When I walk into the room, the first thing I notice is the oppressive heat.
It slides over my skin like velvet, and wherever its warm fingers press against me, sweat pools, the droplets soaking into my bright crimson dress, darkening the fabric into the colour of blood.
I can feel the sweat glistening on my face, smudging my eyeshadow. I lick my lips, then curse. There goes my carefully applied lipstick.
So be it. I didn’t even want to go on this date. I was forced into it by my parents. My mother is always in a state of heartbreak, believing I was destined to die alone.
Little does she realize that I want to be single. I have no desire to find a partner, to sift through the crowds of young people who flock to Vancouver like ants to poison. I’ve never seen gender, only personality, my appetite for sex only sparked when I discover a person with a mind as flawed and dynamic as my own.
Which is exhausting.
So I stick to myself, occasionally braving the dating world to see if love is possible for me. And every time I do, I find myself unable to open up. Unable to allow anyone near enough to get to know the intricacies of who I am.
I study the small room, a private area in a fancy restaurant I’ve never even heard of. I can’t remember the name of the place even though I just saw the sign. A fire snaps and pops on the left wall, the reason for the thick heat that cloaks the room like a winter coat.
“Good evening,” a smooth voice drawls from the only table. It’s tucked into the right corner for some reason and draped in a black tablecloth. A glittering crystal decanter and two wine glasses are set on its surface.
And sitting at the table, a lazy smile on his face, is a strange man.
I say strange not because he’s unattractive but because his handsome face is not your classic portrait of modern beauty. No, his face is all sharp angles and heavy brow, thin lips and uneven stubble. But for whatever reason, his face strikes me as one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. He’s dressed in a fitted suit, a delphinium flower tucked in the front pocket.
Perhaps this date will be better than I anticipated.
“Hello,” I respond as I sit lightly in my chair. Gray eyes meet mine, and excitement crows within me. It’s been a long time since someone has given me such a heady first impression.
“I hope you found the place all right,” he says. His voice is all honey, thick and smooth, the words holding none of the ego I’ve come to anticipate from attractive men. “I would have picked you up if you had let me.”
I hadn’t wanted a stranger to know where I lived. You can’t be too careful these days, even if the stranger in question was recommended to you by your parents.
“The location is odd, but I worked on a set around here before, so I managed just fine.”
“Ah, yes. Your mother mentioned you work in the film industry. I assume actress?” His eyes are steady on mine, never once flicking down to my curves that are on full display in my dress. Impressive. Or insulting.
“No, I like being behind the camera,” I tell him. “Working the equipment is much better than being seen.”
A slight frown creases his brow. “Ah, but why shouldn’t you be seen?”
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a self-confidence thing. I’m just not much of an actress.”
“Fair enough,” he places an elbow on the table and cradles his chin in his hand. A lock of cherry brown hair falls across his forehead. “So your name is Alexandra. Are you Greek?”
I laugh. “No. Well, I don’t know. Maybe? I’ve never done the whole DNA test thing. But my mom’s family is mostly Irish, and my dad’s mostly Spanish.” I regard him for a moment. “I just realized my mom never told me your name.”
“Are you Greek?” I quip. Amusement flashes in his eyes, giving the gray a metallic sheen that does strange things to my heart.
“I am. And I prefer to be called Theo. Do you know much about name origins?”
I shrug. “I used to write a lot, which means I was always looking up names and their meanings. Some stuck.”
Theo picks up the decanter, its contents a dark purple. “Would you like a glass of merlot? It’s excellent, one of my favourites.”
“I’d love some, though I know next to nothing about wine,” I admit. Theo pours me a healthy glass.
“Well, expert or not, you’ll enjoy it. It’s the Pahlmeyer Merlot, bottled in 2013.”
I take a sip. The wine slides over my tongue, decadent and rich, and I can’t help but sigh in pleasure. “Yup, that’s amazing.”
A waiter materializes, his crisp uniform bright against the dim of the room. “Ready to order?”
Theo raises his brow at me.
“Oh, I haven’t even seen a menu!” I cry. I look for it on the table, but it’s nowhere to be seen.
“We don’t have menus,” the waiter says stiffly. “Only three different styles of courses.”
Theo leans back in his chair, the picture of ease. “Do you have any dietary restrictions?” He asks me. I shake my head. “Do you mind if I order for us?”
“Sure, go ahead,” I say, intrigued. Normally I’d hate to have no control, but the wine slips through my blood like water, heating my bones and making me feel blissfully languid. For once, I have no desire to be in full control.
“We’ll have the Sea and Turf, please,” Theo tells the waiter. The man nods once before slipping away.
Theo takes a sip of wine and closes his eyes in pleasure. “Tell me, Alexandra. Why don’t you date?”
Chilled shock cools the peace that has harboured in my body. I sit up and frown. “How do you know I don’t really date?”
“Your mother told me. She’s really quite worried, you know.”
I wave a hand in dismissal, nearly spilling half of my merlot. “I feel no urgency when it comes to love.”
A shadow flits across Theo’s face, deepening the dark edges around his brow. “The world is where it is today because of love.”
“That’s nice,” I say. “But I don’t see why it matters whether or not I find love.”
“You’re not lonely?” His voice deepens, takes on a depth that reminds me of the night sky, bottomless and dark. It’s as heady as the wine, and I can’t help but put a hand to my head.
“D-did you put something in my drink?”
Theo shakes his head. “I did not.”
I glare at him. “Then why do I feel so strange?” As I speak his face blurs, as if I’m looking at a photograph that had been taken mid-movement. Perplexed, I blink once, hard, then stare in shock.
For Theo is no longer sitting in front of me. Instead, there’s a curvy woman dressed in a sleek pantsuit, her face an eerie mirror of Theo’s. Her brows are much more delicate, but her lips are just as thin, her face just as sharp. And the hair that cascades down her back in loose waves is the same cherry brown as Theo’s.
“Do not panic, my dear Alexandra,” the woman says softly. Her eyes are Theo’s eyes, gray and sultry. Her voice holds the same honeyed edge, though with a feminine cadence. “I am still the person you first saw when you entered this room.”
Blackness creeps into the room. The fireplace still flickers, but its light doesn’t pierce the ink, only keeps it from swallowing the fire whole. I begin to tremble.
“You see, you’re a puzzle to me,” female-Theo says. “Normally, I can pinpoint the perfect image of a person’s dream, of the love they envision every night before they go to sleep, but you have no such image in you — only flavours of a mind. How open you are, how able to love.
“And yet, you refuse to search for it.” Disapproval is a blade in her words. When I shrink away, her face softens, her lips parting slightly. “I do not mean to frighten you, only make you aware that there are those who need love like yours. Crave it like a plant craves light.”
“If you don’t mean to scare me,” I manage to say, fear clogging my throat, “then why is the room so dark?”
“Oh, Alexandra. You’re not seeing. Look into the shadows, open your eyes fully, and you will see that the dark has no bite, only beauty.”
I lift my gaze from the wine glass in my hands. I look into the dark.
At first, I only see a fathomless black. My heart shudders in my chest, and I fully expect something to grab me and pull me into the maw, kicking and screaming,
But after a couple of seconds, things shift. Specks of light wink, unstable, then become steady. Hundreds if not thousands of glimmers burst into being through the blanket of black, like stars in the night sky. I gasp in wonder as their light washes our table in silver.
“You keep your eyes firmly shut against the unknown,” female-Theo chides me. “You need to open them, let yourself see the beauty the world has to offer. Allow yourself to feel the love that fuels the movements of the earth. Don’t block yourself from such experience, Alexandra.”
I cannot answer her. I’m frozen in place, hypnotized by the specks of starlight. But then a wave of darkness douses them out, one by one, and my fingers lose all feeling. I scramble to save the wine glass, my eyes ripped from the spectacle in front of me.
I manage to save the glass, some merlot spilling over the edge and into my lap. In the seconds it takes for me to catch the glass, the dim of the room brightens. Sound rushes back in, replacing the heavy silence I hadn’t even noticed.
When I look back up, the chair in front of me is empty. The second wine glass is as clean as if no wine had ever been poured in it.
“You must be Alexandra,” someone says. I turn to see a young man, his plump face red and his eyes downcast. “I’m Joshua. Your mom’s said some great things about you.”