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An Evening Out





An Evening Out




Celeste strides across the restaurant parking lot trailed by her husband, who is walking at a more leisurely pace. Without a reservation, Celeste is keen to get inside and sort out a table.

Slosh! Celeste stops to brush muddy water off her boots. Behind her, Henry is now only footsteps away. Celeste presses on. Inside, she examines the room. Almost all the tables are occupied. No, all the tables have patrons.

As she considers this predicament, Celeste overhears a couple engaged in a lively banter. It’s the sort of conversation two people who know each other well have. With a flourish, they lift their wine glasses and salute the evening. It isn’t what they are saying, their chic attire or even their obliviousness to anything but each other that captures Celeste’s interest. It’s the sensual and rapid French swirling between them.

Celeste slips into one of the empty seats and says animatedly, “Votre Français est impeccable. Vraiment. Quand j'entends être vrai Français parlé, I’m always intrigued. Henry, of course, doesn’t speak a word of French. So I’m limited with whom I can converse.” She gestures to her husband, who by this time has taken the last spot.

Henry frowns, apparently not bothered by this shortcoming. “Celeste is continually moaning about missing her homeland. The beautiful language, the cafés, the flair, basically everything. But what’s not to love about Chicago is what I always reply.”

Celeste leans in and gushes, “Don’t get me wrong, this is a great city. But sometimes one gets nostalgic. That’s all. And so here we are.” Speaking in English, it’s impossible to detect an accent. Yet, Celeste’s earlier French was spoken flawlessly, also without an accent.

The maître d' delivers two extra menus and deftly takes their coats. Beside Henry, the man stares across at his companion and says, “I’m not sure –…” but is cut off when Celeste orders a glass of chardonnay followed by Henry’s selection of beer.

The woman slightly shrugs at her lover before turning to Celeste. “Yes, we were so thrilled when this restaurant opened up last year. We all know how hard it is to find authentic French cuisine here. Jacques keeps saying it’s best he’s eaten, particularly the confit de canard, although I’m partial to the soufflé, myself.” Her accented English is lyrical.

Jacques swirls the wine in his glass, takes a sip and plunks it on the table. “I’d be surprised if Eloise has even tried any other dish,” he says acerbically.

Eloise dismisses his comment with a flick of her wrist. “Don’t make fun of me, chéri. When one finds something to appreciate, why digress?”

The server places Celeste and Henry’s drinks at their elbows and says he’ll return to take dinner orders.

Nestling into her chair, Celeste exclaims, “Actually, Henry and I are about to digress from our current path. As we sit here, we’re waiting for a call offering Henry a new job out in San Francisco.”

Henry shakes his head and narrows his eyes.

“He keeps thinking I’m going to spoil it by talking about it. But it’s too good not to talk about it.” Celeste beams at Henry. “It’s a promotion for Henry, and a big adventure for both of us.”

Eloise raises her glass. “Congratulations. Let’s celebrate.”

Jacques arches his left eyebrow and presses his thumb onto Eloise’s wrist. But she slides her hand away and says, “Jacques, you know I love a fine sparkling wine and almost always forget to check for one before we go to our staple red. Humour me.” With that, Eloise signals the server and requests a bottle of bubbly and four glasses. With an air of detached acceptance, Jacques sits back and crosses his arms.

Eloise moves forward, a self-satisfied smile on her face, and directs her attention back to Celeste. “So San Fran, huh? Have you ever been out there? We’ve only been to Los Angeles ourselves. But it’s not anything like I imagine San Francisco to be.”

“I haven’t been, but Henry had an in-person interview there last month. He loved the architecture, and thought Chinatown had the best dim sum he’s ever eaten. When he came back, Henry told me he could feel its magnetism and energy.” Celeste lowers her voice, as if breaking a confidence. “The job is with a startup that combines using business products and social networking. It’s cutting edge really—”

Henry exhales loudly, takes a mouthful of beer and then says curtly, “Can we please talk about something else, like the weather, for example, or why high school reunions seem like such a good idea when you receive the invitation, but tend to be really boring if you actually go.”

Jacques bobs his head vigorously. “Yes, I totally agree with you. Mainly because when you get there, you find out everyone’s been doing the same thing as you – married at mid-twenty, divorced ten years later and with someone new by forty. A career in business or law or real estate. Or maybe a teacher. There’s a chance someone’s an artist or an astronaut. But more likely you’re all doing the usual things. The 1.2 kids, the house in the ‘burbs. So you talk to each other, but really, you’re just talking to yourself. And the fact is, you already know everything about yourself.”

Henry chuckles and his shoulders loosen. “Yeah, it’s funny how those things are held up as a pinnacle to show off our achievements.” He raises his pint glass. “To never going to high school reunions!”

The four clink glasses.

“So when are you moving?” Eloise asks.

Celeste, avoiding Henry’s eye, answers, “We haven’t figured that out yet. We’d need to sell here, and probably rent there to begin with. Wow, I haven’t rented in…” Celeste pauses to count on her fingers. “…in nine years..”

“Beware of crazy landlords, and derelict ones who never repair anything no matter how many times you ask. Or dishonest ones.” Eloise says, her tone sharpening. “Once I lived in a place, where my landlord gave me early notice, claiming he wanted to do major renovations. This, after disregarding repeated requests to fix a water leak in the kitchen. I moved out, but I was suspicious. A few weeks later, I was nearby and not only did I not spot any sign of big repairs but a twosome came out that I’d never seen before. It’s possible they were visiting friends, but the complex only had four units, and they had an ‘I live here’ look to them.”

“And what is a ‘I live here’ look exactly?” Jacques questions in a teasing voice.

Eloise gives him a withering glance. “Mon dieu! It’s when you come out of a building with a sure step.”

Ignoring Jacques’ almost empty glass, Eloise refills her own from the bottle on the table, takes a nip and continues, “The point of my story is that landlords can be scoundrels.”

Celeste picks up her white wine, drinks half and looks Eloise in the eye. “When I rented, I had decent landlords. Mind you, I only rented during college and for a few years afterwards. Still, I’m sure there are more good landlords than not.”

“Absolutely. You’re right. I’ve had my share of good landlords as well,” Eloise promptly agrees.

Henry’s phone rings. He puts a hand up to the group and walks to the coatroom. Celeste watches until he’s gone, and then takes a noisy, deep breath.

Celeste and Henry have been waiting for this call for exactly twenty-seven days. When the opportunity had first arisen, Henry told her about the good feeling he had, and Celeste researched neighbourhoods in San Francisco. But the days had stretched into weeks. And still the call hadn’t come.

“I guess that’ll be it.” Eloise declares. “This is exciting.  We should figure out where the bubbly is.” Eloise glances around for the server, who isn’t anywhere to be seen.

“I’m a little anxious,” Celeste suddenly professes, brushing non-existent lint off her sleeve. “Which is funny, because it’s such a positive thing. We’ve been talking about it for so long. And now it’s here.”

“What’s there to be nervous about?” asks Eloise, reaching out to squeeze Celeste’s wrist. “This is an opportunity of a lifetime, right Jacques?”

“Indeed. Adventure is the pepper of life,” Jacques proclaims, pointing to the mill on the table. “It’s readily available, makes things better when partaken of and adds zest to otherwise boring things.” Jacques finishes his wine, grasps the bottle and tips the remainder into his glass.

            “Exactly,” Eloise concurs. “More importantly, who do you know in San Francisco? You have friends or family there, I guess.”

Celeste shakes her head. “A friend moved to California, but she’s in San Diego. And all my family is here.”

“So, you’re the first ones to head west. That can be great. Friends and family will definitely visit, after all San Francisco is breathtaking.” Eloise thrills. “Plus, if no one knows you, you can totally reinvent yourselves. Become more captivating versions of yourselves.”

Celeste smiles broadly, looking more relaxed. “I’ve been known to reinvent myself. When I went to Duke, I finally got rid of my insufferable nickname.” Celeste puckers her lips. “Although, I think by then only my father still used it.”

“Perfect. No more nicknames in San Fran. And not to worry, it’s only a short plane ride away. What is it, five, six hours tops. That’s like watching a couple of movies back to back. Or you could meditate or sleep on the flight.”

“Meditation not so much, and I’ve never been able to sleep on planes no matter how tired I am. But some of the old movies available on flights are really wonderful. Sometimes makes flying worth it!”

“You probably wouldn’t come back to Chicago that much with your new west coast lifestyle. And all that beach and surf and sun.”

Celeste reaches up to pat her wavy auburn hair. “Sure, although for me sun translates to lots of sunscreen and big hats. I’m up to number 50. I like the ocean, but, to be honest, the idea of the beach has generally been more promising than the real thing. Especially, when weeks after the outing, those fine grains still seem to haunt me.”

The server approaches the table holding a tray of four champagne flutes and a fat bottle topped in silver leaf.

Celeste holds her hand out. “We should wait until my husband rejoins us. He’s just stepped away. Can you come back in a few minutes?”

Murmuring acquiescence, the server leaves with the celebratory items.

Henry comes into view and makes his way back to the table. His body language doesn’t give anything away.

“We’re celebrating, right? The server was just here with the sparkling wine. We told him to come back. Why don’t I go find him…” Celeste speaks quickly but then trails off at Henry’s quiet expression.

“It wasn’t them,” Henry says, drawing out the last word. “One of my cousins called to invite me on a fishing trip to Maine.”

“Oh, that wasn’t the offer? ” Celeste says hesitantly. She looks at her watch. “It’s 8 p.m. Maybe it’s too late for it to happen today.”

“It’s not too late at all. They’re probably just finishing getting organized.” Henry pulls out his chair and sits.

The server reappears. Celeste starts to wave him away again, but then reconsiders, announcing to the table, “This may be a funny sequence, but how about if we get started on the sparkling, even though the reason has yet to materialize. In fact, let’s toast to the anticipation.”

Henry laughs. “That’s the spirit.”

Once the drinks are poured, Celeste raises her glass. With exaggerated enthusiasm she says, “To the brightest future that is right around the corner.”

One by one, they all tap flutes and proceed to order: Celeste chooses the pasta special while Henry and Jacques both go for the duck and Eloise selects the grilled salmon, wagging her finger at Jacques and mouthing “Not soufflé.”

As the server turns, Jacques calls him back. “Just a second. I’ll have the scallops instead of the duck. A few of us are picking less usual options and I’d like to be one of them,” he says, and grins triumphantly at Eloise. The server crosses out the previous request and writes down the new one.

Eloise looks at Celeste and says, “You’re lucky. In San Francisco, you’ll have the best and biggest variety of the seafood in the world. I think even Iceland can’t rival it. Other places are just imitation.”

Celeste wrinkles her nose. “Henry loves fish. Not me. So that’s not a draw.”

A silence descends on the group. When Henry’s phone rings, it’s loud and jarring. He gets up saying, “I’ll be right back.”

As Henry walks away from the table, Celeste grips the edge and rises to her feet. She reaches him as he is saying, “That sounds good. I appreciate the confidence and look forward to getting the paperwork. This position is ideal.” After a few additional remarks, he wraps up the conversation.

Celeste, her arm outstretched to tap his shoulder, lowers it and takes a step back. She studies his face: broad smile and flushed cheeks. It’s the spark in his eyes that gives her pause.

Henry looks at Celeste. She mumbles something indecipherable. Tears well up and Henry embraces her. She burrows into his chest.

“This evening has been eventful. I’m exhausted. How about we go just home?” Celeste says demurely.

“Sure. Why don’t I leave money for the bill and cancel our order. You get our coats.” Henry walks back to the table, leaves cash for the drinks and apologizes, grabbing his jacket.

Celeste is waiting by the door, ready to go. As Henry buttons up his coat, he comments, “Interesting friends. Where do you know them from?”

“I’d forgotten to make a reservation.” Celeste confesses. “They were speaking French with such passion, I embraced the moment and sat down. I have no idea who they are.”

Henry holds open the door for Celeste. A cold wind snaps it back.









Ele Pawelski  



 






I published my debut novella, The Finest Supermarket in Kabul, with Quattro Books in December 2017. My short stories have appeared in the Nashwaak Review, Flash Fiction Magazine and numerous Canadian newspapers. Before moving back to Toronto ten years ago, I lived overseas and managed human rights projects in Afghanistan, South Sudan, Bosnia, Kenya, Uzbekistan and Kosovo. Still an avid adventurer, I keep a bag packed for spontaneous trips, adding to the 70-plus countries I've worked in or visited.





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