Not ready to go home, I scanned the coffee shop for an open seat as I waited to order. That’s when I noticed a man peering at me from a small table in the corner. I guessed that he was a few years older than me—thirty-nine, maybe? His hair was thinning, but not terribly. His nose was too large for his face, but it wasn’t a bad face. When he saw me looking back at him, he called, “Rita?”
I took a few steps closer to his table. “Do I know you?” I asked. I knew I didn’t. My name wasn’t Rita.
“Jack,” he said.
“Jack.” I sank into the seat opposite him. “From…”
I smiled and set down my bag. “Of course.” I’d never tried improv. I liked to try new things.
“Let’s get you a coffee.” He stood, chair screeching and nearly toppling over.
“Large, with milk,” I called over my shoulder as he hastened to the counter, like we were old friends accustomed to treating each other.
Jack gingerly placed a ceramic cup filled to the brim in front of me. He’d ordered to stay. He sat down and then nervously shifted his half-empty cup from one hand to the other.
I asked, “Do you still see anyone from class?”
He shook his head. “Nope.”
“Have you been keeping it up?”
“Keeping it up?”
“Yes! Or should I say, yes, and?”
I could only muster a chuckle at his cheesy joke.
He added, “You were the best student.”
He leaned forward. “Remember that teacher’s pet?”
“How could I forget! Who was that? Starts with an ‘s’—Steve? Simon? Or maybe Joshua.” I began to see the appeal. Once a week, Rita becomes somebody else and then happily goes home to her own life. She never opens a bottle of wine and watches Love It Or List It alone on her couch.
“Steve, I think,” he said.
“Wasn’t there a Joshua? I’m terrible with names.”
Jack dabbed his forehead with a napkin. “Joshua might have been the one who always acted dumb no matter what he played.”
“I think he really was dumb,” I laughed. “What do you think became of Steve?”
“Maybe he got his big break.”
“He wasn’t that good. You know who was awful? Marcy. Couldn’t stay in character to save her life.”
Jack smacked his hands together. “Marcy! What a riot.”
I paused and tapped the rim of my cup. “And Jessica.”
“Right.” He nodded, dabbing his forehead again. “Right.”
I leaned back in my chair. “Do you remember the instructor’s name? I’m thinking of taking another class.”
He scrunched up his forehead. “I can’t remember.”
“Think a minute.”
“Sandy?” he offered in a higher pitch.
“Isn’t that an uncommon name for a man?”
“Didn’t it start with a ‘b’?”
“Brendan,” he said. Too quickly.
The scene could have gone on, but I broke character. “Are you full of shit, Jack?”
He let out a big sigh. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know your name actually would be Rita. What are the odds?”
“Why wouldn’t I be Rita?”
He looked down at his hands and said, “I don’t know you. I just wanted to strike up a conversation.”
His pathetic lie was almost enough to make me come clean. Don’t worry, I lied too! I could say. My name isn’t Rita. I’ve never taken improv. Instead, I said, “I really thought you were my old friend Jack from class.” I lowered my gaze and bit my lip—hurt, embarrassed, as I imagined Rita would be. Then I remembered Rita didn’t exist, not my version or any other.
“Give me another chance,” Jack begged.
In improv, I supposed I’d be expected to give second chances to continue the scene. Yes, and.
“I can’t,” I said in my sweet Rita voice.
When I left the coffee shop it was getting dark. As I walked down the sidewalk, I wished suddenly, urgently, I had told him my name.