“We can’t eat all that!” Emilia exclaims.
“Of course, we can,” he says, picking up a slice of some sort of dark red cured meat on his fork. “Unless you’re in a rush.”
“Not really,” Emilia mutters, busy eyeing lovely golden bruschetta pieces on a plate in front of her.
“I ordered everything to share, but we can ask for a separate dish for each of us,” he says. “I promise I don’t have anything contagious.”
By now, Emilia has devoured her bruschetta, two slices of ham, and three olives. Clearly, she doesn’t care about catching anything from him. Between the two of them they quickly take care of five different antipasti; each of them gets a plate of the soup of the day, it’s Minestrone with pesto; and they’re sharing a beetroot and fig salad. There is a sort of non-annoying assurance in everything he does: he asks a waiter for extra plates, dumps food on one for Emilia, scooping it unceremoniously with a fork; and once she’s done, he sets the dirty plate aside and pushes the next one to her. Emilia chews, hums appreciatively, and forgets to worry. Food always makes her feel better, even if just temporarily. They slow down their enthusiastic eating after the salad, but he promises her there are still more delights coming. The waiter brings more wine, and Oates has a small jolly chat in Italian with him.
“How many languages do you speak?” Emilia asks, enjoying her second glass of red.
“Seven,” he answers. A small smile curls up his lips when he sips his wine.
Suddenly the reality of her inadequacy in comparison to the successful, handsome, athletic polyglot strikes her again, and she downs her drink.
“Where will you go for your first big trip?” he asks.
“Um… I haven’t thought about it yet,” she answers, feeling rather deflated. Her doubts are coming back, and she throws him a suspicious look. Why is he here? Why is she here?!
“Let me know when you decide,” he says with a chuckle. “I’ll give you a list of the best places to eat there.”
“What if I go somewhere you haven’t been to?” Emilia quips.
“Hm…” The sound he emits is low and rumbly in his throat. So much writing material! “Then take me with you. I love exploring new places.”
Emilia was thinking of starting small, maybe going somewhere predictable and tourist friendly, like Paris or Greece – but now, some sort of a rebellious streak wakes up in her.
“Would you go to Madagascar if I offered?” she asks sarcastically.
“I’ve been to Madagascar,” he answers with a laugh. “You’ll have to try harder.”
“Hm… How about Russia?” Emilia is feeling rather ballsy, all of a sudden. She has a Russian friend, so she feels a certain degree of expertise. “Would you go to Siberia if I invited you?”
“I’ve been to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky and to Tobolsk,” he says. “Try again.”
He purses his lips in a small tense smirk. Emilia is so overcome with competitiveness that she isn’t even trying to decipher his facial expression.
“Um… Cuba? No, that’s boring. Of course you’ve been to Cuba.” She’s frantically searching her memory. “Croatia?”
“I did a tour of Eastern Europe five years ago,” he dismisses. “Try again.”
“Visited it last year.” He chuckles and finishes his wine.
“So I assume, Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay won’t cut it, either,” Emilia draws out and pops an olive in her mouth. “How about Sri Lanka?”
He shakes his head and gives her a grin.
“Ugh, that’s infuriating,” Emilia huffs.
“Do you give up?” he murmurs.
“No!” she exclaims. “Give me a second. Um… Kazakhstan!”
“Oh.” He barks a laugh. “Well done! You win!”
Emilia beams with a triumphant smile.
“And yes, I will go to Kazakhstan with you,” he adds, his voice dropping lower – and Emilia immediately tenses.
Did she just flirt and banter with a bloke?! It can’t be!
“I’ll let you know when it’s time to pack,” she answers in a flat voice and picks up her glass.
It’s empty, though, and she gingerly puts it down. The waiter shows up with three plates of different pasta dishes, and more wine. The first forkful of some wide, flat pasta with mushroom sauce melts in Emilia’s mouth, and she closes her eyes to savour. There might have been a small moan. She’s entitled: the food is heavenly!
“Emilia,” he says, and her eyes fly open. He clears his throat. “I have a confession to make.”
Here we go, Emilia’s evil inner voice hollers in glee. The truth emerges!
“Yes?” she encourages him. How can a human voice sound both raspy and squeaky?
“I’m not good at… dating,” he says.
I’m sorry… what?!
“Generally, I have trouble reading social cues outside my work environment,” he adds. “So, I prefer saying it as it is. I’m attracted to you, and if you’re interested, I’d like to repeat today’s date.”
There’s a lot to process here, but Emilia has never had trouble analysing – and then, overanalysing – new data. Obviously, her mind immediately focuses on the most incredulous piece of information.
“You find me attractive,” she repeats slowly.
The man nods. Is he waiting for an answer? Was there a question somewhere there in his shocking confession?
“We can repeat today, that’s for sure.” Emilia decides to deal with one point at a time. Also, he said ‘date!’ How is this even possible?! “But– I just–” She closes her mouth, and makes a disgruntled noise. On the other hand, he said ‘say it as it is.’ “I just find it hard to believe that you would want it,” she blurts out.
If it all goes down the chute now, it’s going to be his fault! He was the one who started this bizarre conversation!
“Why?” he asks. Is he for real?!
“Because I’m not attractive!” she exclaims, suddenly feeling rather vexed. She wonders if he’s just torturing her on purpose. There’s a kink of humiliating and degrading others – except, she hasn’t asked for or consented to it! “I’m– I’m–” Oh, might as well! “I’m overweight, and have no experience– and I’m not fit, or confident, or–” Her eyes sting. Damn him! Her mood has just made a one-eighty, but it’s understandable. This whole day has been an emotional rollercoaster. “And believe me, I don’t judge if one of these is your kink, but– but I’m not enjoying it!”
He gives her a calm look, and Emilia huffs an annoyed exhale.
C’mon, Milly, you don’t get to get miffed about it. You wanted your answer, and you’re getting it now. He’s into fat boring birds. That’s the best you can hope for. You should be grateful.
Emilia doesn’t feel grateful.
“Sorry, that was uncalled for,” she mutters.
“I don’t think it’s a kink,” he says. “I have my kinks, but, I say, there isn’t anything unconventional in fancying you. I think you are fit. And if you aren’t confident, you hide it well. As for your weight, I’ve had relationships with women of different sizes, but I generally find slimmer women less attractive.”
“You– you like fat women,” Emilia stutters in disbelief.
He chuckles and gives her an amused glance. She’s so bewildered she’s not even cataloguing it for her writing.
“I prefer your physicality to that of a fashion model,” he says in an even, warm tone.
Emilia is trying to fight it, but a doubt crawls into her mind.
“Do… other men? I mean, are there men who–” She opens and closes her mouth, trying to squeeze these words out. “Who aren’t into skinny women?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “I’d assume, yes. It’s just a preference, like fancying blondes. Don’t you have a preference?”
“I don’t have enough experience to have a preference,” Emilia answers.
She’s so stunned by the new information, her ears are ringing. Could it be true?!
“It’s just the question of taste,” he says. “Some people like blue eyes, or facial hair. I feel like a body type is just one of those.”
Quoting River Song, the mind races.
“But– but isn’t there a sort of a ranking system?” Emilia asks.
Remember, the good old times when you wondered about the same in regards to tables in a restaurant, Milly? Those were the days!
He gives her a questioning look.
“I mean, there are standards of beauty,” she explains. Are you trying to talk him out of it? Are you mental? “My body isn’t up to the modern standard.”
“Maybe,” he says with a shrug. “I like it.”
“Also, isn’t it unfair?” he says. “If most people aren’t up to a standard, maybe it’s a wrong standard.”
He’s… not wrong. There are more women like her than those who are ‘Instagram worthy.’ Emilia hates Instagram.
To give herself a moment to ruminate, Emilia picks up a forkful of seafood spaghetti and puts it in her mouth. She’s chewing, he’s watching her. Her mind circles back to the question of ‘preferences.’ Does she have one? She looks over the man in front of her, and then shifts her gaze onto the next table. There’s a young couple there: she’s a small brunette, with a pixie haircut; he’s average height, with sandy blond hair, golden stubble, and glasses. Hm… Yes to his glasses, no to everything else. Oh my… She does have preferences!
The problem remains: it’s easy to have him – tall, dark, and handsome, and also, in a great shape, successful, speaking seven languages, worldly, and so sexy that, even with her highly limited experience, Emilia is getting ideas – as a preference. What does she have to offer?
“Alright,” she ventures into an investigation. “Say, we accept the fact that you find my body attractive. Is that all? Isn’t it just a kink then?” She immediately sees the flaw in her logic. “Nevermind. That’s just a normal proceeding. It just feels odd because I’ve never been chatted up before.”
Emilia pensively hums and chews a basil leaf. He nods and goes back to eating his half of their tagliatelle.
“Alright, let’s do it then,” she says, and his hand with a fork freezes in front of his mouth. “Let’s have dinner.”
He lowers his utensil and smiles.
“Alright,” he says.
“I’m just–” Emilia searches for the right words. Also, she absolutely loves that he listens and lets her ask her ridiculous questions and doesn’t seem appalled when she voices them out. “I’m just really nervous. Because that has never happened to me before.”
“You have mentioned you have little experience,” he says. “But you seem to be enjoying our lunch, so you might enjoy more shared meals. Are you enjoying our meals?” He looks charmingly doubtful for a second.
“I am! It was just easier to talk to you before I knew that you– fancy me.”
Oh look, Emilia found another F word to routinely choke on!
Suddenly, she can clearly see in his face that he doesn’t understand.
“Why?” he asks.
Point to Emilia.
Now, how does one explain to a man that the idea of their date going well and progressing into a bedroom terrifies them?