Let's Make Love Bloom
The plan Masashi and I settled on would require all day to execute in a believable manner; and so, I woke up early. It wasn’t complicated, but the knowledge of what awaited at the end of it was still enough to make me jittery and rob me of sleep, so I had to spend the day’s first hour chugging coffee just to wake up and psyche myself up for the day ahead.
“You’re up early,” Mamá said as soon as I emerged from my room. She was one to talk. Though I was never awake to see it, I was pretty sure the latest she ever got up was around ten ‘til seven. And I mean, good for her, but I could never.
“How do you do it?” I managed to ask through a huge yawn. Struggling to rouse from my foggy morning brain, I shuffled into the kitchen and threw a couple of slices of bread into the toaster for the both of us.
“Wake up so early and not be a zombie.”
“You try being a mother for fifteen years for a kid who needs to be at school by 7:30 and you have to make her lunch,” she said as she poured a couple of cups of black coffee. “See what happens to your sleep schedule.”
“Fair enough,” I said as I accepted the mug she held out for me. After gently blowing on the steaming drink, I took a small sip and felt myself wake up just a little. I smiled. “Thanks.”
“My pleasure, Sara.” Mamá turned her attention to the scrambled eggs she had over the stove as I retrieved the toast. In just a few moments, both of us were sitting in the living room, plates of eggs and toast on our laps, mugs of black coffee on the table in front of us, eating while the morning news from a local station played on the TV. Padre would not be joining us. After a long week of work, he’d earned the right to sleep in. Right after sitting down, we tuned in to find out that we were just in time for the weather forecast—we were going to have clear skies all day.
“Shame you’ll be cooped up inside all day,” Mamá remarked.
The idea was, as far as Mamá knew, that Masashi and I had made plans for a dawn-to-dusk study session. As it happened, next week was midterms, so that was a lucky break for us. I told my folks I’d be staying over all day to study and have lunch and dinner with them, so they didn’t have to worry about me. Now, the two of us hanging out, even all day, wasn’t unusual. Staying out late during the weekend for dinner, though? A bit more odd. Of course, the folks had no reason to say no, it’s just that by telling them that, there was every chance that they’d suspect our motivation for having dinner together during the weekend was more heterosexual than it had any chance of being. And if they believed that, I feared that the teasing and not-so-subtle nudging from them to please just get married already would only escalate, but I figured, for my first chance to go out on a date with an actual girl, that was a small price to pay.
“Like I said, we’ve got midterms, I can’t afford to be lazy,” I said.
“If you say so,” Mamá said with a shrug. The way she said it, I got the sense that she thought there was better things I could be doing, like courting a future husband maybe. Which is it, Mamá? Do you want me to go socialize with the guys on campus or stick with the one I already have?
As I wondered that, I realized that she would be content with either.
“Well, you know, just call me if anything calls up,” Mamá said after we’d cleaned our plates. Scooping mine up, she hurried to the kitchen to tidy up. On the TV, the reporters were talking about one of those feel-good stories about a dog reuniting with its owner after being lost for years. It didn’t make me feel good; all it made me think about was how Mamá would react after uniting with her real daughter for the first time in years. Or maybe ever.
Retreating to my room, I packed everything I would need for the day ahead in a backpack, the same one I’d had since high school, and moved to the front door.
“I’m off, then!” I called back as I stepped outside.
“Take care!” Mamá called back. “Love you!”
“Love you, too.”
The only real complication we anticipated came from Masashi’s parents. All they knew was that I’d be staying over all day, and they are nothing if not hospitable. His mother would insist on cooking dinner for us if we weren’t careful, so we had to make sure to nip that notion in the bud early. But even if we do that, there’s every chance that she’ll get it in her head to make dinner anyway, putting pressure on us to stay, but that was a risk we were going to have to take.
In putting the plan into motion, the two of us did end up studying some. Given that our classes didn’t overlap at all, we weren’t actually able to help each other much, but still, it was a decent use of time that would help sell the ruse if own parents knocked on the door. After all, would you suspect a ruse of being a ruse if most of the ruse was not, in fact, a ruse? I might, but then again I can be quite paranoid.
The first thing we did upon my arrival was tell Masashi’s mom not to make dinner for us, insisting that we wanted to head out. She did protest, saying things like “But won’t you be tired? Just relax and let me handle it,” but we persisted. She was clearly annoyed at us, but eventually she relented. But, she had to get in the last word: “Just let me know if you change your mind.” Worrying, but there was nothing else we could do.
We spent the bulk of the day in his room, at first studying. Once we got bored of that, after lunch we killed time by playing games, watching TV, and otherwise lounging about. Able to take my mind off things, I was relaxed throughout the afternoon, but as evening approached, my nerves started kicking back in. The sun was newly gone and the yellow sky turning dark when Masashi noticed.
“Sara, you okay?” he asked. My leg had started shaking again; I made a conscious effort to stop it, but little jitters still crept through.
“Nervous as hell,” I said, not in any sort of headspace to think about hiding how I was feeling.
“I feel you. Man, I was so nervous just before meeting Oscar for the first time, like I was so out of it I don’t even remember driving myself to the mall. It was like one moment I was starting the engine and the next I was pulling into the parking lot. I, like, fully dissociated and my body was on auto-pilot while inside I was panicking.”
“For real, if this keeps up, I just might dissociate, too.”
“Okay. Listen up, then.” We’d been sitting on the floor, leaning back against his bed, staring at the powered-off TV as we talked; right then, Masashi shuffled around so that he was sitting right in front of me and making eye contact. “It’s okay to be nervous, that’s normal. Hell, I’d be worried if you weren’t at least a little scared. So the good news is, this is proof you’re not some sociopath.”
“I was already pretty sure I wasn’t, but okay.”
“Right. But the important thing there is don’t try to hide it. If you try to bottle it up, it’ll just paralyze you. Just be upfront and honest with her, do whatever you can to break the ice and get the conversation going, and hopefully as the night goes on you’ll feel those nerves fade. Okay?”
“Okay,” I said, nodding.
“How are you feeling now?”
“Like, one percent better.”
“Hey,” he said, smiling. “That’s one percent better than I was doing. You’ve got this in the bag, sister.”
“Right,” I said, continuing to nod like an insane person. “I got this. I got this. I got this.”
“Want me to do your makeup?”
“Yes, please.” With how shaky my hands were, I’d just make a mess of myself. “Keep it light.”
“You got it, boss.” I handed him the kit I’d brought with me and he got to work. It was me who’d first taught him how to do makeup in the first place, and now my efforts were paying off. It wasn’t a skill I’d gone out of my way to learn, but growing up a woman in such a traditional household, you can be sure I was made to learn. And after a lifetime (read: maybe twelve years) of experimentation, I’d grown comfortable with just light applications for rare occasions, and today was perhaps the rarest of them all. I needed to look my best tonight, and that meant letting a more careful hand make sure I didn’t ruin everything.
“How’s it look?” he said after a good several minutes, holding up a mirror. An untrained (or plain lazy) eye might not be able to tell, but I could spot worlds of difference: obscured blemishes, my natural skin tone accentuated, and just a hint of eyeshadow.
“Perfect,” I said. Seeing myself looking good did help to calm me down somewhat. The shakes weren’t gone, but they had been subdued. “Thanks.”
“No sweat.” Masashi glanced down at his watch and jumped to his feet. “Six-thirty. We should hurry up. Want to get changed here, or…?” I shook my head.
“Don’t want your parents to notice.” Which was all too likely, given how active they tended to be around the house. They’d checked in on us at least six times throughout the day.
“Car it is. Shall we?” He held out his hand and smiled. I took it, he pulled me up, and, after grabbing my backpack, we headed out. And just as we got to the door, we were stopped by a voice behind us.
“Heading out already?” It was Masashi’s mother; turning in the doorway to face her, we saw she had an apron on. Yep, she would’ve noticed if I’d gotten changed. “I could make dinner, it’s really no worry.”
“Thank you for the offer, ma’am,” I said, trying to be polite while making a hasty retreat. “But really, it’s okay. We just want to get out and have some fun, you know?” As I spoke, her gaze narrowed as she focused on me, like she had spotted something and was trying to puzzle out what it was. For a second I feared that she wasn’t going to let us go without a fight, but soon enough she sighed and relented.
“Very well, you two kids go and have fun, then. I trust you won’t stay out too late?” She raised an eyebrow at Masashi, implying an extra question that neither of us wanted to contemplate.
“Of course not,” he said. “I’ll make sure she gets home and be back by ten.”
“Okay. Have a good evening, Sara.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” I said, and just like that we were out of there.
“That was strange,” Masashi said as we got in the car; while he hopped in the driver’s seat and started the engine, I hopped in the back and unzipped my backpack.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I thought she’d try harder to keep us around.” Shifting gears, Masashi got us on the road. After we had pulled off our home street, I looked around and took note of the general lack of traffic.
“How far away is it?”
“Twenty minutes, assuming no traffic. And never assume that. So, you know, get ready.”
“Got it.” And I pulled my change of clothes from my bag. The whole day, I’d just been wearing casual clothes, jeans and a plain tee, like would be expected of someone just hanging with friends, but I’ll be damned if I ever show up to a first date in jeans. In the vague privacy of the backseat of a moving vehicle, I hurried to change into something that better suited the occasion. (And in case you’re wondering why we didn’t pull over so I could run into a ladies’ bathroom in a gas station or something: one, ew, nasty, and two, Masashi and I are beyond even faking any sort of body embarrassment or shame around each other, we just don’t care.) For my date attire, I was going for simple yet effective: a white dress shirt, black dress pants, and a bowtie. Looking myself over in a hand mirror once I was done, I thought I looked alright, but then again, was it too plain? Or no, maybe the bowtie would come off as silly? Cut me some slack, the last time I dressed up for anything was a dance in middle school.
“Is this too much?” I asked Masashi once I had finished. As he pulled up to a red light, he turned around and glanced me over.
“You look fabulous,” he said, flashing me a thumbs up.
“Thanks,” I said, letting his reassurance wash over me. Whether or not he was being one hundred percent honest didn’t matter; I need a confidence boost and he gave it to me. “How far out are we?”
“Ten minutes ‘til we arrive, eleven minutes ‘til seven. Don’t worry, we’re fine.”
“Are you supposed to show up early to these things?”
“I’ll tell you what, if this Juniper turns out to be stickler for something as petty as not showing up early, then she’s probably not worth it to begin with.”
“Okay, sure.” At that moment I was less concerned with what she might be a stickler for and more just making a good first impression, and being at least on time, never mind early, was certainly a good place to start, but yeah, sure. Nothing to get too worked up over, right?
Just by thinking about it I was definitely getting very worked up about it. In an effort to distract myself, I tried to steer the conversation in whatever random direction came to mind.
“Hey, so, do you like dogs?” I asked. No idea where that question came from, but sure, let’s go with it.
“Eh,” Masashi said with a shrug. “More of a cat person myself.” Props to him for not questioning where this sudden turn in the conversation came from—he probably realized that I was trying to distract myself and was helping me out. Good man.
“Really? Can’t stand those nasty little critters myself.”
“Nasty? Whoa there, sister, you just crossed a line.”
“But it’s true! Every time I try to be nice to them, they’re all hissing and scratching at me, and I’m allergic, anyways.”
“Oh man, I don’t know if we can be friends anymore.” Thanks to Masashi playing along, I managed to calm down somewhat, and we continued with this silly, ancient debate all the way until we arrived at the restaurant. (I actually never knew that he was scared of dogs until that conversation. To each their own, I guess.)
“Well, here we are,” Masashi said. And we were. We were in a part of town that I hadn’t frequented. Across the street was some large mall complex, and this restaurant’s immediate neighbors were a car repair shop and a bookstore—the former of which had large flyers out advertising a special on window repairs and replacements. Remembering my family car’s cardboard window, I took note to recommend looking into this place to Padre tomorrow. The restaurant itself had been made to look like a log cabin from the outside, but the construction was such that it clearly wasn’t. All the “logs” looked fake, the browns of the trunks just a little too vibrant, like they were pulled straight out of a cartoon. Whether that was a good or bad sign I really didn’t have the slightest notion, but at least it wasn’t a fast food joint. God, how embarrassing would that have been? I might’ve just flaked out if it turned out to be one of those. Believe it or not, I do have standards. Look, they may not be high, but I do have them, alright?
Then again, she did say over the phone it was family-owned, so I really didn’t need to worry, did I?
“Time?” I asked.
“You have less than a minute.”
“Oh man.” I took a deep breath as I psyched myself up for this. This was it. No turning back now. Time to grow up, girl. You got this. “Alright, here I go.” I popped the door open, but just before I could hop out, I felt Masashi’s hand grab onto my arm. I turned to face him. “What?”
“Here,” he said. He held up a fifty dollar bill and tried to slap it into my hand. And as much as I appreciated the gesture, I pushed it back.
“I’ve got this one,” I said. “And more importantly, I don’t need to owe you any more goddamn money.”
“You owe me money?”
“Jesus Christ, man. Just keep it.”
“Okay.” And he withdrew. His eyes wandered over to the dashboard then went wide. “It’s seven! Move out, soldier.”
“Aye, sir.” I hopped out of the car and closed the door behind me, but before I bounded off inside, I looked back at Masashi one last time. “Thanks for driving.”
“Just let me know how it goes.”
“Will do,” I said with a nod. Not like I wasn’t going to without his asking—he was my ride home too. All that said and done, I turned forward and marched into the restaurant.
The interior was at least consistent with the whole log cabin aesthetic. At a glance, every bit of furnishing seemed built or carved from wood in one way or another, though I’m sure a closer inspection would reveal more modern finishing touches. The decoration had a haphazard folksy theme—records adorned the walls from musicians ranging from Johnny Cash to Bob Dylan and even The Beatles. There were also large posters advertising big concerts with old labels that I’m sure were the talk of the town back in their day. In all likelihood, the actual theme for the decoration was “whatever music the owners were into.” And if I wasn’t mistaken, I was pretty sure they had “Hey Jude” playing over some speakers in here. All in all, things seemed quaint. And much like Steak ‘n Shake, it was lacking in patronage. That was especially disturbing here, given that the place was new. I got the sense then that this place wasn’t going to last very long. Given that, it was probably a good thing that Juniper had decided on coming here, because if she hadn’t I might never have found this place at all, and I did kind of like it. What can I say? It was warm.
“Table for one?” I was pulled out of my examination of the place by a new voice. A waiter dressed in unusually casual clothes was standing behind a black podium situated just ahead of the entrance. The only way I was able to tell that she was a waiter was because of the black waist apron and the nametag. Erin, it read. Otherwise, given the jeans and tank top, this woman might well have just lived here in this very real log cabin.
“Uh…” I stumbled over my words, flustered over the sudden question and still generally nervous about the whole situation. “I’m here to meet someone. Don’t know if they’ve shown up yet.”
“Oh yeah, got here just a minute ago. Right this way.” Not a stickler for being early, then. That’s good.
The waiter led me to a booth in the back end of the restaurant. I saw the back of her head before anything else. Her thick, dark hair was tied back in a ponytail that seemed to grow larger as it fell down her back. Streaks of it had been dyed a dark purple, barely noticeable outside of the right light. At that moment, nothing seemed off; I was just focused on how gorgeous her hair was. The waiter stood aside to allow me to pass. Nodding my thanks, I walked up ahead of her, and before sitting down I turned to face my date.
“Hi, Juniper?” I said, and as soon as I got a look at her face my breath caught in my throat. If my surprise showed on my face, she didn’t see it at first.
“Hi, Sara,” she said, beaming up at me, and after a moment, her expression morphed into one of surprise, probably exactly like mine. Now she saw it, and much more.
She recognized me, and I recognized her. It’d been years, but I knew that face. The tears streaking down her face as she held back sobs were etched into my memory, and more than once during my adolescence, my guilt-ridden mind had roped her into my dreams. There, my apologies had never been enough, even though they had seemed to do the job in real life. Real life had been messy but amicable—why did the dreams, painful as they were, seem more honest? In them, she wasn’t so quick to forgive; or maybe I just hadn’t been ready to forgive myself.
In any case, I knew this face. It was unmistakable. Those clear blue eyes, those thick eyebrows, the pale pink blush on that light skin—even all these years later, she was still the same. The only real difference now was the presence of some prominent red lipstick, and I had to admit, her lips were fairly alluring as a result. But I was too busy being panicked to be charmed. Because as nervous as I had been during the car ride over, nothing could have prepared me for this. Nothing could have prepared me to see her face again, much less face the prospect of dating her. The old guilt resurfaced and washed back over me, and I felt ready to faint. But before I could do that, her name—at least, the name I had known her by—spilled out of my mouth before I could stop myself: