Gary and Nikki didn’t talk much after the questioned metaphor or the police statement, but he did want the opportunity to get to know her under less pressured terms, so he asked her to have dinner with him that following Friday. He made it clear that he had understood her answer about the stubbed toe. She was already with somebody. Asking her out was certainly inappropriate. But then he had an epiphany: As he rolled his fingers along her shoulders, he wondered, what right did some other guy have stealing his future wife away from him? So, he worried less about the inappropriateness of him asking out another guy’s girlfriend and more about the inappropriateness of another guy dating the woman he was going to spend his life with. As far as he was concerned, it was his duty to win her back, for the first time.
“I want to have dinner with you,” he said, in the silence between her low-volume sighs.
“I have a boyfriend,” she said. “Thought I’d already made that clear.”
“Is he here right now?”
“No, he’s running his business right now.”
“Is his business more important than you?”
“Of course not.”
“Then why isn’t he here right now?”
She stopped rolling her head around on her neck so that she could turn to roll her eyes at him.
“Because he’s working. That’s what people do when they have a job.”
Gary shrugged, gave her a sheepish grin.
“Okay. Just thought anyone really meant to be with you would come to your side within a few minutes of your getting into a serious accident, is all.”
“It’s not serious.”
“It’s not? Then why are you worried what he thinks if you have dinner with someone else for one night?”
“I meant the crash isn’t serious. My relationship with my man is serious.”
“Yeah? What’s his name?”
She resisted her laughter.
“I’m not telling you his name.”
Gary shrugged again. His hands were still on her shoulders, even though she was now turned to face him.
“Okay. If you don’t know it, that’s cool.”
“Omigod, I know my boyfriend’s name. I just don’t want to tell you.”
“Why? Does he not exist?”
Her eyes fluttered upward and her mouth sucked in the cold, dry air. She was clearly flustered now.
“Of course, just, omigod.”
Her hands floated up to her chest, and she turned her back to him as she tried to process whether she could believe what she was hearing.
“You know what?” she said. “I don’t want to talk to you anymore. Just shut up and massage me.”
Gary dug his fingers into her shoulders for the next minute without a word. Then he dared to speak again.
“You like shrimp parmesan?” he asked.
“Love it. Why—oh, no, I see what you’re doing. We’re not having this conversation.”
Gary smiled. He was channeling Shawn somehow, and he was not about to waste it.
“How about white wine?”
“I’m only twenty. But, yeah, I love that, too.”
“White grape juice?”
“I’m not having dinner with you. End of topic.”
Gary spent another minute in silence. He didn’t know how much longer she’d let him stay with her. But he was running out of ideas. Smooth-talking was not his foray, and the last few minutes of conversation was just a faint echo of what he’d once seen Shawn do to get a date. Shawn’s example was rubbing thin now, and when Gary glanced back to see if he could offer him additional last-minute pointers, he saw that he’d already left.
Whatever he would say to her from now on was up to his own volition.
“How about puppies?” he asked. “How do you feel about puppies?”
Nikki growled at the bus sitting dead before her. Gary could feel her shoulders tensing between his fingers.
“Okay, fine,” she said. “I’ll go out with you. Stop asking.”
She’d almost refused entirely; he could see it in her eyes. She didn’t know him, didn’t know if she wanted to know him, but she would later confess that his massage therapy skill was ultimately what tipped her thoughts in favor of him. She was not at all poetic about it, however. She had the grace of an elephant.
“You’re not attractive,” she said to him, “not to me anyway—I suppose you could be attractive to somebody—even monkeys have other monkeys they’re attracted to, I guess. But those hands of yours and the things they can do. So adequate.”
Gary was no idiot. He knew that, so far, beauty was the only thing she had going for her. She was unpleasant from the start, critical, and clearly had no interest in him. But then, that was part of the attraction. His whole life, people had been telling him of the things he couldn’t do: “You can’t become president unless you graduate from an Ivy League college; you can’t keep yourself healthy if you keep eating potato chips; you can’t date the girl of your dreams because she’ll want to date someone better than you.” He had to prove to himself, and to everyone else, that he could become president no matter where he graduated from, that he could stay healthy no matter how many bags of potato chips he might’ve devoured in a day, and that he could certainly win the heart of the girl of his dreams, that all of the can’t-dos of his life were can-dos. And, even as he asked Nikki out to dinner there next to that broken down bus amid the police officers soliciting for information about the cause of the crash, he knew that those first two can-dos were ridiculous—of course he would never become president on his education or stay healthy on a diet of fried potatoes—but he believed that the third can’t-do was every bit the can-do he knew it could be, so he accepted no fear and went in for the big ask, knowing that beauty was literally the only positive thing she could offer him at the moment. At this point, he didn’t care. At this point, he had to show his resolve. She could’ve said anything, but he would’ve said anything back, so at the end of the day, she had no choice but to accept his invitation, even if she technically had all the choice in the world.
My hands are more than adequate, he thought. My hands can change your life, if you let me work my magic. Of course, his external machismo was nowhere near as strong as his internal confidence. Externally, he was still a little underdeveloped. His elegance was also like that of an elephant’s.
“I have hands,” he said. “Nice hands. Good hands.”
Nikki waited for him to clarify, but he didn’t. He just stood there smiling at her, like he had given her the best news of her life. She simply curled her lip and nodded.
Gary grabbed her right biceps and held his hand there.
“I’m never going to date anyone as beautiful as you, so please have mercy on me. One dinner, and then make your decision.”
She started forward then stopped. A look of confusion crossed her face.
“Well, if I go out with you, then I’ve already made my decision, right?”
“Well, I mean—”
Before he could finish his thought, she smiled at him.
“You really think I’m that pretty?” she asked.
He didn’t know how to answer her properly, so he simply grinned and nodded. He could feel his cheeks flushing and the sweat beginning to well around his neck. At this point, his Shawn-talk was diminished and now he was beginning to regress back into Gary-talk. Better to keep silent.
She gave him a shy smile.
“Okay, that’s flattering. Maybe I can have one dinner with you, just to see if you mean what you say.”
He wasn’t sure what part of what he’d said needed proof, or how he would even prove it, but at least she was willing to offer him the opportunity to prove it anyway, somehow. He supposed the big challenge was in figuring out how to prove to a woman that she’s beautiful when beauty was predominantly subjective.
“Can I just say what I mean and move on to getting to know you better?”
Her shy smile flattened out. She was back to serious mode.
“Er, no. You say I’m beautiful. As flattering as I think that is, I don’t know you enough to trust you or the words you say. So, you need to prove it.”
He folded his arms over his chest and nodded.
“Okay, I’ll prove it. No problem.” It was definitely a problem.
“Good, so we’ll meet at Yoyo Crunch Bistro five o’clock tomorrow afternoon. Obviously I don’t have a car, so you’ll have to drive.”
He was taken aback by the time.
“Why so early?” he asked.
“Because I have a hot date at seven. Don’t want to be late. I think my boyfriend is going to propose.” Her face stiffened. “But that’s none of your business, is it?”