"Why are you doing this to me?" I moaned. My mother stood across the kitchen, calmly flipping pages in a large cookbook. I wondered how she could be so calm when I felt like she was attacking me.
"Allison, please stop being dramatic. You are too old to behave this way. You know why I’m doing this."
"Because you hate me," I whisper.
"On the contrary, it's because I love you. And, because someday, hopefully in the near future, I want grandchildren in this house to play with and spoil. You’re thirty years old, and you still live at home. That's never going to change if you don't go out."
"Mom, I only live at home when I'm not at school."
"You have been in college for over a decade, Allison. You have to become an adult eventually. When was the last time you went on a date?"
"Why does it matter?" Truthfully, it had been twelve years since I'd had a date. I hadn't gone out with anyone since my high school sweetheart Steven left me on graduation day. I thought we would be together forever, but he had other plans. We dated for our entire four years of high school. I was blindsided and devastated.
"Because you’re stuck in the past, waiting for Steven to come back for you. Sweetie, it's not going to happen. You need to realize that. You deserve a future outside of your past." Mom stopped flipping the book, looking up at me. There was concern on her face.
"I don't want to go on a blind date with some random guy you picked out!"
"Okay, first of all, he isn't random. And second, you will break my heart if you make me cancel this date now that it's already arranged. Do you know Sherry at church? It's her daughter's husband's second cousin. He was at church last Sunday; you would have met him then if you'd showed up like you said you would."
"I said I was sorry. I went to the library and got lost in a book."
"Yes, yes, it's always a book. Just give the guy a chance. Sherry said they're worried about him too because he says he doesn't have time for dating. He's barely older than you, and he's handsome. You're going to love him; I just know it."
"I doubt that very much."
"You're going to go because it will make your father and me happy." There wasn't any doubt on her face. She knew me too well.
"I'll make a deal with you. I'll go on this weird date with a total stranger if you promise to lay off my back when it doesn't work out."
"Deal. But I have faith that you will have a good time and want to see him again. Just you watch!"
"I doubt that, but okay." She returns to her cookbook, and I retreat to my childhood bedroom.
I could do this. One evening of discomfort and humiliation to get it out of her system for a while. When this next school term is over, I’ll have to get my own place. Then she can’t do this to me. It's not a crime to want to be alone. I can't get past the idea that she thinks I'm waiting for Steven, though, the nerve. Absolutely not.
I curl up on the oversized faded pink bean bag chair in the corner. Looking around my room, I realize not much has changed since high school. The bookcase is overflowing now, and I bought new bedding a few months ago. There’s a laptop on my desk now instead of a typewriter. Otherwise, it's pretty much the same as it has always been.
I can't help it that school is the only thing I've ever been good at. It's true that I've been in college for 12 years. I had trouble deciding what I wanted, so I have undergraduate degrees in English, Literature, and Philosophy. My graduate degree, which I'm currently working on, is in Literature with a heavy focus on romanticism.
My parents can blame me all they want, but if you look at the bigger picture, this is as much their fault as mine. They paid for every class, every degree. As long as I maintained good grades, they promised to pay for college until I figured out what I wanted from life. Having a college education was their only requirement of me as an adult. If I was seeking higher education, I could stay at home, go to school, and put off the real world indefinitely.
I don't know when I decided I didn't want my own family. I don't know if the decision was even a conscious one. But it happened sometime during my first degree. After the hurt that Steven put me through, I was afraid to be hurt again. I watched the couples around me abandon school to have families, leave, cheat, and even physically hurt each other. Steven, by the way, has married and divorced three times since we broke up. I know I dodged a bullet there, but I can't help but think that his track record could have been different if we had stayed together.
With just over twenty-four hours until this terrible date, I had to come up with an air-tight reason to skip it. It would be easy to just forget about it, get busy doing something else and just not go.
I didn't know anything about this guy my mom had set up for me. Mark? I think that was his name. We had a joint reservation for 7 p.m. tomorrow at The Slaughterhouse, the most upscale steakhouse in town. I hated it, but my parents would drag me to dinners whenever I was home for holidays. Reservations are required with semi-formal attire. This wasn't supposed to be a big deal, but they increased the pressure by sending us there.
I'm a writer, a reader, a lover of words and stories. Fancy parties, expensive dinners, luxurious mansions are not my thing. My parents adore those things, and my mother lives for them. I enjoy being a fly on the wall, saving the stories for retelling, but never partaking in the experience.
I fell asleep in my bean bag chair, and at some point, my mother covered me with a thick quilt. In the morning, I wake with a terrible backache and a headache. I'm relieved to think I must be sick. You can't go on a date if you are sick; that's just impolite.
By lunchtime, I'd forgotten all about being ill. At my mother's insistence, a morning massage and a trip to the beauty parlor for a manicure and a hairstyle have taken all the pain away. There was never a fever, and I am physically relaxed enough that I can't make the same argument as this morning. I must admit, sometimes the perks of money are enjoyable. Mom calls it our "girl time." It makes her happy, and I enjoy it, so I never complain.
At four, mom dropped a tray of snacks off on my desk next to my computer, where I was happily typing away, pretending the world around me didn't exist. I was startled, but she insisted I eat something since dinner would be late. When she returned to take away the food, she brought a garment bag and a shoebox.
"Mom, why?" I whined.
"Allison, please don't make me beg. I promised I would leave you alone if it didn't work out. But I want you to look nice. And I don't want you wearing a dress you have already worn there. That's just bad taste." She says it as though I don't have a choice, and I accept that I probably don't. I won't be allowed to drive myself either. I already know this. She won't risk me disappearing instead of going to the restaurant.
At six, I get dressed in the ridiculously revealing dress. At least it has a lovely sweater to wear with it. The heels are probably too much, and I know I will end up injuring myself in them. Looking at myself in the mirror when I am ready, I feel like I've been dressed up to send off to the auction block, the highest bidder gets a wife.
As I predicted, a driver is waiting to drive me to and from dinner. When we arrive at the restaurant, the valet helps me out of the car and escorts me inside. A hostess takes over, escorting me to an empty table. I feel like a child, being ushered from one place to another. When I look around the table, I realize all the tables next to this one are intentionally empty, with "Reserved" signs on them.
The restaurant is beautiful, make no mistake about that. Crystal chandeliers are mounted over every table. The tables are spaced out so comfortably the dessert cart could travel in a zigzag motion between everyone if the driver so desired. Not that I've always wanted to do just that. That would be reckless and silly. The tables are beautiful mahogany with high-backed chairs with plush velvet cushions. The servers wear suits and carry golden trays when they deliver dishes to the tables. The women are beautiful, and the men are handsome. Wealth and opulence ooze from every visible surface.
The novelty of this place, the beauty of it, wears off on me quickly. When my mystery date hadn't arrived ten minutes later, I decided to take out my phone and read, a serious offense if my parents had been present, but since this guy kept me waiting, I didn't care.
"I'm sorry I'm late. I'm Mark." I look up as he is sliding the chair across from me out. He sits down, scoots himself in, and glances at me. He's not unpleasant to look at, but he is wearing a suit. I know it's expected, but I had silently hoped he would be wearing something flashy. Something that screams, "help me, I don't want to do this."
"Allison." I give him my name and wait, but he doesn't say anything else.
The waiter brings over a bottle of wine and pours us each a glass. I try it, as is expected, then put the glass down and don't touch it again all night. Instead, I prefer water.
"Um. So, Sherry tells me you go to college?"
"Yeah, I'm in graduate school right now. How about you?"
"I finished a few years ago. I've got a degree in communications."
"I bet your parents loved that." Sarcasm drips from my words.
"To be honest, it embarrassed them." He answers me quietly, staring at his wine glass, lost in his own head. "How did your parents take your liberal arts degrees? I think I was told you have four, right?"
"Yeah. Believe it or not, my parents are just happy they have a child with a college degree. The more, the merrier, I think. That's why they continue to fund my educational pursuits."
"Must be nice."
"Well, maybe, but I'm still the family disappointment. Which is why I'm sitting here, across from you, on a date my mother set up." This makes him chuckle.
"Yeah, me too."
The waiter comes over then and takes our order. Once he is gone, I know we have about twenty minutes before anyone bothers us again.
"Can I tell you a secret, Allison?" Mark speaks quietly, as though whatever he says will be scandalous. I'm intrigued, so I nod.
"I’m terrible around women. I had nearly three panic attacks today, just thinking about tonight. Honestly, I expected you to be a smaller, perhaps less aggressive, version of your mother. I was terrified.” A solid, hearty laugh from me causes the other guests to stop and look at me with disdain. Quickly, I calm myself and giggle into my hands.
“She is quite the harsh woman.”
“When we met at church, she introduced herself then told me I was going to take her daughter out on a date whether I liked it or not. I was far too afraid to object.”
“I know the feeling. That’s why I’m here.” I sigh, thinking about my mother and her demands. “Though you aren’t quite what I was expecting.”
“What did they tell you?” he groans at me.
“Not much. I just expected you to be some pompous rich boy who simply hadn’t found his princess yet. You know, the little wife to make him a sandwich and stay out of sight.”
“Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you. That would be Sherry’s daughter, Anita. My cousin, Jonathan, is that guy.” We both chuckled at the implication. I find it terribly easy to talk to this strange man, different from what I expected.
“In truth, Jonathan told Sherry that I was clearly gay since he caught me reading Poe at the last Christmas party. Now I read on my phone whenever I’m around them. It’s so much easier to hide what I’m reading.”
“Wait, are you….um…gay?” I hesitate, worrying that he will say yes. I’m afraid of his answer. How very strange.
The waiter then delivers our soup and salads, forcing a break in the conversation. When we have tried the food and indicated our approval, he quickly leaves us alone again.
We eat in silence for a bit. I find myself too afraid to ask the question again, so I decide to pretend it didn’t happen. When we finish the food, it is quickly whisked away from the table, and we are alone again.
“Geez. It’s like a well-oiled machine in here.” He observes.
“You’ve never been here before?”
“No. Um, to be completely honest with you, this place is a bit outside my normal budget, I’m afraid. That’s another reason I was terrified to come here tonight.”
“Because you had never been here? Or because it’s expensive?”
“Allison, I’m a teacher.” Understanding dawns on me, but I also realize he never answered the other question.
“So, basically, you’re poor?”
“Yeah, you could put it that way.” He hesitates in his answer, so I decide to be assertive for once in my life. I need to know the answer.
“But are you gay?”
“Oh God, no.” I relax in my chair. Poor, I can handle that. Gay, well, there isn’t anything I can do to help that.
“Care to let me in on the joke?” He’s watching me with a strange look on his face.
“Well, I just thought that if you were gay, it would make for very awkward get-togethers with your uncle. Of course, I could just marry you and lie to them. My mother would love that! All she cares about is getting grandchildren.” He laughs, and his cheeks turn a lovely shade of red.
“Allison, I love the way you think. It’s just too bad this can’t work out.”
“And why exactly is that?”
“I doubt your mother would approve if she knew just how poor I am compared to your family.” And then, it all clicks for me. My mother insisting that this one would be different, that I was sure to like this guy. He is the opposite of all the other guys she has tried to set me up with before. My mother is throwing me the proverbial bone. I laugh, and again, Mark looks confused.
“I assure you, my mother knows everything about you.”
“Then why am I here?”
“Oh, that’s simple. Mark, I hate this dress. I prefer sweatshirts and jeans. I don’t have my own place because I don’t want to be alone. Everyone that has tried to get close to me has been looking for a younger version of my mother. I, on the other hand, am a disappointment. I hate parties, cocktails, and silly dresses.”
Our dinner arrives then, and we go through the whole show for the waiter again. When he is gone, we eat slowly, chatting about lighter topics like European romanticism and gothic poetry. I assume Mark is taking some time to digest what I said.
When it’s time to go, Mark walks me to the door, and I use his arm as a crutch to keep from falling. He is amused by my inability to function in heels, but maybe it’s enough to convince him of the truth of my declaration.
“Can I see you again?” I ask sheepishly before I climb into the waiting car.
“I’d like that very much.”
When I arrived home, mother was waiting for me, still wearing her designer clothes and makeup.
“How was your dinner?” I want to tell my mom everything, but I’m worried about what she will think, like Mark was. Will it matter to her that he is from a drastically different social class? It doesn’t matter to me, but everything I know about my mother tells me it will bother her. I decide it’s best to put everything on the table.
“Did you know Mark is poor?” I accuse, eager to hear her response.
“Hmmm. I didn’t know that. As a teacher, though, I assumed his income was limited.” I think about this for a minute. She pulls me from myself when she asks, “Does it bother you?”
I want to take a chance on the unknown for once in my adult life. Mark intrigues me. He gives me butterflies deep in my chest. I want to know where this could go. I realize mother is watching me as I work all of this out in my head.
“Of course, it doesn’t bother me.” My mother smiles, gives me a tight hug, and tells me she loves me.
I take off the heels and head to my bedroom, my phone in my hand. As I close my bedroom door, feeling like a teenager again, I hit send on Mark’s number and wait for him to answer.
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