"What do you think you're doing?" the tough Boston accent coming almost straight at her like a loud missile made her jump. She didn't have time to react before the owner of that voice plonked herself down at the fountainside.
"What?" Willow frowned at the interruption.
"You're reading that?" Faith asked pointedly, nodding at the copy of 'Dining Out in Style' that Willow was studying intently.
"What's it to you?" Willow retorted.
Faith shrugged. "Way out of your league, Red. Stop fantasizing," she said.
"I don't know what you're talking about," Willow said sullenly.
Faith leaned closer and pushed the magazine out of the way so she could stare Willow in the eye. "You have some chick on your mind. Otherwise why are you reading a magazine that's full of date places," she said sagely.
Willow sighed and put the magazine away. She picked up the tuna sandwich by her side and resumed eating. Faith was loudly munching on a large bag of chips.
"Faith, hypothetically, if you were to go out to a restaurant, where would you want to go?" Willow asked between bites of her lunch.
"It depends. Who with?"
"May be ... let's say ... me."
Faith almost choked on her chips. "You kidding me? No fucking way."
"Just hypothetically," Willow continued.
"I won't seen dead sitting at the same table as you in a restaurant," Faith snorted. "You stink of geek."
"Yeah, geek stink. Hang around you any longer and I'll be contaminated. Still trying to get it on with that girl? Forget about her."
"I just don't want to have to deal with you when you get rejected. Oh right, I don't care. See ya, loser."
With that, Faith took the soda that Willow had by her side, swigged it noisily and strutted off.
It was Friday afternoon, though Willow's workload never eased off. She was tired and irritated, and Faith's mocking words reverberated uncomfortably in her head.
When she got home, she knew she needed help.
Willow took a deep breath and timidly pushed open the glass door. Before her hand connected with the glass, it slid open with an almost silent whoosh. She stepped inside and immediately felt like she was being scrutinized.
"What can we do for you?" a heavily made up, but beautifully coiffed man greeted her, the corners of his mouth barely containing the mocking sneer.
Willow almost turned around and walked out, but at the last moment the words from her online group rang in her head.
Beauty salon, not cheap $10 / 10 min cubicle places.
"Um, I need to cut my hair," she said, keeping her head down.
"Junior stylist, Associate or Senior?" the flamboyant man asked.
Willow was tempted to make an excuse and leave. Again the group's advice came through.
Don't let them intimidate you. If you're not sure, ask.
"I need to change my style, it needs to suit my hair and face but not too showy. Who would you recommend?" she asked, suddenly finding assertiveness out of nowhere.
The man's demeanor perked up for the first time. "Now let me take a look at your hair," he said, stepping round the counter to Willow's side. "May I?" he asked before feeling the texture of her hair. "Your hair is very fine, but not in very good condition. You want something simple? I'm gonna give you Owen. He's very sensitive ... reads Emily Dickinson and all."
He brought Willow over to an blonde man, who struck Willow as not exactly the type of hairdresser she would expect to be in this type of place. He seemed too much like the boy next door. He settled Willow on the comfortable leather stylist's chair, mussed her already messy tresses even more, and regarded her expectantly. "So, what sort of style are you looking for?"
Willow was thrown into a panic again until she remembered the group debate about different styles.
Keep it long and straight.
"Can I leave it to you?" she finally said.
"I think I know what you want. Make a good impression with a date?"
"Um, something like that."
"That's what I thought. Alright, let me make you irresistible."
And so for the next two hours Willow's hair was washed, teased, pulled, snipped and sprayed. It was exhausting and took far longer than she was used to. When Owen finally finished his handiwork and she looked at her new self for the first time, she was amazed. The person staring back at her from the other side of the mirror had hair that actually shone, and gentle waves framed her face. She thought it was someone else until she noticed the astounded expression and the open mouth; she snapped her mouth shut quickly and assumed what she hoped was a pleased expression.
"You don't like it?" Owen asked worriedly.
"Oh no! It's just different. But in a good way! I've never seen myself like this, I'm still processing," she re-assured.
"Irresistible?" he smiled.
"I don't know about that. I hope anyway," she smiled weakly.
"Well, he'd better be impressed. It's my best work this week," he said proudly.
"Um, it's not a ... nevermind ... I'm sure it'll make a splash," she agreed.
She felt taller when she left the hairdresser's, though she thought wryly that it may be because her wallet was lighter.
The clothing shop was much harder. She paced back and forth in front of the glass display window for a full ten minutes before mustering up the courage to enter. She just knew that as soon as she stepped in, everyone in the shop would stop what they were doing and scrutinize her. She had read about the 'elevator eyes' of sales assistants, who were able to determine mentally the amount of money a customer would spend as soon as they set foot inside the store.
She inched her way along the multitude of clothes rack at the side of the store, trying to browse inconspicuously. She ran her hands along the sleeve of a jacket, peered at the price label of a shirt (and quickly dropped it after looking at the figures and realizing there were no decimal points) and even took a sweater off the rack.
"How may I help you today?" She stared in horror at the sales assistant not two feet away from her, with a bright smile that was almost blinding. She turned away and ran toward the entrance.
Her group's advice sounded again.
Don't panic when the sales person talks to you. Do NOT run away. Think of Tara.
"Think of Tara," she said to herself. And came to a grounding halt. She turned around and grinned sheepishly at the sales assistant, who managed to maintain a neutral expression on her face.
"Um just browsing, thank you," she said.
"Ok. If you need anything, I'm here to help," the assistant said before turning her attention to another shopper.
She tried on all sorts of outfits, all sorts of styles -- ones that she would previously never have thought of trying on. Punk, goth, flowery, retro, tight-fit, pink, preppy, paisley, even blouses and suits. In the end she went with the recommendation of the sales assistant and bought a red silk shirt and black pants that were almost dressy. It was a look that she wouldn't normally sport, but it wasn't such a radical change. What convinced her was that she didn't feel self-conscious when she looked at herself in the mirror. She was almost ... normal looking.
The assistant even helped Willow select a pair of boots that was a compromise between her usual sneakers and heels, which she was adamant she didn't want. A short discussion about accessories after the shoe purchase resulted in her buying a large chunky watch. She drew her limit on jewelry though.
Armed with her purchases her next destination was the restaurant she had narrowed down together with the group. They had perused almost every entry on the restaurant review website, and had come up with a short-list. In the end Willow decided on Italian food. Some of the others had advocated Asian fusion, others were in favor of Mexican, but everyone finally agreed that Italian was the safest and most versatile.
She had called Buffy and asked if her friend wanted to go out to a restaurant instead of meeting at Buffy's house. She was relieved that she was first to arrive, so she had a moment to compose herself.
"Hey Willow," Buffy arrived about ten minutes later. She already had the attention of the waiter and the rest of the restaurant, Buffy worked hard to maintain a glamorous image and she had always had 'presence.'
Willow smiled at her friend. "You found this place! I wasn't sure ... it's a little out of the way but I read that they have good food and excellent atmosphere," she said.
"I had a little trouble, but that's cuz I was trying to take a short cut, your directions were clear," Buffy said. Looking around, she added, "You're right about the atmosphere. They did really well with the décor; it's very understated. A perfect place to take a date actually."
Willow followed Buffy's gaze around the restaurant and for the first time, noticed that it was almost exclusively made up of tables of two. Some of the couples were definitely in dating mode.
"I, um, read about it on an online review and wanted to try it out. We can go somewhere else if you want," she suggested.
"Piffle! Let's stay here. Enjoy our food and watch the coupling. It'll be fun," Buffy laughed. "And we can catch up. Like you tell me the reason why you have this goofy grin on your face, why your hair has more mousse than mine, but most importantly, what you have in those large shopping bags behind you?"
The evening went well. Willow didn't tell Buffy everything about Tara, not wanting to jinx the dinner the next day, but giving Buffy enough details to satisfy her friend's curiosity. Meanwhile she tried to order a variety of items from the menu, and tried Buffy's dishes too. She made mental notes about food choices (arrabiata = spicy, bread comes with olive oil and balsamic vinegar), amenities (location of the washrooms, whether the air-conditioning was too high) and general observations.
One thing Willow Rosenberg was good at, it was research and organizing data.
"Tara, it's Willow."
"Um, I'm calling to confirm our dinner tomorrow."
"I've been looking forward to it."
Not as much as I have.
"How does Italian sound to you?"
"Sounds really good, I love Italian, I have yet to meet anyone who doesn't like Italian."
"That's true. It must be all the mac'n'cheese they fed us when we were young."
"I'm surprised that hasn't turned us against Italian food."
She felt really good. Comfortable. She didn't want the conversation to end even though it had barely started.
"Right! I've made reservations. It's called the Old Amalfi, corner of Clark and East 125th, do you know it?"
"I've never been there but I'm sure I can find it. Thanks for making the reservations."
"Not a problem. So, I'll see you tomorrow? Seven?"
"Yes. See you tomorrow, Willow."