He was late, and Sara usually hated waiting, but this was one of those rare moments when she didn’t mind it that much. She used the time to compose herself and organize her thoughts.
“He”, of course, is Phil, who, after an eternity of waiting, finally asked her out to dinner.
It took them a long time, after that momentous invitation, before they were able to set the date for dinner because of Sara’s habit of saying “No” even if she meant “Yes, I thought you’d never ask.” She did not want to appear too eager and to reveal her true feelings.
She saw him entering the restaurant and searching for her. He obviously had walked in from the rain, for his hair was wet and his shirt was soaked.
“Hi, sorry I’m late”, he said, as he lightly touched her on her right shoulder before pulling the chair in front of her. “I had to walk part of the way and leave the car with my driver as traffic was not moving.”
The waiter handed him a small towel and he excused himself to pat his clothes dry in the men’s room.
Sara momentarily forgot about her nervousness, as she grew concerned that Phil might catch a cold. Or she probably willed herself to think about something else other than what she hoped Phil would say after he got back from the restroom.
A little fall of rain could hardly hinder Phil from fulfilling his plans for the night. He knew that dinner did not start too well because he was late, and he wanted to make a good impression, so he had to make the most out of the time he had left.
He returned to his seat and ordered the meal he had picked out earlier from the menu that his secretary had furnished him. Food was the last thing on his mind, but he wanted the night to be perfect. Their waiter took down his order, and then left.
Sara, who had a glass of wine while waiting, boldly asked, “So, what was so urgent and important that you had to tell me tonight, that you refused to cancel dinner despite the pouring rain?” A girl had to know, she thought.
“You really don’t allow men to catch their breath, do you?” he replied, avoiding her question.
“I can’t help it if I take their breath away, and I can’t be bothered to wait for it to come back before engaging in a proper conversation,” she quipped, the wine obviously taking over. Sara had always been a no-nonsense woman, but she was extraordinarily blunt tonight. A voice inside her was cautioning her to slow down, or, better yet, shut up.
If Phil had been ill at ease at this unmitigated show of female frankness, he hid it well. He smiled at Sara, poured himself a glass of wine from the open bottle nestled in a bucket of ice on the table, and sipped it quietly. He knew she was waiting impatiently, and he was almost certain that she would drum her French-tip-manicured nails on the table anytime now.
They met each other four years ago at a convention of franchisees of a fastfood chain, of which their respective families each owned a branch. They got to know each other better when they found out they had common friends, with common interests in diving and photography. Since they both had on-again, off-again relationships with other people, they had never gone out on a date like this. They were walking on unchartered territory, and they knew it.
Phil asked her in a way that there would be no mistaking that he clearly intended for it to be a date. She was the most attractive woman he had ever met, but she was also the feistiest. He knew he had to pace the conversation, otherwise she would manipulate it.
Sara changed tactics and asked him how his niece, Alyssa, was, for Phil absolutely adored that little girl and always brightened up whenever she became part of a conversation.
“She’s fine and just started reading Nancy Drew now that Julia Robert’s niece is starring in the film version. She begged me to buy her the entire collection of books. I’m still thinking whether I should tell her that the author is actually a man with a woman’s pseudonym.”
“You know what, I’ve always wondered why the writing in ‘Hardy Boys’ was suspiciously similar to that in ‘Nancy Drew’”. She almost bit her tongue after saying that. Why did she always have to be a know-it-all?
“I bet you did,” he replied, briefly imagining Sara as an 11-year old girl solving mysteries with a magnifying glass. She could probably make Harry Potter’s Hermione look tame.
Just then the waiter arrived with their dinner, and the conversation moved to the chef’s masterpieces that Phil had ordered. Sara was a picky eater and he wanted her happily fed tonight, for what he had to say needed her to be in a good mood.
It worked, for the meal was perfect, and Sara loosened up a bit from playing Detective Know-it-All. Phil thought dessert would be the perfect time to get to the heart of the matter.
“Sara,” he began. “Yes?” she asked, putting down her teaspoon with a pinch of panna cotta, suddenly losing interest in the sweet concoction.
“You know we’re not getting any younger, right?” Obviously Sara had a paragraph’s worth of reply, but he stopped her by adding, “My sister has been nagging me for years that my attachment to Alyssa is a mere excuse not to have my own children.”
For the first time tonight, Sara filtered her thoughts and prevented her tongue from speaking out. Phil ought to have his moment, as he obviously had prepared his speech.
“I was thinking, that instead of starting the age-old dance of introducing myself to someone new and getting that person to like the things that I liked, and then turning it into a relationship that could hopefully last for a lifetime, which approach had resulted to a lot of disasters anyway, I should do it the other way around and propose a lifetime relationship with someone who already knows me, shares my passions, and shows a high probability of keeping up with me for the rest of my life.”
Sara definitely did not trust herself to respond to this one, either, so she slowly nodded and reminded her face not to show how much she was trying to second-guess what Phil was actually saying.
They’ve had moonlit nights on the beach before, when, taking time to be alone despite being in the company of friends, they had talked about their fears and dreams and everything in between. There was always the feeling, and Sara thought Phil felt it more than she did, that there could be someone else out there, and what they shared was simply friendship, and their deep conversations were just enhanced by the availability of huge amounts of alcohol during dive weekends. Sara had taken care of a drunken Phil on more than one occasion in the past.
They had also seen the world together, literally, as they both joined a European backpacking tour with like-minded photographers and roamed several historical cities. Romance was the last thing on their minds then, however, despite seeing couples at every corner. They just competed with each other on who would take the best photograph of a couple kissing. Sara always declared that she won, as she caught on close-up the tender moments between couples while Phil always tended to hold back, adding a huge background or focusing more on the buildings surrounding his subjects.
It dawned on Sara that their Italian meal tonight consisted of exactly the same dishes that they had while they were with their friends one time in
She realized that she had tuned out while Phil was talking. She did it again, failing to be where she was because her seemingly more important thoughts took her elsewhere.
“…Everyone says we’d make a good pair, you and I, and I’ve always just laughed at them, but now I’m thinking, this could actually work!” Sara caught Phil’s last sentence and wondered what else she’d missed, because it did not sound like an amorous proposal to her at all.
“Sara, I think we should get married!” Phil blurted out.
There was silence.
Phil put both his hands, which he had raised while exclaiming his wild proposition, on the table and moved closer to study Sara’s expression. He noticed her shaking her head quizzically. He realized he was holding his breath for her response.
Still more silence. Sara picked up her forgotten teaspoon, tasted her dessert, and swallowed carefully, all the time keeping her eyes on the floor. She was groping for the words to convey her thoughts without revealing her emotions.
Finally, after almost another eternity, she lifted up her eyes, and Phil did not like what he saw.
“That’s it?” she asked quietly.
With his mouth agape, Phil nodded vigorously, as if to emphasize how well-thought out and sensible his proposal was. Surely Sara would see the point he was making. They were perfect for each other. Courtship was no longer necessary, for as good friends they could skip that and proceed directly towards starting a family. He was surprised that she was not as excited about it as he thought she would be. He had always known she had feelings for him, for their friends told him so. He just never wanted to take advantage, until he realized he was letting go of a perfectly good opportunity.
“Why don’t you look happy, Sara?” Phil managed to ask. He was really bewildered at her reaction. He was expecting a beam, a clap, even a tear, but not this. She was being unusually silent, and that was a bad sign.
“Phil, I appreciate the effort, and thank you for considering me. Really. But I don’t agree with you. It won’t work. Not like this.”
“What do you mean, it won’t work? Two friends, of sufficient age and discretion, we have a chance to have a good life together! I’ve finally seen the light. You are the woman for me. The search is over. The End. Finito.”
He thought he saw her eyes glistening, until a tear fell, followed by several others. Sara asked to be excused but he held her hand and would not let her stand up.
“Stay with me, let’s talk about this,” he insisted. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know,” she said, wiping away her tears with her table napkin. “You worked me up for this night, you sent flowers to my office, making my staff giggle with excitement, you wrote a card inviting me to a candlelit dinner just the way I’ve always wanted it with you, then you made me wait when all I wanted to do was burst with anticipation, and then all you had to say was this… this madness!” She attempted to stand up again, but he gently but firmly pinned both of her hands on the table.
“Why is it madness? It is the most natural, logical, practical thing in the world! We make sense, Sara. We make a good team. Isn’t that what marriage is all about? Partnership, companionship?”
Sara looked around the table to see if they were making a scene. She was thankful that nobody seemed to notice that her part of the world was crumbling.
“Let me go, Phil.”
“What more do you want, Sara? I just asked you to marry me.”
“Yes, you did. It’s a very decent proposal, and I reiterate my gratitude. But did you have to make it sound like a contract, or an arrangement? I’m sorry but that’s not how I thought it should be.”
“There you go again, making things complicated, wanting everyone to live out the perfect little world you have going in your head. You can’t give people scripts to read from, Sara. This is a sincere offer I’m making you.”
“I’ve considered your offer and decided not to accept it. Thank you for dinner.” With that, she stood up, took her purse with her, and strode out of the restaurant. She could hear him calling out her name, but she did not slow down. She looked for a taxicab but because it had rained, she waited in vain.
Phil, who settled the bill, finally caught up with her outside. “At least let me offer you a lift home,” he said.
Sara was looking less than perfect now. Her makeup had smeared on her face. She felt a choking sadness that she could not hide from Phil. She wanted to be as far away from him as possible.
She took out her cellphone to call a friend and ask him to pick her up, but he stopped her.
“Sara, I’m here, just me, and I’m asking you to give us a chance. Forget what I said about marriage, let’s start from the beginning. Let’s get to know each other all over again. Maybe in time you’ll see that I’m right.”
She pulled out a wad of tissues and wiped her eyes. The sadness remained.
“I’ve heard all I needed to hear from you tonight, and I doubt you could say anything that would change what you’ve so clearly expressed to me.”
“Maybe I’m better off expressing myself with a kiss. I’ve never been good with words, you know that.” He walked closer to her, but she stepped back.
“Stay where you are. You know what’s even more painful than what I heard?”
“What?” he asked, totally frustrated now.
“It’s what I did not hear. Who was I kidding? I have loved you for what seems like forever, and fooled myself into believing you would one day notice me.”
Phil interrupted, “But you’re always with someone, out on dates, calling boyfriends on the phone…”
Sara just stared at the night sky that had already cleared after the torrents of rain it had produced. “What was it that Hermione said to Ron? ‘Next time there's a ball, ask me before someone else does, and not as a last resort!’”
“What??? You’re not making sense, Sara. I did ask you before someone else did...”
“…But this sounds like a last resort,” she added.
Phil paused to try to let that sink in.
“If thou must love me, let it be for naught, except for love's sake only,” Sara softly said. She then kissed Phil on the cheek, quickly turned around, hailed a taxi, and boarded it.
All these happened while Phil stood frozen on the spot.
It started to rain again, and still Phil did not move, not realizing his hot tears were mixing with the cold raindrops on his face.
He touched his cheek where she had kissed her. And then, he finally realized what he had forgotten to include in his entire grand master plan for the night.
He ran to the parking lot, dismissed his driver, and hoped he was not too late.
-- FINITO --