabatta.
He wanted to assure her that he would talk more once he felt comfortable. But he couldn’t think of a way to say it. He made a brief comment about still waters running deep. Did that sound haughty? Was it too much of a cliché? He hoped it didn’t come from the Bible. No, surely it didn’t. He lowered his head and studied the dessert menu in silence.
Neither one ordered coffee. The waiter left them to split the check, as We’re So Smart suggested. He watched her reach for her purse. The jade earrings swayed like little pendulums. Penduli. Latin I, prep school. Neuter noun. Dillon suddenly could see the declensions in an old textbook, right next to a drawing of a naked Roman goddess, over which some previous student had declined the word “boobs” in indelible ink. Plural. Feminine. Boobae, boobarum,boobis,boobas, and so on.
He wondered if he should ask her about going to the movies. Or to a concert. For their next date.
She got up, pulled on her jacket and buttoned it across her chest. He looked down at his own hands, noticed the bitten off fingernails, and stuck his hands in his pockets. Then they walked to the door together. It had started to rain, so they lingered a minute under La Tarantella’s pink canopy while she took a fold-up umbrella from her bag. She shook his hand, and ran off, her long legs deftly avoiding the puddles.
Later she emailed him, “I don’t think there’s any chemistry here (I’m a chemist, I should know LOL) but it was really nice to meet you. I wish you the best of luck with your research and your search.”
Dillon thought back to her last comment about his being quiet. He knew that he should have given a better answer. He should have said that he was actually quite talkative, a regular moulin à paroles, as the French say. A windmill of words. He should have told her that he was restraining himself so as not to overwhelm her. Then he might have aced the date.