There was no way Victor could have taken her to the dinner. He couldn’t–she laughed too loudly and she smacked her jaw when she chewed. Yes, she was his mother, but still–she was sure to bring up department gossip that was told to her in confidence. Then the rest of the table would become red and stiff and fidget in their seats until her laughter shattered the silence. So that morning he had called his mother and informed her the committee had taken away his plus one. He could hear the disappointment in her voice but she’d said Aunt Margaret had invited her over that evening for a last-minute bible study so she was glad to be free. Content with their respective lies, Victor and his mother said their pleasantries and ended the phone call.
Afterwards he left a message for an old girlfriend to meet him at the cafe across the street from the auditorium. He described the black tie dress code and the award he would be receiving. His relationship with the girl had ended on an amicable note so he was sure she’d be eager to attend another award ceremony on his behalf. She always recognized how important these appearances were to him. After only a few events she understood to stand poised at his elbow and smile graciously at jokes and compliments. He missed that.
When evening came he stepped into his black worsted wool trousers and slipped on a freshly pressed white dress shirt. He lifted the hanger that carried his jacket, closely inspecting the satin lapels. A thin gold stand of hair clung to the fabric, left behind from a photo op when his smiling sister pressed against him at a gala last spring. That event wasn’t even for his work but rather a fundraiser for his sister’s hospital. And although it was not his colleagues that saw her flushed drunken face and watched her make suggestive jokes, he was still embarrassed. They may have all been laughing with her but he knew that they could not respect her after that. After such a show of disorder. He had tried to distance himself during the photo but she hugged him tight and kissed his cheek and thanked him for coming. The picture is framed on her wall and she tells Victor how many guests compliment it.
Once his bow tie was straight and his cufflinks were polished and fastened, Victor stepped out into the autumn night and began walking to the cafe. The weather was nice so he made good time and was nearly ten minutes early. After waiting twenty-three minutes he crossed the street to the auditorium. He stopped at willcall to leave his extra ticket under the girl’s name. Lateness was inexcusable but Victor thought his last minute invitation may have been a surprise and caused her to mistime the trains.
Inside, he found his table and greeted his colleagues. He listened to the conversations with their partners and families and nodded when they addressed him. He waited, but the girl did not appear during dinner. And as they neared the end of the night, the presenter called his name. But she was not there beside him. In fact, on the way to the stage he noticed that his applause was sparse and scattered. From the podium, looking out into the crowd he saw the tables had mostly emptied and the seats that were filled had faces that were buried in phone screens. He gave his speech, thanked his mentors and idols, and returned to his seat as the staff raised the house lights. The remaining bodies moved around him, anxious to get to an after party he knew nothing about.