Victor is a straight, white, lonely, 24-year-old, Capricorn male who can’t understand why women find him off-putting. He has never had much success with romantic relationships. Actually, he’s never had one.
He really can’t figure out why. Granted, he doesn’t have movie star looks, but it’s not as if he’s physically repulsive either. Nondescript at worst. He stands 5 feet, 10 inches tall, maybe just a smidgeon on the flabby side, certainly nothing extreme. And he considers himself bright, interesting, witty, and highly sophisticated, someone any intelligent woman would enjoy spending time with. He’s also a mechanical engineer, respected and well-paid in his professional world. Most importantly, he rightly sees himself as a kind and decent person who would be generous to, and supportive of, a woman with whom he could have the meaningful relationship that he craves.
Yet he has never found a partner, and not for lack of effort. He’s tried many online dating sites, and on several occasions his postings had enough initial appeal that women agreed to get together for coffee or lunch. In many of those cases he asked them out on second dates, usually for dinner or a movie. Most of the women offered flimsy excuses and politely declined. Two accepted dinner invitations but opted not to see him after that.
Victor remains baffled by his uncanny ability to repel women. Actually, as he thinks about it, men don’t seem to care much for him either. He often finds himself wondering whether perhaps the pain of virtually certain rejection is reason enough to stop trying. Maybe the healthiest course would be to resign himself to a solitary life. When he gets these thoughts, he tries to hold back the tears if he’s in a public place but indulges himself if he’s at home.
Yesterday, though, Victor’s outlook changed. In the checkout line at the supermarket, he found himself admiring the new cashier. She was short and thin, with light brown shoulder-length hair. She smiled at the customer in front of Victor and advised her to “have a good one” when they were finished. She then turned to Victor and smiled at him as well, greeting him with “Good morning – how are you today?”
Victor was smitten. He loved the way she smiled at him. He muttered something like “Very well, thank you” and looked at her name badge. It said, “Madeleine.”
There followed about 30 seconds of silence as she began ringing up his groceries. At some point Victor interjected, “How are you today, Madeleine?”
“Doing great; thanks for asking,” she said without looking up from the groceries she was running through the scanner. She said this with a measure of cheerfulness that Victor thought might indicate that she liked him, and he suddenly felt emboldened. There’s something about consistent failure that can make you reckless. It’s not so much frantic desperation as it is the cool, calculated recognition that, in the immortal words of Janis Joplin, “freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”
“Do you like Indian food?” Victor blurted out. She calmly said yes. Victor then continued, in a confident voice, “I’d like to have dinner with you tomorrow evening at the Jaipur Kitchen. Do you know where it is?”
“It’s the one right around the corner here, isn’t it?” She gestured over her left shoulder.
“That’s right. Meet you there at 7:00 tomorrow evening?”
“Um, okay, I guess.”
And that was that. Victor paid her for the groceries and said, “See you tomorrow.” He strode off feeling rather pleased with himself, albeit surprised at his newfound confidence.
By 7:00 the next evening, though, Victor had lost some of his swagger. Would Madeleine actually show up? He arrived at the restaurant ten minutes early and waited at the table. He felt a surge of relief when she walked through the door a few minutes after seven. As she made her way to the table, he stood up awkwardly and kissed her on the cheek just as she was extending her arm for a handshake, inadvertently slamming his stomach into her hand, “Sorry,” he said, “One never knows what kind of greeting is appropriate, does one?”
“No worries,” she assured him as she took her seat. After a few seconds of awkward silence, she asked “So, do you come here often?”
“No, this is my first time at this establishment, though I make it a practice to dine frequently at Indian restaurants because I enjoy the cuisine immensely. I guess I’m what you call your cosmopolitan type. ‘Safe,’ ‘ordinary,’ ‘traditional’ – those words aren’t part of my vocabulary. I don’t care to follow the crowd.” Using air quotes, he added “They say I’m kind of a ‘rebel,’ or that I ‘follow the beat of a different drummer,’ so to speak.”
“It looks like a very nice place.”
“Yes. The décor isn’t as authentically Indian as I had hoped, but it has a certain je ne sais quoi that I frankly find rather appealing.”
She nodded, “Um, yes.”
The waiter approached, “Good evening. Welcome to the Jaipur Kitchen. Have you been here before?” They both said this was their first time. “Well, I’ll give you a moment to look over the menu, but in the meantime would you like anything to drink? Some wine, perhaps?”
Madeleine immediately deferred to Victor. She liked wine, she said, but wasn’t really a connoisseur. Victor smiled wryly, saying, “That won’t be a problem, Madeleine. I know a thing or two about wines.”
The night before, Victor had taken the time to google and study a list of fine wines so that he could impress Madeleine with his knowledge and sophistication. He had carefully rehearsed his wine request. But while waiting for her to arrive, he’d discovered that the restaurant’s wine list didn’t include any of the wines he had read about in his Google search.
He turned to the waiter, “I’m frankly a tad disappointed in the wine list. I was hoping you’d have La Mission Haut-Brion or something comparable. But since it’s not available this evening, please bring us a bottle of the Cabernet Sauvignon.”
Once the waiter left, Victor turned back to Madeleine, “I didn’t want to be rude to our waiter, but I was so craving La Mission Haut-Brion. It’s delightful. It’s a Bordeaux red, with bright aromas of blackberries and a hint of cherry, among other fruits, long and silky, perfect for a full-bodied palate.” Victor wasn’t sure what all those words meant, but that was what the website said.
Madeleine wondered how best to respond, “So you were saying you like Indian restaurants?”
“Yes, indeed. But not yet having dined here, I thought ‘Why not give it a try?’ I don’t mind taking chances. And you?”
“Yes, I love Indian food too. I’m glad you suggested it. But I think I’ll need a moment to look over the menu.”
When Madeleine put the menu down, the waiter returned. Turning first to Madeleine, he asked, “Would you like more time, or are you ready to order?”
“I think we’re ready. I’d like the vegetable biryani. And could we have an order of raita, please?”
“I’d like the matar paneer, please. And would you bring us chopsticks?”
“I’m sorry, sir, we don’t have chopsticks.”
“Well, that’s surprising. The finer Indian restaurants always offer them to make the diners’ experience more authentic.”
“Sir, I believe you’re thinking of Chinese restaurants. We don’t use chopsticks in India.”
“I’m afraid you’re mistaken. I use them all the time at Indian restaurants all over the world.”
“Sir, I’m from India, and I assure you we don’t use chopsticks.”
“I know they use them in most regions of the country. You must be from a different part.”
“I’m from Delhi, Sir.”
“Ah, yes, that explains it. I seem to recall they don’t use chopsticks in Delhi, unlike the rest of the country. No worries. I’ll make do with American utensils.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Victor watched the waiter leave and then whispered to Madeleine, “That was unfortunate. I apologize for the unpleasantness. I hope I didn’t embarrass the poor fellow.”
“I take it you’ve been to India?”
“Yes, many times when I was younger, but not recently. It’s possible things have changed since my last time there. But let’s talk about you. First of all, I don’t believe I know your last name.”
“French. I’m Madeleine French. And yours?”
“They call me Groninger – Victor Groninger. Out of Chicago. But tell me – who is Madeleine French? A penny for your thoughts.”
She paused, then suddenly blurted out “OMG! I just noticed that my ex-boyfriend is sitting alone at that table against the wall. He must have been here a while, because I can see he’s almost done with his food. I can’t believe I didn’t see him until now. I hate to ask you this, but he was devastated when I broke up with him a couple months ago. I feel very bad about it and am actually a little worried about him. Would you mind if I just go over there for a moment to see how he’s doing? I’ll be right back.”
Madeleine picked up her purse and walked over to her ex-boyfriend’s table. They were directly in back of Victor, so he couldn’t see them without turning around. Victor waited patiently, but after about five minutes he heard laughter coming from their direction. He turned his body and glanced over. He saw what looked like a happy reunion, complete with smiles and laughter. They were absorbed in conversation and didn’t notice him looking at them. Victor tried to listen, but between the other customers’ conversations and the restaurant’s background music, it was hard to hear what Madeleine and her ex were saying.
A few minutes later Victor turned around and looked again in their direction. This time Madeleine caught his eye. She smiled and waved to him, raising her index finger in the air and mouthing the words, “One minute.” Victor nodded.
But several more minutes passed, and the waiter brought Victor’s and Madeleine’s orders to their original table. As Victor turned to get Madeleine’s attention, he saw her motioning to the waiter. He watched the waiter make his way over to her. She put her hand on the waiter’s arm and whispered something to him as he leaned down. The waiter nodded and returned to Victor’s table.
“Sir, the lady has asked me to tell you that she needs to finish her conversation with the other gentleman, and she’s asked me to bring her food over to her so that it doesn’t get cold in the meantime. But she said to tell you she would be back momentarily.”
Victor was now becoming annoyed, but he didn’t say anything. Using his American fork, he started eating his own food while it was still warm. Dinner was not going as he had planned it. Minutes later, now having progressed from annoyance to outright anger, Victor looked over to their table once again. This time, he saw the ex-boyfriend sign the credit card bill and begin to stand up. Madeleine was standing up as well, and Victor was both relieved that their conversation was finally over and focused on deciding how best to express his displeasure to her when she returned.
He faced forward again to think this over. He decided he would make clear to Madeleine that he was not pleased. He began to practice exactly what he would say. He wanted his message to be dignified but not unmanly. His words would need to strike just the right balance.
He thought about saying “Madeleine, it was kind of you to make sure your former boyfriend was okay, but I have feelings too, and your leaving me and spending the entire dinner with him was hurtful.” But then he thought “No, that’s too wimpy. Maybe something like ‘That was rude. You owe me an apology.’” Then again, he decided, “Maybe that’s going too far in the opposite direction. After all, I really would like to keep going out with her, so I don’t want to burn any bridges. There must be some middle ground, where I’ll come across as sophisticated and understanding but still firm.”
Victor shot a final glance at their table, but now he didn’t see them. He then turned toward the door, where they appeared to be in the process of leaving the restaurant together. He heard the ex-boyfriend say, “My name is Jeremiah, by the way.”
Madeleine said “I’m Madeleine,” as they stepped outside and disappeared from view.
Steve Legomsky is a former mathematician, Washington University law professor, and Obama Administration official. He has published three scholarly books (Oxford University Press and West Academic), numerous academic articles, and a novel, “The Picobe Dilemma” (Booklocker.com). His short story, “High Roller,” is forthcoming in the Broadkill Review. See https://law.wustl.edu/faculty-staff-directory/profile/stephen-h-legomsky/.