Marla parked between the yellow lines and slid out of her Jetta, the April breeze teasing her long blond hair. She wore a leather jacket and tight-fitting leggings that her revealed skinny, well-toned thighs. When she spotted Art's Jeep, she waved at him, smiling. He stepped out, his belly bulging above his sweatpants, his polo shirt stained beneath the underarms.
“Hey," he said "What's up?"
If only he'd hug her or at least kiss her cheek.
“You’re looking kind of, uh, tired,” she said.
He scratched his head, his hair flecked with dandruff. "Tax season. Everyone waits 'til the last minute."
Maybe that's why he hadn't called, she thought as she reached for his wrist. “Such a tragedy. Losing her to pneumonia of all things. She was only forty."
Freeing himself from her chokehold, he looked her up and down. “In the mood for a burger and fries? Looks like you could add a few pounds.”
So he'd noticed the weight loss, she thought as they wove around parked cars, stopping when they reached Charlie's Burgers, tucked between Target and Walgreens. Inside, he asked for a booth in the back, dropped down without waiting for Marla to settle in.
“Do you believe in heaven?” she asked, twirling her gold chain.
“If Claire could see us now, what would she think?”
He shrugged. “She’d be grateful, probably. We'd been out of touch since high school, but all of a sudden you were there. Feeding us when she was in the hospital. Speaking at her funeral. Arranging the flowers."
Marla might have done more, but, dropping by his house one day with a tuna casserole, she spotted a pile of plates on his front stoop, covered in foil. Bolting, she realized she'd have to act quickly; she couldn't just wait around.
The waitress slapped two plastic menus on the table, announced the day’s specials: French onion soup and fried calamari.
"I'll take the green salad," Marla said. "Dressing on the side."
Art ordered a triple cheeseburger, fried onions, extra mayo.
“I hope I’m not bothering you,” she said. “But when I didn’t hear from you, I worried. So I thought I'd shoot you a text and ask you to lunch."
With a shudder, she recalled his response. Since you're asking, I guess the meal's on you.
"We’re friends, aren’t we?” she asked.
She twirled a loose strand of hair. “Then why didn’t you call me? It's been a month since the funeral."
"Sorry. But, like I said, I've been super busy,”
"I would have helped if you'd called. I'm here for you."
The waitress brought their food, warning Art that his plate was hot. He tucked a paper napkin in his shirt, drowned the cheeseburger and fries with ketchup, lathered the hamburger bun with mayo, took a huge bite, without waiting for her to start. Marla filled a teaspoon with vinaigrette and dribbled it on her salad, picking at the lettuce and allowing herself three green olives. He downed his meal as though it were his last, chewing with his mouth open. But unmarried men were few; she could always fix him later.
She pushed her bowl away, tilted her head. She'd planned the words, rehearsed them again and again, but now they eluded her. Summoning her courage, she plunged ahead, unscripted..
“I hope it's not too soon.," she said.
"Too soon for what?"
She twisted her napkin. "I was thinking you might be lonely." Looking up, she drew a deep breath. "If you want to catch a movie or something, maybe you'll think of me?"
The waitress cleared their plates, asking it they'd like dessert. Art ordered pumpkin pie with whipped cream, lots of it. Marla demurred. Beside them, two tables had been joined together for what looked like an office party. A promotion. a birthday.
Or maybe an engagement
The waitress set down his pumpkin pie. He ate lustily, his mouth open, not a crumb left on the plate. A crowd formed a line by the entrance, entering in twos and threes. He licked the whipped cream off his fingers.
"So what do you think?" Marla pressed. "You and me? It's not like we just met. We've known each other since first grade."
He patted his belly. “I’m kind of seeing someone.”
“I'm no queer."
“Suzanne Mills. We went out for a while senior year. She called me after the funeral and, well, one thing led to another.”
“I ran into her recently. She's obese.”
He smiled apologetically, a crumb caught between his teeth. “Yeah. I guess she’s sort of heavy, but I like a little meat on my woman.”
The waitress set the check in front of him. He slid it toward Marla, but she couldn't bring herself to pick it up.
“What was I supposed to do?" he went on. "Sit home nights and cry?" He crunched his paper napkin, tossed it on the table. “I mean a guy's got needs."
Pamela R Winnick is a graduate of Columbia University's Schools of Law and Journalism. She was an award-winning journalist before turning to fiction. Her historical novel, Betrayed, is due out in 2020.