Concise Prose. Enough Said.
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The Rules

By Bill O'Neill

It was the end of October. The wind blew the leaves from the trees, while others were already on the ground, pushed into big piles, waiting to be covered with snow. The weather was changing, bringing on the cold, bright season of winter.

"So how did your first date go?"  Katherine was a good friend. They had been lovers briefly, many years ago, when she was a bright, aggressive insurance adjuster and he was a struggling young lawyer.  After a six-month affair, she went back to her old boyfriend Jake, and he went back to living alone. She wrote some months later to tell him that she and Jake had married, but that she missed their conversations. Katherine and Jake had been separated for about a year now.

Today he wasn't sure if she was jealous of the other women in his life or just curious. Maybe we're both wondering if we could start over, he thought. They were finishing dinner at a fancy Italian restaurant. Fancy enough to charge $20 for a bowl of rice and cheese, risotto or not.

"Let's call her Louise, and she kept looking away from me, avoiding eye contact during dinner. " he said.

"So, and what did you do?" Katherine was cutting up her chicken, feigning interest in bits of red peppers and cheese among the bits of overpriced rice.

"You know, the usual…" He shrugged, sifting for a scallop in his nearly-empty bowl.

"No, I don't know…The usual, as you call it." She had shrugged off questions about what she was doing with her life, but was persistent in her questions about his.

"Well, neither do I."  He had recently divorced his second wife. "Every time I come back into this dating thing they change the Rules. Hell, in my 20's, you could be anything and women would like you. In my 30's, you had to have 'prospects.'  At 40, you needed to be a 'sensitive new age guy.' At 50-something, who the hell knows? I still have no frigging clue what a woman wants."

"When you see the waiter, could you catch his eye? I want a another Diet Coke." She didn't smile when the waiter came, just wagged her glass at him. "So, go on. I'm not sure I get your point."

"Well, you used to meet people everywhere, you know? Like at work?" He winked at her, trying to get her to acknowledge how they’d met, but she ignored his gesture. "Now, you have to meet people on the computer, answer all their questions in writing, submit three character references, give a blood sample before you get their last name.  I don't know what references you need to get a woman's phone number."

"So, your point is what? You don't like the new Rules?" She played with one of the big green beads in her necklace.

"Quite frankly, no. The Rules are too complicated now." He wanted to change the subject, shift the attention back to her. "You look really good tonight. I like your sweater/necklace thing. Very color coordinated." Their friendship over all these years was based on being non-confrontational, even when they disagreed. He had always appreciated her sharp wit and attention to every word, even if she had been tone deaf about how he felt about her during their too-brief affair.

"Thank you for noticing."  She pushed her plate to one side, devoting her attention to the declining balance in her Diet Coke glass. "I built this outfit around the necklace--the green sweater, the black blazer. Now you can find them everywhere, but last year, I asked everywhere!" She seemed pleased with herself and her appearance, even though her appearance had changed over the years. Now, on the south side of fifty, she wasn't the thin, beautiful, young woman of his memory. Her migraine-headache medicine had caused a horizontal growth spurt. Her blond hair had a touch of chemical assistance.

"Good Shopping, girl, you go," he said.  She smiled, even if she suspected he was making fun of her habits.

"So, did you get laid or what?" she asked, brining the subject right back to him.

"Its not about sex," he fired back, before he realized how lame that sounded. "OK, yes, that's important, but not on the first date. No later that the third date, but…"  He noticed that she was holding her napkin to her lips, laughing hard.

"Rules? Rules!" She was gasping for breath as she laughed. "I thought you said they changed." She pulled her napkin over her nose to hide another fit of laughter. Tears started in the corners of her eyes.  

"Well, sex's still a part of it, isn't it?" All the chill wasn't outside their window in the parking lot. The wind rattled the screen on the window as he waited until she caught her breath.

 "Actually, Louise and I made out in the back seat of my car for a couple of hours," he said sheepishly.

"A couple of hours?  On the FIRST DATE?" She started laughing again.  The people at the next table were starting to notice.

"Well, yes, since I never met her before, it was, technically, a first date." He felt that he had to defend himself somehow.

"What happened on the second date? A Motel 6 somewhere, I suppose." She was serious now, the laughter hidden in her napkin.

"There was no second date. Her choice, not mine." He hoped he looked sufficiently puzzled, since he hadn’t understood what happened with Louise.  A great start, but no finish, like poor wine.

"You're right. The Rules are gone." She finished her Diet Coke, rattling the ice cubes in the general direction of the waiter, who appeared to whisk away their plates along with stray breadcrumbs and returned with the dessert menu.

"Two forks?" the waiter asked her as she declined the offered menu, avoiding the question by peering out the window at the departing rainstorm.

"The warm chocolate cake thing, with the gelato and cream." He didn't have to fight fair; he knew her weaknesses, chocolate among them, as well as she knew his. "And two forks, please." He added.

The waiter nodded, distracted by another customer waving from across the room. 

"You know, we have a choice. That's what I told her the other day: 'We all have choices,'" She changed the subject, away from the Rules.

"So, how is your mother?" he asked.  Katherine's father had died about a year ago, so he guessed she was talking about her mother, a local librarian.  What he really wanted to ask her was why things had never worked out between them, why they were still just friends after 20 years, but he knew he would never get a direct answer.

"We always have a choice, even if you're depressed. Things could always be worse.  She should choose to be positive, you know?" She played with the desert fork, tapping on her empty Coke glass as if to call a class to attention. The piece of cake appeared on the table between them, waiting.

"If you see the waiter, could you tell him I want a decaf tea," he said as he made the first strike of his fork into the soft middle of the little cake.  He wanted a return favor for her earlier Diet Coke and it was a distraction that allowed him the first bite. "And why can't your mother be depressed?" The chocolate cake was as good as the risotto, which was very good.

"Well, she can be depressed, if she wants to be, but it has to be a choice, not just something that she does because it's easy." Her spoon was resting on the dessert plate now. "How is it?"

"Worth the calories. But what about you? How are you doing?" His tea appeared like the dessert, without apparent effort on either of their parts. The arrival of the tea interrupted the conversation just enough to give Katherine the chance to change the topic back toward him.

"You know, you really have to figure out what you want in a woman if you are going to be doing all this dating."

"What?  All this dating: Two first dates and the third date yet to come." He took a sip of his tea, watching her as she took a big forkful of the cake.

"So, you almost get laid on the first date. What happens on the second date?" She licked the fork clean.

"Not much." He took a big bite of the gooey chocolate mixture. "Well, actually nothing happened, " he conceded.

"Explain, please."

Katherine was going to get all the cake, forking away like crazy, while he talked. "Well, she was a college professor-turned-researcher.  Antoinette was her name, like the queen. Smart, a New York type, so I made reservations for a fancy restaurant with good music. She showed up late; traffic she said. During dinner she tells me she has Lyme Disease and gets tired easily. We talked during dinner, all very pleasant, and then we order desserts. She excused herself to use the powder room. The music was just starting when she comes back. She says, 'I'm tired. I have to go. Good-bye!' and she's gone. So, there I am, two plates of expensive cake and the music just starting. 'Let them eat cake' was her motto, I guess."  He tried to get another bite of the disappearing mound of chocolate between them, just missing the last bite.  He scooped up the last few crumbs with the side of fork.

"So, what's wrong with that?" She put her fork down, surrendering the crumbs to him.

"Fatigue is not generally a symptom of Lyme Disease. Swollen joints, fever, rash, that sort of thing, but not fatigue. She came, she saw, she fled." He was grateful for whatever crumbs of chocolate he got. 

"OK. Let's review here, shall we? On the first date, you are virtually sexually assaulted and on the second date, you’re ignored and abandoned. Is that it so far? That's your new love life?" She wasn't smiling, but her eyes were mischievous.

"And your point is, what?" He reflected on going from eating two desserts on his last date to less than one tonight.

"I don't know yet." She had a gentle and relaxed smile on her face, like a parent who is pleased when the child figures out the answer to its own question. "Maybe the third time will be your charm."

The waiter dropped their check. They each rummaged for cash to split the bill, as was their custom. Dutch treat.  We are responsible for ourselves, he thought. Katherine was always so close and always so far away. Maybe that's what female friends are for, he mused. Just close enough to make you think about who you are, then examine yourself from another perspective.  Then you then round off the bill, subtract the tax, add 15% for a tip and divide by two. He hoped he had enough cash. But what did she get from these conversations?

"So, you'll let me know how blind date Number Three turns out?"

"Of course," he said, as he offered his half.


Bill O'neill practices law when he is not writing.  With enough practice, he hopes some year to make money.

Photo "Leaving Him" courtesy of David Peter Hansen, Sha Tin, Hong Kong.

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