Stephanie and I met each other at the coffee shop again the next day, and every day that week, and by Friday I’d convinced her to go out with me that night, to an open-air restaurant. Even at night, I couldn’t convince her to go to a movie. Fortunately, it was a clear, beautiful evening, and between the full moon hanging in the sky and the gentle candle that would burn on our table, it was going to look like a picture postcard mailed straight in from the mythical land of Romantica.
Stephanie was living out of an extended stay hotel, and a pretty expensive one at that. I arrived to pick her up at 7:30 on the dot, and to my surprise, she was already ready to go when I knocked on the door.
“You look shocked,” she said, opening up and joining me in the hallway.
“I sort of am. Most every woman I’ve ever known seems to have a playbook telling her that keeping a guy waiting is the way to keep him interested.”
“I guess I wasn’t around when they handed out the playbook.”
I got a good look at her in the hallway, and I thought I’d have to mop up my chin. She was incredible. Not model-pretty, but her full figure had very nice proportions, hugged perfectly by her little black dress. Against her pale skin, encircling her perfect neck, was a white gold necklace with a heavy red ruby dangling from it, cradled happily between the generous swell at the top of her breasts. Her lips were painted the same blood-red as the ruby, and the combination of her complexion, raven hair, and scarlet mouth made me think of Snow White, only elevated from a mere fable to a genuine goddess. She gave off a faint, sweet smell of fruit, although I couldn’t place exactly what variety.
Was I in love yet? No. but by damn, I was in full-on lust.
“You… you look…”
“Oh no, did I overdress?”
“Oh, God no. I just left my thesaurus at home and I couldn’t come up with enough synonyms for ‘fantastic’.”
She smiled with her mouth, which anyone can do, but she also smiled with her eyes, and that’s a lot harder to fake. But there was something behind her eyes, too, a kind of sadness. Like her smell, it was some time before I could place it – about the same amount of time as it took for me to really understand her.
No, that’s not fair. I understood her very quickly. It was just a long time before I knew her.
“You’re so sweet,” she said. “What’s wrong with all those girls your brother was talking about?”
“Fools,” I said. “Poor, misguided fools.”
“Clearly. So, where are we going?”
I took her down to my favorite Italian place (that pudge in my Superman sketch was not unearned) and requested a table on the patio. I was a little nervous, because the forecast that morning had called for light rain, but we couldn’t have asked for a more gorgeous night. We shared a bottle of red wine, and we decided to split an enormous helping of the restaurant’s signature lasagna. I didn’t have the foggiest notion if you were supposed to drink red wine with pasta, but if I was wrong, she was kind enough not to point it out.
“So, what do you do for a living?” I asked her across two wineglasses.
“Ah, the official first date pleasantries. I wondered when they would begin.”
“Well, they work as icebreakers. Besides, there’s an important difference in the way I’m asking them this time that sets my usage apart.”
“I honestly want to know the answer.”
She smiled again. “I do seasonal work. I’m in agriculture.”
“Really? What sort of work?”
“Crop development. I try to implement new techniques to make the yield more productive.”
“Ah, so nice to finally meet the person responsible for getting fresh peaches to my grocers’ produce section,” I said. “So what sort of crops do you work with?”
“Oh, fruit, vegetables, grains… you name it, I’ve worked in it.”
“Really? Can you hook me up with any tobbaccy?”
“How much do you want?”
We laughed at our respective jokes, and she smiled. “It is kind of a big responsibility, trying to figure out ways for there to be enough for everyone. I don’t even remember the last time that happened.”
“When dinosaurs walked the earth and your neighbor was your next Happy Meal,” I offered. “Wow, you’d think this would be a busy time of year for you.”
“Not so much. There’s a lot to do during the planting and a lot to do during the harvest. And during winter, I’m pretty much holed away in a cave somewhere analyzing and interpreting data, but right now there’s nothing for me to do but sit back and wait for the stats.”
“Your mother must be so proud,” I joked. She didn’t laugh. In fact, her sudden quiet and the way her face fell made me realize instantly I’d said something stupid. “Oh… I’m sorry, I’m…”
“No, it’s okay. My mother is actually the person who got me into the business, so I’m sure she approves of my work. It’s just…”
“It’s a sore subject,” I said. She didn’t reply, but the way she looked down and nibbled at her lip told me that I was right. “So… How ‘bout them Celtics, huh?”
She snorted. “Don’t get me started on the Celtics.” She smiled, and the tension was smoothed enough that I didn’t realize until later that she pronounced the word with the “Kuh” sound: “Keltics” instead of “Seltics.”
When the dessert cart came by, she opted for a fluffy angel food cake topped with fresh strawberries. “That’s interesting,” I said. “I would have pegged you for a chocoholic.”
“Mmm. I do love a good cocoa bean, but there’s something about fresh strawberries. They just…” she picked up a whole berry from her cake, taking a bite, wrapping her plump lips around the fruit. “They just do something to me.”
I wondered how much ice remained in the champagne bucket, and if there would be any way to surreptitiously dump the whole thing into my lap.
“How about you?” she said. “I feel like I’ve been monopolizing the conversation. Tell me all about Adam Solomon.”
“Well, to begin with, I was rocketed to Earth as an infant from the doomed planet Krypton.” She laughed, but not hard, and I quickly learned I would have to take it easy with the pop culture references, because most of them were completely off her radar. “I’m just your average cartoonist. I grew up reading Peanuts and Pogo and Calvin and Hobbes… comic strips in the newspaper.”
“I know Peanuts. I started reading it because I thought it was about legumes. I kept reading it because Charles Schulz was a man of singular wisdom and vision.”
I grinned. “That he was. So I went to college and majored in art, then I dropped out in two years because nothing I was studying was practically applicable to starting a comic strip.”
“So why aren’t you in newspapers all over North America?”
“Have you tried landing a newspaper comic in the 21st Century? The only time a space opens up is when someone dies. And even then, half of the strips just continue with the assistant taking over, if he hadn’t done so already. There’s no innovation there anymore. Newspapers are dying anyway – webcomics are the future of the artform.”
“I love listening to artists talk about their work. You always get so passionate.”
“As passionate as anyone can be, I guess, spending their time drawing get-well cards and spot illustrations for Total Moron’s Guide how-to books.”
“Good, honest work, and at least you get to create, right? Besides, I’ve seen your drawings. All you need is to find your audience, and you’ll take right off.”
“Well, the piece you saw was particularly good. I had the perfect model.”
Her smile was changing. Now it was hungry. Predatory. I liked it. “I’d love to see more, if you have them at home.”
“Why Stephanie, are you asking me to come back to my place so you can see my etchings?”
She popped another strawberry into her mouth. “Maybe.”
That ice bucket was looking more and more necessary.
“Darn. I should have bought some coffee to offer you.”
“That’s okay. I’m sure we can find other ways to keep each other awake.”
If a hand grenade had exploded under my chair at that point I wouldn’t have noticed.
“Oh, you’re blushing. That’s adorable.”
“Was I? I couldn’t tell a thing through a haze of red.”
She drained her glass, spilling the last of the wine between her lips. “Sorry, was I too forward? I guess it’s just a genetic thing. When people in my family decide we want something, we have a tendency to simply claim it.” Her eyes flashed, and I could see a wholly unfamiliar burning inside them. This is not false humility on my part. For a split-second, I felt like I was under the gaze of a lioness, exciting, and terrifying all at once. This was a far cry from the timid girl who had apparently staked out Perry’s coffee shop waiting for me to return. This was someone who would not be denied.
Then, just as quickly, the fire waned and sweet Stephanie returned. She picked up her napkin and covered her nose and mouth. “Oh, lord,” she said, “I can’t believe I said that.”
“No, no, I’ve probably scared you half to death. I feel so stupid.”
“Stephanie, it’s okay. Really.”
“No. Dammit, I made a fool of myself.”
I couldn’t believe how rapidly her temperament had changed: sex kitten one minute, scaredy cat the next. I pulled my chair around the side of the table and draped an arm over her shoulder, gently rubbing her. This presented a new problem, however, as my new concern split between trying to comfort her and my total, lustful awe at the fact that apparently every inch of her skin was as silky and flawless as her hands.
“What’s wrong with me?” she hissed. “Why can’t I ever fix this?”
“Fix what? Stephanie, what is it?”
She looked up at me, meeting my gaze with worried eyes. Inside me, there was a war between the desire to make her feel better and the desire to simply feel her, and in any way possible. When our eyes locked, the two sides of my internal conflict immediately brokered a peace accord, the prime component of which was that each faction readily agreed it was time for me kiss her. It was silly and crazy and far too soon, but I was human, and I didn’t think Hercules himself would have been strong enough to resist her at that moment. I leaned in over the table, sliding a hand beneath her hair and across her cheek (perfect, every INCH of her, absolutely perfect) and our lips met. She was soft, yielding, but as we met, the intensity grew and we fell into one another. I tasted that fruit again, on her lips, not strawberry, but something else. Something…
I paid the check and we returned to my house, and I did indeed show her my etchings. And although I did not confirm that every bit of her skin shared the perfect smoothness of her hands, shoulder and cheek, I did manage to cover a pretty substantial percentage; and, as I had once fantasized about how good her hands would feel across my own skin, I learned as well that they felt very good indeed.
* * *
“Why are all your characters whistling?” Perry asked.
“I drew it this morning,” I replied, returning to coloring my comic strip in Photoshop.
“This morning? What does that me—NO!”
I grinned at his reaction. “This is what I like about you, Perry. You pick up on everything right away.”
A woman in a ball cap tapped on the counter. “Excuse me, can I get an espresso?”
“Yeah, yeah, in a minute. So, what happened?”
“You know how it goes, dude. Nice restaurant, nice dinner… nice everything, to be honest.”
“And you do mean everything, right? Don’t you? Nudge, nudge, wink, wink? Say much more?”
I took a slow sip of my coffee. “Geez, Perry, what’s this? I would have expected Amber to get all ‘Gossip Girl’ on me, but not you.”
“I’ve been married for three years. That’s the official cut-off date where it becomes acceptable to start living through your friends. Come on, spill.”
“Sir? I just wanted a cup–”
“Yeah, I’ll be right with you, lady. So come on, after dinner? What happened?”
I debated how much to actually tell him. Perry and I didn’t really keep any secrets from each other… but on the other hand, I didn’t usually have anything to hide. It isn’t like there was some deep, dark secret to dish on – oh, we had fun, but not the sort of fun I was capable of describing in any great detail. But while my conscious mind was dwelling on everything that happened after we closed the door to my house, there was a large part of my brain that was devoting itself primarily to the way she broke down at the end of dinner. I didn’t think about it much after we had left the restaurant (and if you try to tell me you would have been thinking about it at that point, I call you a liar), but now I was having a hard time wrapping my brain around everything. The trouble was, I wasn’t sure if Stephanie would consider this information personal – too personal to share. Yeah, it happened to me, but clearly, there was a story here, and I didn’t know if I had the right to tell anyone even a small part of it.
“It was fantastic,” I said, deciding on a level of frankness I was comfortable with. “You know those first dates where things are absolutely perfect for 99 percent of the evening, and you’re ready to ask her out again before the appetizers even get there?”
“I vaguely remember such things, yes. Of course, on our first date Kim broke out in a rash because I made her try the spinach and artichoke dip and neither of us knew she was allergic to artichokes, so I may not be the best person to gauge.”
“Well, I’ll tell you this much, bro – there were zero rashes last night.”
“Awesome, awesome. A lack of rashes is almost universally recognized as a requirement for a good date.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, lady, can’t you see I’m having a conversation? What do you think this is, a coffee shop?”
Amber swept in. “I’m sorry, ma’am, you’ll have to excuse the owner. He recently suffered a stroke that rendered him a total asshole. Can I help you?”
She led the confused customer away and I shook my head at Perry. “How the hell do you even stay in business?”
“Volume. Now enough about me, spill. What was the problem last night?”
I nearly spit my coffee. “What makes you think there was a problem?”
“You said things were perfect 99 percent of the time. That leaves a one percent window in which you were free to make a total assclown of yourself.”
“As usual!” Amber added cheerfully from her position at the espresso machine.
I paused in the conversation long enough to give her a well-earned glower, then returned my attention to Perry. “Okay, here’s the thing, and I don’t understand a bit of it. We’re having dinner. We’re having a great time. We’re flirting like crazy. She’s flirting like crazy.”
“The math is all working in your favor so far. And then?”
“Then she starts to get a little… aggressive.”
Perry whistled through his teeth. “Good aggressive or bad aggressive? Were you thinking about dumping the ice bucket in your lap?”
“But then, out of the blue, she started to wig out on me. It was like all of a sudden she realized she was being the aggressor, and she was afraid it would scare me away or something.”
“A hot girl makes it obvious she wants to jump your junk and she thinks it’ll scare you away? Has she met men?”
“Well, I told her it was okay and then the next thing I knew…”
“Well, I didn’t think about that one percent again until just now.”
“Yes, indeed. But let’s wipe away the sauce for a minute, shall we? Why in the world would she react like that?”
“Hmm. For that answer, we may require the female perspective. Hey, Amber?”
“Do you know any females? Adam needs their views on his date last night.”
I repeated the story for Amber, who listened with a peculiar degree of interest. When I finished, she nodded. “You must have been giving her mixed signals.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, at first you must have said or done something to make her think you wanted her to be the aggressor. Don’t worry, you’re a dude, so I don’t expect you to remember what you said. But then, when she didn’t get the reaction she expected, she got scared you were going to bolt. Now, this is both good and bad. On the one hand, if she was that upset about possibly scaring you off, she must really like you. On the other hand, if she flipped out that way, she’s obviously got some issues.”
Perry raised an eyebrow at her.
“Oh, right, I forgot who we were talking about. Issues equals good. Cool beans. Let me ask you, stud, what happened after she flipped and you put a lip-lock on her?”
“Say no more. If you were ‘uhh’ing this girl at any point in the evening, then she probably made up her mind about what she thinks your behavior means, don’t you think?”
“Yeah… probably,” I said. this wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination true. You see, even when I told Perry about the ‘uhh’ in question, I left out one crucial detail that I was now afraid would give Stephanie completely the wrong idea about me.
“You’re still nervous, aren’t you?”
“How can you tell?”
“Because you look like my puppy does every time I pull the ‘fake throw’ on him, and he can’t find the stick. You always looked that way whenever you and I tried to have a deep conversation too.”
“I love how you remember the important things.”
“Here’s the advice, man. Are you ready? Because brilliance like this is transitory.”
“Hit me, swami.”
“Don’t talk to her about it yet.”
“Dude, you’ve gone on one date. I don’t care if you ‘uhh’ed her brains out, if you start talking all about feelings and emotions and all ‘where this is going,’ she’ll think you’re a needy, clingy mess and run screaming from the premises.”
“What if she doesn’t?” Perry asked.
“Then that means she’s a needy, clingy mess and Adam should run screaming from the premises.”
Perry shrugged. “What can I say? The woman is talking sense.”
“Keep it casual. Go slow. Don’t blow this one.”
I nodded. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Well keep it in mind now, Romeo. Your girl is coming through the door.”
I spun so fast I nearly fell off my stool. Stephanie was stepping up to the door just then. as the opening bell jingled, I found myself adjusting my hair and holding my breath, not entirely sure where this conversation would lead us. But she smiled sincerely when she saw me and my breather grew a little easier.
“Hi, Adam,” she said, waving at me.
I waved back. “You remember my brother Perry? And Amber the Mutant Barista?”
Stephanie’s forehead wrinkled. “You’re a mutant?”
“Only on alternate Tuesdays. Well, the wonderful world of making coffee awaits.” She and Perry evaporated, returning to work with more diligence than either of them had demonstrated since the first day on the job. But both of them, I noticed, remained in earshot. My friends.
“It’s great to see you,” I said.
“You stopped me a lot last night,” she replied. My stammering response was broken off by the crash of the tray of mugs Amber had been carrying.
“Um… yeah. I guess I did.”
“I don’t understand what happened. We were doing things… things that I certainly enjoyed and you certainly appeared to be enjoying–”
“And I was prepared to do a great many other things that – and you’ll excuse my lack of humility – most healthy men would be falling over themselves to do.”
“Most healthy men and any number of diseased ones.”
“But then, just before I was about to suggest one of my very favorite things, you asked me to stop.”
It took me a minute to process her entire statement. I was too busy trying to figure out what she meant by “one of my favorite things.”
“So what I want to know, Adam, is why?”
“You were clearly starving for attention. I was clearly willing to give it to you. Why would you put a stop to such an exchange?”
My lower jaw bumbled over itself. I expected this subject to come up, but only with the usual amount of innuendo and beating around the bush. The whole direct approach was new territory.
“Well, I… I… geez, this is going to sound stupid.”
“That’s okay. I’ve known lots of stupid men.”
I laughed. She seemed more confused than angry, and confused was easier to deal with. “Well, the truth is, Stephanie… I really like you.”
“I like you too. Now answer the question.”
“That is my answer. Ugh… I’m afraid if I explain it, I’ll scare you off.”
Now she looked slightly amused, crossing her fingers and tilting her head incredulously. “Trust me, Adam, after the things I’ve seen in my life, I seriously doubt there’s anything you could say that would scare me.”
My shoulders slumped. I was pretty sure that telling her the truth would ruin the whole thing before it started, but lying never even crossed my mind. Mainly because I’m awful at it. “Look, you’re beautiful. I’m sure that every straight guy in town would climb over their own mothers’ corpses to do half of what you were willing to do last night.”
“This is a compliment, right?”
“The thing is, I don’t want to be just some random guy off the street. I’m not saying this is going to be some big, huge, deep relationship, but in my experience, if you think you may want one, then doing too much too fast is pretty much the best way to make sure you never get it.”
She looked perplexed, and the next thing she said made me certain I’d blown the whole thing.”
“Yeah. Something… lasting.” Here we went. Make or break time. “Stephanie, you’re fantastic. And every urge in my body – most of which haven’t been out for a spin in an enormously long time, by the way – is telling me to whisk you away and do any number of things to you that would make my grandmother disown me. But I’ve managed to quiet those urges down and listen to the part of me that would like to have something with one person for a long time. Geez, I sound like a girl.”
“Yeah, kind of,” she agreed. She didn’t sound upset, though, and the confusion had left her face in favor of a quiet little Mona Lisa smile. “So… you do want to?”
“God yes,” I said. “Just not yet.”
“It never occurred to me that you’d want to at all. I’ve known a lot of men who are…”
“Commitment-phobes?” Amber shouted, as if she was talking to the blender. The rest of the coffee shop had fallen silent, except for one guy in a black coat who snatched up his coffee cup and marched out.
“Yes. That.” Stephanie’s smile spread. “You’re very strange, you know.”
“So I’ve been told.”
“I think I like it.”
“Well, that’s a relief.”
Kissing her was like touching the sun.
Summer Love by Blake M. Petit is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at www.evertimerealms.com.