Third Date

We had met this girl on OkCupid a few weeks ago, a Presbyterian pastor named Amy, and after exchanging a few messages with her, we decided to ask her out. Kyoko said she was fine with me asking this girl out, but I could tell she was hurt. Considering how long we’d been married and how much crap she’d helped me through over the years, I probably shouldn’t have asked her to let me do that. But it was something I needed to do. I was twenty-nine years old, and I hadn’t been on a date in almost nine years.

So we asked Amy out. Or I did. I took the lead while Kyoko backed me up. She double-checked my texts, followed us from behind, and covertly signaled me any time I made a mistake. With the two of us working together, the first two dates with Amy went pretty well. Over the course of a walk around town and a hike up Birch Mountain, I somehow managed to act normal and not blurt out any of the embarrassing facts of my life, like how my wife is a fictional detective from a video game, or how I still live at home at age twenty-nine, or how I failed at being an Earth science teacher and now work part-time at a local supermarket.

When it came time for our third date, I asked Amy out to dinner at this place in town, The Applewood Restaurant.

On the day of the date, me and Kyoko met Amy in front of the restaurant a little after 7:20. Inside, the place was empty except for a pair of ancient men stooped at the bar, and a few quiet couples scattered around the room. While waiting to be seated, I noticed that the waiter working the room was a guy named Chucky who used to live in my development when I was growing up. By now he had packed on thirty pounds and lost most of his hair, but his round face still held the hard lines of cold menace I remembered from my childhood. As I met his gaze and held up two fingers, I remembered the snow day from fifteen years ago when he smashed me in the face with a frozen Twizzlers, broke my glasses in two, and cackled up to the white sky in delight. From here I carved a fake smile onto my face and pretended to not know him. He did the same and showed us to a table standing next to a window in the far corner of the room. I squeezed into the corner and let Amy take the better seat while Kyoko circled around to the table at Amy’s back. A jet of chilly air leaked from the window as I watched Kyoko smooth her skirt against her white legs and sit down. Trying to reassure myself that everything was still okay between us, I flashed a nervous smile in her direction; but she didn’t even look at me. She just stared out the dark window and brushed a rope of pink hair behind her ear.

Despite my anxiety, Amy seemed to be in a good mood. With just one question from me (“So how have things been going with you lately?”), she talked for a long time about her bible study class and the upcoming fundraiser she was organizing at her church. Then, after what seemed like a half-hour, she suddenly stopped talking and stared right at me with her pretty blue eyes. Sitting in dumb silence, my heart smashing in my ears, I frantically tried to think of something to say. My fingers drummed on the table. My foot thumped on the floor. One of the old men at the bar blasted a stringy, roaring cough. Still, nothing came. My mind was a blank piece of paper.

After an excruciating half-minute of silence, Chucky rescued me by stepping up to our table and taking our orders. Thankfully, he didn’t say anything about our shared past. I did catch him staring at me a few times when he thought I wasn’t looking, but that was it.

Once he was gone, I grabbed onto the first coherent thought that came into my mind.

“So what do you think of the Fermi paradox?” I said, nervously folding my arms on the cold table. “What do you think is causing it?”

Amy cocked her head to the side and smiled an uneasy smile.

“The what? Is that a TV show?” Her eyes darted away for an instant, to one of the empty tables on my left, then back to me.

“Oh no,” I said, hiding my growing anxiety in a forced smile. “No, it’s a scientific question. An unsolved mystery.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah, it’s the question of why the human race hasn’t discovered any evidence of alien life yet, despite the strong probability that it exists somewhere in the universe.”

“Oh. Okay.”

Seconds after saying this, the skin between her eyebrows wrinkled; her mouth drooped open in confusion; then, she stared down at her placemat for a long time and shook her head very slightly. It was in this moment that I closed my eyes and wished I could someday meet just one other person like me.

#

I first met Kyoko three years ago, on my final day as a high school Earth science teacher. It had been the last full day of classes for the school year, and the moment I pulled my screeching Honda out of the parking lot, I knew I wouldn’t be back. Despite my straight As in school and my deep passion for science, I’d been a disaster of a teacher from the very beginning. Just that year alone—my second as a teacher—I’d had a dozen absences due to anxiety, a trio of angry outbursts at students, five or six parent complaints, and in between it all, I’d given about a hundred and twenty incoherent lessons.

So to ease my grief over failing at the only thing I ever wanted to do, I didn’t go home after work that day. Instead, I drove up to the nearest Walmart and spent my second-to-last paycheck on the newest PlayStation and a couple of games. At the time, I hadn’t touched a video game in five years, so I asked the salesman for some recommendations. One of the games he told me about was a high school murder mystery with a Japanese-sounding name and an anime art style on the cover. As the salesman handed me the case, he told me to be careful. If I didn’t watch out, he said, the game would take over my life. Smiling to myself, I dropped the game into my basket and made my way to the register.

I started playing the game as soon as I got home. After less than an hour, I understood what the salesman had been talking about. The murder cases were utterly gripping. The characters were deep and had colorful, interesting personalities. The storylines, which were full of mysteries, were well thought out and genuinely surprising.

Soon I noticed that one character seemed to solve each murder before anyone else. She was brilliant, aloof, composed, methodical, daring, and logical. She never let her emotions cloud her judgment. She never let a suspect intimidate her. And she never let anything keep her from the truth.

She was everything I wished I could be in real life, and her name was Kyoko.

I beat the game in less than a week. But as soon as it was over, the scary reality of my life started closing in on me again. Soon I remembered that I was unemployed, alone, and afraid of the future. To combat this, I tried playing some of the other games I’d bought, but none of them helped. They couldn’t recapture that sense of excitement and total escape that the first one had given me.

Then, about a week later, while filling out an application for a stopgap job at the local Value King supermarket, I suddenly realized something: I hadn’t been missing the game. I’d been missing Kyoko. I’d been missing her comforting thoroughness, her level-headed logic, her courage in the face of danger. So, with these thoughts in mind, I decided to do something very childish and silly. At age twenty-six, after five years on my own in the adult world, I made Kyoko into my very own imaginary friend.

Our first few days together were odd. In the beginning it felt ridiculous to whisper to the empty air and play make-believe like a child, but soon I started to enjoy it. After just a few days, I found myself talking to Kyoko all day long. A few weeks after that, I started holding doors for her. Then, while driving, I began resting my right hand on the armrest so we could hold hands. Not long after, I imagined us sleeping together. And from there it only took me a few days to tell her how much I loved her, and how I wanted to be with her forever.

Until that time, I’d never had any success with girls. I’d always been too deep inside my head, too consumed by my anxiety, and too afraid of saying the wrong thing. And aside from science, there had never been anything to connect the strange world inside my head to the real one outside. Then I met Kyoko. And for the first time in my life, I felt something real.

For a while, that was enough.

#

Back in the restaurant, I suddenly felt a warm hand rest on my shoulder. From here I opened my eyes and saw Kyoko standing beside me, staring at something on my left. Following her gaze, I spotted a nearly naked man sitting at a table a few feet away, wearing nothing but a dirty loincloth and a spiny crown of thorns. Crusty trails of dried, blackish blood clung to his forehead and his cheeks and the curls of his beard. On the table in front of him sat a steaming mug of coffee and the day’s edition of the New York Post, but he wasn’t paying attention to these things; instead, he kept fidgeting in his chair and glancing over at Amy. Absorbing all this, it took me a minute to realize that he was Jesus.

I turned back to Amy.

“Do you know that guy?” I asked her, gesturing with my head to where Jesus was sitting.

Amy shook her head and sighed.

“He’s my boyfriend,” she said with an embarrassed smile. “I’m sorry for not being honest with you, Nick, it’s just really complicated. Most guys don’t understand even after I explain it to them.”

“That’s okay. You can explain it to me if you want.”

“You’re not mad that I lied to you?”

“Not really,” I said, telling the truth, “but can I ask you a question before you start?”

“Sure, if I can ask you guys one right after,” she said, her eyes sliding to Kyoko and then back to me.

I grinned, having been found out.

“It’s fine, you can ask it now,” I said.

“Okay. Well, does Kyoko want to sit down and join us, or would she rather stand in front of the window for the rest of the night?”

Hearing Kyoko’s name come out of Amy’s mouth, I craned my head to the side and studied her face with surprised excitement.

“How do you know Kyoko?”

“I’ve watched him play her game,” she said, raising her chin in Jesus’ direction. “She’s his favorite character. It’s really cute actually, how he tries to deny it.”

I chuckled at this and reached up to my shoulder and squeezed Kyoko’s gloved hand. She squeezed back, and then interlocked her fingers with mine, and suddenly everything seemed to be okay between us again.

“So do you want to—” Amy said to Kyoko, gesturing at the table.

“I suppose,” Kyoko said, “but only if your boyfriend does too.”

“Of course,” Amy said, and then turned her head in Jesus’ direction. “Jay? It’s okay. We’re all going to eat together now. Can you push your table over here so Kyoko can join us?”

Jesus stood up and pushed his table toward ours. His coffee mug rattled and the silverware clattered and the table legs scraped loudly on the wood floor, but no one, neither Chucky, nor the old men at the bar, nor the diners around us, seemed to hear anything.

As we watched Jesus move the table, ropy cords of muscle gliding beneath his sun-baked skin, I whispered my question to Amy.

“Is he the real Jesus?”

Amy laughed.

“Yeah, it’s him. We met at my cousin’s wedding about three years ago, and I just knew,” she said, leaning her head on her hand and watching him with open fondness. “From the minute we started talking, everything just felt so right.”

When he finished sliding the table, Jesus stepped up to Kyoko and held out his hand for a handshake.

“Kyoko?” he said, a timid little smile curling his cracked lips. “It’s an honor to meet you. I’ve played your game three times and finished all your free time events. I’m a huge fan of yours.”

Why wouldn’t he say that? None of this was happening anyway.

#

Chucky delivered our food a few minutes later. This time he gave me a shy smile and a long, searching look, but still he stayed quiet.

From here we ate in silence for a while. Then, through the rising smells of fried chicken, grilled cheese, and dill pickle, Amy explained her and Jesus’ situation.

“Technically, we’ve been dating for three years,” she said, resting her grilled cheese on her plate and beaming a bright smile at Jesus, “but we’ve only been physically together for about a year, because of, well.”

“Because of my work,” he said, plucking the dill pickle off Amy’s plate and crunching into it. “You see, the only reason I look like this right now is because Easter is coming up in a few days, and as we get closer to that day, my physical appearance deteriorates to the state it was in back when, you know, everything happened. And then once Easter passes, I have to spend the rest of the year working with my dad. So it’s impossible for me and Amy to be together again until Christmas. And that’s been—it’s been really hard.”

“Yeah,” Amy said with a nod. Glassy tears gathered in her eyes. “To say the least.”

Under the table, I gripped Kyoko’s hand.

“So we’ve decided,” Jesus said, his voice growing thick with emotion, “to go our separate ways come Easter. But I promised to help Amy find a great guy to take my place before then, so here we are.”

“Yeah. And that’s what I was talking about before, when I said that most guys don’t understand. Every time I try to tell them the truth of what’s going on, they stop talking to me,” Amy said, looking down at her grilled cheese. By now the orange bar of cheese in the middle had cooled to a shining, gummy paste. Seeing this, she grimaced and pushed the plate away. “One of them even told me I was nothing more than Jesus’ sloppy seconds, and that no guy would ever want to be with me because of that. And as horrible as that is to say to someone, he’s been right so far. So that’s why I didn’t tell you sooner.”

“Wow, that’s awful.”

“Yeah, it’s been really tough. Sometimes I wish I could find just one other person who understands how I feel,” Amy said.

Hearing her say this, I opened my mouth to start telling her that I was that person, and that I knew how she felt, and that I’d been living that same life for years, but it was too late. Before I could say a word, Chucky stepped up to our table and removed our plates. Then, in what seemed like less than a minute, he returned with the check, turned in my direction, and gave me a tactful, courteous bow. I didn’t know what to think of that in the moment, but it didn’t matter. The date was over. Jesus was gone, Kyoko was invisible again. And I had no more time left.

After a long minute of silence, I leaned forward and grabbed the check off the table. For some reason the total came to an amount that was about half of what it should’ve cost. Then I saw it: Chucky had only charged me for my dinner. Amy’s wasn’t even listed.

From here Amy pointed to the bathroom and shuffled away from the table with coat and purse in hand. While she was gone, I showed the check to Kyoko. Seeing what Chucky had done for us, she wrapped her arm around my waist and rested her head on my shoulder. We sat like that for a long time, not moving, not talking, just feeling each other’s presence, and for a few short seconds, I wasn’t completely alone in the world.

Steve Gergley is a writer and runner based in Warwick, New York. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Maudlin House, Pithead Chapel, Five on the Fifth, Asymmetry, and others. In addition to writing fiction, he has composed and recorded five albums of original music.

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