They chose buffalo wings as a starter to share. She had not thought about the practicalities of eating such a thing in front of someone you are trying to impress, although until she took a bite and the juice trickled down her chin she had not realised that she had been trying to impress him, and the realisation startled her somewhat.
“There’s no easy way to eat these,” he said, wiping his own chin and making her feel at ease.
Maybe it was the wine, but she seemed to be enjoying herself. And a small part of her was hoping that someone would see them together. He was not quite prominent enough for a Heard on the Hill blogpost or a Yays and Nays tweet, and she was not even on their radar, but still, she liked to think that together they would be a newsworthy couple. Not that they were a couple, nor could they be, nor – she reminded herself – did she want them to be, but she didn’t mind too much if people saw them. If people noticed that she was out with this impressive man with the blue eyes that may or may not be fake, and speculated just a little, maybe her twitter followers would go up. That was what this was really about. Twitter numbers. Two campaign staffers out for what could only be – could only ever be – an innocent dinner, but would drive up numbers, and that, ultimately, via Senator Robbins and Campaign Finance Reform, could only be good for democracy. For America. Under such circumstances, it was her duty to be out with him.
She watched him lick his fingers.
“Uncouth, I know,” he said, smiling. “But I can’t help myself.”
“Not big on self-control, are you?”
“Hey, now. Come on. I’m taking you out for dinner. You should be nice to me.”
“Okay,” she said. “Nice. Got it.” She licked her own fingers and reached into the plate for the next buffalo wing. His hand brushed against hers and she pulled away as she would from a flame.
“It’s okay,” he said. His voice was oddly quiet and in the busyness of the restaurant she had to lean forward to hear him. “Rosenberg germs aren’t catching.” He was amused, a smile creeping back up his face, and she was a little relieved by this somehow, that Aaron was still Aaron, that he was still capable of laughing at her.
“So,” she said. “I told you something pretty big about me. Tell me something about you.”
“You didn’t tell me. I worked it out.”
She rolled her eyes. “Whatever. Spill.”
“Well.” He scratched his head. “Let’s see. I’m Jewish.”
“Aaron Rosenberg? Jewish? Seriously?” She shook her head. “That does not count.”
He pointed at his own eyes. “I mention this because with these eyes sometimes people wonder.”
“Ugh. Please.” Her irritation was tinged now with something else. It was the wine. It was definitely the wine. “Something I didn’t already know.”
“Well.” He licked his fingers again. “I have a daughter.”
“Yeah. She’ll be five this month.” He dug into his pocket, found his wallet, and flipped it open to show Louisa a photo of a little girl with a wonky smile and skin the colour of milky coffee.
“She’s a cutie. But you’re not –“
“Married? Nope. Her mom is my best friend. Was. It was one of those friendships, you know? We could never decide if we wanted to be more. So one night we tried it. And we decided, you know what, we’re better as friends. But Alaya existed by then.”
“You mean a random bunch of cells?” His face clouded over and she regretted trying to score a point. “Sorry, go on.”
“There’s not much more to tell. It’s six years later, we have a daughter, and I’m not much more than a glorified babysitter.”
“And her mom?”
“Sarah? We’re still friends. It’s a little complicated. But we’re still friends.”
“You wouldn’t like to be more than friends?”
“Sure. If I was in love with her. For Alaya’s sake, you know. For my own sake too. To be a family. I’m just…” His voice broke. Louisa hadn’t known he was capable of such emotion. “I’m just crazy about her, you know?”
He raised a hand to wipe his eyes. He’d forgotten about the spices that lingered at his finger tips. But Louisa had not; she grabbed his wrist.
“It’ll hurt if you get that sauce in your eyes,” she said.
“And you wouldn’t enjoy my pain?”
“It might be amusing for a while. I guess I didn’t think that through.”
The same words they might have used a week ago, but they were speaking softly now, as people do when they are falling in love. He had kept hold of her hand after she had grabbed his wrist and they found themselves sitting with hands interlaced. This was unexpected. It was particularly unexpected that it should be so enjoyable.
“We can’t eat chicken wings one-handed,” he said at last, regret in his voice.
“No,” she said. “We can’t.”
We can’t. She knew as soon as she said it that we can’t would become their motto, the recurring motif of their relationship, or whatever it was that was beginning now. We can’t: I only date Christians. We can’t: I’m not doing this till I’m married. We can’t: we work together. We can’t: I’m not Jewish, and your mother would be devastated. She could see it ahead now, the path to broken-heartedness. She’d walked it before, back in college.
But she wouldn’t think about that tonight. Tonight she would let herself believe – let others look at them and believe – that this was a regular first date, that they were two single, uncomplicated people who used to find each other deeply irritating but were now strangely attracted to each other, despite or perhaps because of his arrogance, despite or perhaps because of her naiveté.
“Weren’t you supposed to be grilling me on my position on abortion?” she asked when they brought the coffee and they had talked about families and colleagues and which blogs they read and who they thought would win the Republican nomination.
“That was the pretext,” he said, then caught himself. “I mean,the idea. But I’m not really feeling it right now.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Me neither. I just didn’t want you to feel cheated.”
“I don’t. Besides, this gives me an excuse to ask you out another time.”
“There’s going to be another time?”
“Another professional dinner?” Under the table his feet sought hers. “Sure. Why not?”
He offered to see her home but she insisted she would be okay. She didn’t want him to see her dodgy neighbourhood; she didn’t want to have to explain herself to Janelle. She was afraid of the moment he would want to come in, afraid she would not be able to say no.
“Then let me at least make sure you get on the metro safe.”
“Sure,” she said, though she’d taken the metro thousands of time, and always been safe. She let him take her hand, and wondered what was going on here: this afternoon he was the guy with the irritating habit of jiggling his leg and here he was holding her hand, and now kissing her, and this kiss was good, he was obviously an expert at this as well as the policy and the speechwriting and the social networking.
“Don’t stop,” she said, and he laughed, and threw his arms around her. “I’m going to have to stop sometime. If only to breathe. And also because I don’t think we want to spend the night on this street corner.”
“I could think of worse ways to spend the night.”
“I could think of better ones.”
She pulled back. “Aaron –“
“I know. I’m sorry.” He bumped her forehead with his and kissed her again. Kissed her as though they were the only two people in the world, as though they were not standing on one of the busiest corners in DC, metres away from the White House, blocks away from their office and those of many, many people they knew and worked with and would have to talk to tomorrow.