"So tell me about yourself."
Thus speaks the maiden named Lenore.
"You know most of it," says I. "That's the problem with profiles on dating sites. They steal your thunder. You know all my vitals. Artist. Divorced, no children. My likes and dislikes. Who I am and who I'm looking for. That's me in a nutshell." Thought how hard a nut to crack, dear girl, you cannot imagine. "I'm just what you've read, more or less."
Lenore leans forward, her slim arms resting on the table, as if to have a closer look at me. Or is it to give me a closer look at her? Her hair is too long and too blond, longer and blonder than her picture suggests, but her green eyes, luminous beyond the power of pixels to capture, more than make up for it. She is a very pretty woman. Very. So much prettier than the last one.
"Now, William," says she, "you don't expect me to believe that, do you?"
She looks older than thirty, the age she states in her profile. I assume she's lied about that, which pleases me. Every woman should care enough about herself to lie to a man. She is the perfect height, about the length of my oversized bathtub. And she has good bones. Even better than the last one.
The waiter, a young man in white shirt and black bow tie, red menus clasped demurely to his bosom, stands a few paces behind Lenore, apparently hesitant to interrupt our tête-à-tête, his head diffidently bowed. Or is he stealing a protracted glance down the alluring depths of her décolletage?
"Is there something you have to tell us?" I ask him with mock concern.
Up goes his head, he looks at me and coughs. "I'm Jacques. I will be your server this evening." The breeze off the bay ruffles his too long hair. Long hair on a waiter is even worse than on a woman, if only for sanitary reasons. Jacques stands blinking at us, like an actor who has forgotten his lines.
"Are you going to give us a peek at the menus, Jacques?"
"Oh," says he, and hands us the menus, rather roughly. "Can I tuh-tuh-tell you about this evening's spur-spur—" he takes a breath, "specials?"
"I don't know. Can you?" I ask. Good God. A stuttering waiter. What fun!
Lenore smiles, but not at me. "You're doing fine, Jacques," says she. "Take your time."
So, dear girl, you are of the tender-hearted variety? Not one of those women (and they are many, I have found) who appreciate the cruel quip? Time then for a midcourse correction.
"Have you been a waiter long, Jacques?" I ask.
"It's my fur-fur-first night."
"Well, I've waited tables in my time." I motion him closer and drop my tone to a confidential whisper, just loud enough for Lenore to hear clearly. "I was fired on my first night. For dropping a bowl of gazpacho in an old lady's lap and then being dumb enough to try to pat her dry with a napkin."
"Really?" says Jacques.
"She told the maître d' I had touched her inappropriately."
"So you're doing far, far better than I did on my first night. By the way, you're not really Jacques, are you?"
"I'm Jack. They told me to say Jacques."
"We'll call you who you really are, if you don't mind. Now, Jack, tell us about the specials, please."
And so he does, with a bit more stuttering and sputtering along the way, but plainly with genuine relief. We both order the specials—how could we not after Jack's herculean effort to get them out?—sole meunière for Lenore, Beef Wellington, bloody, for me. We skip appetizers. I ask her to choose the wines.
"You never dropped gazpacho in an old lady's lap, did you?" says Lenore. She is pleased with me.
"I did a bit of embellishment for the boy's sake," says I modestly.
"How much was embellishment?"
"All of it."
She looks out over the darkening bay and laughs gently. I look at her throat. "So, are you going to tell me about yourself—hopefully without much embellishment?"
"Where shall I begin?" I ask. Now she'll say, 'At the beginning,' just as the last one did. Just as they all do. How tedious.
"Tell me what you did last night."
"Yes. A typical night, was it?"
Well now. This is interesting. More fun than a stuttering waiter. Or a witless woman. "And what do you think you'll learn from my typical night?"
"I think," says Lenore, "what we do on a typical night can be very revealing. Don't you?"
"I've never thought about it. Perhaps you're right." I am a bit nonplussed, both pleased and disappointed. I had a marvelous new narrative prepared for tonight, beginning at the beginning. I'd been born in Tunisia to an American father and French mother. Father worked for an oil concern, mother was a dancer—no, a painter. That's right. She was a dancer the last time. It is from Mama that I received my early training as an artist. I was educated in Paris and Boston. We lived near Cambridge. Father and my younger sister Phoebe were killed in a car accident. Mama married again, rather impulsively, to a black man—no, a Saudi. I rarely see them as they live in Dubai—
"Oh, sorry. I was just thinking about something I should have done last night that slipped my mind. But no matter. I can tell you what I did manage to do."
Let's play, shall we, dear girl? Let's use part of the truth, just for fun. "I skipped dinner as I'd had a late lunch." Not true. "Around seven I went to my discount art supply store and replenished my store of drop cloths." True. "I use them when I do a large canvas." Not true.
"You should put images of your work on the site. I'd love to see them."
"I'd love to show them to you. I also bought a large supply of a new industrial strength stain remover I've been meaning to try." True. "I use various paints, dyes, and occasionally other media in my work." Not true. "Sometimes I make quite a mess." So true.
Jack arrives with our dinner. He is accompanied by a petite girl, barely pubescent, black hair in a pageboy cut. She must be even lower on the food chain than our stuttering boy, a waiter's waiter, so to speak. There is something familiar about her. But then again, there is something familiar about all young women if you only probe deeply enough. When we have been competently served and have confirmed that all our needs have been met for the moment, Jack and—shall we call her Jill?—obsequiously take their leave.
Lenore's sole meunière is pretty in brown butter and dotted with capers; my Beef Wellington is bleeding into its golden puff pastry jacket.
"And after shopping for your art supplies? The night was still young, I assume?"
I'm a bit distracted. I do love watching a pretty woman eat fish. "I drove to the Green Swamp, in the vicinity of Zephyrhills. Do you know it?"
Lenore pats her sauce-moistened lower lip. I bite mine. "I've driven past it, going east," she says. "I've stopped in Zephyrhills. I've thought of hiking the Swamp, if I could find someone to do it with."
"Perhaps we can do that soon," says I. Soon enough. "I love the Green Swamp and go there often." True. "I take photos to use in my paintings." Not true. "I have found some remote and remarkable spots that few have ever seen, I believe." True, no doubt. "I was home by nine. I had a light snack, some fruit and wine, tidied up a bit, giving my newly purchased stain remover a good try-out; and chatted with you on-line."
Lenore smiles and nods confirmation. "That was about 10:30, I believe."
"By eleven I was safely tucked in bed and thinking about how delightful it would be to meet you this evening." I was indeed thinking about you, dear girl. And that is the awful truth. "So, what have you learned from this little account of my typical night?"
"Much," says Lenore. She brushes her long blonde locks back over her shoulder, putting her head back in an act of exquisitely indecent exposure. "That you are moderate in your dinning habits. Unusually neat for a man. You work hard at your art. You're practical, looking for discounts, yet a Romantic who walks the swamp trails in the twilight. You like to plan ahead. And you are a very cautious man."
"Cautious? Now what did I do that would give you that impression?"
Lenore sips her wine. "It's what you did not do. You did not give me your phone number."
"Nor did I ask for yours," says I. "A phone number is not something to give lightly. It's like opening a door that is very difficult to close. You should only give it to someone you trust."
"And you didn't trust me?"
"I wanted to permit you not to trust me. Until we'd met and spent some time together."
Jack appears. "How are you fuh-fuh-folks doing?"
Fuh-fuh- fine, you stammering idiot, I want to tell him. Instead I say, "Everything was perfect. Thank you, Jack." He pours wine and begins to remove the plates. We wait with the inexplicable reluctance people have about conversing before a waiter, as if a waiter was of any consequence to anyone. But even when he's finally gone, Lenore remains silent. She's considering me carefully. Good girl. Let's not make this too easy. Where's the fun in that?
"It's been a while since I've trusted anyone," she says finally. "A rotten divorce and a rotten man after that." She sighs. "Being alone is no fun, but it's safe."
"There's something to be said for safety," says I.
"Duh-duh-duh-dessert?" Jack has snuck up on us.
"Just espresso, please," says Lenore.
I do wish Jack would stumble off the terrace and plunge into the bay, sink like a stone cadaver, stilling that self-lacerating tongue of his, and restoring peace and harmony to the world. But how often do our wishes come true, Lenore?
"I'm sorry, William. Let's not talk about me. You're a lot more interesting."
And there it is. That marvelous sense of worthlessness that makes a woman so beautiful and willing a victim. But I don't have her yet. I sense she is skittish. I must use all my art. So I make some comforting remarks and entreat her to tell me about herself. Lenore complies, hesitantly at first, but soon warming to the subject. She apparently finds herself more interesting than she thought.
I employ my uncanny ability to be the picture of attentive listening, making the proper brief interjections and appreciative noises, while in my head I play the coming attractions of how I hope the night will work out. We ride the large and rickety elevator to my top floor loft. She's a bit nervous, poor girl, but excited. She comments on how shabby chic these old industrial buildings are. I rattle on about the need for large spaces, big windows, and unadorned surfaces my painting demands. She can't wait to see my work. I draw her closer and kiss her ever so gently as we slowly rise to my floor. I steer her down the dim lit hall, unlock the door and usher her inside. She likes the open floor plan of the living room- kitchen area. I lead her to my work room. And then comes my favorite moment. I turn on the lights. A room without windows, the floor covered with drop cloths, the walls bare except for some old, indelible stains. Not a painting, not a drawing, not a sketch in sight. She turns toward me and there in those wondrous green eyes blazes a sudden and terrible understanding….
Lenore takes a little pen and pad from her purse and writes something. "Here you are, William."
"My phone number. Home and cell." She waits expectantly.
"May I?" I take the pen and pad and reciprocate. "We have indeed opened a door, Lenore." But shall she stroll through it? I risk a little push. "Shall we make a date now for next week?"
"Why don't we talk about it later. After you show me your work."
"That would give me the greatest pleasure."
"I didn't take my toothbrush. I'm not that kind of girl."
"I have a spare. Never used, of course."
"Is it far? Shall I just follow you in my car?"
"It's close. And that would be fine."
"Excuse me," she says, pauses as she passes, leans over and kisses me. "I'll only be a minute."
I watch as she winds her way to the ladies room. I'm certain I have her. I take a deep breath and savor the moment. I signal Jack for the check. I take out my cell phone and plant it on ear, compose my tried and true demeanor of distress, and wait for Lenore to return. She's not long. I wait until she's in range to hear me and say, "Of course, Mother. I'm sure it's nothing serious." Lenore sits down and gives me a questioning look. I raise a hand and stare down at the table. "You're bound to feel a little discomfit after that procedure." I pause, look at Lenore, and roll my eyes, as if enduring a familiar aggravation. "Please don't cry, Mother. I'll be right over. Twenty minutes. Yes. Just relax. Love you, too." I flip my cell phone closed and sigh with deep pseudo-frustration.
"What's the matter?" asks Lenore.
"It's Mother. She had a minor surgical procedure a few days ago and is experiencing some discomfit."
"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that."
"Mother's elderly and alone. I'm basically all she has. I need to run over there. I'm afraid we'll have to postpone tonight. But only until next week, I hope."
Lenore seems both disappointed and a little relieved. "Next week for sure. I think it's wonderful that you're there for your mom. Shall I call you tomorrow?"
"Yes, please do. Call whenever you like." Who you will reach at that number, dear girl, God only knows.
It's past midnight when I get home. The light in the living room is on, which means Patti is still up. I park in the driveway and pop the trunk of my Toyota. I take off my tie and black jacket, unbutton my collar, and put on the brown blazer.
The front door is unlocked. Patti will never learn. I find her in the living room, asleep on the couch, undisturbed by the barrage of gunfire coming from the TV. I click the TV off and she wakes up.
"You better hope so. You left the door unlocked again." I sit down on the end of the couch and she scrunches up her legs. She has unlovely feet.
"What time is it?"
"Just after twelve."
"How'd the dinner go?"
"Really well, I think. They could be a big account."
"Great. You could really use the sale. What are they interested in?"
"Desk chairs, mostly. I pushed the new Ergonomic 3000. Our high end stuff."
"God, I hope they come through for you. We really need it this month."
"I'm aware of that, Patti," I say.
She yawns. "I'm going to bed, hon. You coming?"
"In a bit. I'm not sleepy. I had coffee. The real stuff."
"Boy, now that's living dangerously. Kiss." We quick kiss. She hauls herself off the couch and trundles up the stairs. "Oh, your mom called. She wants to see Jennifer play soccer tomorrow. I told her you'd pick her up at four."
"I thought we agreed Jen was going to quit soccer. Didn't you read that article I printed out? These girls are getting more concussions than the boys now." But Patti is out of range.
I walk down the hall, crack open the door to Jennifer's room and peek in. The room is organized chaos. She's actually fairly neat for a twelve-year old. She's sleeping with her head at the foot of the bed, her feet on her pillow. She has her mother's feet, poor girl. I gently pull the sheet down to cover them. I lean over and pat her too long hair.
In the spare room we use as an office, I sit down at the cluttered desk, move my furniture catalog and fabric sample book to one side, and turn on the PC. I log in using the password known only to me. I go straight to the dating site where I found Lenore, click HELP, and find the instructions on how to cancel the account. A few clicks and William the artist is gone forevermore. Twice is the maximum I use a site and a persona just once. Tomorrow on to pastures new.
I feel confident in counting tonight as a kill. I admit last time wasn't so clear cut. I like to think I had that silly twit Terrie hooked, but she may have wiggled off. I think she was about to make an excuse for not coming home with me even before my mother story. And I don't want to take credit where credit is not due. I must be honest with myself, or what is the point? So scratch Terrie. That makes four who I can confidently chalk up as slit bitches in my dream of dreams, bagged and buried in the luminous Green Swamp.
I sit and stare out the window at the shadows scattered on the moonlit lawn. I think about what I did tonight. I won't be able sleep now. I should never have had the espresso.
BIO: Paul Negri is the former president and publisher of Dover Publications, Inc. and the editor of a dozen anthologies of short stories and poetry. He was born and raised in Brooklyn and graduated with an M.A. in English from Long Island University. In 2011 he was awarded second place for a novella in the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Writing Competition. He lives in Clifton, New Jersey.