The Cousins by Karen M. McManus

For Lynne





            I’m late for dinner again, but this time it’s not my fault. There’s a mansplainer in my way.

            “Mildred? That’s a grandmother’s name. But not even a cool grandmother.” He says it like he thinks he’s being clever. Like in all my seventeen years, no one else has ever noticed that my name isn’t the fashionable kind of classic. It took a Wall Street investment banker with slicked-back hair and a pinkie ring to render that particular bit of social commentary.

            I sip the dregs of my seltzer. “I was, in fact, named after my grandmother,” I say.

            I’m at a steak house in midtown at six o’clock on a rainy April evening, doing my best to blend with the happy hour crowd. It’s a game my friends and I play sometimes; we go to restaurant bars so we don’t have to worry about getting carded at the door. We wear our simplest dresses and extra makeup. We order seltzer water with lime—“in a small glass, please, I’m not that thirsty”—and gulp it down until there’s almost nothing left. Then we wait to see if anyone offers to buy us a drink.

                         Somebody always does.

            Pinkie Ring smiles, his teeth almost fluorescent in the dim light. He must take his whitening regimen very seriously. “I like it. Quite a contrast for such a beautiful young woman.” He edges closer, and I catch a headache-inducing whiff of strong cologne. “You have a very interesting look. Where are you from?”

            Ugh. That’s marginally better than the What are you? question I get sometimes, but still gross. “New York,” I say pointedly. “You?”

            “I mean originally,” he clarifies, and that’s it. I’m done.

            “New York,” I repeat, and stand up from my stool. It’s just as well he didn’t talk to me until I was about to leave, because a cocktail before dinner wasn’t one of my better ideas. I catch my friend Chloe’s eye across the room and wave good-bye, but before I can extract myself, Pinkie Ring tips his glass toward mine. “Can I get you another of whatever that is?”

            “No thank you. I’m meeting someone.”

            He pulls back, brow furrowed. Very furrowed. In a behind-on-his-Botox sort of way. He also has creases lining his cheeks and crinkles around his eyes. He’s way too old to be hitting on me, even if I were the college student I occasionally pretend to be. “What are you wasting my time for, then?” he grunts, his gaze already roving over my shoulder.

            Chloe likes the happy hour game because, she says, high school boys are immature. Which is true. But sometimes I think we might be better off not knowing how much worse they can get.

            I pluck the lime out of my drink and squeeze it. I’m not aiming for his eye, exactly, but I’m still a little disappointed when the juice spatters only his collar. “Sorry,” I say sweetly, dropping the lime into the glass and setting it on the bar. “Normally I wouldn’t bother. But it’s so dark in here. When you first came over, I thought you were my dad.”

                         As if. My dad is way better-looking, and also: not a creep. Pinkie Ring’s mouth drops open, but I scoot past him and out the door before he can reply.

            The restaurant I’m going to is just across the street, and the hostess smiles when I come through the door. “Can I help you?”

            “I’m meeting someone for dinner? Allison?”

            Her gaze drops to the book in front of her and a small crease appears between her eyes. “I’m not seeing—”

            “Story-Takahashi?” I try. My parents have an unusually amicable divorce, and Exhibit A is that Mom continues to use both last names. “Well, it’s still your name,” she’d said four years ago when the divorce was finalized. “And I’ve gotten used to it.”

            The crease between the hostess’s eyes deepens. “I don’t see that either.”

            “Just Story, then?” I try. “Like in a book?”

            Her brow clears. “Oh! Yes, there you are. Right this way.”

            She grabs two menus and winds her way between white-covered tables until we reach a corner booth. The wall beside it is mirrored, and the woman sitting on one side is sipping a glass of white wine while surreptitiously checking out her reflection, smoothing flyaways in her dark bun that only she can see.