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Dinner Theater

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"So, what's the latest on your love life?"

"My love life. Betty, you're a riot."

The woman with a ponytail was pretty; she wore a T-shirt advertising the Wisconsin Dells. Her beefy, bearded friend wore frayed flannel. We three were the only customers in this modest little Thai restaurant in Uptown; they took a nearby table moments after I'd ordered my cashew chicken. I hadn't come here to eavesdrop on the conversations of strangers. But I'd consumed five cups of coffee that day, and now I couldn't concentrate on the book in my hands.

"Whatever happened with that gal you work with?" said the woman.

"You mean Simone," said the guy.

"Is that her name? I get 'em all confused sometimes."

"There's not much to tell. I finally called her, but she made it clear she's not interested."

Thai pop music played softly in the background, electronic keyboards and strings and an expressively shrill female singer.

"Oh well, just let it roll off your back," said the woman.

"That's easy for you to say," said the guy.

"Did you ask her out?"

"I tried to."

"What, did she make it difficult?"

"Well, she was honest, I'll give her credit for that. But she said one thing that really bothered me."

"Let's hear it."

"She said, 'I believe in a certain amount of bullshit, and in a certain amount of leaving things unsaid.'"

A teenage waiter in a white shirt emerged from the kitchen and turned on a TV set in the corner, drowning out the Thai music with a commercial for the Acura Legend.

The woman laughed. "Ah Wayne, you sure can pick 'em."

"They pick me," said the guy.

"Well, it doesn't sound like any great loss. What about that other one?"

"What other one?"

"Just before I left for New York, I ran into you at the Equator Club, remember? You introduced me to this really cute Latina-looking woman."

"Oh, you mean Margaret. Yeah, we went out a few times."

I felt guilty listening to all this. But it was hard not to, since they weren't exactly bothering to keep their voices down.

"So nothing came of that either?" said the woman.

"She gave me the old friend spiel," said the guy.

"The old what?!"

"It's a classic. The woman says, 'Oh, I think you're a wonderful guy. I think the world of you, blah blah. I think of you as a friend.'"

"That's bad?"

"But you know, then she says, 'If we were to become lovers, it would just ruin everything.'"

The teenage waiter brought them their appetizers, then went over to the TV and started flipping channels. "AT&T's best international rates...bottom of the eighth, two men on...while supplies last!...that's my company, Cadillac...how could you, Robert?"

"Well, she's right," said the woman. "It can ruin everything."

"Don't tell me you believe that too," said the guy.

"It's true."

"You better explain it then, because it makes no sense to me at all."

"You can be completely open with a friend," said the woman. "But with a lover, it's more complicated."

"How so?"

"Oh, I dunno. Let's say I'm having some doubts about the relationship, or I'm feeling attracted to another man. Now I can talk about that with a friend much easier than with my lover."

"More tonight on the O.J. trial!" said the TV.

"What you're talking about is deception," said the guy.

"It's not that simple, Wayne."

"You sure make it sound simple."

"Cashew chicken with rice," said the teenage waiter, setting a hot dish before me. "Anything to drink?"

"If I'm dating a man, it doesn't mean I have to completely submit myself to him," said the woman. "I believe in each person having their own room for privacy."

"I'll just drink water, thanks," I told the waiter.

"So you equate honesty with submission?" asked the guy.

"When you're sleeping with someone you can't just let them gobble you up," said the woman.

The cashew chicken looked good, so I set my book aside.

"Who's talking about being gobbled up?" said the guy. "I'm talking about honesty."

"Well, maybe being gobbled up is more of an issue for a woman than for a man," said the woman.

The waiter disappeared into the kitchen, leaving the TV tuned to a music-video channel. On the screen, a young blond woman in a baby dress scowled at the camera, twitching her body to the beat of some electric guitar noise as she moved her mouth and pretended to sing.

"Take Dexter, for instance," said the woman. "He's really wonderful and everything...but when he starts talking about how much he loves me, sometimes I feel like just jumping out the window."

"I've heard many women talk that way," said the guy.

"A lot of women probably feel that way."

"So Betty, why do so many women complain that men are afraid of commitment?"

"I never said that."

"I don't mean you. But you know what I mean. It's such a cliche, even though it's been my experience that women are just as afraid of getting tied down as men are."

"Oh come on, Wayne, it's a different issue for men."

"A different issue?"

"There's a big difference between fear of commitment and fear of being gobbled up!"

The waiter emerged from the kitchen with more food.

"But what you're saying just sounds like an excuse for lying to Dexter," said the guy.

They started to eat and kept talking. A gray-haired Asian man in a dirty apron came out of the kitchen, wiping his hands on a towel. He went straight for the TV and switched to the news. The screen showed the front of an exploded building, men dressed in rags carrying machine guns, weeping mothers clutching their children, dignified men in dark suits saying serious things.

"It's bound to limit your perspective quite a bit!" said the woman.

"Please don't get mad," said the guy.

"I'm not mad!"

"Dead children in Bosnia," said the TV.

"Look, maybe I'm naive," said the guy, "but it just seems to me that friendship would enhance sex, not hinder it, that's all."

"It doesn't always work that way," said the woman. "Sometimes having sex with someone can make you feel very distant from them. All of a sudden you're in different worlds."

"So if you feel so distant from Dexter, why do you keep having sex with him?"

"I don't know. It's just that way, that's all."

"It's just that way."

"Sure. I've felt that way with men many times before."

"Whose fault?" said the guy.

"Huh?"

"Was it the man's fault, or yours?"

There was a big piece of gristle in my chicken. It was too tough to chew, and I knew I couldn't swallow it. I'd have to spit it out. How embarrassing.

"You can't reduce it to being one person's fault or the other's," said the woman. "Sometimes it's just the dynamic between two people."

"OK, so when you feel distant from your boyfriend, do you end up penalizing him for it?" asked the guy.

I put a napkin to my mouth and discreetly got rid of the gristle. No one noticed. That's one of the advantages of eating alone.

"There's something else I don't understand," said the guy.

"I think there's plenty you don't understand," said the woman.

"It's just seems to me that if you have a problem with feeling distant from guys you sleep with, it might improve matters to try sleeping with someone who's already a close friend. Right?"

"It might make matters worse."

"Medical experts hope to keep the deadly virus contained within Zaire," said the TV.

"Don't you think it's best to be friends first?" said the guy.

"Well, yeah . . . "

"So what sense does it make for Margaret to say she considers me a good friend, but if we became lovers it would ruin everything? How can friendship ruin love?"

"I don't think she's saying friendship ruins love," said the woman. "She's saying love ruins friendship."

The gray-haired man turned away from the TV. He looked at the woman and the guy, looked at me, and then went back into the kitchen.

"But friendship is the foundation of love, right?" said the guy. "So how can love ruin friendship? How can the roof of the house ruin the foundation?"

"It might be too heavy for the foundation."

"So then you need more foundation, right? Not less. A strong friendship is a strong foundation."

"Police say the baby was abandoned in a Dumpster," said the TV.

"There may be all sorts of reasons why this woman didn't want to get involved with you," said the woman. "Maybe you're just not her type."

"That's exactly what I'm getting at," said the guy. "The friend spiel is bullshit. We haven't known each other very long, and now she'll hardly speak to me. So her reason for rejecting me has nothing to do with preserving any friendship. She probably just doesn't like my looks or something. But of course one simply doesn't admit that."

"Surely you're not suggesting she doesn't have the right to reject you!"

"Of course not. I'm just calling her a liar. And a coward."

I was suddenly distracted by the beautiful orange brown color of the stir-fried cashews on my dish. I should learn how to cook this stuff at home. Home cooking is always better.

"Do you really expect people to be so blunt?" said the woman. "Has it ever occurred to you that maybe she was just showing concern for your feelings?"

"By insulting my intelligence with her transparent lies? No, Betty, she was showing concern for her own feelings, not mine. She lied so she wouldn't have to feel guilty."

"What makes you assume she owes you such extreme honesty?"

"It wouldn't have cost her anything."

"Boeing will lay off 12,000 employees this year," said the TV.

"Being honest isn't as easy as you think," said the woman.

"I never said it was easy," said the guy.

"Well then how can you expect everyone to go through life being so honest and upright and true?"

"So it's not easy. So what? You can't drift through life only doing the things that are easy."

"Do you apply this standard to yourself?"

"What do you think?"

The teenage waiter came back out and switched the TV back to the music-video channel. He stood with arms folded, watching the tube intently.

"So when a woman gives me the friend spiel, I think she's just wimping out," said then guy. "At least I hope so."

"You hope so?"

"Better that than really believing all that crap about how friends shouldn't be lovers."

"Now Wayne, there are all kinds of people who believe all kinds of things," said the woman.

"If you don't believe in sleeping with friends, what does that leave you? Enemies and strangers!"

"It leaves the majority of human beings in this world. It leaves new people, people you go out and discover. That's what you need to do, Wayne--get out of the house."

"Stay tuned for the new video from Metallica!" said the TV.

"If I had a girlfriend, I wouldn't conceal myself," said the guy. "I'd want to, you know, be close to her, and let her confide in me."

"That's a pretty normal thing to want," said the woman.

"I'm not so sure. When I listen to my friends talk about their spouses and lovers, they sound like they're talking about their enemies."

On the TV screen a rapper was pretending to dry-hump a lingerie-clad fly girl, who was pretending to like it.

"Being close to someone is difficult," said the woman.

"What about Tony?" said the guy. "Do you feel distant from him?"

"Sometimes I don't."

"Ah, but sometimes you do."

"Sometimes I do."

"Maybe you don't want to feel intimate with him," said the guy.

"Sometimes I don't," said the woman. She smiled faintly.

"So why are you doing it behind Dexter's back?"

"It depends. Maybe I just want to explore my sexuality."

"In other words, you're horny."

"You think that's bad?" said the woman.

"No," said the guy. "Do you?"

The waiter looked bored; he started punching channels again. Suddenly the gray-haired man came out of the kitchen and spoke to him sternly in a language I didn't understand.

"You call it exploring your sexuality," said the guy. "I call it fucking."

The gray-haired man and the waiter disappeared into the kitchen.

The woman laughed. "Now that is very male."

"Male?"

"You're afraid of sex, so you try to gain power over it by reducing it to gutter level, expressing it in crude language."

Half of me wanted to join the conversation, the other half wanted them to shut up. This was disturbing my digestion.

"I am not afraid of sex," said the guy. "I trust crude language. It's honest. I think there's something deceitful about saying things too fancy. It's like putting whipped cream on a hot dog."

"I think sex can be a lot like whipped cream," said the woman.

"Oh?"

"It doesn't have to be crude. It can be very gentle and beautiful."

"Especially when you're with somebody you don't want to feel intimate with, right?"

The woman dropped her fork on her dish with a loud clank.

That did it. "Pardon me for interrupting," I said, turning to them. "But would you folks mind taking your argument someplace else?"

They just stared at me as if they hadn't even noticed I was sitting there.

The teenage waiter hurried from the kitchen with a big pitcher, and quietly filled my water glass.

"I'm not just the president of the hair club," said the TV. "I'm also a client!"

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