Sarah stares across the table at the boy scoffing on a double cheeseburger with extra cheese as barbecue sauce slithers down his chin. A crisp rasher of streaky bacon falls from his burger and lands in the plastic basket. Sarah giggles. Where’s the man who quoted Shakespeare as fluently as the wine she pours every evening. The boy rubs his chin, and his face flushes red. Sarah runs her over her hands. Bethany would’ve told her to run away from someone as messy as this, but this boy seems different from the others.
Sarah glances at her basket with a few fries left, the little crispy ones from the bottom of the fryer. The boy had asked her what she wanted, and she said just chips. Why did she say this? Bethany’s voice floated in her mind, the high-pitched expert in all matter’s boy related. Don’t eat too much, but don’t eat nothing. What kind of advice was that? Sarah stretches across the table and picks the runaway rasher from his basket. Why not? If she’s judged for whatever she does, why not do whatever she wants. That’s the hunger talking. The boy smiles as she chews his loss.
‘Can I tell you a secret?’ Sarah asks, trying to lick bits of pork from her gums.
He says yes, but he chews on another mouthful of bread and meat and cheese, and it all comes out as a grunt. Sarah can’t stop smiling. This boy tried to impress her with old English literature and brought her a portion of chips and a diet coke but eats his burger as though it’s the most normal of things to do on a first date.
The boy had waltzed up to her as she scoured the romance shelves and began talking in nonsensical English. It took her a moment, but by the third ‘ye’ and pronouncing the ‘e’ at the end of olde, she figured it out. He was flirting or trying, but she wasn’t used to it, not this kind. Usually, boys shouted from across the street in a language that barely passed as English, let alone old English. Babes. The phrase she heard too often. Every time, Sarah swivelled her head and stretched her eyebrows and scanned the road for as far she could see, but she never understood who taught these boys how to talk to girls or why they kept adding a sharp plural S to the end of everything. She didn’t consider herself a babe, let alone a multitude of whatever it was.
But the boy in the shop tried to stand out. Despite misunderstanding the difference between spelling and syntax in old English and ignoring the fact he’d misread the type of literature she enjoyed, he’d done a good job. She was impressed. Sarah couldn’t place the play or whether it was Shakespeare or not, but it sounded old and like something Shakespeare might’ve said. But she wasn’t sure of that either. It just felt right, being made to feel like a woman. So, when he said Lee, she said Sarah. And when he said dinner, she said okay.
‘I don’t know what you were quoting in the bookstore,’ she says and buries her face behind her palm.
Sarah peers through a gap between her fingers and continues to smile at the boy’s unforgiving awkwardness. Lee chews quicker and contorts his face in all directions. His eyes shut, and his throat bulges. His cough is light. ‘Now, can I tell you a secret?’
‘Yeah,’ Sarah says, remaining behind her hands, unable to look him in the eye, fearing he’ll consider her an idiot. All she ever wanted was a guy who didn’t care about his appearance. At least not enough to spend more time in front of the mirror than her, of which compared to the stories Bethany told her, it wasn’t much time at all, and a guy who loves to read, so they can read the same book and discuss the plot and characters and setting and the prose over dinner. With such limited criteria, she believed love was easy to find, but she soon discovered maturity in young men wasn’t common, and buried herself in books where those men did exist, instead of the boys her age who thought her name was babes or another equally pathetic pet name.
‘I don’t know the play either, but I remembered the quote from English and didn’t know how to talk to you.’
Sarah dropped her hands on the table, ‘So, you lied?’
She thought she found her perfect guy, but he’s like all the others, and she waits for the pet name. The name he’ll call her as though her feelings and the dating process is a game to rack up points on a scorecard. Call her a sweet name. Compliment her. Buy her food. Shower her with cheap gifts, or an expensive one. Spoil her until she relents and lets him take her most valuable possession, herself. That’s all boys want, at least that’s what all her friends have said. They lie, until they get what they want, and then the honest starts. The distance. The delayed responses. The shuffling and turning around when they see you walking towards them in the mall. Sarah’s friends never showed their dates, who turned into one-night stands in a positive light.
Sarah never thought she’d find someone to value her, the way she was forced to value herself. She heard the rumours around school about those girls. Those girls who were somehow less human because they fell for the lies of immature school kids, while those boys high fived and laughed and shared stories of their success. She swore she’d never let herself become one of those girls, and she did a good job at conservatism. She turned down the boys who spoke to her in a way that made feel little, and it made it her feel stronger, if only slightly because a girl can only ever be wrong. There’s a name for girls who’ve slept with too many boys, and a name for girls who haven’t slept with enough. Sarah never knew where they drew the line. The older she grew, the harder she found it to say yes to the image she’d painted in her mind.
That was until the boy with scruffy black hair and a thin pair of glasses approached her and quoted old English, and she pretended he’d taken her aback. It left her dazed. So, when he said Lee, instinct had said Sarah. And when he said dinner, instinct had said yes. As soon as the elusive word has rolled off her tongue, she’d regretted it, but it was new to her. All of it. Dating. Saying yes. Cancelling a pre-arranged date. All she’d ever done was say no, but Lee smiled, and his blue eyes glistened from the light, and his dimples left craters in his bright red cheeks. He said there was a great restaurant and they should meet outside the bookshop at 7. Sarah went along with it. It was that smile. Not the one that illuminated his face, but the one he flashed when he turned too quickly and tripped over the table piled with books stamped with a 2-for-1 sticker.
Sarah spent the entirety of the afternoon on the phone to Bethany, who usually told Sarah about her dates and taught her the lessons about boys Sarah hadn’t learned yet. Sarah asked her what she should wear, whether she should arrive early or later, should they hug when they first meet, or should she offer to pay for dinner, but Bethany proved unhelpful in all matters. All Bethany wanted to know, was all Sarah suspected she thought was important. Are you going to sleep with him? Bethany had said. Sarah fell silent. She hadn’t thought about it. Come on, Sarah, you’re going to university next year. You need to lose it at some point, Bethany said.
Sarah asked why everything had to revolve around sex, and Bethany put it bluntly for her. Because that’s all guys want. Sarah wasn’t convinced. There must be more to boys, at least most of them. She knew Bethany liked the same guys she despised, and it confused her every time she received a call from a heartbroken Bethany because everyone, but Bethany, knew how it was going to end. Bethany wasn’t the best person to advise an inexperienced young woman, but she was all Sarah had.
For the rest of the afternoon, Sarah rushed around, trying to figure out what was hidden in her wardrobe to wear for a first date. She had nothing. Nothing suitable for a first date, anyway. She tried on one of the few dresses she possessed, the one she’d worn to her mums 40th birthday party, but her dad had scalded her because he felt it revealed too much of his young daughter, and Sarah didn’t want to give her date the wrong impression. Eventually, she decided on a pair of jeans and a baggy shirt.
‘I didn’t mean to lie; I just saw you looking at books and thought you’d talk to me if you thought I was smart,’ Lee says.
Sarah glares at him and remembers arriving at the bookstore at ten to seven to find Lee, standing there wearing a baggy green jacket. She smiles with the memory of Lee, offering out his hand to shake his sleeves rolling over his hands and what he said to justify his choice. His mum had told him it was going to rain, and the only waterproof jacket they had in the house belonged to his brother, who judging by the size of the hideous jacket, was either 2 foot taller than him or many years older. Sarah gripped his hand slightly and giggled at the jacket story, his hands were soft, and she wondered if he moisturised or what type of soup he used to achieve hands as soft of his. The only hands she was familiar with, in which she could compare, belonged to older men like her father. Even then, she wasn’t too familiar with his hands, and she assumed handshakes were greetings for business meetings and men. Her and Bethany always hugged. She had boys that were friends, and they hugged her, shook hands with the guys and hugged the other girls.
‘Lying is so stupid though,’ she says. ‘You could’ve just said hi and spoke to me like I was a human being.’
‘I know,’ Lee says. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘It’s okay. Can I buy us dessert?’ Sarah asks and reaches for the small menu wedged between flimsy metal tongs next to warm bottles of Tomato Ketchup and Mayonnaise.
‘Let me,’ Lee says.
‘No. You’ve paid for everything so far,’ Sarah says. ‘I don’t want to be that type of girl.’
Lee shrugs. ‘How about we share one?’
Sarah smiles. She wants nothing more than to share a dessert with her date like they do in her novels. The problem is, she’s starving and feels silly for not ordering a burger with her chips. That one slice of crispy bacon was the most delicious food she’d ever tasted, and she wants to eat the burger Lee’s already finished. It’s too late now, though, and it doesn’t feel right to order more hot food. The table next to them has just left, leaving a half-finished sundae with chocolate stains on the glass and layers of a velvety mix of ice-cream and chocolate buttons and fudge pieces. Sarah knows she’ll never finish it, but she wants to try, that’s a testament to Lee and his clumsiness.
‘I have an idea,’ she says, ‘Why don’t we both order one of these special sundaes and eat as much as we can until we feel sick and struggle to walk. Then you can try and walk me to the bus stop. That is unless you’re scared of a bit of chocolate.’
‘Me. Scared. No way,’ Lee screams and pushes himself from the table. ‘I’ll have the triple-choc with white chocolate buttons and vanilla ice-cream.’
Sarah orders triple chocolate for her date, and the fudge brownie delight like the one on the next table. While they wait, she stares at Lee and shoots her head around the room every time he tries to make eye-contact, which is quite rare, and he spends most of his time looking at their table. Sarah wonders if he likes her, or if he’s thinking the same thing. She’s grateful for the thought, it distracts her from her commitment, and for a moment, she questions if it was a good idea to order a special sundae, but it’s a special occasion. It’s her first date, and she likes Lee and doesn’t mind him staring at the table and not at her. She knows if he were the one staring at her, then she’d be the one staring at the table.
The Sundaes arrive, and Sarah feels sick with anticipation. Lee glares at her. They reach for their long spoons with a small head that makes the enormous sundae feel bigger. One of them must go first, and their eyes meet for the first time as they decide which one of them it should be. Together they dig their spoons into the whipped cream and begin to eat. It’s cold and fluffy. Sarah says it tastes like sweet air, and Lee plunges his spoon into the glass, devouring spoonful, after spoonful of chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream. Sarah battles to keep up, and before either of them know it, their glasses are half full.
Their feast slows. Sarah peaks at Lee’s glass, she has more, and she forces another spoonful into her mouth. Lee copies her. Sarah tries again, and Lee’s breathing heavier. He’ll give up soon, at least that’s what she thinks. Lee keeps plunging his spoon, deep into the glass and Sarah follows his lead. They can keep this up forever, but those glasses aren’t infinite, and although she feels the glasses are refilling themselves, she can’t give up now. What would Lee think? Sarah called him a coward, and if she knows anything about boys, it’s that they hate losing but love winning more. He’ll probably sulk if he loses, but she’d rather that than the pointless bragging about the petty victory.
Lee lets his spoon fall into his Sundae glass and slumps back in his chair. There’s still vanilla ice-cream in his glass, but when Sarah peers into hers, it’s empty. She smiles proudly then falls back into her chair, unable to move and eager to fall asleep. It’s Lee’s turn to stare, and her eyes glare back at him. She hasn’t overcome her shyness; she doesn’t have the energy to look away. Sarah suspects the only reason Lee sits across the table gazing at her too.
‘I don’t know if to tell you I love you, or that I hate you for what we just did,’ Lee says, chuckling, but a cough cuts his laugh short.
What a thing to say on a first date, but she understands. She’s proud of her accomplishment, but she hates herself at the same time.
‘I’d ask for your phone number,’ Lee says, ‘but I don’t know if I can move right now.’
‘I know the feeling, how about we just meet here next Saturday at seven again.’
‘I’ll still be full by then,’ Lee says and laughs. ‘But I guess I’ll force myself to eat with you again.’
‘I have two conditions, though.’
‘Hug me instead of shaking my hand again.’
‘Okay,’ Lee says, smiling. ‘And the other?’
‘No more quoting dead writers neither of us know.’
Lee nods and smiles again, and they resume observing each other across the table. Both unable to move. Both smiling. The boy who quoted Shakespeare and the girl who’d never been on a date before. Content. And full.