Two men and a woman sat laughing at a small, round booth in a corner of the microbrewery’s cafe.
“I’m tellin’ ya, Nick. You’re gonna love her,” one man said to the other directly across the table from himself.
“Pete’s right,” the woman agreed, snuggling into Pete. “She’s lovely. Very traditional.”
Nick smiled and said, ” You know I’m only doing this because it’s the only way I could get lovesick Pete here out of the house, right? He still owes me twenty bucks from our last game of three-oh-one.”
“Rematch,” Pete replied. “Double or nothing.”
“Sure you want to do that, honey?” the woman asked. “You said yourself that Nick is the best at darts.”
Looking across the room toward a waitress headed their way carrying a tray of drinks, Pete replied, “I’m sure, Dierdre. He just hasn’t seen my best game yet.”
Nick leaned back in his chair and looked toward an alcove where a small group were clustered, watching two men throw darts.
“Getting crowded,” Nick said. “Should we–”
Their waitress walked up with a tray of glasses. The name, “Anna”, was displayed on her name tag in white letters on a black background.
“Okay, lady and gentlemen, I have your drinks,” Anna said cheerily. “Pinot for the lady, beer for her gentleman, and for you, sir,” she said handing a glass to Nick with a noticeable flourish, “I hope you don’t mind, but I called an audible and made you an old fashioned, on steroids,” she said, adding with a flirty smile and wink, “my own special recipe.”
Nick smirked and held the glass up. “While I appreciate the thought,” he said, handing the glass back to the waitress as her smile faded slightly, “and especially the bold move, I asked for a bourbon, neat. Please just bring me that, hon.”
“Oh,” the waitress said, maintaining professional courtesy. “Of course. No problem, sorry about that.”
“Let’s make that a double,” Nick said. “Neat.”
“You got it,” the waitress replied, then, addressing everyone, said, “your appetizers should be out in just a few minutes,” before turning to leave. As she did, she set the drink on her tray on top of a pen, and it tipped over, a few drops splashing on the sleeve of Nick’s white shirt.
“Oh my god I am so sorry,” she said.
“If I didn’t know better,” Nick said, nodding at the name tag on her chest, “I’d guess your name was, Grace.”
“I am so, so sorry,” she repeated. “That drink is on me.”
He looked at the small stain and looked at her, saying dryly, “Not yet, but maybe it should be.”
She smiled sheepishly and said, “Again, so very sorry,” and walked away.
“Really, Nick?” Dierdre asked in a lilting but scolding tone. “She was trying to be nice about it. No wonder you’re not married.”
Nick winked at her. “I guess the pickin’s are slim. Pete got the last good one.”
“Hey, the votes ain’t all in yet,” Pete said, standing up as a statuesque, sharp-featured blue-eyed woman with shoulder-length blonde hair walked up to their table.
“I’m sorry I’m so late,” the blonde said, giving Pete a friendly hug and mouthing “hi” and waving at Dierdre. Nick stood and she extended her hand. “Hi Nick,” she said, “I’m Nikki.”
“A pleasure,” Nick said, taking her hand and squeezing it gently before stepping aside and pressing her toward the booth with his hand on the small of her back.
“Short for Nicole, I presume?” he asked.
“Yes,” she confirmed. “But I prefer Nikki, or Nik, but I guess that could get confusing,” she joked.
“Indeed,” Nick replied. Nikki smiled at him and slid into the booth as Pete and Dierdre smiled at each other.
Dierdre was the first to speak after they were both seated.
“Nikki writes the ‘Traditional Girl’ column for Red, Write, and Bang!, the conservative website,” Dierdre said.
“And I still have to do quite a bit of sales and marketing,” replied Nikki. “The column doesn’t pay enough. Yet.”
“So you really are THE traditional girl, eh?” Nick remarked.
Nikki raised her hand as if she were swearing an oath and rolled her eyes upward and gave her head a slight bobble. “Guilty,” she answered. “And an independent business woman. I’m a co-owner,” she pointed out. “Do you ever read my column?”
“I’ve read it,” Nick said. “I like RWB!. Mostly the shooting columns and lifestyle more than the opinion section.”
Nick looked across the table where Dierdre was frowning at him. He smiled at her.
“Not interested in politics huh,” she asked.
“Oh I’m interested,” replied Nick. “But most opinions are just repetitions, and I know what I think.”
Nikki looked at him silently.
“Nikki is a shooter” Pete remarked. “Been to the range with us many times. Very pro gun.”
“I’m carrying now!” Nikki exclaimed. “Glock in my purse.”
“I just loved today’s column about International Men’s Day,” Dierdre said to Nikki.
“Thanks, sweetie,” Nikki replied. “I’ve been really bummed by everyone dumping on men all the time. I mean, sure, toxic masculinity exists, but it’s not all men.”
“But does it exist, really?” Nick asked.
Dierdre glared at him.
“I’d say so,” Dierdre said emphatically.
“Sure it does,” Nikki replied confidently. “Emotional abuse, sexual coercion, rape. I’d say those are all toxic behaviors.”
“Perhaps, but those are not exclusive to men,” Nick said. “Those first two you mentioned are often judgement calls based on an individual’s perception, and women are just as capable and likely to commit them. As for the last,” he continued, “that’s a crime, sure, and certainly deserves stiff punishment, but I have to question whether it’s as big of a problem as some make it out to be, especially with so many false accusations by women being exposed these days.”
Nikki nodded. “Most certainly. Agreed, and men take a lot of unnecessary shit and get dumped on my feminists constantly,” she said.
“Also,” Nick added. “Is theft by a man also toxic masculinity? Or is it just shitty behavior no matter who does it.”
“Well,” Nikki said, “but women can’t really rape, now can they?”
“Depends on how one defines it,” Nick replied.
“Women don’t have penises,” Nikki said coolly.
Pete chuckled and added, “Well these days, who knows, right?”
“I thought rape was about violence, not sex,” Nick continued. “At least, that’s what I’ve heard they say on ‘The View’.”
More laughter from everyone.
“Yes but sexual assault is far more serious than theft. That’s why violent offenders lose their second amendment rights, and rightly so,” said Nikki.
“Even that is kind of absurd if you think about it,” Nick responded.
The faces of everyone else went blank.
“You think rapists should have guns?” Nikki asked.
“I think anyone who serves his time and is deemed safe enough to be released back into the public deserves full liberty, yes.”
“That’s…just–” Nikki replied.
Nick cut her off and continued. “If someone is still considered a threat, they need to remain locked up.”
“Well, yeah, but,” Nikki started to respond when Anna, the waitress, appeared back at the table.
“Apps and drinks!” she announced cheerfully. “And the correct one this time, with my apologies,” she said, handing Nick his glass.
“And so it is,” Nick replied.
“Oh!” said Anna to Nikki. “We have a fourth. Something to drink?”
“Yes a pinot grigiot please,” Nikki replied.
“You bet,” Anna said as she placed a platter on the table. “Sidewinder Shrimp,” she said, and began passing out small plates as Dierdre tapped Pete on the arm and excused herself.
“I’m going to the ladies’ room,” she said as Pete stood up.
“I’ll tag a long,” Nikki said cheerfully.
Nick, too, stood up to let her out of the booth. As he did so, he brushed against Anna who was placing silverware on the table. Although he barely touched her, she began to lean over as if falling. Nick reached out and grabbed her arm to steady her as Dierdre glared at them both before walking with Nikki toward the rest rooms.
Anna looked at Nick and said, “I’ll be back in a bit to take your orders,” before leaving the table. Both men watched her walk away and check on another table as they sat down.
Pete laughed. “Well you’re smooth tonight,” he said, taking a sip of his beer.
“Just making conversation,” Nick replied. “I don’t run into many ‘traditional’ girls at work.”
“Well go easy,” Pete said. “Or I’m going to get an earful tonight instead of getting laid.”
Dierdre and Nikki returned from the rest room to find Anna the waitress explaining menu items to Nick.
“Excuse us,” Nikki said.
Both men stood as Dierdre and Nikki slid past Anna and into the booth.
“So the porterhouse, then?” Anna asked Nick.
“Medium-rare,” he replied.
Anna turned her attention to the table. “And the ladies?” she asked.
“What do you have that’s vegan and gluten-free?” asked Nikki.
“Sure,” Anna started, “we have a vegetarian–though not certified vegan–gluten free mushroom ravioli, all salads of course, and all of the green flatbreads.”
“Basil and sun dried tomato flatbread,” Nikki said. “Gluten-free flatbread.”
“Of course,” replied Anna, who confirmed everyone’s order and said, “I’ll have those out shortly!” before turning and walking away.
Nick watched her briefly then turned back to the glaring eyes of Dierdre. Nikki was looking down at her phone.
“So how long have you been vegan?” Nick asked her.
“Oh,” Nikki said as she put her phone back in her purse. “Excuse me?”
“How long vegan?” Nick repeated.
“Just a few months,” Nikki replied.
“Well Pete and I hunt,” Nick said, watching Dierdre’s eyes widen in horror. “I hope that’s not a problem for you.”
“Oh no!” Nikki replied. “Anti-hunting politics is something I rail against regularly in my column. I’m just trying to be healthier,” she said, continuing, “I’m no animal rights nut although I do foster shelter animals and have a couple of fur babies of my own that I rescued.”
Nick nodded. “Was it scary?”
Nikki’s face wrinkled in confusion. “What what scary?”
“When you rescued those animals,” replied Nick seriously. “What was it? A burning building? Flood?”
“I don’t,” Nikki began. “From a shelter. I rescued them from a shelter.”
“Isn’t that kind of like rescuing someone from a hotel that isn’t on fire?” Nick asked with a wry grin on his face.
“You’ll have to excuse Nick,” Pete said. “He thinks he’s Richard Pryor or something.”
“More like George Carlin,” Nick said. “Or Doug Stanhope.”
“Where on earth did you get those ankle boots?” Dierdre quickly asked Nikki. “They’re the cutest.”
As the girls began talking about clothing, Pete and Nick filled a plate with Sidewinder Shrimp and made their way with their drinks over to the dart area which was no longer in use, and began a game.
Pete very quickly got his score down to thirteen, his easiest throw, and went out.
“Goddammit,” Nick said. “Well that’s another twenty you can give to Dierdre,” he said, facing Pete. Pete grinned and cocked his head as Anna walked up to Nick and put her hand on his shoulder.
“Just delivered your food, boys,” she said.
“Boys?” Nick asked, a mock stern look on his face.
“Excuse me,” she replied. “Gentlemen.”
“Thanks for the heads-up,” Nick tapped her elbow. “Much better.
She walked away as the two men made their way across the restaurant back to their table where the ladies had already started eating.
“Maybe you two would rather eat alone?” Pete joked.
Nikki looked up, “It’s getting cold,” she said.
“Very,” Nick agreed.
“Care to heat things up a bit?” Nikki asked. “I love darts. Best two out of three, winner pays for dinner?”
Nick grinned. “I’ll take that deal.”
As they finished eating, Anna appeared back at the table.
“So how was it?” she asked the table. As they mumbled polite responses she turned to Nick, “And how was that steak?”
“Are you sure it wasn’t horse?” he asked with a straight face.
Anna paused, then giggled. “I guess there are no guarantees in life,” she said. She turned back to address everyone. “Are we in the mood for some dessert?” she asked.
“I think so,” Dierdre replied, looking at Pete, who nodded.
“I’ll get the dessert tray,” Anna said. “Coffee all around?”
Everyone nodded as Nick turned to Nikki and, standing up next to Anna, asked, “Shall we?”
Nikki nodded and he extended his hand, helping her out of the booth. He leaned toward Anna and said, “Just bring me some cheesecake. You pick,” as he led Nikki back across the restaurant to the dart board.
They threw to see who goes first, and Nick won, but after ten minutes, Nikki was one throw away from going out, and Nick was at sixty-seven.
“What I’m really hoping to do,” Nikki was saying as she watched Nick throw,” is eventually become a reporter or commentator on a news show.”
“Where, like Fox?” he asked.
“Oh I’d love that,” she agreed, “but I’d kind of like to get on somewhere like CNN, be the token conservative. I’ll stand out more that way,” she said.
“So no kids, marriage any time soon?” Nick asked as he made another poor throw.
“Oh I’d love that, too,” she replied. “Sure.”
“Won’t that make it a little difficult to pull off the career?” he asked as he walked up to the board to retrieve his darts.
“I don’t think so,” she continued. “Not if I find the right guy who supports me and my professional goals.”
Nick moved behind her as she stepped up to the line to throw.
“As equals, right?” he asked.
She turned and smiled at him for the first time since they met. “Yes,” she said softly. “Exactly. I mean, we all get a vote, right?”
As she cocked her arm to throw, Nick remarked, “We do, but we all shouldn’t”
Nikki’s throw went wild. She turned and looked at him with a confused face. “What do you mean?”
“Women don’t have to register for selective service, to be drafted. That’s not equality,” he pointed out.
“Well,” Nikki turned to make another throw. “If everyone were drafted, a lot of children would be potentially abandoned to relatives or the system.”
“Exactly,” Nick agreed as Nikki started her second throw. “Which is yet another reason why women belong in the home,” he said matter-of-factly.
Nikki’s throw went farther off this time. The dart clattered against the brick wall in the alcove and skidded across the polished concrete floor.
She spun around, surprising even Nick with the anger in her eyes and, letting out an exasperated shriek, hit him in the shoulder with the hand holding her third and last dart which remained in his shoulder even after she pulled her hand back to slap at him again.
Bright red blood began oozing through the white fabric and she stepped back as Anna the waitress approached.
“Dessert’s…here…,” she said slowly, clearly agitated.
“Oh my god!” Nikki exclaimed and rushed back to the table.
Anna looked at Nick as he pulled the dart from his shoulder.
“Are you okay?” she asked?
Nick shrugged. “Gonna need a tetanus shot,” he said. “What time are you off?”
“Fifteen minutes,” she said, smiling broadly, asking, “That wasn’t your girlfriend I take it?”
“No,” replied Nick, as he opened the Contacts app on his phone.
“Who was she? She seemed intense.”
“Just a girl,” he said, handing her the phone. “Just a very traditional girl.”