Sitting at a high-top chair at the bar in the restaurant I drank my drink, alone and silently. Honestly, I wasn’t a big drinker, but I like an Old Fashioned from time to time, it made me feel like I was in an F. Scott Fitzgerald book. Soft, classical music hummed in the background as I watched the ice cube slowly melt and mix like a complicated dance with the last sip of whiskey. Drops of condensation beaded down the lowball glass as I continued to acknowledge my decision.
Glancing up from my drink I gazed into the mirror of the bar. A short brunette walked through the door. She scanned the room looking for someone and began walking towards the bar. Delicately and discretely my eyes followed her over my shoulder as she got closer and closer. Quickly I looked down as she was only a few feet away. I suddenly felt a gentle touch on my shoulder. Confused, I turned around and blurted, “Hello!”
“Hi, I’m Cora. Are you Duncan?” Her voice was soft but high pitched and clearly excited, but how did she know my name?
“Yes, how…” she interrupted me.
“I’m good, just a little nervous about this whole thing.” She took off her jacket and pulled out the chair next to me. My mouth opened to tell her she had the wrong person, but she quickly continued, “I’m kind of cynical about blind dates, but I like dating apps even less.”
“Yeah, I agree,” I said in an attempt to slow her down and correct her. Duncan was a fairly unique name, but I knew I wasn’t the Duncan she was looking for. My dad was Irish and a big fan of all types of race car driving, so he named me after Duncan Hamilton, who was known for being a lively extrovert described as “fiercely independent”, “colorful”, and an “adventurer”. I didn’t inherit any of the qualities of my namesake.
Before I could tell her she had the wrong Duncan she started talking about meeting people the “old fashioned” way and how she always expected to meet a guy the way they did in movies or TV shows. Some type of meet-cute at a coffee shop or a grocery store, maybe at a concert or while reaching for the same copy of Wuthering Heights at a used bookstore. I nodded along wide-eyed and at the mention of “old fashioned,” I unintentionally looked at my drink.
“It looks like you need a refill.”
I looked at her, ready to set the record straight about her innocent mistake. She was cute, and she has incredible curly hair with an ear to ear smile. Most obvious of all was that she seemed happy. I don’t know what possessed me to say what I said next, it makes no sense, but I did. “Sure, why not!”
She waved at the bartender, Roger - who I affectionately dubbed Rog to no one but myself, came over and she asked for a Manhattan, then pointed to me and I asked for another Old Fashioned. “What a classy group we are!” She laughed and poked me in the shoulder. I gave a shy side smile back.
I don’t know what the hell I was thinking. Any minute now some guy also named Duncan was going to come walking through the door and I was going to look like some creep who pretended to be other people’s dates. I know I should have said something and just put a stop to this charade, but first of all, I was having a tough time stopping her from talking and from stopping myself from listening. It had been a while since I talked to someone like this and it was nice. Rog mixed our drinks and Cora dove into the Cliff Notes version of her life. Like most people living here nowadays, she was a transplant to San Francisco. She was originally from a suburb south of Tulsa and she grew up in a house alongside the Arkansas River. She told me that when she was feeling homesick, she would go to the Sutro Baths to daydream by the water and examine the graffitied run-down remains of the old public bathhouse. She said it’s what most of the mid-west looked like now.
Our drinks arrived and I studied her patiently. She was effortless, she was confident and dynamic as she resumed telling me about how she started pre-law at OU and found her calling for helping people after taking a course on Indigenous Peoples Law. She graduated, finished her law degree at Berkley and is now an Immigration Lawyer at a nonprofit.
“Wow, I’ve been going on for forever,” I didn’t care, “and I haven’t asked anything about you.” She raised her glass to her lips and took a quick sip. “So, what do you do? Where are you from? What do you do for fun?” She jokingly rattled off the questions are breakneck speed. “You know, all that good first date stuff.”
A first date.
I hadn’t been on a first date in over nine years. I don’t even know how these are supposed to work anymore and I didn’t know what I was supposed to say. Sure, I was born and raised in the Bay Area, I was an urban planner and for six years I was married to my best friend, but that wasn’t why I was sitting at this bar.
My wife, Elizabeth, and I met at a house party during my junior year at the University of Washington. She was also from the Bay and I fell for her that night. Liz, on the other hand, thought I was a huge dork but kept me around, I spent the next two years convincing her I wasn’t, and somehow, I tricked her into marrying me. Over the course of our relationship, I grew more as a person than I could have imagined. She got me to do things I never thought I could do and be someone I didn’t think even existed. She was great at that, making people feel at ease and bringing the best out of them.
A few months after we moved back to San Francisco to be closer to our families while we planned to start our family, she found a lump on her breast. We were about to go on a vacation with my parents to Ireland. She reassured me and told me that she would get it checked out once we got back in a couple of weeks. It’s a ridiculous idea, but I can’t help but wonder if we would have gone in and found out what it was before we left, we could have fixed it all in those thirteen days we missed. It’s a misguided notion and it’s not how cancer works, but it’s stuck in my head as much as the memory of sitting in the doctor’s office as UCSF Health is seared there as well. She told us that Liz had stage 4 breast cancer at it metastasized to her brain. Like a coward, I froze as Liz dived in with questions about treatment plans and the next steps. The world around me stopped until I ultimately spat out a question I shouldn’t have asked. “How long do you think we have?” I shouldn’t have asked.
The deterioration was rapid and unforgiving. She was the fiercest person I knew, and I watched my wife lay in bed not strong enough to even eat. A week after our sixth anniversary she died. I died that day too.
A funeral, a burial, endless condolences and countless offerings of prayers, months and months of monotonous going through the motions led me to this barstool. I was ready. I was ready to die. I put on a suit, slipped a $100 bill into my wallet and went to our favorite special date night spot. I would order a drink and then go home and take a handful of Ambien. Simple, quiet and bromidic, just like me.
“Are you from here?”
“Yeah, born and raised, I think one of the few anymore. I went to school in Seattle though, and moved back a few years ago.”
We went back and forth with casual banter about ourselves, our likes and dislikes, our travel dreams, odd hobbies, and our passions. Since Liz died I hadn’t done this, not just go on date, but just talk to someone. Loneliness can creep in swiftly and attach itself like a weed, unchecked it can spread without someone even realizing it’s there. I got so used to being alone and talking to myself that I completely forgot how nice it can be to make a simple human connection. Cora was a revelation to me, and she didn’t even know it. Hell, she didn’t even know who I actually was. We continued talking for about twenty minutes when she got a text message.
Hi, I’m running late, be there in 10.
I only caught a quick glance, but I knew what was coming next.
She squished her face quizzically. “Is your name really Duncan?”
“It really is, but I’m the wrong Duncan. I’m so sorry, I meant to tell you when you first sat down.” I hesitated and stumbled with my words, “I just, I, I don’t even know. I’m just really sorry for the mix-up.”
With an awkward half giggle, she slid herself from the bar and lifted herself out of the chair. “Well this was…” she paused, “interesting? But I’m going to go wait for my date over there.”
I nodded and smiled embarrassedly with just my lips.
Cora wandered off to the other side of the restaurant and I went back to staring at the ice cube melting and the condensation racing down my glass. A few minutes later at tall businessman type walked in and waved to Cora. I smiled and took one final swig of my cocktail; I sat the glass down and slid the $100 bill across the bar. With a long sigh, I gripped the leather chair pushing myself out my seat and made my way to the exit.