There weren’t a lot of places to go on a first date in Grey Ridge. Going to a fast-food restaurant hardly felt romantic. The park was littered with trash and the movie theatre seemed to have a perpetually open vacancy for the janitor position. The city was an hour drive and that was simply too much for a first date, especially a blind one. Jason wasn’t sure his car could make it much further than the burger joint, anyway.
That’s how he ended up in the bar, hardly able to breathe from the cigarette smoke. Manda seemed at home, waving to a group playing pool in the corner. Jason watched her walk slowly towards him, hips swaying, her shirt dipping just low enough to tease him with the view. Shit, she was gorgeous, even more so than he imagined. If he could take her home that night it would be worth the risk he was taking. He hoped.
“Hey,” she said, sliding up against him in the booth.
“Hey.” He was at a loss. There was no way someone as beautiful as her would leave with him.
“I’m really glad you came. I love it here.” Manda looked out at the bar and smiled. “Reminds me of where I grew up.”
“Oh, where are you from?”
“The city. It’s definitely different here.” Manda pulled a pack of cigarettes out. “Mind if I smoke?”
“Not at all.” It was a small lie. She offered him one and he politely shook his head. “Trying to cut back.”
“Oh, sorry.” She lit it anyway. “I can’t imagine trying. I hope that’s not a turnoff. I just don’t know what I’d do without my cigarette.”
He watched as she exhaled a cloud of smoke. “You were saying you’re from the city.”
“Oh, yeah. It was nice, living there. Everything felt close. If you wanted quiet, you could find a park. If you wanted a wild night, that was a few blocks away.” She paused to take another drag. “I miss it, but here isn’t so bad. In the city you’re invisible. Here you’re somebody. Even if you’re nobody, you’re somebody.”
Jason nodded. “Sometimes I think it’d be nice to be invisible. Be able to buy a gallon of milk without being stopped for small talk five times. If you ever fuck things up, you can start over with the next person.”
Manda nodded. “Yeah, that part was nice, I guess. I don’t know. I guess I feel like my mistakes make me who I am, so why hide them?” She turned and flagged down a server. “Do you know what you want to eat? The burgers here are amazing.”
“Yeah, we can order. You first.” He tried not to notice the way she perked up when she ordered a drink, but he saw. The way her eyes sparkled. The warmth she felt just thinking about a drink. And he had to ignore it. He couldn’t let it get to him.
He ordered a cola and settled back into the booth.
“Cutting back on drinks, too?” Manda asked. She was trying to tease him, trying to be lighthearted, and she couldn't have foreseen his answer.
“Actually, I’m a recovering alcoholic. I don’t drink. Not even beer.” Jason gave a small, wry smile and twisted his hands. She hadn’t noticed how nervous he’d been.
“Oh, my gosh. Here I am joking about quitting smoking and asking you to the bar. Fuck.” She put her cigarette out. “I’ll ask them to change my drink order.”
“No, no, you’re fine. I wouldn’t ask anyone to not drink just because I can’t. Though if we do meet again perhaps it shouldn’t be here.”
“But will it trigger you to taste it on me later?” Manda cringed. “Not that I’m saying things are going so fantastically that we’ll be spending the night together. Not that I wouldn’t want to—not that this isn’t going well…” Manda sighed. “Can I start that over?”
Jason laughed. “You know, you were very poised coming in here. Seeing you flustered is refreshing. Makes me feel like it’s okay that I’m so nervous.”
“You caught me off guard. I assure you that I’m normally much more confident in my flirting abilities.” They both laughed. “So you’re a recovering alcoholic. That must be difficult for you.”
Jason nodded. “Yeah, it still is. I miss it. The taste. The feel. The comfort.”
“How long have you been clean?”
“Two years. I guess that’s why I want to be invisible sometimes. You can tell that people here still remember when I was bad. No matter how straight I am, they can picture when I wasn’t. It would just be easier, you know?”
“For sure. This doesn’t seem to be the best place to live if someone’s in recovery, either.”
“What do you mean?” Jason asked.
“Just how the environment is. I mean, I almost stepped on two separate needles coming down here. Just seems like it would be easier to fall in with the wrong crowd.”
Jason shrugged. “I don’t know that we’re worse than anywhere else. Surely there are addicts in the city.”
“Yeah, definitely, and lots of opportunity. I don’t know, just a feeling I get from this town. An underlying current of trouble.”
“I guess.” The server set their orders on the table, and Jason welcomed the distraction. “Well, the food smells great.”
“Oh, it is. Pizza here is really good, too. And well-priced.”
“That’s the one thing I hate about a small town. There aren't enough pizza restaurants."
“I know. I’d love to open a pizzeria with some really good handmade pizza. Tossed dough, homemade sauce, fresh cheese..”
“The sauce would have a secret ingredient, right?”
“Of course,” Manda nodded. “All good pizza sauces do. It’s the secret to success.”
“I’ll design the building. I’m going to school online for architecture.” Jason smiled. They continued to talk, and at the end of dinner, when Manda invited him to analyze the architecture of her apartment building, he gladly accepted.