“What are you thinking of right now?” I ask, blowing softly over my coffee. Shifting his weight back, he clasps his hands behind his head and smiles, the left side of his lip tilting upwards into a subtle smirk that snuggles beneath a slight crescent-shaped dimple.
“I’m thinking about how beautiful your eyes are.”
The compliment sounds genuine and feels real but it catches me off guard. I steal a quick glance. He has beautiful eyes--far more beautiful than mine. They are like sown seeds of the earth, rich and fertile, with hints of gold and green blended with sepia. They are not the lustless muddy brown, but are painted in a mix of chestnut and cocoa, glittering in the warm yellow light--a color that I swear I’ve never seen before. I could say the same about yours, I want to say.
Instead, I laugh awkwardly and turn to face the window so he cannot see me blush. It is cloudy enough outside that even in the afternoon, I can see my surroundings reflected in the glass.
Refracted and slightly distorted in the window, I see myself slouching awkwardly as he sits comfortably, blending in seamlessly with the cafe environment. The small wire tables that curl at the feet sit fragilely around the perimeter, surrounded by warm harvest-gold walls illuminated beneath the string of softly flickering dim bulbs. Home-style, vintage scenes of love-filled Paris scatter the walls like a memorabilia album hidden in a dusty attic. If this were a photograph, I would be the only element sorely out of place. I breathe in. It smells like home here--like hot chocolate and cocoa beans, like butter and caramel.
From the corner of my eye, he looks up from his coffee cup and swirls it with the stirrer before licking the end absentmindedly, wearing an expression of curiosity.
“Tell me something I do not know about you,” he says, leaning his head forward, as though my next words would be so engaging but imperceptible to hear. I pause only briefly when his shoulder brushes mine.
“Well, I have a cousin who lives in Vancouver,” I offer, bringing the rim of my cappuccino to my mouth.
“Come on. That’s a cheap response. Tell me something that actually matters,” he responds softly, his amused eyes eclipsing his false pout. I roll my eyes and swat him as he playfully dodges my open hand.
“Fine. I used to own a Japanese fighting fish when I was really young. They are a really beautiful species” I report aimlessly.
“They’re beautiful until you put two together in the same tank, anyways. Then you’re left with just scales and fish guts,” he corrects.
“That was never a problem. I only had one to begin with,” I shrug, bringing the cooling coffee to my lips again. He raises an eyebrow, watching me.
“You’re supposed to tell me why this fish was important. That’s how the game works.”
“Oh. Well...it really wasn’t. He—or at least I think it was a “he”—was bright red in color. Not like the robust apple-red. Think of vermillion, or the color of the sunset. It was a kind of red that no one forgets because it’s too powerful and paralyzes your cone cells.”
To my surprise, he looks at his watch, squinting.
“D---. I was only three minutes off,” he says lightly. His eyes meet mine again and I wear my Mona Lisa smile, though only as a mask for my confusion.
“I made this bet with myself that you would bring up a biology term within the first fifteen minutes off this. Rods and cones. We’ve been sitting here for eighteen minutes and twenty-three seconds,” he quips.
“How much money do you owe yourself?” I counter sarcastically.
“Enough cash to pay for a second date, I hope,” he says lightly. My face reddens immediately and I break off his gaze, suddenly becoming unhealthily infatuated in my empty coffee cup. If looks could kill, that poor cup would have holes drilled through every inch of its recycled material.
“You’re blushing again,” he points out softly, leaning in to watch my expression, amusement lining his face. I exhale and will myself to breathe.
“That fish, I named it Fuego,” I say lamely, internally cringing at my conspicuous awkwardness. I glance at him briefly and let out an imperceptible sigh of relief when I see that there is only open kindness in his eyes.
“Fuego means fire in Spanish. What a paradox. You chose well--fire in a tank of water,” he muses.
“I feel so bad about that, though.”
“The tank, I mean. What kind of life is it to live in a box with dimensions smaller than a piece of paper? No wonder why a betta fish will rip its companion to shreds.”
There is another painfully long silence between us. I cough pathetically to fill it in as he finishes his latte in a final sip.
“But I guess we all live like that in a way--in a tank built by circumstance--and that’s why there is so much sadness. The walls shrink and condense until you’re so claustrophobic that you’re willing to go anywhere as long as you move. So you look left, right, in front of, and behind you for some sort of escape. But life isn’t glass--it’s an impenetrable concrete box.” I ramble quickly, hoping that the explanation revalidates me. I try to read him but his eyes watch the spinning ceiling fan distantly and he bites the inside of his cheeks slowly, his mouth contorting curiously.
“I think understand what you mean,” he says carefully, after what a long drag through eternity. I put my head in my hands, exasperated with myself. Of course he doesn’t understand. Why would he? That wasn’t even a cohesive thought.
“You know what? Never mind. Forget that I said anything,” I mutter, shaking my head.
“No. Wait. I get it, I really do. You’re trapped by four sides, so there’s only an up or a down. But diving down in a fish tank means drowning and hitting a rock bottom. So you look up. But there’s no water up there and no way of surviving—even if you jump high enough. You are left suspended in time, discomfort, and fear, blocked off by all the elements on all sides of you. Worst of all, you are completely, undeniably, and incredibly alone,” he finishes, absentmindedly running his long piano fingers through his chocolate curls.
I stare at him quizzically for a long, long time. He holds my gaze and I lift my chin up to match his line of vision. His bright eyes, his mental alacrity, the thick mop of curls--nothing about him is ordinary. He was one of those people, the kind you see from Bond movies, moving like a rainstorm when everything around him is composed of eggshell. What is his story that makes him know mine so well? As though he could read the stray comment floating my mind, his lips, round as berries, immediately turn upwards into the characteristic smirk that must have taken years to perfect. Impossible.
“I told you I understood,” he says first, breaking the silence.