By Shya Scanlon.
Forecast is being serialised semiweekly across 42 websites. For a full list of participants and links to live chapters, please visit the author’s website.
Zara peered into the cavernous room while they waited for their table. She giggled, and looked back at Jack. Jack was about ten years older than her, and had a lean, athletic build. He was also almost a foot taller than her, and he could see past her without having to move. Zara watched him survey the restaurant with a slight, pouty frown that she took for approval. His light blue eyes reflected the dim lights of the waiting room, and his medium length, wavy blond hair was brushed back, though it playfully splashed over ears here and there. He was very unlike anyone she knew.
For the occasion, Zara had worn one of her mother’s dresses. Actually, it was her mother’s only dress, unless she counted the summer dress with patched pockets she wore while gardening. It was simple, black, with thin straps over the shoulders and a seam that began on the front center hem, between her legs, and curved up and around her hip and onto her back, where it ended at the base of a low-cut V. When they’d met in front of the restaurant, Jack had actually said “Yowza,” which made Zara unexpectedly blush. Then blush about blushing.
Jack let out a low whistle.
“Nice place,” he said. He looked down at his date. “You come here often?”
He wasn’t joking.
“No, silly,” she said. “This is a gift from a friend of mine.”
Jack eyed her suspiciously. “Must be some friend,” he said.
“Sure is,” she confirmed.
Jack laughed, enjoying the game. “You’re something else, Helen,” he said, and nudged her.
“Entirely,” said Zara, and nudged him back.
They’d established a playful familiarity during their short online interaction, and though Zara had worried that it might be more awkward in person, she felt very relaxed with Jack who, like an older brother, could be physical in a non-sexual way. His language, in addition to vocabulary, involved a simple syntax of pats and tugs and little pushes and he didn’t seem self-conscious about it at all. It was refreshing, and she was delighted that rather than being a chore, this favor to Asseem was turning out to be quite fun.
The host returned and brought them into the grand dining room. A vaulted ceiling rose three stories above their heads and, though the space was enormous and open, its dark colors, rich, heavy fabrics, and veil of cigarette smoke imbued it with a sense of privacy. One could see all the way across the room into someone else’s booth, but somehow the meaning of their gestures or dialogue was absorbed by the curtains and cushions, or obscured by the smell of the food. And the food! Before Zara lay an oversized menu, but her eyes were hopping from table to table, taking in the site of all manner of edible opulence. Roast lamb shanks, slabs of beef, whole fish with their heads still intact, their eyes opaque as dabs of wet paint. She hadn’t eaten anything all day in preparation for this feast, and her stomach was erupting in gaseous gurgles she hoped her date wouldn’t hear.
She breathed deeply, savoring the aromatic collision of meats and cheeses and veggies and breads. She wondered whether she’d have room for two entrées.
The waiters passed by, their faces just inches from all of this food. How could they stand it? How could they be so casual about it? For a moment, she could think of no higher ambition than being a waitress.
Zara was startled by this abrupt invasion into her daydream. What was it? She glanced across the table and realized Jack was trying to get her attention. His head was darting back and forth while he tried to catch her eye.
“Earth calling Helen! Earth calling Helen! Come in Helen!” he said.
“Whoa, sorry,” Zara said. “Zoning out.”
“Must have been some zone,” Jack said with soothing predictability. “What are you going to order?”
Zara hadn’t even begun to decide.
Dinner continued in this way, with Zara, in the presence of such luxury, losing focus, and then being pulled back to reality by an ever-attentive Jack, who’d never been to a restaurant quite so nice, but felt immediately at home. Jack carried more than his share of the conversation, telling stories, sharing anecdotes, and explaining in hushed, half-embarrassed tones his determination to someday be a star. He asked very little about Zara, and it suited her. She was happy to pay uneven attention to this friendly Labrador of a man in between bites of the most exquisite substances that had ever passed between her lips.
In perhaps his most astute observation of her behavior all evening, Jack smiled after watching her bite, chew, and swallow, and said “I’m jealous of that stuff you’re eating.”
She could have kissed him right then.
When they finished their meal the waiter brought them a cup of coffee, and a small card exempting them from payment. Zara opened it while her coffee cooled down. “Bring him to Waterfront Park,” the note said. It was unsigned but, again, she recognized the handwriting.
“What does it say?” asked Jack.
“Just that we don’t have to pay.”
“Well that’s my kind of card!” he said, and stretched back in his chair, rubbing his belly and picking his teeth.
Zara sank into her chair, weighed down by the food but also by the responsibility she now faced, the role she was about to play in something she assumed would be at the very least shady, if not completely dark. She decided to toughen up and get it over with. She shook herself out of her food coma and leaned across the table, doing her best come hither.
“You wanna go for a walk?”
Jack pumped his eyebrows up and down. “It depends on what you mean by ‘walk’,” he said.
“Um, I mean one foot in front of the other,” Zara said, all business. “Down by the water.”
“Oh,” Jack said. “Sure.”
They both stood up and walked back through the restaurant, the sights and smells being, on a full stomach, a little less appealing. People shoved forkfuls of food into faces coated in layers of grease mixed with their own sweat. Half-eaten dishes topped by balled-up napkins littered a wasteland of abandoned table tops. It was a massacre. By the time they hit the door they were happy to be out, and both of them greedily gasped the cool tangy damp night air. They shared a moment of relief, and then Zara walked south a few steps and hooked a right, leading the charge down toward the bay. Jack followed, but held back a few steps to get a good look at her ass. Zara swung it as best she could, walking down hill, and felt his nonjudgmental eyes all over it. She knew that he was thinking about what it would be like to feel her, to wrap his long fingers around her legs and work his hands up under her little black dress until his fingertips touched her panties. She imagined him pulling them slowly down from behind, not letting her see him do it, not letting her see anything but forward, a brick wall maybe, or a poster in his room of another woman.
Suddenly she remembered that she’d be dancing tomorrow night. A deliciously devious thought occurred to her: she’d invite Jack. Jack would come, of course, and with his shouts of encouragement next to Asseem’s yawns of feigned distraction the stage, she imagined, would be a truly arousing combination of edifice and orifice. Or maybe she just wanted Jack to be there. She couldn’t tell, but decided to act before thinking.
“I’m dancing tomorrow night,” she said, casually, over her shoulder.
“What do you mean?” asked Jack, jouncing down the hill behind her, slightly drunk.
“I mean, like, on a stage,” she paused, “naked.”
“You’re shitting me,” Jack said, stumbling a little.
“No shit involved.”
“Awesome,” he said. “I’m there.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shya Scanlon’s prose poetry collection In This Alone Impulse will be published by Noemi Press in December 2009. His novel Forecast will be published by Flatmancrooked in Spring 2010. Shya received his MFA from Brown University in 2008, where he won the John Hawkes Prize in Fiction. A contest has been named in his honor. He lives in various places with his girlfriend Erin, a strange man named Matty Harper, and their dog Violet.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, November 19th, 2009.