"Table for two please, name of Rosenberg," Willow walked up confidently to the host at the restaurant. "Yes siree, table for two, two people. Not one ... two."
"Ah yes Ms Rosenberg, welcome back. I have your reservation for two," the host smiled as he checked the reservations book. "At seven. Our restaurant opens at five thirty, would you like to wait here? Or, you might wish to come back a little later?"
"Oh," Willow glanced at her watch and realized she was early, way early. This was embarrassing.
"The bar staff isn't here yet but I could have a drink brought to you from the kitchen. Non-alcoholic unfortunately," the host offered.
"Oh." Willow was having difficulty saying anything that was more than one syllable. But she let herself led to a the bar where she retreated to a spot in the farthest corner, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible.
Over the course of the next hour she watched as the restaurant staff arrived and got the restaurant ready for the night. She had a new appreciation at the work done by the staff as they swept and wiped and set the tables. She made a mental note to remember to tip them better.
Eventually the manager turned the sign on the glass door to 'Open' and Willow was shown to her table. She was still ridiculously early and felt self-conscious sitting on her own in the empty restaurant.
She was relieved when other customers started to trickle in. Couples on a date mainly but there were groups at the larger tables. She didn't realize how time had passed, gradually her awareness of her surroundings faded as her mind drifted and blanked out. She was surprised when the waiter appeared, as if out of thin air, and pulled out the other chair at her table.
"I'm sorry I'm late," Tara said with a smile as she sat down. She nodded to the waiter in thanks.
"Oh no!" Willow protested. "You're not late at all, I was a little early." Yeah right, a little.
"This restaurant has a nice atmosphere, doesn't it?" Tara commented.
"I like it too," Willow agreed.
The waiter returned with the menu for Tara.
"What do you recommend?" Tara asked him.
"Today our special is --"
Before he could continue, Willow had already interrupted. "I recommend the arugula salad with artichoke & olives followed by the ravioli with zucchini and salmon in fresh tomato sauce," she gushed. Then blushed. "Um, I mean, if you like."
"Sounds good, I'll go with that," Tara said.
"For you, miss?" the waiter asked Willow.
"The same please," she said.
The waiter took their order and retreated.
They glanced at each other, then smiled nervously. They had what seemed to be a long few minutes of silence, but in fact it was only a few seconds.
"So --" "-- come here often?" they said at the same time.
"I'm sorry, go ahead," Tara chuckled softly.
"No, you first, sorry," Willow said.
"We must stop this," Tara said.
"Stop?" Willow raised her eyebrow in question.
"Apologizing to each other. It's like we're competing on who says the most sorrys, it's like collecting M&Ms."
"If 'I'm sorry's' are M&Ms, I'd be Willy Wonka," Willow beamed.
"Oh, can you reserve a gold ticket for me?"
"Since you gave me such nice tea cups, you can have as many as you like."
The ice broken, they grinned at each other. Willow had never felt so confident and easy-going with another person.
Conversation flowed smoothly over dinner. Asked afterwards, neither could remember exactly every detail, only that they talked about a lot of different subjects. The clearest topic was what happened on the train. Tara kept thanking Willow, and Willow kept insisting it wasn't necessary.
Soon they were relaxing with coffee.
"So Willow, do you come to restaurants like this often?" Tara asked.
"Well, I only became interested recently," Willow said, remember how she was reading the style dining magazine only two days ago.
"Really?" Tara said. "My friend and I like trying out all sorts of restaurants, I should take her to this one, it's a good recommendation, thanks."
"Wow. Which is your favorite restaurant?" Willow asked.
"So many to choose from. Honestly, I don't like the big showy, celebrity chef restaurants. I prefer more home styled, the food is more ... sincere," Tara explained. "How about you? What's your favorite?"
"Um, I don't really go out to restaurants a lot," Willow tried to clarify. Except fast food joints with Xander and Andrew. "I only read about them."
"My friend Anya doesn't have a lot of time anymore. She met someone and spends most of her spare time with him now. Not that I'm complaining, I'm happy for her," Tara said. "I just feel bad asking her to go out for a girls' dinner now."
"I had a really good time tonight," Tara ducked her head and smiled.
"Me too," Willow echoed.
They shared a moment of comfortable silence as they reflected on the night. There was no pressing need to invent small talk.
"What do you do in your spare time?" Tara asked after the waiter came by to refill their coffees.
Uh-oh. Willow started panicking. "Weekends?" she squeaked.
Browsing at her favorite comic store with Xander and Andrew, looking at Mina comics and fighting over Mina action figures.
No. She couldn't tell Tara that.
Hanging out with her eight year old friends with their vast combined collections of PSP games, playing against each other via wifi.
Spending hours and hours chatting with her online friends at the #geeklove channel.
"Oh, I do a little bit of surfing," she said finally.
"Ah, that's amazing! I heard it's really hard," Tara was impressed.
"Eh?" Willow said in surprise. "Not really, it's easy if you know how."
"Have you been doing it long?" Tara followed.
"Um, a few years, since my parents bought me a, you know."
"Then you must be very good at it."
"Is there some trick to doing it better? Isn't it all about your stance?"
"Stance isn't that important, you can even do it on your stomach, in a lotus position or even on your back."
"On your back?"
"Yep, technology is very advanced nowadays."
"Is that even possible? I go to the beach a lot and I've never seen anyone riding on their back."
Willow's eyes grew wide as she realized they may not be talking about the same thing. "Riding?"
Tara smiled in admiration. "I really admire surfers, they are so free and there's a certain aura about them."
"Oh. Surfing. Right," Willow mumbled.
"Perhaps we could go to the beach one day? I could watch?" Tara asked hopefully.
"Um, I'm doing less now, I-i-i ... oh yes! I hurt my knee slightly, so I'm taking it easy." Willow hoped this white lie was sufficient.
"I'm sorry to hear that, how did you hurt your knee? Are you better now?" Tara had this cute little frown between her eyes when she was concerned. But Willow was too anxious to appreciate it.
"Oh, much better now. In fact, I'm good as new. Uh well, almost good as new. I can walk and run, but anything too strenuous ..." she waved her arms in the hope that it was a passable imitation of a 'you know what I mean' gesture.
"I hope you get better soon," Tara said. She checked her watch discreetly. "Well, I had a great time tonight, but do you mind if we get the check? I need to get up early tomorrow morning."
"Of course not! I'm sorry for keeping you up so late," Willow apologized.
"We really need to stop apologizing. Next time you apologize unnecessarily I'll have to think of some punishment for you," Tara teased.
"I'm so scared now," Willow laughed.
They split the check, as agreed. The walk to the station was pleasant, though punctuated with silence as each contemplated what to say next.
They were going in the same direction so they found themselves on the same train. The sense of awkwardness grew, there seemed to be a lot to say, but neither was able to articulate it.
"Well, my stop next," Tara said softly, if a little reluctantly. "Thanks again for the great evening. Good night, Willow."
"Good night, Tara."
The train pulled into the station and Tara stood up. Willow so wanted to reach out, grab her hand and tell her not to leave, but she couldn't find a good enough reason. She stood up too and walked Tara to the door. Tara turned around on the platform and the air between them grew heavy with an anxious expectation. Willow opened her mouth a few times but simply couldn't find the words. Tara was similarly quiet as she stood almost motionless on the platform.
The sound of the doors hissing was almost painful to hear.
"Um," Willow tried to find some words but a giant clammy hand was firmly clasped over her mouth.
The doors started to close.
"I'll call you!" she managed to blurt out just as the doors slammed shut completely. She wasn't sure if Tara heard her, but the image of the blonde smiling at her as the train pulled away burned into her mind.
"So how was the date?"
"It wasn't a date, Anya, just dinner."
"Dinner for two at a secluded restaurant, I'd say it was a date."
"I give up. Why can't two people have a nice dinner without people blowing things out of proportion?"
"So it was nice!"
"I didn't say it wasn't."
Anya noticed the slight flush on Tara's face and she smiled knowingly to herself. She decided it was time to draw a little more information about this mysterious Willow person who had Tara so uncharacteristically flustered and distracted.
"So, what does she look like?"
"I think she's a little younger than me; red hair, green eyes, open smile and very ... genuine. Yes, there's nothing fake or insincere about her."
"So, personality over beauty?"
"No! It's not like that. She's cute."
"And you still say it wasn't a date? You're almost giddy!" Anya teased.
"I am not!" Tara protested, though not too convincingly.
"Tell me you're not seeing her again and I'll believe you're not smitten."
"Well, we didn't make any plans. I'm not sure if we'll see each other again."
"You have her phone number and she has yours, right? She'll call."
"I think that's what she said, but I'm not sure, it was noisy and the train doors were closing."
"Any reason why you can't call? I mean, I made the first move, it doesn't matter nowadays."
"Oh yes, how is it going with the new boyfriend? When do I get to meet him in person?"
"He's back from his trip on Wednesday, we can meet for drinks. Unless you have a date?"
"Wednesday is fine, we didn't make any plans."
"Listen to yourself, Tara. It's serious when you start talking about 'we,' your subconscious has already started thinking about househunting."
"You're being ridiculous, Anya. Anyway I want to meet this guy who has you obsessing about real estate."
"Just don't cancel on me the last minute because you made plans with Ms Cute Redhead."
"I won't, I promise."
Anya went back to her desk and Tara went back to her files. She couldn't focus though. After a few minutes she reached into her bag and retrieved her cellphone. She called up Willow's number on the display. Her thumb poised over the dial button, but eventually she sighed and put the phone back into her bag.
She knew there wasn't a reason why Willow should be the one calling her, but a part of her wanted to be the one on the receiving end of a phone call. Willow seemed to bring out the ultrafemme in her.