“Nothing for now,” Hannah told the waiter as she slid her narrow hips into a seat at the window table. “I’m waiting for someone.” She reached for the green glass water bottle. Ben would be late, of course, she thought, shaking her head with half a smile. But she preferred to be early. You could never predict how bad the traffic would be; or how easy. You couldn’t guarantee that you’d be perfectly on time; and she preferred to err on the side of early, the side of courtesy.
She poured herself a glass and examined the restaurant. The room was gloomy in a velvet Parisian way, and popular. Another reason to be early. If she hadn’t arrived when she did, perhaps they wouldn’t have gotten a table.
She took a sip. The water tasted stale — as if it had been recycled a million times.
She pulled out her phone. 12:55. No message. Silly to expect him to arrive before the agreed upon time. He’d regard that as wasteful. Why arrive early, he’d often protest. Arriving early just means you have to wait– which is a waste of my time. Arriving early for a date made you look eager, in a way that put you at a disadvantage. But arriving late, she would counter, meant putting the other person at a disadvantage. She’d have to wait for you, and waste her time. Why suppose her time was less valuable than yours?
False dilemma, Ben would retort; there was a third option, a perfect option: being exactly on time. But who could control that? Had they ever — when arriving together — arrived exactly on time?
There must have been times when they did — for plays or flights, say. But mostly when they arrived together they arrived late. It’s not a big deal, Ben would insist, it’s just a few minutes. Normal people don’t care.
Hannah closed her eyes recalling the signs of annoyance or humiliation — narrowed eyes, tightened jaws, or blushes, of friends or business associates when they arrived late. It wasn’t my fault, she’d wanted to tell them.
His lateness was just carelessness, Ben hinted; he had more important things to worry about than the trivia of five or fifteen or thirty minutes. But then, she would reason — more to herself than to him — why are you never early? If you were simply careless about time, wouldn’t you be as likely to be early as late? If it doesn’t matter to be kept waiting, why not sometimes be the one kept waiting yourself?
She glanced at her phone. 1:02. The waiter returned and frowned discreetly. She ordered a glass of wine and a bowl of pistachios. Perhaps Ben wasn’t coming. Perhaps she shouldn’t wait. Other people could use the table, after all. And she’d hate them to see her being stood up. But of course, he was habitually late. Two minutes didn’t mean he wouldn’t arrive eventually.
She examined the menu chalked on a blackboard near the door: soufflé, quiche, Welsh rarebit. Perhaps she should leave and find a place more suited to her taste. But then the waiter brought her order. She sipped the cold, sour liquid. She didn’t really enjoy wine, just drank it because it was preferable, in different ways, to beer and hard liquor and soft drinks, and it gave you something to do with your hand and your mouth while you waited.
She opened her purse and felt the rounded rubbery corners of her phone. She should wait before checking the time. Doing so every minute made one look desperate.
How often had he kept her waiting in all the years they’d been married? It depended on how you counted: whether you counted the times waiting at home with two little girls, expecting him to relieve her as he’d promised. Or the times she’d come to pick him up and he’d stayed inside working — a time before cell phones. Or the times she’d been ready and dressed to go to a party and he was still playing Call of Duty.
She pulled out the phone, and frowned at her image in the dark screen. She adjusted a stray mahogany hair, but could do nothing about the creases around her eyes and mouth. 1:15. “Where R U?” she typed; but then hesitated before hitting the send button. Getting impatient after only fifteen minutes wait was absurd, he’d say, with a laugh as cold and sour as the chardonnay. And he was right. If the sum total of her waiting were fifteen minutes, then her reaction would be absurd. Fifteen minutes was nothing. But a million nothings became something, in the way a collection of extensionless points became a line; or the way a million paper cuts could kill you.
“Hey!” Ben was beside her all of a sudden. She hadn’t noticed him enter the restaurant. He kissed her neck.
“What?” He protested, drawing back. He must have seen the irritation on her face. “Traffic.” He shrugged. “You’re not going to make a fuss and spoil lunch, are you?”
“Of course not.” She made an effort to smile. “It’s nothing.”
Frances Howard-Snyder teaches philosophy. She is currently working on a novel.