The face of romance part two

“Yes? But I mean diet coke isn’t that bad. I’m a Pepsi girl myself but I don’t look down on diet coke. My parents are actually big diet coke fans.” It’s adorable that she doesn’t know what’s coming next.

“Oh yeah? Big fans huh? Well do they typically take their diet coke with Mentos?” I produce an opened pack of Mentos and set them on the table.

“I see, we’re doing the diet coke and Mentos thing next. That’s cool.” I put a hand to my chest as if I’ve been struck.

“I’m hurt, after that fantastic display of nutritious mayhem you think I’d do something as normal as the diet coke and Mentos experiment?” I pick up the six pack and show her the bottoms of the bottles. “See how I’ve taped them up so you can’t see the bottoms? That’s because one of these suckers has a Mentos in the bottom.” I set the pack down in front of her. “And you’ve got to figure out which one.”

“What? No they don’t. You can’t drop a Mentos in there without it exploding. There’s no way you could’ve stowed one in here.” I’m happy that she’s still in the immersive bubble I’ve provided her, and happy that she’s taking a genuine interest in what I’m doing for her.

“Ordinarily, maybe you’re right, but I’ve got a trick.” I produce a pack of those mint flavored breath freshening strips that dissolve on your tongue. “I wrapped the Mentos in these little mint flavored strips and then dropped it in. That way it didn’t make contact with the diet coke right away, but the strip is dissolved now.”

“So why hasn’t it already exploded?” She explains, picking up the bottles and examining them one at a time. “I’ve seen the videos, there’s no way these bottles could contain that massive amount of expanding foam that the Mentos would cause.”

“The reaction needs air to proceed.” I told her. “So right now it’ll just sit quietly, but as soon as you pop the cork on one of those bad boys, it’s all over.”

She puts the bottle she’s holding down and thinks about it for a second. “Wait a minute, the Mentos displaced a little soda when you dropped it in. I can just pull an Archimedes and put them next to each other to measure the water level.” I’m grateful for the fact that she didn’t. It wouldn’t have worked, but her unwillingness to spoil my trick tells me she wants to play, even if she could cheat and figure out the answer.

“I thought of that. If you were to line them all up you’d find that no two have the same amount of diet coke in them. The difference is miniscule, but I took the liberty of shuffling the water levels by opening them all up, and dumping little teaspoons of diet coke from another bottle into the five that didn’t have the Mentos.”

Jennifer looks at the rubber bands still on the table, the watermelon that’s been cut in half, and the little bits and pieces of the fruit that had been destroyed in the prime of its life. Then she looks at the diet coke, and the opened pack of Mentos on the table.

“Jason, you have way too much time on your hands.” She declares.

“I know, so waste a little with me.” I tap the bottles of diet coke. “Make your first choice.”

She mulls it over, tipping the bottles up to look at the bottoms again, placing a few side by side to gauge the water level. She even shakes a few to see if she can hear the Mentos rattling around. It’s all for nothing. I made sure there was no way she was going to figure this out. She bites her lip, but then a lightbulb goes off behind her eyes.

“Aha!” She declares. “I’ve got it.” She slams down the bottle she’s been examining and rounds on me. “You know which one has the Mentos don’t you?” I nod.

“Yup, you caught me. Which is why you’re going to pick which bottles I open as well.”

“But that’s the trick. All I have to do is read your expression really carefully and you’re going to let me know which of these little bottles you’ve rigged to blow.” She claps her hands excitedly. I love seeing her like this. So care free, so joyful, being with her is like watching a kid get excited for the first snow of the year. Only better because I knew that I was the one doing this for her. I was making it snow.

“You can certainly try princess, but I have to keep a poker face for a living. Do your worst.” I know talking about work is a mistake as soon as the words are out of my mouth.

“Oh yeah, that reminds me. What do you do for a living?”

I knew this. I knew this. I had practiced this. Me and Ryan had a cover story for just these sorts of situations. I just couldn’t remember for the life of me what it was.

“I help people.” I say as casually as I can. It’s a lame response and I know it, so I do what worked last time. I misdirect. “And you’re stalling, pick a bottle princess.” She raises an eyebrow as she extends a hand out over the bottles.

She passes her hand back and forth over the soda containers, intensely  studying my reaction as she does so. She’s getting playful with it, pretending to go for one bottle, but then changing her mind and reaching for another. Like everything else she’s done, it’s adorable. It doesn’t’ do her any good though, my poker face is phenomenal.

“You’re good.” She says at last, randomly pulling over a bottle to herself.

“Point it at your face.” I tell her.

“What? That wasn’t part of the rules.” She objects.

“Clearly you’ve never played Russian roulette before. You have to point the dangerous object at yourself. If people playing real Russian roulette just fired off rounds into the air it wouldn’t have a reputation as a phenomenally unintelligent thing to do, but it does, so you will.” She puts her hand on the cap but doesn’t twist it off.

“Come on, as soon as you undo this one you’ll get to pick one out for me.” That motivates her, she quickly rips off the cap, wincing as she does so, and to her relief, nothing happens.

“Hey, you’re a lucky girl. Now pick one out for me.”

“Hold on a second.” She says, putting the now open bottle back on the table. “Now you’re the one who is stalling. I asked you what you do for a leaving and I’d be curious to know what kind of profession involves both having a great poker face, and also helping people.” She’s leaning into the conversation and her eyes are doing this playful dance on her forehead. It’s like she thinks they’ll hypnotize me into giving her an answer, and in a way they do.

“I work in a medical office.” I say. I think it’s true. Ryan tells me there’s a lot of medical equipment in the building so I think it’s a medical facility.

“A medical office.” She replies, not convinced. “What kind of medicine are you doing that requires you to keep a poker face?”

I try to think of a kind of medicine with a funny name or that works with embarrassing parts of the body, but my mind isn’t quick enough. “Well you know people come in with some pretty heavy issues. If somebody’s got something big they have to get off their chest then you can’t exactly break down in front of them.” I can see the crack that suddenly appears in her otherwise perfect mood. I know she’s just been reminded of what happened earlier today and I’m kicking myself.

Part of me wants to finish what I’ve started and just tell her. She’s had a few laughs. She knows that I’m a nice guy, and this would be the perfect Segway into that conversation. Maybe we could even have a session while we were out here.

The crack in her mood widens and the silence is starting to drag on noticeably. I can’t do it. I can’t bring her down again. Not so soon after bringing her up.

“But hey, you haven’t told me what you do for a living yet.” I point out. “Why don’t you pass me a bottle and tell me about it.”

No longer caring about trying to figure me out, she just gestures to the nearest bottle. I pick it up and get ready to open it, but I pause, waiting for her to start her story.

“Now you tell me what you do and I’ll see if I can add a punctuation mark to your story.” If I had been thinking I would’ve realized I already knew what she did. If I had been thinking I would realize that she and her roommate both wanted to go into the same field, and they probably worked together. If I had been thinking I wouldn’t have had to watch her struggle with trying to put on a brave face in front of me.

She was a trooper for sure. If I didn’t work with people who struggled with grief for a living I might not have seen it. The slight droop in the lips, the decrease in eye contact, but I did work with grievers for a living, and I knew before she spoke a word that she was thinking of Sarah.

“Well uh, I played a lot of volleyball in college.” I had to think fast. I had to snap her out of this. She was about to dig herself a deep emotional hole and I had to stop her. I want to pop the cap off the bottle and spray Mentos and coke foam everywhere, but this is the wrong bottle.

“And I just liked really being outside and doing athletic stuff.” She glances to the side, an indicator that she doesn’t want to have this conversation, and I seize the opportunity to grab a Mentos from the open sleeve and hide it in my palm.

“So I figured, hey, I could do this for a living.” I rip the top off and quickly dump the Mentos inside and raise the now erupting bottle to my face.

“Om, nom, nom, nom.” I say as the sticky sweet mixture sprays a surprisingly strong stream right at my mouth and eyes. I have to close my eyes as the foaming liquid works its way up my nose, into my mouth, and even some in my ear canal.

It’s over quickly, and as I sputter out the dietary soda and mint candy I hear that Jennifer is laughing again.

“Hah! That’s what you get for making the watermelon explode in my hands.” I’m mentally sighing with relief that happy Jennifer is back, but outwardly I have to pretend I’m annoyed.

“I totally did not make it explode in your hands. It was total chance, and besides. This is way worse. I mean look at me.” My front is so soaked a passerby might have thought I got sprayed by a hose. “I think it might’ve even got in my phone.” With genuine concern for my mobile device I pull out my phone to make sure it’s still okay.

When I hit the unlock button it mercifully comes to life, but I don’t even have time to be relieved. Because I see that I have one text from Ryan. ‘Tell me you’re not dating a client’.

I manage to keep my face from shifting, but not by a very large margin. Jennifer is laughing hard enough that she doesn’t notice I’ve suddenly gone stuff.

“Is it damaged?” She says, drumming her feet on the ground in mirth.

“My ego? Completely destroyed, but the phone is fine.” I slip it back into my pocket and start doing mental damage control.

‘She doesn’t know anything. I’m fine. Ryan doesn’t necessarily know anything. I mean, unless he had me followed me or something. I just need to call him back and explain everything is okay.

“What’s up next skipper?” She asks, starting to settle down. “Are we going to use dry ice to shatter bananas?” It’s a really good idea, but I need to wrap this date up, and wrap it up now.

“Something work related just came up actually, so as lame as it is we’re going to have to pick this up.” I gesture to the mess of soda, watermelon bits, and rubber bands soaked in fruit juice. Jennifer sticks out her lower lips and mock pouts.

“Aww, but I was having fun.” She says. I shrug, trying to make myself seem relaxed, and not like I might be getting fired from my job as soon as this date is over.

“Sorry, duty calls. I can pick it up myself though. It’s fine. You should go home and think about how you’re going to convince me to go on another date.” I start putting caps on bottles as she stands up.

“Oh I’m supposed to convince you? I thought the gentlemen always pursued the lady.” She’s got her fists on her hips and is rocking side to side like a target blowing in the breeze.

“Most gentlemen don’t have their own personal collection of weapons of mass destruction. This sort of special treatment doesn’t grow on trees you know. You got to work for it. So go on home, and think about how you’ll talk me into it.” She slithers back down for a minute and looks at me as I try and focus on cleaning up.

“Well, I’ll need your phone number first.” I quickly spit it out. Then she folds her hands and loses the spunky push pull dynamic. “Then I’ll just let you know that this is genuinely the most fun I have had in quite some time. I don’t want to put anything on you on the first date, but I really needed this right now, and I want to at some point let you know how much this meant to me.” That catches me off guard, and when she leans in and kisses me on the cheek it catches me even more off guard.

You would think that since I had already felt her lips on my forehead twice the cheek wouldn’t make that much difference. I mean. It’s only a few inches away, and it’s still not really a full romantic kiss. Why would it matter? But it does. I’m not sure why. Maybe the skin is more sensitive there, or maybe not. It’s probably the vulnerability that it entailed. She was trusting me with her emotions. She was letting me know that she believed I would buoy her up, and keep buoying her up.

“I’ll call you later yeah?” She says.

“For sure.” I say. I pause my clean up to watch her walk off. She turns to wave goodbye just as she passes out of sight, and I return her wave.

Her meekness right at the end had calmed my nerves about Ryan and his text, once she’s out of sight I hurriedly shove every bit of trash into a large bag I have with me, throw it in a nearby garbage receptacle, and call Ryan. Right before I hit dial I see that his text is ninety minutes old.

“Where are you right now?” Ryan asks.

“Out for a walk.” I say. It’s true enough. I’m walking back to my car as I tell him this. ‘He doesn’t know anything for sure’. I tell myself. ‘Play it cool and you can get out of this’.

“Sure you are, her name was Jennifer right?” I put a hand to my forehead. The thought occurs to me to try and keep up with my paper thin charade, but if I’m going to be seeing her again anyway then it’s sort of pointless. If things went well enough with Jennifer they’d find out eventually. I might as well come clean. Who knows, maybe if I just cut straight to the point Ryan would go easier on me.

“Yeah Ryan, it was Jennifer. The last girl I saw for the day.” I hear a disappointed sigh come through the phone. It’s like that sigh your parents would give you when you handed them a report card with a low grade point average. It was the, ‘you can do better than this’, sigh.

“Look Jason, how long have we been working together?” He asks. I can tell he’s really going to give a speech. If it was going to be a short reprimand he would’ve already laid it out.

“Seven years Ryan, two in high school, four in college, one year post college.” I inform him.

“How the time does fly. I could’ve sworn it wasn’t a day over four, but look Jason. I know you didn’t sign any kind of agreement about this sort of thing. There’s no rule that says you can’t date somebody whose come to see you, but man, it’s real unprofessional. This sort of thing happens very often at all, and you could be out of a job.”

“I know. I know.” I say, hand still to forehead. I find a bench to sit down. This is not the kind of conversation you have while you’re out and walking. “But I didn’t know she was going to come and see me. A friend set us up before she ever came into my office. It felt weird, but things happened so fast and I just wanted to make her happy.” Ryan sighs again.

“Alright Jason, I trust you, but this is not going to make things easy. Why don’t you come in a little early tomorrow and we’ll smooth things out okay?” I feel the conversation move toward a conclusion, and it doesn’t sound like I’m getting fired.

“Sounds good Ryan, sure thing, first thing tomorrow morning, bright and early.” I think I let a little too much happiness into my voice because Ryan sighs, for the third time during this conversation. “You sound too chipper. Did you kiss her?” He asks bluntly.

“No, no, nothing like that.” It’s probably the most adamantly I’ve ever denied kissing a girl. “Totally G rated Disney type stuff.”

“Are you going to see her again?” Ryan asks.

“Uh yeah, I think so.” I tell him.

“When she said goodbye it wasn’t like a polite formal thing. She didn’t use the word friend at any point.” Despite the seriousness of our conversation I’m a little offended that Ryan is doubting my dating skills so much.

“No I’m pretty sure she was into me. I’m expecting a call from her before too much longer.” I hear the fourth sigh of the conversation. He really should work on a more original way to express his disappointment. After the third sigh it really started to lose its expressive power.

“Okay, okay, we can still make this work.” Ryan says. “Just uh, just come in early tomorrow okay?”

“Will do.” I say.

“Alright Jason, I’ll see you tomorrow.” Ryan says.

“Goodnight Ryan.” I move my thumb to end the call when I hear some frantic protest on the other hand.

“Wait! Shoot, shoot shoot, did you tell her what you do? Does she know you’re a shifter?” Ryan asked.

“No, no, we talked a little bit about jobs, but I kind of figured that would be a sensitive topic so I just said I worked in a medical office.” Now I was genuinely offended. I understood that this could be a big deal, but it wasn’t like I was a doctor, and I almost never had repeat patients. In fact, therapists typically came down pretty hard on anyone who went to see a shifter more than once. It could be therapeutic to say goodbye when you missed the chance, but anything else and you were just fooling yourself into thinking that the shifter was actually your friend.

The more I think about it the more Ryan’s reaction seems out of place. He really should have given me enough credit to know I wouldn’t talk about being a shifter, and we didn’t have a doctor patient relationship. It was more like getting an MRI and getting the technician’s number. It probably wasn’t something I should make a habit out of, but it definitely wasn’t as career ending as Ryan was making it out to be.

“Okay, okay, that’s good. I think we’re good. Well, anyway, I’ll see you tomorrow Jason.”

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