She looked around the restaurant. A couple on the next table received their meals. Gemma looked enviously at their plates. Roast lamb, potatoes and vegetables. Was that a Malbec red they had as well? She glanced forlornly at her glass of white. Meh.
“Don’t order red wine!” Kerry had warned. Gemma had been mortified.
“I love red wine! Nice Merlot with steak – what?” Kerry had looked incredulous.
“You are not going to eat steak! What is the matter with you?”
“I’m not eating salad! What does it matter if I’m eating steak? He asked me to dinner. I’m going to eat!”
“He asked you to dinner.” Kerry stated. Gemma nodded; yes. “Dinner. Not lunch. He wants it to go somewhere.” Kerry surmised.
“What? No, don’t be silly…he just wants to thank me for helping him settle in. What?” Kerry was smirking at her. “You cannot be that naïve.” Gemma blushed slightly. She was not.
“I shouldn’t have accepted should I? I’ll tell him I’ve got a meeting -”
“You’ll do no such thing! How often to you get taken out to dinner?” Gemma did not answer, it had been a while. Kerry carried on. “It’s nice to get asked out; wined and dined. Makes you feel like a woman, an attractive woman.”
“I feel like woman, all the time.”
“Really? As you jostle to work on the tube, deal with emails and eat lunch at your desk?”
“A working woman.”
“How about being a sensual woman?”
“Instead of a, how did he put it? Besuited, high flying, emasculating, ball buster.” Gemma recalled, remembering a night a year since past, when she and her partner, Pete, ten years a hospital porter, got into an argument.
It had been her fault. Maybe.
A bad day at work, Pete came in a little frazzled. Gemma had returned from work an hour earlier. Her day had been brilliant. She had been headhunted by a competitor in front of her boss. Not wanting to lose out, her boss had not only offered her a salary increase, he had also given her a promotion. She was all smiles as a scowling Pete came to greet her. Noting his mood, she inquired about his day. Mistake.
“Bloody awful! Worked me like a dog! Denis, the useless prat, called in sick, so I had twice as much work to do! On the way back, got stuck in traffic, car cuts out and won’t start! That is going to cost a fortune to fix!” Gemma, trying to look sympathetic but too excited, blurts out her news. How she got a promotion and a raise and probably will get a bonus. Pete nods, a wry smile.
“Well, don’t be too happy for me!” Gemma spits sarcastically, wounded by Pete’s lack of enthusiasm at her news.
“I’m sorry, no it’s good, good that you got promoted.” Pete softens. Gemma is grinning again.
“Of course it is! And don’t worry, I’ll sort the car out.”
“What? No. I can do it myself.”
“But I want to help. It’s alright -”
“It’s not alright! I might not earn as much as you but I can look after myself!” Pete was angry. Gemma stunned.
“I didn’t mean -”
“What did you mean?”
“We’re a couple. I’m just trying to a -” And Pete interrupted again, letting her know exactly how he saw her.
“Which you are not! Not all of the time anyway.” Kerry brought her back to the present.
“He was just angry. Pete loves me. And I love him.” Gemma stated, as though she needed to hear it out loud. Kerry was smiling again.
“Gem, I love Pete. I love my Volkswagen as well. I would still test drive a Mercedes. That’s all your doing; test driving.” Gemma looked at her grinning friend. She still felt guilty, but she liked the idea.
“Sorry, I was gone so long.” Gemma snapped out of the memory, smiling at the handsome man who spoke as he sat down opposite her. Stephan. Handsome, slim, cultured with an accent, easy to smile. Gemma felt like a teenage girl with a crush, as he settled himself into his chair, picking up the menu. He looked up at her.
“What looks good?”
“Try and get fish. It digest well, won’t bloat you.” Kerry had counselled. Gemma had nodded, “goes with white wine as well.”
“Why can’t I have red?”
“Gem, you don’t go on dates. You’re going to be nervous enough without worrying about spilling your wine and staining!”
Gemma had been glad she took that advice. She had been trembling with fantasy inducing anticipation all day, only mildly guilty and relieved that she was not going home, thus not having to lie to Pete about why she was so dressed up. It had been worth it. Stephan had been so complimentary.
“I had thought you were impressive whilst at work, but seeing you like this….!” He had let the comment hang, his eyes finishing what words could not convey.
“Shall we get some bread?” Bloat. Bloaty. Bloated.
“No, thank you. I had quite a big lunch.” Gemma lied. She was starving and the wine was making her head swim. Stephan tilted his head; as you wish.
The conversation flowed easily. They spoke of life and dreams. Childhood and fear and the future. She had not felt so engaged, so alive in a long time. Was this not how life was suppose to be?
“What if I liked the Mercedes?” Gemma challenged. Kerry paused, looking thoughtful. “You’re always going to like the Mercedes. It’s new, it’s shiny, it works perfectly, does all the right things.” Kerry looked at a photograph; her on her wedding day, ten years before. She looked back to Gemma, serious now, but still in allegory mode.
“I’ve maintained my old banger for ten years. Not all easy. I’ve had test drives. Even took a long one once.” Gemma goes to open her mouth, but Kerry shuts her down. “But you know what I found? They all become bangers eventually. I can’t afford to upgrade every couple of years!”
Stephan, a gentleman throughout, paid the bill. They left the restaurant. Out in the evening air, Gemma did not want the evening to end. Stephan extended an invitation; “Would you like to come for a night cap?”
“When….when is the test drive over?” Gemma inquired, eyes wide looking for a sign, a glimmer of permission from her friend. Kerry lent forward, taking Gemma’s hand.
“You’ll know when it’s over Gem.” She squeezed her hand. “You don’t need a new car.”
She looked at the almost model handsome Stephan. Just one drink. One would be….nice.