The tug of war within my skull ensues, but Zane doesn’t appear to share my struggle for words.
“Was the drive over fine?”
“Yes,” I croak, a slight pause preceding my reply.
He peers at me squarely, noting it. “Why did you hesitate?”
As strongly as I feel on the matter, I can’t bring myself to maintain eye-contact when I speak. “I’m not comfortable with leather seats. Frankly, I have a staunch aversion to the use of leather altogether.”
That’s an understatement. But I have to resist the urge to jump on my soap box and rant about the sickening billion-dollar industry to a top player in a trillion-dollar industry that I’m not exactly fond of, either.
“I see,” he says, his tenor unchanging, but there’s this tiny, almost imperceptible descent in his voice. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
Lucien returns with water and wine, moving with such grace and finesse even Jesus would be proud, exuding the bountiful knowledge and experience of his domain through action alone. A true disciple of his craft.
The hiss of carbonation hits the air as he twists a cap open. Herbs, fresh fruit and ice are expertly combined in a tall glass and then submerged in bubbly water. He sets it in front of me gallantly before moving on to Zane, having him test the aged beverage and then proceeding at his confirmation.
I try not to gape at the bottle through the highbrow ritual—or think about the fact that it costs more than the average American makes in an entire year.
I force my attention to the menu, the action as much to distract myself from unconscionably extortionate fermented grape juice—not to mention, the sheer power radiating from the opposite end of the table—as finding something to eat.
The itemization is extensive. Almost overwhelming. And, normally, it bothers me when restaurants don’t list prices for their entries. It’s a pretty much guaranteed sign you’re going to be emptying your wallet. But after catching those wine digits, it’s nothing short of a blessing because I’d most likely lose my ability to speak altogether, let alone order. It doesn’t help that a lot of the stuff on here sounds pretty foreign. I consider myself decently exposed when it comes to food, but I’m not even sure whether I’m reading about culinary dishes or medieval artifacts right now.
“Do you need more time deciding?” the maître d’ inquires, looking attentively between us again.
Rather than explore the menu further, I choose instead to go with the first thing that sounds familiar. “No, I’m ready to order.”
He nods, whipping out an electronic pad.
“I’ll have number thirteen,” I continue, seeking to speed things along so that this night and this date can end sooner than later. I don’t want to stay a second longer than I have to.
I still think it’s the most bizarre thing—in its entirety. Showing up at Hannah’s charity event. Bidding all that money. Solely on me.
While I didn’t have the chance to ask him at the fundraiser itself—or the gumption to do so after the fact—he hasn’t been forthcoming whatsoever about the insane sequence of events he spearheaded. Though, I highly doubt I could actually comprehend any reasoning behind his actions.
Then again, I’m probably overthinking something he did on a whim, without much thought at all. That’s entirely feasible considering how often wealthy people make donations—and the fact that he just dropped sixty grand on something he’ll piss away in a few hours. I dunno, maybe he supplements employee donations. Like a benevolent 401(k) for billionaires or something.
This feels like an exercise in futility. As much as I ponder it, I find myself no more insightful on the matter—but at a greater risk for developing a migraine—so I decide to just leave it be. At least, for tonight.
I have too much to contend with as it is.
Zane’s eyes finally leave mine to peruse his menu, and I feel the strangest hybrid of sympathy and envy for the inanimate object even though I’m grateful for the distraction its existence provides.
Both fortunately and unfortunately, he doesn’t take long to make his second decision, either. “I’ll have the day’s special.”
While my acute reprieve is fleeting, I exhale in silence, never having been so grateful for the widely-touted and celebrated resolution of Atlas Zane. Tonight, it truly is a quality I can appreciate.
“Très bon!” the maître d’ nods. “Number thirteen for the lady and the Valentine’s Day Special for the gentleman.” He taps his pad accordingly. “Your wait time is approximately twenty minutes. We appreciate your patience. I’ll be back with appetizers momentarily which, per French custom, will be followed by a course of entrées in the meantime.”
Lucien departs once more, leaving us by ourselves, a strange, novel sentiment etching itself into the silence.
Zane resumes his monitoring. Like it’s his default pastime. No. More like his default sport.
“Do you go on a lot of charity dates, Mr. Zane?” I blurt, the words flying out before I can stop them in an impulsive need to break the disquieting quietude. But I quickly realize that it could be taken as a somewhat intrusive question. Almost immediately, I start to backtrack. “What I mean is—”
“No,” he says plainly. “This is my first time.”
That answer shocks me right back into silence. I definitely wasn’t expecting to hear it.
Which only breeds more questions.
“How do you know about the Sweet Heart charity?” I probe when I can figure out how to speak again. “I’ve attended for years and never seen you there before.”
“The company donates to several causes at any given time,” is his brief, rehearsed response.
He offers no elaboration and, while it doesn’t answer my question in the slightest or satisfy even the tiniest inkling of my burning curiosity, it also doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see it’s clearly all he intends to give. And, while I’d also like answers, I don’t particularly feel like pushing the matter.
Not when what really has my mind preoccupied right now…is the way he keeps looking at me. Staring. Watching. Like he’s literally observing every micro-motion I make.
My stomach bends and folds beneath expensive fabric, twisting itself over and over again in elaborate knots to rival the evening gown’s threading.
How the hell am I supposed to get anything inside it like this?
I blink against the intensity of him, fluttering eyes averting his in desperation once again. I want to tell him that it’s rude to stare at people, but I don’t have the balls. Plus…there’s a small, annoying part of me that isn’t entirely sure I want him to stop, even though that’s precisely what I need.
Please, put your pretty eyes somewhere else. Pretty please. I can’t take much more.
“I need to use the ladies’ room,” I croak, rising from my seat on rickety legs that can barely hoist me, the incessant pounding between them making it hard to walk.
I excuse myself to the restroom without waiting for a response, hoping an imperative break will give me some respite and eat up some time, if only a little.
Zane beckons behind me, and I’m promptly guided to a private washroom by a uniformed female waiter.
Eagerly, I slip between its varnished panels, out of breath, as if I just ran fifty miles.