The Birthday Lunch

Prompt: Newspaper


Paula did not show up at the office for lunch yesterday, the big birthday lunch, so we left a note for her on her desk, telling her to meet us at Pancho’s when she got back, and just Martin and I set out in his dusty old Volvo. It was a pleasant drive along the highway, even at that time of year when leaves have changed and dropped to the ground. I loved the sight of the rows and rows of vines that make up the many vineyards, as neat and orderly as dreadlocks.

Pancho’s was crowded. We were given a tiny little table around the corner behind a post. Martin put on a show of ordering a pitcher of Margueritas, this being such a major occasion, and with our first sip we toasted ourselves and Paula, the missing birthday girl.

Martin was usually a shy and earnest man; not tall, he reached only to my nose. He had a rumpled, distracted quality about him, wore muted clothing and was always “calm, cool and collected”. Paula was constantly trying to dream up schemes to rattle his world. As for me, I thought having the man named Richard you hired to do a job, suddenly turning up as a woman named Rachel, and then back to a man again, and being thusly unpredictable, was enough of a scheme to rattle his world. If he was cool and steady through that—which he was—I felt it was doubtful a girlish scheme of Paula’s could rouse him.

Martin’s wife Cynthia was small and grey but a firecracker— a town counsellor in her second term, head of the Pewaska Arts Council, and owner of Crumples, the used book store in town. They had no children but several pets on their acre of land just in town, including two horses, a donkey, two dogs, and several cockatiels and cats. My own companion Junebug was of that hardy farm stock (turned soft by city living).

I was wearing a deep blue turtleneck sweater, made of actual wool and not cotton, and it was a perfect fit, indicating there were bumps on the chest but of an undetermined size and shape. Yes, I had taken to wearing my bra. Women have more than one bra at a time, I assumed. I only had the one, but ordered two more online. They were pricey but a necessity, and only available to me, as I mentioned to you, in a custom size. My hair was tied behind as usual, not very elegant but kept it out of my eyes, which I hated when I was working. For the occasion I had even dabbed on a bit of powder, to even my skin tones, to go along with the mascara and some lightly tinted Chapstick.

But I was hardly a vision. It was enough for me to be a woman; it was not essential to be a beautiful woman, though of course I would have loved it. It was a cruel dream, since there are so few physically beautiful women in the world, making an almost impossible goal. How women deal with this for years on end, I had no idea.

The Margueritas were such a delicious blend of Tequila and lime juice, and I even adored the salt around the rim, and they did wash down my blurry plate of Mexican food rather nicely, that plate of greyish beans and wraps which made the dollop of sour cream shine white and bright, and the red of the pico de gallo pop on the plate. By the end the first pitcher, I had already spoken to Martin about flexible hours. I put my case forward and he listened intently, nodding, then had the graciousness to look alarmed when I told him about my apartment and about Carl, Mr and Mrs Lipinski’s bully boy son. I had no intention of sharing this kind of personal information with Martin. He was naturally aloof and I had no desire to complicate a comfortable working arrangement. I suppose the Tequila, the truth drug, had me talking more than I meant to. I wasn’t, however, the only one on whom the truth drug had an effect.

Martin tipped his little stemmed glass full back to get the last drop of the Marguerita, then called over the server and ordered another pitcher. “I think flexible hours would work, as long as you weren’t alone there overnight, and what’s more, I’ll give you a raise.”

Well if it hadn’t seemed so absurd, I would have thought Martin cared about me— Rachel.
How kind of him to feel indignant about the evil Carl. And was he demonstrating a masculine concern for the safety of a female employee (me!) alone overnight at the work place? I could have kissed him, then and there. And a raise? Where did this Martin come from, and what did you do with the other one?

Which, as it happens, is what I asked half way into the second pitcher. Martin’s response? “I left him at the office.” Not spoken as much as slurred. He was filling my glass, much of the liquid splashing onto the tablecloth, which was sodden already. And he leaned over the table and said in a slightly unclear, conspiratorial voice:

“You are soooo wonderful.”

I assumed his vision must be as blurred as mine, to have that silly smile on his face and that… look in his eye. I told him he maybe had too much to drink, maybe. The thought of which caused my confidence to drop a level, since I now started to doubt the veracity and sincerity of everything that he had said before. But it was at this moment he put his hand on mine and then he, or the Tequila, started to sing:

I get no kick from champagne
Mere alcohol doesn’t thrill me at all
So tell me why should it be true
That I get a kick out of you…

…or words similar. To see Martin the Serene, Martin the Mouse, Martin the Boss, Martin Almost-the-Father-Figure let loose in this manner was disconcerting, to say the least.

The server came by towards the end of the performance and provided a little applause, and asked if we would like another pitcher.

“Yes,” said Martin.
“No,” said I. And I caught her eye and shook my head vigorously.
Martin then told me how much he admired me, how brave I was. How he watched me as I worked in my little cubicle. How he liked the way I put my Chapstick on, using the mirror in the powder compact. What beautiful eyes I had. …How lonely he was.

I just laughed in a way I hoped sounded very casual, and shook my head, not wanting to insult him by reminding him again that he was drunk, but not wanting to acknowledge his statements either. And not wanting to actually laugh out loud. I felt a fit of giggles coming on.

“It’s NOT the Tequila…” he insisted, and he squeezed my hand.

I was a larger person than Martin, and maybe that’s why the drink had made him so insistent and passionate and out of control, while I just had the kind of buzz that put a ridiculous grin on my face and made me think about lying in a hammock.

I looked at my watch and told Martin we had to get back, and he lurched to his feet. Of course at that moment I realized that he definitely could not drive, and I had enough alcohol in my own system to think that I could. Fortunately, just as we were stumbling towards the car, our saviour, in the form of Paula, zoomed into the lot in her little Honda. Paula drove us both home, leaving Martin’s car in Pancho’s parking lot, to be retrieved later.

It was far less pleasant than the ride down to the restaurant. For one thing, Martin had been violently ill in the shrubbery flanking the parking lot. At least he was ill before and not during the trip home, I thought. But the car reeked of vomit so Paula and I had our windows down, getting blasted with cold November air. Paula had put Martin in the back where he could do the least harm. But he sat behind me, and he strained against the seat belt (which Paula and I had fastened for him), putting his hand on the back of my seat and attempting to flirt with me. He started to sing again but lost his way… then he started talking about my eyes again. It was that kind of a drive home.

Paula was very quiet. Her silence made me feel mortified and embarrassed, as if I had somehow provoked or encouraged Martin’s behaviour, which of course I had not. When Martin suddenly went quiet and seemed to be asleep, I said in a low voice… “Wow, Paula, did you see that coming? He will feel like a right idiot in the morning.” I laughed but Paula only smiled quietly.

She dropped us at our respective homes, stopping at my place first. I was concerned about her getting the inert Martin out of the car and into his house, but she waved me off.

“Happy Birthday,” she said. “And you,” said I.

I actually did pass out, I suppose, when I got inside my little basement suite. And this morning, I had a tremendous headache and thirst.

Maybe Martin will remember nothing. Maybe he’ll be contrite and a little worried, afraid to ask what he said or did. Tequila does strange things. For a man to find me, Rachel, desirable, was probably the strangest thing of all to me.


  • Excerpt from a Nanowrimo novel.