My beautiful date didn’t miss a beat when I opened the passenger door to her, managing a peck on the cheek before climbing in. As I got in on the driver’s side and started the engine, I noticed an amused smirk on her face. Those so far had tended to be at my expense, although never in a hurtful way.
“What is it?” I asked, maneuvering us out of the lot and onto the road.
“This car suits you,” she said. “It’s small and unassuming, but with all the upgrades.” I could feel her beam even with my eyes on the road. “Clean on the inside and out. And I’d be willing to bet it’s had every scheduled maintenance performed on time.”
I don’t know why, but I blushed. I nodded; her comments didn’t seem to require anything more.
“I had a car at Duke.”
“You didn’t bring it here?”
“No, I hardly ever used it. Everything was within an easy walking distance at Duke. One of those ‘bubble’ campuses everyone talks about.” She sighed, looking out the window. “So I drove it back to Baltimore and gave it to my little brother, still in high school at the time.”
“Right, two siblings you said. A younger brother and sister.” She had mentioned them at some point as contrasting examples of men and women entering college, although I forgot what her point had been.
“Yep! And I’m gonna guess… you’re an only child.” Her smile was expectant when I glanced over briefly.
I smiled, too; it was her first guess about me that was off the mark. “I have an older sister, actually – although, I’m adopted, so you get half credit. I… don’t think I had any biological siblings.”
“Nice try saving me, but no – adopted family is family. Bad guess. Hmm.” I felt her gaze on me. “It’s just… well, you strike me as someone who lives alone, who takes pride in self-sufficiency. Which doesn’t fit having an older sister, unless the two of you don’t get along… and I definitely don’t get that vibe from you. I didn’t even before you tensed up in disagreement the moment I said it.”
She was right – I had reacted poorly to the implication that Paris and I weren’t close. The truth was that this whole line of inquiry was making me uncomfortable. Kimberly was putting me under the microscope, and I was squirming. I tried to think of a way to change the subject.
“We can definitely change the subject. I’m sorry,” she offered. “I think I got a bit nervous about tonight, and started overthinking things. But I can tell I got your back up.”
I nodded. “The class was nice. The students seem engaged by the material.”
“It’s a colorful period. A lot of the iconic superheroes went public, and their interactions with Civil Rights… well, it didn’t always match expectations.”
“Yeah.” I swallowed. “I… am… not sure how much I agree with what you said, there at the end? About blame?”
“Oh? I don’t think you can fault people for just wanting to live their lives. Doing what’s expected of them.” Her smile dropped again.
“I see your point. But you know the old saying, evil triumphs if the rest of us do nothing.”
“Kennedy in 1961. He didn’t originate the saying, but it’s why Americans know it.”
“Okay. It’s just… I do feel, that if you lived at a time where you saw those injustices, and ignored them because they weren’t happening to you…”
“Silence bears some culpability,” Kimberly finished for me.
“Some, sure. Especially in a society where exploiting minorities makes life better for the majority. Cheap production, segregated benefits.”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw her nod, but she didn’t say anything right away. The silence stretched on for a bit.
“We’re still doing it,” she finally said.
I wasn’t sure what she meant, so I cocked my head slightly. I didn’t know how well the gesture could be seen in the car.
“The exploitation. In lots of ways. But the one that no one seems bothered by is the superheroes themselves. Do you know there’s a fifteen percent fatality rate over ten years?”
“It’s a dangerous job,” I agreed.
“There is literally no other job that is one percent that dangerous. Civil war soldiers in Africa have higher survival rates than that.” Her voice was raised, full of conviction. “A life saving drug with that fatality rate would never get FDA approval. But we just accept it as a normal part of superhero work.”
“What choice do we have?” I found myself asking. “The supers are standing between us and dangerous criminals. In a world where one person can be born with the firepower of a platoon of soldiers, we need to recruit and train people who can respond to that.”
We had been rolling down one of the main stretches of Midtown. I turned into an alley, sidling the car up to a space in a half full parking lot behind a row of store fronts.
“I am not saying we don’t need superheroes,” Kim replied as we parked. “I’m saying we need to be more concerned with what happens to them.”
I thought about my response as I opened my door into the frigid Detroit evening. When I rounded the hood of the car to reach the passenger door, I saw Kimberly looking intently into the mirror of a small makeup compact, murmuring under her breath. When I opened her door, she snapped it shut and her smile blossomed on her face.
“People are very concerned about supers,” I said as Kimberly took my hand to lift her out of the low carriage. “They are celebrities, and their deaths are big news. Take the Lamarck shooting.”
She shook her head. “Lamarck was national news because he was USST, and because he was killed in Canada. Most super deaths don’t get that sort of coverage. Have you heard of Refraxx?”
“A New York super?”
“New Jersey, actually. Killed in a drug bust this weekend. Only made the local news.” She met my eyes as I held the door open for her. “Along with Sonic Silk and Nightwatch in the South, and two other heroes in Portland. The news networks are filling twenty-four hours of airtime and still didn’t give them a mention.”
The light in Terry Vine’s Restaurante Italiano came mostly from dim electric ‘candles’ hung along the walls. The warm central air combined with the dimness to evoke a smokey atmosphere. The dining areas were a labyrinth of smaller rooms, somewhat muffling the noise from so many tables.
But the increased intimacy was undermined by the patrons filling the waiting area and standing along the walls. I was surprised to see such crowding on a Monday night, especially after having no trouble finding a parking space. Based on the age and dress of the waiting customers, it looked like some sort of event – maybe a play? – must have wrapped up nearby.
With some difficulty, I maneuvered over to the hostess’s stand, where a tall woman with a wooden smile made marks with a grease pencil. I was familiar with a lot of the staff of Vine’s, but I hadn’t seen her before. She glanced up briefly, then returned her full attention to her seating chart. I waited for her to look up and acknowledge me, but when she did finally look up, she immediately caught the attention of a server nearby and made no attempt to address me.
“Hi!” I began. “I have a reservation for -”
“Just a moment, sir,” she said. “Gina, do we have another seat for…” she followed the waitress she was talking to as the younger woman passed, moving away from her station.
I felt a pull at my arm, and turned to see Kimberly take it with her own, pressing her side lightly against mine. She smiled reassuringly.
I watched the hostess as she returned to the stand. She wore the white shirt and slacks of a Vine’s server, but with the addition of a red silk bow. Tall and dark-skinned, her hair tucked under in a simple bun, she reminded me more than a little of Harmony Norberg.
I met her eyes as she approached her station, but as she came to a halt I realized that her look and smile were both directed behind Kim and me, toward an older couple that stood behind us waiting their own turn. “Can I help you?” She said, easily loud enough to be heard even over the chatter of the room.
“Yes,” I said, deciding my best approach was to pretend that she was speaking to me anyway. “We have a reservation.”
The woman’s smile stiffened even more as she looked down at me. “For two, yes?” She turned a couple of pages in a notebook in front of her. “I’m afraid I don’t see it.” Her eyes moved back to the couple behind us. “Let me just quickly ask these people…”
In one smooth motion, Kimberly nudged me slightly as she stepped forward and yanked the notebook off the booth. She thumbed to the last non-blank page as the hostess made protesting noises. “Here it is,” she said. “Party of two, for,” she glanced at the clock on the wall, “one minute from now.”
“My mistake,” the hostess bounced back immediately. “I must have missed it.”
My date slid the notebook back, open to the correct page. “Mistakes happen. Asking for the name would have helped you find it.”
“Right, of course,” she nodded, her finger scanning down the page again. “Which… ah…”
“Donnell,” I replied.
I watched the hostess’s face carefully as she read my entry. I enjoyed seeing her eyes go slightly wide in reading what it said. The hostess looked me up and down as she beckoned us to follow her. Kimberly risked a questioning glance at me before stepping after the quick gait of the taller woman.
The small round table was set in the center of a small space carved out from the angled intersection of two other rooms, partially baffled from each. As we approached it, our hostess made to stand behind one of the chairs, but I cleared my throat and shook my head.
“Thanks,” I said firmly. “Have a good evening.” She acknowledged the dismissal and walked rapidly away, while I took her place in pulling out Kimberly’s chair.
“Any idea what all that was about?” Kim asked as I took my own seat.
“A ‘lost’ reservation? You seemed familiar enough with them.”
She grimaced. “No, that part was normal enough. I mean the look on her face when she actually saw the reservation. You requested a special table?” When I nodded, she looked around. “What’s special about it?”
“It’s close to the kitchen. That will be important later.”
“Suspenseful,” she smiled.
I shrugged. “It’s a fun little thing.” My hands folded themselves, business-like, on the table as I focused my attention. “Let’s talk food.”
Her smiled broadened further. “Why do I get the feeling that it’s your turn to lecture?”
“Because you are extremely perceptive. What would you normally…”
I dropped my question as the waitress appeared next to our table, handing each of us a wine menu. “Welcome to Vine’s. I’m Inez; can I recommend a glass of white to start?”
“Good evening, Inez,” I replied. “Just water before the meal, please, and we’ll wait to pair our drinks with dinner, is that okay?” The question was directed across the table, and Kim gave me an encouraging nod. “Who’s in the kitchen tonight?”
“Chef Reed, sir.”
“TJ!” I replied brightly, and the server nodded. “Excellent. Give us a couple of minutes?”
“Of course, sir.” She left, a male server appearing immediately behind her to leave us two water glasses and a full decanter.
“So, let me back up. You like pasta?”
“Sure.” Kimberly’s mouth was pursed slightly, hiding her smile in her sparkling eyes. She seemed to find this… amusing, I thought.
“It allows for the cook to select texture independent from flavor. You can play with the ingredients in your sauce, and independent from that, any of a dozen different shapes to the pasta can add definition and scope to how that flavor is packaged.”
“Hmm.” My date gave real effort to evaluate what I was saying. “That seems like it’s just a property of what ‘sauce’ does in any type of dish. Like, even a grilled chicken breast, say, can be basted or drizzled or, marinated, I guess?” She looked for a nod from me, which I happily supplied. “And the sauce provides different flavors while the meat provides the texture. Right?”
I inclined my head slightly to concede the point. “True. So, what’s your usual stand-by order for Italian food?”
“Without a menu? I guess… probably chicken alfredo. Although I do try to be adventurous at new places. Um, nothing with too much garlic, though.” She stuck out her tongue in a minor ‘blech’ expression.
I nodded. “Usually TJ has a really great cream sauce I think you’ll like.”
“Why don’t we have menus?” She flipped over the wine list that Inez had brought, as though a dinner selection might appear.
“That’s the fun little surprise. And… here we are!” My smile was broad as I leaned back to let the waiter slide a shallow bowl holding a steaming pale liquid. I snatched up my spoon and slurped a mouthful from it immediately. “Wedding soup! With… not pork, though.”
“Indeed. Venison, in fact.” The woman in white coat and chef’s hat stood at the end of the table, poised and alert. She always had a regal bearing when she was in charge of the kitchen, and allowed herself only the barest hint of a smile. “Hector, always a pleasure.” She gave a cursory nod across the table. “I don’t believe I have met your friend.” She glanced down at Kimberly’s untouched bowl.
My date caught the look and raised her own spoon. “Excellent,” she said after taking a silent bite… she didn’t slurp like I did.
“TJ, this is Kimberly Griffin. Kim, this is the best chef in Detroit.”
TJ’s eyebrows raised at me. “The two other chefs here would contest that.”
I nodded. “And when it’s their kitchen, they can be the best.”
Normally she would have delivered a rejoinder, but today she returned to business. “Our usual arrangement?” When I nodded, she added, “Ms. Griffin, can I interest you in a risotto? Or perhaps eggplant parmesan?”
Kimberly was lost; she looked to me. “What are you getting?”
I shrugged. “Whatever she’s been working on. I see if I can identify any secret ingredients, and give her my frank opinion.”
TJ saw another woman in a white jacket wave at her from the doorway leading back to the kitchen. “Sorry, it looks like I’m needed. I’ll send Inez by to get your order.” She waved a hand at me as she walked away.
Something was clearly bothering the chef; I’d never seen her this curt with a table. Maybe they were short-handed on a night this busy, and that had soured the mood in the kitchen.
“She was a lot less friendly than usual, huh?” Kimberly smiled calmly. She kept her voice low, not wanting to be overheard.
I nodded. “She’s usually quite colorful with banter, specially when we talk food.”
“You haven’t figured it out?” Kimberly lowered her voice even more, and looked around to make sure none of the servers were close. “I’m going to guess you’ve not brought a woman here before.”
“My sister. But… not a date, no.” I was uneasy about what she was implying.
Her smile tightened. “Yeah, she’s into you. I could see her consciously turn down her flirting when she realized we were on a date.”
Surprised, I shook my head. “No, that doesn’t fit. TJ is nice and outgoing to everyone. I met her in a cooking class that Terry ran for charity a couple of years back.”
She was as certain as I felt uncertain. “It’s cute that you don’t see it.” I felt a touch on my knuckles; she’d slid her hand across the table to touch mine. I kept still and let her do the touching. “Let me make a couple of guesses.”
I wasn’t sure where she was getting at, but her ideas were quite ego-affirming. I waited.
“You’re a patron of the arts here in town, invited to gallery openings and concerts.” Kimberly lifted her hand to cut me off. “That’s not the guess; I looked into you after… our introduction. But here’s the guess – there are a couple of different curators in the local scene that have taste like yours and seek you out at these meetings. Both young and female.”
My mind flashed first to Becca, and then rapidly to Talia, Aimee, and Elaine. All women that could potentially fit Kimberly’s description, but all perfectly innocent.
She continued, “Your local bank branch has a quite friendly customer service rep who always takes care of you. Young and female. Not just this restaurant, but other favorite restaurants you frequent have a chef, hostess, or at least a waitress that always manages to chat you up when you come in. Young. Female.”
Other faces and names popped into my head, but.. she was getting ridiculous. “They’re in the service industry. They’re nice to me for the same reason I’m nice when I’m working.” I frowned. “Guys always think a girl is into them just because they’re nice. It’s frankly pathetic. I wouldn’t do that.”
“Oh, I know!” Kimberly agreed. “A girl’s got to club you over the head to get anywhere.” She saw my distressed expression and rubbed her fingers over my hand. “Relax, Hector. I find you delightful. I just wanted to warn you…” she let her enthusiasm fade a bit.
“If… you and I…” she shrugged, blushing. “If you keep taking me out, I don’t want you to be surprised by this reaction from, ah, ‘friends.'”
Inez choose that moment to return to the table. “Chef Reed told me that we needed to work out an order for you, ma’am?”
I nodded, capturing the waitress’s attention then meeting Kimberly’s eyes again. I turned my hand over on the table and grasped hers. “I think we can come up with something.”