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by Paul Thompson

The next lady has so many questions. She reads them from a notepad, in perfect handwriting that could be a font.

Describe me in a single word, she says.

It’s an obvious question, but still one difficult to prepare for. I guess upon the word sore, and she recoils, as though I have performed the impossible. It is true she has come from a recent relationship, and at our age all relationships are serious. Even five-minute encounters like this one.

Tell me your greatest regret, she says.

Another classic. One that I have answered several times already, but now more relaxed it feels the time to be honest.

I’ve never been off the rails, I say. I’ve never had an off the rails period of my life.

Immediately it sounds like a cliché. It sounds like how I hear myself on tape. Her response is physical, leaning over the table to take my hand, breaking rules of the evening.

We can do it together, she says.

The rest of her reply is practical — career, family, friends — the prospect of losing it all for each other. She speaks with clear intention, teasing the possibility of it all. To act upon every whim. To replace structure with the selfishness of circumstance. To bring shame and revulsion upon everyone but ourselves.

It must be all or nothing, she says. Otherwise risk becoming the cliché we try to avoid.

She sits back in her chair, waiting for my response. Her notepad is a fake, with me an oblivious stooge. Out of control is no longer on my terms, the contradiction obvious. Now faced with its true meaning, when spoken out loud, it feels like it’s already begun.

Music plays — an awful cover version, destined to become our soundtrack. Other potential couples sit at tables around us. They go through a checklist of questions, looking for some chemistry, a spark. Here I sit aflame, burning with possibility.

Her stare tightens like a pressure clock. We have a decision to make, and at our age all decisions are serious, even snap ones like this one.

Before I can ask my final question, a whistle blows, and a voice fills the room.

OK, five minutes, time’s up. Gentlemen, make a note of the number and please move to the table on your left.

Upon hearing this she grabs my arm, our final interaction of the evening, but the first of many others.

By the way, I’m number twelve, she says, before leaning across the table to tell me her real name.

Paul Thompson lives and works in Sheffield. His stories have appeared in Spelk Fiction, Ellipsis Zine and The Cabinet of Heed. Find out more at @hombre_hompson.