Story — From the October 2015 issue

Late

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Because Valeria is always late, because I’d like to have dinner with her at seven, and because, if I ask her to meet me at the restaurant at seven, I might not have dinner until eight, I ask Valeria to meet me at the restaurant at six. This plan, I tell myself, is a bold and ingenious way of defeating lateness. Even if Valeria arrives forty-five minutes late for our six o’clock dinner, she will, without knowing it, be fifteen minutes early for our seven o’clock dinner. I’ll then feel grateful to her for being fifteen minutes early instead of impatient with her for being forty-five minutes late, and the evening, rather than beginning with unconvincing excuses on her part and suppressed irritation on mine, will be perfect from the start. I enter the restaurant at ten minutes to six. This is not because it’s important for me to be early, but because it’s important for me not to be late. I’m soon seated at a table for two, where I take sips from a glass of water brought to me by a friendly waiter, to whom I’ve explained that I am meeting someone at six. From my table I can see the glass entrance door, through which three customers are entering, and part of a second room, where the tables are full and where I can see, on the far wall, part of a big-screen TV, on which a blond anchorwoman is moving her mouth silently above a news crawl. As six o’clock draws near, customers continue to enter, including one unaccompanied woman, who looks in my direction. She is not Valeria. I study my glass of water. I glance up, from time to time, at the opening or closing door, and down, now and then, at my watch. At six o’clock I deliberately look over at my waiter, who is standing at another table and writing on his pad, before I turn my attention to the door. No one is entering. By 6:10 I feel a first faint stirring of impatience. I remind myself that Valeria is only ten minutes late, that traffic is always unpredictable, that it’s often difficult to find a parking space near the restaurant, that the parking garage is always full at this hour, that, although Valeria is ten minutes late, it feels like twenty minutes because I arrived ten minutes early, which should not, in all fairness, be blamed on Valeria, and that, apart from such considerations, if she’d arrived at 6:10 she would have been a mere ten minutes late for our six o’clock dinner but an immense fifty minutes early for our seven o’clock dinner, in which case my plan would have been a disastrous failure, since it would now be necessary to have dinner almost an hour earlier than I’d like to do. It is, therefore, I say to myself, pleasing to me that she hasn’t yet arrived, and I should be grateful to her for not disappointing me by an unexpectedly early appearance. At 6:15 I order a cup of coffee and apologize to the waiter. He holds up the palm of one hand and closes his eyes for a few moments in a sign of understanding, sympathy, and amicable patience. In the second room, the blond anchorwoman has become a dark-haired anchorman with thick eyebrows. By 6:30 I can no longer repress an irritable restlessness. Valeria is now half an hour late, although she is also half an hour early, and despite the fact that I’m dutifully working my way through a second cup of coffee, which I do not want, in order to legitimize my occupation of the table, I feel that I’m taking unfair advantage of the restaurant’s hospitality, especially since three couples are looking around and checking the time as they wait behind the blue velvet rope for a table to be free. At 6:35 the door swings open and Valeria enters. She is, I quickly see, not Valeria. She resembles Valeria, though only a little. She is so different from Valeria that I can’t understand how I could possibly have mistaken her for Valeria. I remind myself that if Valeria were to step through the door at this very moment, she’d be only thirty-five minutes late, which for her is practically on time, while simultaneously, so far as my dinner plans are concerned, she’d be an astonishing twenty-five minutes early. Even if she were forty minutes late, I say to myself, for our six o’clock dinner, she’d still be twenty minutes early for our seven o’clock dinner, and with this thought in mind I make every effort to assure myself that all is well, despite my awareness that she has made me wait thirty-five minutes at a table for two on a busy night in a crowded restaurant. By 6:45 I’ve become so impatient that I begin to entertain thoughts of leaving. What is the point, I ask myself, of sitting alone in a frantic restaurant, glancing now at my watch and now at the door, while waiters are striding briskly back and forth, and customers behind the blue velvet rope are flinging looks in my direction, as I wait for Valeria, who was supposed to meet me at six, who is already forty-five minutes late, and who, in only fifteen minutes, will be late by an entire hour? I remind myself that to leave now would be to defeat the deeper purpose of the evening, which is to meet Valeria not at six but at seven, so that, if she arrives in fifteen minutes, she will actually be on time. If I look at things calmly, without giving way to an understandable but unhelpful resentment, I can see that my plan is succeeding brilliantly. Then again, I can’t help thinking, if Valeria is already forty-five minutes late for our six o’clock dinner, though fifteen minutes early for our seven o’clock dinner, there’s no reason to think that she won’t be as late for dinner at seven as she already is for dinner at six, in which case it’s entirely pointless to continue sitting here like an idiot, wasting my precious time and taking up valuable space on a busy night in a crowded restaurant, though it’s important to remember, I say to myself, that even if she turns out to be forty-five minutes late for dinner at seven, she’ll be no later for dinner at seven than she already is for dinner at six, and since I’ve now waited forty-five minutes for the six o’clock dinner I did not want, I can easily wait forty-five minutes for the seven o’clock dinner I’ve been eagerly looking forward to. The best thing to do, under the circumstances, is to call the waiter over and order a glass of white wine. As he returns with the wine, I keep my eye steadily on the door. It strikes me as astonishing that I’ve somehow failed to bring a newspaper with me, or a good book, so that I might occupy the time that I knew was bound to pass before her late arrival, because the one thing you can count on, when it comes to Valeria, is that she’s always late, although a book or newspaper, it now occurs to me, might have the disadvantage of concealing the visible impatience that serves as a continual, quiet apology to the staff, the manager, and the waiting customers. At 6:50 I glance up at the door. The door is quiet. No one is standing on the other side, raising a hand to grip the vertical brushed-steel bar that runs the length of the glass and serves as a handle. At 6:55 I begin to feel, beneath the tight surface of my fierce-willed calm, a ripple or flutter, as when, in the fourth grade, I rode for the first time on the roller coaster and felt it climbing higher and higher before the unthinkable plunge. Below me, I could see my parents growing smaller and smaller as they stood with their heads tipped back, looking up at me, and I could also see, far down, the top of the merry-go-round. As the hour approaches, I refuse to turn my attention to the door of the restaurant but stare tensely at my watch. At exactly seven I raise my eyes, as if to catch Valeria in the act of entering. Valeria is not entering. Of course Valeria isn’t entering. Why would she be entering? My feelings are far from simple. I’m upset, even angry, that Valeria is one hour late for dinner, while at the same time I feel entirely justified in having asked her to meet me at six, since, had I asked her to meet me at seven, it would now be eight and my hunger would be unbearable. Immediately I remind myself that, though she is one hour late for dinner at six, she is not yet late for dinner at seven, so that my impatience, however reasonable, is uncalled-for. Shouldn’t I be pleased, even joyful, that everything is taking place as I foresaw? At 7:10 a new impatience stirs in me. Now Valeria is not only late, by one hour and ten minutes, for our six o’clock dinner, she is also late, by ten minutes, for our seven o’clock dinner. Ten minutes late, of course, is laughably early, for a woman like Valeria, but I am growing hungry and can’t forget that I asked her to meet me not at seven but at six. At 7:20 I order, reluctantly, a third cup of coffee. At 7:30 a new thought arises: Is it possible that something has happened to Valeria? After all, though she’s only thirty minutes late for our seven o’clock dinner, she’s now ninety minutes late for our six o’clock dinner, and, even for Valeria, an hour and a half is a lateness that has to be taken seriously. Maybe, at this very moment, she is standing helplessly by the side of the road, beside a flat tire, her emergency lights blinking, her cell phone uncharged. Maybe she’s been in an accident and remains unconscious in the car, slumped forward with her face pressed against the steering wheel, the horn blasting steadily into the night. As I sit here, feeling ignored and mistreated, she might, for all I know, be lying in an ambulance that is speeding through red lights, stop signs, and crosswalks on its way to the emergency room, while an anxious medic stands over her, watching a screen. The possibilities, which alarm me, also annoy me, since they undermine the exasperation that I feel is justified by her extreme lateness, unless of course something has really happened to Valeria, in which case my exasperation is not only irrelevant but offensive. I know I should call her, right now, this very second, but as I reach for my cell phone I understand that I can’t bear the thought of listening to Valeria make excuses, once again, for being late. I decide that I’ll wait until exactly 7:45, at which time I will either call Valeria or get up and leave. But as the hands of my watch approach the final minute, I become aware of a change in the restaurant. No customers stand behind the blue velvet rope, several tables are empty, and the waiters, who moments ago were rushing about, are now moving quietly, as if they have all the time in the world. If I remain at my table, I am no longer interfering with business, as I was at 6:30, when I began to feel that I was taking unfair advantage of the restaurant’s hospitality, and it might even be argued, I say to myself, that I am helping business, in a small way, by showing passersby, who glance in the window, that the restaurant is doing a lively business, even at this hour. Although Valeria is now nearly one hour and forty-five minutes late for the six o’clock dinner I did not want, she is not yet forty-five minutes late for the seven o’clock dinner I’ve been counting on, and I am certainly used to waiting forty-five minutes for Valeria to arrive at whatever place I have arranged to meet her. At eight o’clock she is two hours late for our six o’clock dinner and one hour late for our seven o’clock dinner. I remind myself that I expected her to be one hour late for our six o’clock dinner, so that, if she is now one hour late for our seven o’clock dinner, it’s only to be expected. The one course of action open to me is to call the waiter over and order a second glass of wine. At 8:30 I ask myself, for the first time, whether Valeria might have mistaken the day, even though she never mistakes the day, or whether I’m the one who has mistaken the day, even though I never mistake the day. At nine o’clock the thought crosses my mind that Valeria is not coming to dinner. This thought, which disturbs me, is quickly followed by a second thought: that her arrival is not, considered objectively, out of the question, or even unlikely, since she is always late, though not this late. In that case, I say to myself, I wonder whether it would be better for me to order a fourth cup of coffee, which will keep me up all night, or a third glass of wine, which will make me drowsy. I decide to order a fourth cup of coffee, come what may. At ten o’clock Valeria is four hours late for our six o’clock dinner and three hours late for our seven o’clock dinner. Now there are only a few couples seated at the tables, speaking quietly, and one man with neatly combed gray hair, who sits alone, reading a newspaper and nursing a beer. A waiter leans against a counter and stares out the window at people walking by. There are cars parked on both sides of the street, with spaces here and there, and if I lean forward, I can make out part of my own car, parked on the other side of the street, a block away. In the other room, the television shows a center fielder moving gracefully to his left under a high fly ball. At 10:15 I order a fifth cup of coffee, which I have no intention of drinking. By now I feel certain that Valeria is not coming to dinner, though it remains true that I can’t claim to know, with the degree of assurance that would put my mind at ease, that she absolutely won’t be coming to dinner, even at this late hour. At the same time I’ve grown so hungry that my stomach has begun to hurt. Although it’s impossible for me to order dinner, since I am waiting to have dinner with Valeria, it’s also impossible for me to go without dinner, since I can feel myself growing dizzy from hunger while sitting at a table in a restaurant, like a man dying of thirst at the edge of a stream. I can, true enough, no longer imagine eating a full meal, because of the pain in my stomach, and so, when I call the waiter over, I order only a bowl of onion soup and a small salad. When I’ve finished my meal, which I think of as a pre-dinner, or a second lunch, I continue to sit at the table, glancing out at the street and occasionally at the door. At eleven o’clock only I and the man with neatly combed gray hair remain in the restaurant. Outside, two teenagers walk by, holding hands. At 11:45 the man with gray hair folds his newspaper in half, stands up, pushes his chair in, and, without looking at me, walks toward the door. As he passes the counter where the cash register sits, he reaches into a small bowl and removes a mint. At 11:50 an elderly waiter, whom I haven’t seen before, tells me in a melancholy voice that the restaurant will be closing at midnight. I glance at the door, where Valeria is not entering, look down at my watch, which has shifted, very slightly, from the center of my wrist, and ask him to bring me the check. The check arrives promptly, in a green leather booklet resting on a small black tray. I pay cash, leaving a large tip, and then, after a pause, a larger tip. At one minute before midnight I walk out of the restaurant and head for my car. From the driver’s seat I can see the plate-glass window of the restaurant, the red neon sign, and the entrance door. It’s only a little past midnight, and it isn’t beyond the realm of the possible, I say to myself, that Valeria, who is always late, might finally arrive. Since I’ve already waited five hours for our seven o’clock dinner and six hours for our six o’clock dinner, a burden of waiting that, as I’m fully aware, deserves to be called unreasonable, it is, I assure myself, no more unreasonable, logically speaking, to wait still longer. At one in the morning I take note of a temporal symmetry: I have now waited seven hours for our six o’clock dinner and six hours for our seven o’clock dinner. At two in the morning I’m still in my car, watching the dark restaurant, which turned off its lights long ago, except for a small, luminous sign, ice blue, in one corner. At 3:30 in the morning I feel myself growing sleepy, despite the four and a half cups of coffee that ought to be agitating me into alertness. I remind myself that if I yield to my desire to fall asleep I will never know whether Valeria has come to dinner. Two hours from now, dawn will break. When the restaurant opens, at seven in the morning, I can leave my car, walk across the street, and order a delicious breakfast of blueberry pancakes with crisp strips of bacon on top, over which I’ll pour, from a small jar with a retractable metal spout, maple syrup the color of amber. The waitress will smile at me as she bends forward to refill my cup of coffee. The breakfast will, in a sense, be my dinner of the night before, and after breakfast I can stop waiting for Valeria to arrive yesterday and begin waiting for her to arrive today. After all, I say to myself, no matter how late Valeria is for our six o’clock dinner, she will always be one hour earlier for our seven o’clock dinner, so that, whenever she arrives, she’ll be earlier than she would have been, on some other occasion. It is, in any case, far better to wait for Valeria, who is always late, than to have no one to wait for, at any hour, and with this thought in mind I lean my head back against the car seat, glance down at my watch, and turn my face toward the dark restaurant, which will soon be ready to begin a new day.

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Steven Millhauser's most recent collection of stories, Voices in the Night, was published in April by Knopf.

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