“I don’t like that you went there,” she said at last.
“I don’t know what you mean,” he said softly, and her hackles rose.
“No? Well I think you do, but I mean I don’t like that you played an emotional card. ‘You’re lonely’ is not a business-oriented argument for taking a job. Hand-holding is not part of a business negotiation.” Her eyes shone glassily in the dim light of the restaurant. The red patches on her cheeks belied her mental state. She knew her judgment was compromised, her inhibitions lowered, but she couldn’t, for the life of her, think of a reason not to have this conversation. After what he just tried, he had it coming. She went on:
“’I believe in you, Charlotte,’ ‘We’ll do it together, darling’–the words say one thing and then the actions do another.”
“Yes, this. Because what did you do?” She felt the old fight winding up inside her.
“I abandoned the deal.” He looked resigned.
“You abandoned the deal. After I spent years supporting you, this was my one shot to start my own operation, and you said, you promised me, you looked dead into my eyes and you whispered to me, naked, in the middle of the night, ‘Charlotte, I want to make this happen for you.’ And what did you do?”
“I abandoned the deal.” He rubbed his forehead, but Charlotte plowed on.
“You abandoned the deal. You were supposed to be my advocate. You were supposed to believe in me, fight for me. And in abandoning the deal, what did you do?”
“That tone of voice is extraordinarily condescending.”
“You abandoned me. The words say one thing, the actions say another.”
“I don’t want tonight to be about this. Can we forget it?”
“Sure we can. Know why? Because I left. Because I saved myself from you. The moral of the story here is: don’t try to play the emotion card. Because when you do that, this is what happens. You get smacked. Don’t fuck with me.” She jabbed at the zucchini, skewering slices onto her fork.
The sad remains of the lobsters were strewn gracelessly across the table. Bits of fried potato, sopped in spilled clarified butter, lay over neglected zucchini. Charlotte poured them both another glass of wine, sat back, and waited to see what would happen next.
“Pear and endive salad with raspberry chile dressing.”
“You’re not accepting the job, right?”
Her shoulders dropped with exaggerated relief and she breathed, “Finally! No! Geez.”
“I just want it to be clear that what I’m about to say isn’t a tactic. There isn’t any outcome I’m aiming for, I just want to say something.”
“Okay…” She was skeptical, her brow furrowed in tipsy cynicism.
“It was the sex.”
“What was?” Still skeptical, still tipsy.
“Before, you said it wasn’t the sex that made me–well…but it sort of was.”
“Because of the reduced blood flow to your brain?”
“Because you were mine, at last. When you weren’t, I had nothing to fear, nothing to lose. Then, when we were finally together…I was waiting for the day when you’d discover I didn’t deserve you.”
She laid down her knife and fork and stared across the table in shock. He looked like a four year old being scolded, eyes downcast, a deep frown at the corners of his mouth. She felt a wave of protective affection sweep over her; she wondered how much was real and how much was the wine. He took a bite of his salad and drank his wine and sat back in his chair, all without looking at her.
“Oliver.” She looked at him, willing his eyes upward.
“Charlotte?” His eyes stayed on the tablecloth.
“That was a completely uncharacteristic thing to say. But very endearing.”
He looked up, searching her face.
“I’m sorry,” he said in a voice so soft Charlotte could barely hear.
“What for?” she said, just as quietly.
“For telling you one thing and doing another. There are reasons for it, of course, but not excuses. I wish I had done things differently. I was a fool and a coward and it’s complicated and, most importantly, it’s over now. I made a bad choice, an unworthy choice, and I would like you to forgive me.” His eyes were still on hers. Charlotte’s spine tingled under the intensity of his gaze. The red patches on her cheeks grew.
“This is not a business maneuver?” she asked.
“It is not. It is, in fact, against my interest.”
“Well then you should know I forgave you a long time ago. Forgiving is not forgetting, but it is forgiving.” She held his gaze and offered him a crooked, sloppy smile. “It’s okay. You didn’t sink me. You gave me the motivation to make my life into something unique and independent and pleasurable here.”
He broke away her from her eyes and gave a nervous, relieved laugh. “Right. Good. Okay.”
Dessert arrived–two tiny chocolate soufflés, timed to perfection. The waitress placed two small glasses on the table and poured a wine the color of honey, and nearly the consistency. “Dark chocolate soufflé and 2002 Luna Mille Bacci Pino Grigio. Coffee as well?”
“Yes,” they replied together, all eyes fixed on the gently collapsing soufflés.