Author: cormorant PM
Jay is a strong, independent woman. She's been around the world, built up her own personal guard. So far, it's impenetrable. But a chance blind date that isn't supposed to mean anything brings her to the guy who just might tear down her walls of defense.Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Romance - Words: 3,989 - Reviews: 1 - Favs: 3 - Published: 02-10-07 - Status: Complete - id: 2318011
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Walking into the bright little restaurant almost felt like stepping into another world- such contrast had it against the gloomy, rainy outside universe that lapped readily at its clean wall of windows. It was a comfortable, open little shop- some cross between a family diner and a chain restaurant. The decor reminded me a little of the Steak And Shakes I'd eaten at while I was young. The waitresses looked reasonably happy, and the clientele were animated but civil- mostly teens and young adults, with a few older couples scattered throughout. I felt slightly out of place at the age of almost-thirty-six, though I was also aware of the fact that I looked only a few days past twenty-five.
I smiled in what I hoped was a pleasant manner at the young woman who greeted me from behind the front counter, asking if I was looking for someone.
"Well, actually yes. This sounds so stupid- I'm here on a blind date, has anyone mentioned...?" I trailed off at the spark of recognition in her eyes.
"Oh, yes! Anthony's mentioned you. He's the one at table 34," she smiled, then gestured to a small booth near one of the building's enormous windows. I nodded and issued thanks, then walked, a little more tightly than I normally would have, to the table she had indicated. Sure enough, it was absent of food, and occupied by what to me was the back of a lone man, tapping his fingers absently against the tabletop.
I paused for a second, a little unsure, still, then, with a little effort, pulled some warmth up into my features, and rounded the table into his field of vision.
"Jay, yes, I thought you might not show!" he interjected, standing politely as I sat down.
"Oh, I'm sorry, have you been waiting long?" I muttered, setting my bag down and peeling off my jacket, which was more than a little damp. I resisted the urge to check my wrist for the time, glancing up at him instead.
"Oh no, not really. It's just... I've never been on one of these things before, so I went in expecting disappointment."
Well, at least he was frank about it. I smiled with relief -I'd been expecting the same thing- which gave him that unsaid permission to laugh it off a bit, and so did I. With the initial tension broken, I was free to begin paying attention to the man before me.
The smile widened his mouth just a little too much, and it was crooked- but attractively so. His eyes held a look of good humor, the wrinkles at their corners were in early stages of development, and the traces of laugh lines were also visible. The eyes themselves were a dark, almost colorless brown, soft, and with a subtle almond inclination. His skin was a natural, olive sort of tan, drawn paler, I supposed for the season, and marred with a few remaining freckles on his cheeks from adolescence. All this sat upon a soft, if somewhat gaunt, bone structure, and beneath an only moderately tamed mane of somewhat short, thick auburn hair.
All in all, a pleasant face- attractive, natural, and kind- and set atop what his attire revealed only as a fairly slim body. I'd see about the rest later, if his personality were anything like his looks.
"Did you have any trouble finding the place?" he asked, a little tentatively, snapping me out of my observations.
"Not much," I replied easily, "Actually, it was parking that was an issue."
"Yeah, Chicago can be great for that sometimes. Hell, alright, most times." he added with a smear of the good humor I'd noticed. His voice was quiet, a little thick, not overly deep, but smooth, the words tinted with the slight accent I'd observed all Chicagoans to have.
About then, our waitress- the girl who'd originally showed me to table #34- bobbed over with a notepad in hand.
"I'll have the usual." Anthony said shortly, handing up his untouched menu. He had a usual? Well, that explained why the waitress had addressed him by name. He must come here often, then. The girl turned to me, then, and I realized with a flit of embarrassment that I hadn't even glanced at my own menu.
"I'll have the, er..." I muttered dully, trying to think of something simple and universal.
"You need another minute?" our cheerful waitress asked, shifting her wait to the other foot.
"No, no, that's not necessary. I'll have a... Chile burger. A Chile burger and a Coke." I covered, glancing at the menu and picking the first thing I laid eyes on.
"You sure about that?" she questioned.
"Yes, of course." I replied, with a small twinge of irritancy at the look she gave me.
She shrugged in a noncommittal way, and skittered off with youthful pixie steps, leaving me a little skeptical and Anthony staring at me with a bemused expression. I was beginning to feel like a pawn in some joke that I hadn't been informed of.
"What?" I asked, raising an eyebrow at him.
"Nothing," he replied, not changing his expression, "Just, the last time someone ordered a Chile burger and actually ate it was four years ago- it made the paper."
"Oh, great." I muttered, lowering my head a little and smirking at myself. I knew I shouldn't have let Lecy set me up on this- but I was determined to prove to her that simply because I hadn't been on a real date for the past three years, did not mean I was incapable of interacting with other people in a socially acceptable fashion. So far, I seemed to be doing just fabulous, and now I had a legendary Chile burger to anticipate, as well.
"So what does Jay stand for, anyway?" he asked, changing the subject.
"Nothing, just Jay. Jay Walker. My parents thought they were clever, obviously."
I studied him, waiting for his response- usually people would just smirk at it- the really annoying ones, who thought they were witty, would make a comment on it. People from rural areas didn't even get the bad pun.
"I like it." he said simply. His tone and expression betrayed no hints of sarcasm, and I was pleased. "At least it's original," he went on, "Anthony is supposed to be your middle name- I guess my parents got it backwards."
"It's not so bad," I said honestly.
"Oh, come on- Anthony Smith. What kind of generic name is that? Oh well, though. What's in a name, anyway?"
A flood of Shakespearean verse ran through my head, and I smirked inwardly, wondering if it had been on purpose.
The waitress came by with drinks, then, and after she left, we lapsed into less stinted conversation. I was more inclined to listen- talking about myself was my least favorite pastime, by default, so I sipped my Coke and devoted my attention to his speaking. I didn't mind it at all- Mr. Smith turned out to be more interesting than Lecy had ever made him sound.
He lived in the City, nearby, in fact, less than ten minutes from here. It was an apartment with a small square footage, but a great view- good for him because he was a devoted bleeding heart and fond of the lake, and it's sister city. He loved movies- a perk, classical music and modern rock- another perk, and had a german shepherd named Charlie, who looked like a killer and behaved as an old friend. His parents were still alive, though now they lived in Michigan, he was the youngest of four children- and also the only one still living in the country.
Anthony had, apparently, graduated with a Bachelor's degree in psychology from UIC, something that made me a little apprehensive. He caught that and promised that he had learned self-control, as well as sociology, and was not currently psychoanalyzing me. I offered up a little information on myself, then, admitting that it shouldn't matter if he were, because my own sister had earned the same degree, and for six years of my life I'd been unwillingly entitled to each of her lessons, if inadvertently.
This led him to inquire just where it was I was from, originally, to which I confessed my home state of Pennsylvania.
"Really..." he stated, not questioning my honestly, but rather speculating my answer.
"Yeah. Not in big city Pittsburgh or anything though- my family were from the Eastern suburbs, originally. We moved to Allentown when I was, oh, fifteen, maybe? Anyway, that's where I met Lecy."
Then he threw me a genuine questioning look, "Lecy? Wait, you mean..."
"Oh jeez, is she lying about that, still? Yes, Lecy is from Pennsylvania Dutch Country, born and raised- she didn't move up to Chicago until college." I said it with a laugh, but also reminded myself to tease her about it later.
"Wow, who knew," he chuckled.
From there the conversation took a typical turn- discussion of Lecy, our one mutual friend and the culprit of this meeting. As we talked, the restaurant filled up around us- the beginning of a Saturday dinner rush. Our waitress stopped by once more to refill our glasses and apologize for the long wait on the food- it had been almost half an hour.
Somehow the discussion turned to politics, a subject I usually dreaded to bring up. The way I saw it- politicians were all the same thing, different animal, and as far as American ones? Pah, if things kept up on the same path they were on, we'd be due for an apocalypse any day now. After trying to avoid the subject, I finally stated this, and elaborated, maybe a little too vehemently, on my views. He listened patiently, nodding in agreement sometimes, and let me patter through them for a good five minutes before I eventually caught myself, and wound it to a stop.
"Interesting. Let me just ask you this," he paused, "what do you do for a living?"
I hated that question- so far I'd been lucky to avoid it. "I'm... in advertising." Yes, in other words, I work for the corporate machine.
"Brilliant." he said flatly, with a slight smirk.
"I know, I know. It isn't so bad, is it?"
"Not at all. I just thought someone as... vindicated, as you would be doing more to fight all the world's abominations. What is it you sell, anyway?"
"Anything and everything. Right now... Cocoa Puffs."
At that, he burst out laughing, "Brilliant." he repeated.
I was angry, and I felt like an idiot, so I snapped back at him, "Well, it doesn't seem to me that you're out there fighting any battles on ignorance either."
Abruptly, the chuckling stopped and he grew serious. "Of course I am. I teach people to think for themselves for a living. I give them the tools to be competent human beings. That's got to count for something."
"Oh." I muttered, completely defeated.
There was a minute of silence, then he said, with a straight face, "Although, I do love Cocoa Puffs."
"That isn't funny." I said, trying to fight the smile tugging at the corners of my lips. What nerve- I'd known him for all of an hour, and he already acted like he had the right to tease me.
"Yes, it is." he said, looking me in the eyes and smiling hugely.
At that I gave in, and laughed. Alright, maybe it was a little funny.
That aside, the topic turned to everyday things, such as horror movies. He had a passion for newer, indie flicks, whereas I was firmly affixed to love the classics. We split on Dracula- I was fond of the Bella Lugosi version; he favored the more modern remake. The People Under the Stairs was agreed to be gold, whether or not it was intended to be amusing, I had to admit that I'd avoided basements for a week after seeing it. We both laughed at the shabby attempts to frighten that were in theatres currently, and made plans for a movie night someday.
It was odd, being with Anthony. Originally, I'd been reluctant to even show up- agreeing only because I felt I had something to prove. My last real relationship had ended in disaster, and whatever need I had for romance was usually filled by a greater need to pay for my apartment, therefore the need to work. I'd come here expecting another of Lecy's bright, shiny, ordinary friends, and found instead a genuine, interesting, person, both physically and charismatically attractive. He was easy to talk to, bold, and colorful.
I found, to my own surprise, that I had leaned in to the conversation, no longer sipping my Coke but fully engaged in our discussion. For the first time since I'd been back in the Midwest (a span of almost three weeks now) I felt comfortable. Maybe it was his good humor, or the off-kilter views we seemed to share, but whatever it was, it was welcome, and completely unanticipated. I reminded myself to thank Lecy, though I was at ends as to how she had managed to pick out someone I'd actually get on with. Normally, her taste in men was the polar opposite to mine, and this was beside the fact that such men were quite a rarity to begin with.
Finally, my Chile burger arrived.
The thing was at least a quarter pound, on a toasted bun, grilled, and coated in the sautéed remains of a dozen or so peppercinis. I wondered if the place knew that their Chile burger didn't really match its name, but despite the frightening amount of spice, it was steaming hot, and smelled more than edible. The waitress was watching for my expression.
"Thank you." I said simply, and she looked at me a second longer before pulling a smile on, and leaving.
"You don't look intimidated." Anthony commented. I noted that "The usual" was some sort of steak sandwich, with a side of coleslaw and fries.
"They're just peppers, right? How bad can it be?" I said boldly, then picked up the burger and took a fairly large bite.
He watched me, as I chewed it a few times, until the food was half-pulverized, then coughed from the back of my throat, and mumbled, "Ow."
I swallowed, and took a huge sip of Coke.
"I warned you..." he mumbled, as I continued to slurp at the drink, wincing, "Here, you can have half of mine if you want-" he stopped, gaping, as I took another bite of the burger, this one considerably smaller, and munched it down without trouble.
"First is always the worst," I said with a smirk, and then took another bite. Sure, my throat was going to burn for a while, but oh well.
"Wow." he stated, and looked at his own tame meal blandly.
"Hey, I am a strong, independent woman, and no plate of food shall defeat me." I said with exaggerated nobility.
He just shook his head and popped a french fry into his mouth.
No newspapers ever did show up, but I ate most of the burger, only sucking down one additional glass of Coke for support. The meal was pretty quiet, as both of us were hungrier than average, but the time passed quickly. Scarcely to my notice, the sun had at some point slipped down into the horizon, and the sky was still crying into the birth of evening. By the time we rose from our table, I could feel catches of crisp September air creeping in as customers dashed in and out of the rain.
Anthony paid for us both like the assuming gentleman- another simple act of tradition that I wasn't used to. Eventually, we were left standing silently together in the rain, under the protective shield of the restaurant. We watched the cars go by, foolishly "waiting" for the rain to stop, as people so often do- a hope that is so rarely fulfilled. Now that the day was coming to a close, there was an odd somberness between us.
I moved from my prior resting spot against the building, preparation to spill some generic goodbye, something about work in the morning, or the long walk to my car. Thanks for the great evening; we'll do this again sometime. Whatever. But before I could even choose an opening line to my closing banter, he turned to me, and spoke.
"You know, this whole thing wasn't really Lecy's idea. When she mentioned she had an old friend coming to town, and... And she told me a little of you... I actually proposed the idea that she introduce us. I think she was the one who came up with this whole 'blind date' premise, but in any case, I'd just felt like I had to meet you. It was the strangest thing ever." He stopped, seeming a little embarrassed for the sudden announcement.
I didn't say anything at first; he'd caught me unawares. It was strange to see the relaxed, open nature I'd grown accustomed to over the night exchanged so quickly into such a stoic resolve.
"Well, I've really enjoyed tonight, so I'm glad you did..." I generically replied. This wasn't supposed to be a big deal- so why was it? I was supposed to satisfy Lecy, go on this date, come home, bitch about the guy, and forget him. I realized with a little surge that that wasn't going to happen, however. I couldn't simply forget Anthony, and there was actually very little to even bitch about. I had only just met him, but in a purely internal sort of way, I already knew him better than some people I'd met years ago. It was almost as if he'd already become something different to me- not just this acquaintance, but some essential part of my detached personality. Some vital part that would leave a gaping hole in me if I left him.
No, that was ridiculous, I reminded myself. I was self-sufficient, I didn't need anyone. I'd spent the past fifteen years proving that to myself, and everyone else. I'd lived in over a dozen cities, been across the country and beyond it, and done it all on my own steam. I had a handful of loved ones, three houseplants, and a computer- I didn't take care of things, and nobody had to take care of me. I was an island, right?
Then why was there a shadow forming under his eyes, and why did that bother me so much?
"Well, I'm glad of it," he said softly, matching my generics. His manner was reserved, and that bothered me. It suited him far less than the crooked smile or the teasing raised eyebrows. I didn't like it.
There was another pause, and then he asked where I was parked. I rattled off a street, and he offered to drive me to it; apparently his car was just around the corner, and I was over a block away. I looked out into the rainy post-dusk, and accepted.
We made the short walk quietly- he always kept a step or two ahead of me, walking with long, graceful strides and his hands thrust into the pockets of his coarse, black coat. I realized that he was almost my height, which was a surprise, because in the right pair of shoes I could see a full head over anyone.
The car was a fairly modern, silver sedan of some sort- just the thing you'd expect a thirty-something psychologist to drive, I guessed. It was the first part of him all night that had matched my expectations. He opened my door for me, but waited for me to catch up. When I stopped a foot or so to his right, he rested his eyes on me for a moment, then, without further hesitation or permission, closed the gap, and pressed his lips to mine. They were lusciously warm, more then any part of any human should really be in the weather, and, without any objection from me, welcome.
And then it happened in a second or two, before he had a chance to fully pull back. The wind picked up, sheeting rain against us both. I threw my arms around him with a needy abandon, and gave in fully to the warmth and the growing urgency of his kiss. I felt the smirk I'd been seeing all night against my own lips, and it wrung from me a sigh such as I couldn't have intentionally produced. In that second and its sister, I didn't feel awkward or independent or thirty-six, either. I felt hungry and demanding and very much in need of his presence- for now, for later, and for as long as my need would be tolerated.
Anthony was the one who finally broke the embrace and held me at arms length. I could feel the contrast of the flush in my cheeks to the wind, and the new absence that the cold only accentuated. The reality of that perfect, exaggerated, chick-flick moment of lust hit me, and I wondered why it didn't feel embarrassing, why my normal suspicion was conspicuously missing. I felt like I was fifteen, feeling that first love and drowning in it, that stupid, senseless abandon, and I shivered.
He seemed to come out of a reverie at that, and released his grip on my arms. "Alright, I should definitely get you to your car then." he seemed then once again natural, self-assured but not cocky, proper but not restricted, and he quickly moved to climb into the car, sitting almost forgotten just in front of us.
I didn't say anything, just climbed into the passenger side and waited for him to settle in beside me. I glanced shiftily to my left at him- he hadn't started the engine yet. Some part of my brain screamed Ridiculous! again, and some childhood paranoia reminded me about getting into cars with strangers. These were of course lost, because another part of my mind, perhaps in revenge for its lack of use, persistently demanded that I wasn't going anywhere.
"You know... maybe I shouldn't go home tonight." I said carefully, looking over to find him watching me intently.
"I thought you were a strong, independent woman?" he teased.
"I am," I said shortly, "It's just I'm...still a bit hungry."
He smiled widely, and started the car. Neither of us had any more consumption in mind, so much as another indulgence.