“Mom, why are we at a table for four?”
Dan’s mother had told him that this lunch date was just for the two of them. His first, fleeting thought upon seeing the extra chairs was sadness, because at one time, his father would have joined them. Then he had noticed that the table was next to the window, where his mother preferred to sit, and that all of the tables with seating for two next to the windows were full. He reasoned that she’d requested a windowside table, regardless of the number of seats.
In a way, it was good, because he had a surprise for her. Still, it made him nervous. His mother was the sort who liked to meddle with his life when she didn’t see it going in the direction she had imagined. That meant that there was another, very viable explanation for why their table had an extra seat.
“Well…” Martha smiled, and had she been in a cartoon, her eyes might have twinkled with mischievous glee. Her hair was already an ironic pastiche of other women her age: blonde, carefully coiffed, and cut in a way that revealed the severity with which she regarded the world. She was, of course, unaware of this, and Dan saw no reason to tell her. “You’ll see.”
He stared for a moment, his face going dead. “Mom.”
“What?” She inclined her head, lifting her mimosa and arching one eyebrow. “A girl likes to have her fun. Let me surprise you for once.”
“You are nothing if not full of surprises.” And you’re not a girl, he added silently. Best to speak the lie aloud and not the truth, with Martha.
The thought of what sort of surprise might lead Martha to get a table with extra seating made Dan faintly nauseated. He had no suspicion that there would be two extra guests — no, he was certain there would be one. And he was certain he knew the reason.
“Are you trying to set me up again?”
“Daniel.” Martha held her free hand to her chest, fluttering her eyelids to feign surprise. “You’ve caught me again. How do you always know?”
“I have an eye for detail, Mother. I got it from you.”
Today was possibly the worst time for Martha to try to set him up. He should have recognized the signs. She’d been hinting about his bachelor life and the fact that she wanted to see a grandchild before she died. But today, of all days, when he’d intended to beat her here in order to get a table for three himself… Well, he should never have assumed he could beat Martha anywhere. She had a habit of being precariously early.
“Well! You got a lot from me, after all. Including your looks.” She winked. “You’ll like her, Dan, I promise. She’s an artist on the side, and a lawyer by profession, so she’s not actually poor. And, of course, she’s gorgeous, as befits you.”
“Mom, I —”
“Now, now. You have to at least give her a chance.” Martha waggled a bony finger at him. “That’s your main problem with women. You never give them a chance. That’s why you haven’t found anyone. You can’t be thirty years old in this world without a partner.”
That’s when Tariq arrived, because he’d always had impeccable timing. Dan couldn’t fault him for that. His mother, being who she was, assumed all the wrong things.
“Hello!” He had a smile ready on his lips.
“We’re not ready to order yet, dear. My son has only just sat down.” Martha glanced at him. “Did you want something to drink, Daniel?”
Tariq raised his eyebrows, his hand frozen on the back of the chair he’d been pulling out. “Ah, I’m not a waiter.”
“Well, you’ve come to the wrong table then, haven’t you?” Martha leaned back in her chair, her back going ramrod straight. “We’re waiting for someone.”
“Mom, we’re waiting for him,” Dan said. “I’ve been trying to get a word in, but you keep interrupting.”
Martha pursed her lips before responding. “What are you saying, Daniel? We’re waiting for Rita. Not… whoever this is.”
“I don’t know Rita, Mom. This is who I was waiting for. I’ve been waiting for him most of my life, to be honest.”
“What is that supposed to mean, Daniel?”
“Sit, Tariq. It’s okay.” He gave Tariq a look that he hoped would convey I’m sorry and I warned you it might be this way. “Mom. This is Tariq. My boyfriend.”
Martha pursed her lips so hard that Dan wondered whether a singularity might form between them. Her eyes narrowed as well, in response, and when she spoke, her voice was forced and sickly sweet. “I didn’t know you were dating anyone, Daniel.”
“We’ve been together for about three months now.” This would be new to Martha, because Daniel had carefully scrubbed all mention of the fact that he was romantically involved from all of his interactions with Martha. Plus, she’d had no clue that he was interested in men.
“It’s nice to finally meet you, ma’am,” Tariq said, extending a hand across the table.
Dan tensed, but Martha did present her own hand in turn, meeting Tariq’s with a light, hesitant grip.
“I didn’t know you were involved with anyone, Daniel.” Somehow her lips remained pursed even while she spoke. “It would have prudent of you to inform me before I tried to set you up with anyone.”
“Well, mom, I didn’t ask you to try to find me a girlfriend.”
“You didn’t have to ask. I thought you were struggling.”
“I appreciate the concern, but I was doing alright.” Dan sighed. “It’s not always on you to try to make my life better. At some point, you have to let me try to do it for myself.”
Tariq sat, quiet and awkwardly fiddling with his napkin. Dan didn’t blame him. He felt like he would have to apologize heavily later, though he knew Tariq would tell him it wasn’t necessary.
“Hmm.” Martha drained the rest of her mimosa. “I have a phonecall to make, or this whole lunch is going to be even more awkward. Excuse me.”
Martha stood, leaving Tariq and Dan in their own company.
“You know, that wasn’t as bad as I’d thought.” Dan took Tariq’s hand under the table. “Thank you for being here, and for weathering… her.”
“You don’t have to thank me.” Tariq smiled, reminding Dan all over again of why he’d been interested in Tariq in the first place.
“I know.” Dan squeezed his hand. “But I like to.”
“Is the rest of this meal going to be that awkward?”
“Oh yes. Definitely.”
“Then I’m going to need to order something to drink.”
Dan laughed. No matter how awkward it was, it would be worth it, with Tariq by his side.