It wasn't the fact that the restaurant was the swanky type, and it wasn't the fact that the minotaur was dressed head-to-hoof in the requisite tuxedo. It wasn't even the possibility that he was new to this "blind date" thing — Alphonse had, after all, met up with plenty of female strangers in restaurants that were just as expensive. There was just... something else in the air this time.
He wolfed down the single glass of water that the waiter had left for him. At the rate he was going, he was going to empty his wallet on the ice cubes alone.
She was late, of course. It was a constant quality in all the women he had ever known — they seemed to like making him wait. In truth, Alphonse didn't mind this all that much; he liked to think that they were taking their time for something special (and Alphonse had certainly seen a lot of special things). Of course, it also went the other way around — the minotaur could never see a breakup coming if it walked right up to him and took him by... well, the horns, so to speak.
And there he was, as a result: single, nervous, and a little impatient.
A waiter refilled his glass from a filigreed pitcher. Alphonse snapped it up from the moment it was out of the man's hands. He was starting to feel a little better now. A little better, a little less nervous, and...
...Well, he had to go to the bathroom. But she wasn't likely to arrive something during the next five minutes, was she?
Odessa thought that the maitre'd had probably been a handsome man in his youth, the way he smiled as he ushered her to her table. Old age had given him a sort of distinguished look; she wondered if he was married.
Her date had reserved a nice table. It wasn't shunted off into one corner of the room, like many of her other dates had preferred, but neither was it thrust into the center under the glare of the chandelier lights. There was only one thing it was missing, though, and that was the presence of a dinner companion.
There was an open menu on one of the place settings, as well as a glass of ice water that had been messily finished. Odessa swept back her ophidian hair, and curled up in her golden coils a bit; she always did that whenever she needed to think.
Was he already here? Did he just walk off to check on something? Did he make a quick exit because he somehow spotted her approach and didn't like what he saw? Odessa was the kind of gorgon whose mind filled with questions so easily that they left room for little else. Times like these, she wished that she had a paper bag to breathe with.
Eventually she sat down as best as she could. She was going to have to hope that he didn't run out on her. A waiter with a filigreed pitcher was kind enough to bring her a menu; she skimmed its contents while the faceless man poured ice and water into her glass.
She wondered if he was as handsome as the maitre'd had been in his youth. Her friend had mentioned that he was about twentyish, in bull years; Odessa didn't notice the subtle hint at first. She put the menu down for an instant, adjusted the straps of her dress for a while, and then returned to the selections. Nothing, however, could distract her from the sensation of butterflies in her stomach... or the incessant hissing of her hair.
Alphonse emerged from the recesses of the restaurant feeling a lot better. He had spent a good five minutes staring at his own face in the mirror, polishing what looked like a dirt smudge on his right horn. His hair had also looked slightly mussed from the time he had arrived (he needed to adjust some of his cowlicks, ha ha), but otherwise he saw nothing that wouldn't convince any sensible young lady that he was anything but a charming young minotaur. It had been a very satisfying talk, and he was still telling himself this as he returned to his table.
There was a lady there.
Even at this distance, she was remarkably good-looking. Pale white skin revealed itself under the trappings of a royal blue dress held only by a couple of flimsy-looking shoulder straps and a lot of imagination. Her hair undulated softly under the muted lights, and her skinlike mask shone slightly as she perused a menu that some waiter had given her. Alphonse could practically feel his self-resolve dribble out of his ears and onto the carpet.
After a while, he asked himself why he was still standing there. After a few deep breaths (and some rigorous adjustment of his bow-tie), he crossed over to the table.
She looked up just as he arrived at his seat. The way her eyes widened, Alphonse would have thought that she had never seen a seven-foot-tall minotaur before.
"Hi," Alphonse said, completely invalidating the original greeting that he had in mind. "Odessa?"
"Yes," the gorgon said. "Are you Alphonse?"
"Yes," Alphonse said. He made no move to sit down at first, as though this was a breach of etiquette that he hadn't considered. "I'm sorry," he said, "have you been waiting long?"
"No, no," Odessa said. "Not at all. Ah..."
"You might like to sit down, Alphonse."
Now, this was far more direct than he had expected. Alphonse liked that in a woman. "Why is that?" the minotaur asked.
Odessa smiled. "Because your fly is open," she said.
She watched, amused, as he fumbled with his own clothes just before sitting down. Her mind was screaming that she shouldn't have embarrassed him like that. If she had only just kept completely quiet, and if she had only just acted nonchalant about the whole thing, well... well... well... he would have had that zipper open for the rest of the evening.
Odessa didn't like thinking about that zipper. It was bad enough that she caught herself staring at his crotch the moment he walked up, but there were some things that she had heard about minotaurs, and those were things that her Carrie-Bradshaw-like group of girlfriends would gossip about in private and never discuss in public. She was glad that his embarrassment had covered things up rather nicely.
She opened her mouth to speak, saw that he was opening his mouth to speak, and stopped abruptly. He stopped at exactly the same time.
She opened her mouth to speak again, only to run into the exact same gesture from him, and both of them graciously remained silent so that the other could speak.
This was silly, Odessa thought, and decided to push forward.
"Well, I..." she said.
"I must..." he said at the same time.
Both of them began laughing. Alphonse's laugh was warm and rich, although the tall man kept it low enough to as not to bother any of the other guests. Odessa swallowed carefully, as though to calm herself after such a strange introduction, and sipped from her glass.
"So," Alphonse said, placing two muscular arms on the table. "Shall we order first?"
"Yes," she said, amazed at how easily he had recovered from the zipper debacle.
The waiter with the filigreed pitcher was just waiting nearby for such an occasion; the restaurant was a careful choice, and prized for its service. Odessa gazed at the selections on her menu; she was certain that she already had one of the dishes in mind, but she suddenly could not remember what it was that she wanted.
"Would you like to order first?" she asked Alphonse.
"You can go ahead," Alphonse said, smiling.
"Mmm... I... well, I just don't know."
"Do you have anything special today?" Alphonse asked the waiter.
There was a short, pregnant pause as their servitor brought up a few suggestions. The fillet of sea bass was excellent that evening, having been flown in direct from Chile. There was a famed concoction of pasta, capers, and goat cheese in a special sauce, and an excellent shrimp salad which Odessa remembered as having been mentioned in the local newspapers. She noted with great impression that the waiter completely avoided any mention of beef, much less steak or spare ribs; they were sensitive to their customers that way.
She asked for the sea bass. Alphonse eagerly ordered the shrimp salad, and she wondered what that implied about his own personality.
"So, Alphonse," she began, "how do you know Medea?"
"Your friend?" Alphonse asked. "Well... one of my college friends, Jason, used to go out with her."
"Ah, so you knew Jason in college?"
"He was my roommate, actually. Did they ever get together?"
"Who?" Odessa asked. "Jason and Medea?"
"Yeah," Alphonse said. "You know... Jason and Medea? I mean... the old myths?"
"Oh," Odessa said, as the light came on in her mind. Now that he mentioned it, that was an odd coincidence. She was going to have to ask Medea sometime.
"So," Alphonse said, in the manner of every other blind date that Odessa had met, "tell me about yourself, Odessa."
She smiled her most winsome smile at him. "You first," she said.
"Well... I grew up around here," Alphonse said. "You know the old story. Local kid gets off the city streets, goes to university on scholarship, comes back for a high-paying job in a high-paying industry. My parents weren't well off, but they gave me the best they had."
As far as Alphonse could tell, she looked interested in more details. For the minotaur, that was a good sign.
"I've been a stockbroker for the last four years, I think — in JP Meyer and Associates; we made it to the Fortune 500 last year. We take up four floors at the east Stock Exchange building downtown, although I'm not sure if you pass by there all that often."
"That's the one with the gargoyles, isn't it?" Odessa asked.
"The one with the four gargoyles on the seventh-floor cornerpieces. I've met the eagle-headed one, you know. He's quite talkative."
"Oh. Ah, well," Alphonse said, searching for the words. "I didn't really think they'd be interested in talking. I mean, they've been there since the building went up."
Odessa laughed. "You can get a lot of things from people around here," she said. "How long have you been in stocks again?"
Alphonse suddenly felt as though he was under an interrogation lamp. "Well... ah... four years," he said. "It's a rough ride sometimes."
"Oh, I know what you mean," his gorgon companion said. "My friend Charyn, one of her aunts sunk her life's savings into a charter house two years ago. Just last month, she found out that the investments went bad and the company was so deep in debt that they couldn't dig themselves out with a spoon. You can imagine how that turned out."
Alphonse glanced at her snakelike locks, wondering what happened whenever things didn't turn out well with Odessa.
"Do you have any brothers? Sisters?" Odessa asked.
"Just one brother," Alphonse said, laughing. "He's in Greenland."
"Greenland? That's a strange place."
"Yeah, I know. He's part of a scientific team over there — they're studying the native seal population. He's been there six months now, and we're not expecting him back until July."
"July?" Odessa asked. "That's a long time."
"He wanted it to be nice and warm over here by the time he got back," Alphonse laughed. He hoped that he wasn't putting her off with the story.
"I suppose that that's sensible," Odessa admitted.
They were interrupted by the arrival of their food by this time. The sea bass turned out to be a finely-crafted gourmet affair, with white sauce amid a generous bed of parsley. Alphonse's salad was a little more mundane in terms of appearances, but the restaurant had graciously served a larger-than0usual bowl in clear anticipation of the minotaur's appetite.
"Looks good," Odessa said. Alphonse immediately got the impression that she wasn't much of a food person.
"That's enough about me, though," the minotaur said. "What about you, Odessa? What's your story?"
She was certain that the butterflies in her stomach had reached their breaking point by now. This was the moment that she dreaded.
Some people had this utter talent for telling their life's stories to random strangers at the restaurant table, and Alphonse was apparently one of those people. Odessa was a private person at heart; she couldn't imagine how anyone could possibly find her background interesting in any way, much less ask about it without falling asleep in the process. It was enough to spoil the sea bass, at least.
"I, ah... it's hard for me to say," Odessa said.
Across the table, Alphonse picked up a fork. "I'll be patient," he said, smiling.
Odessa concluded that she would never be able to resist that smile of his. "Well... I'm not from around here, really. I flew in from the old country back when I was little more than a hatchling."
"Nikos," Odessa said. "It's a little island off the coast of Cyprus. I don't remember anything about the place, except for the fact that it had a lot of grapevines."
"Okay," the minotaur said, with a bit of lettuce already halfway to his mouth. "My mother had some experience with grapevines."
"She was from the old country?"
"No," Alphonse said. "But her mother was, and I think that some of the old learnings just passed on, even though we don't have anything to do with grapevines and wineries nowadays."
"I think that the old country still shows up, even though a lot of us have scattered around the world already. I mean, I've met a couple of chimera on tour in Egypt, and I've even seen a district set aside for the harpies in Calcutta."
"And there's Yennera, too."
"The pop singer," Alphonse said. "She's a siren."
"Oh, oh... now I remember," Odessa said. "Yes, that's right. Medea knows her, too... she has an autographed photo on her workdesk."
"Egypt, India... you seem to travel a lot."
"Oh," Odessa said, swallowing a slice of her sea bass. "I'm, ah... an architectural consultant."
Alphonse raised an eyebrow. "That's interesting," he said.
"Is it?" Odessa asked, wondering if he really understood what she just said. She leaned across the table. "Tell me, then... what does an architectural consultant do?"
Alphonse paused, a bit of lettuce sticking out of the corner of his mouth. He swallowed. "I assumed that you work with architects. Maybe... you give them suggestions on their designs, and help organize the construction?"
Odessa sighed. He was as good as she thought he was.
"Something like that, yes. I specialize in nouveau design — you know, buildings that don't look like normal buildings."
"Like that bird's-nest stadium in Beijing," Alphonse said.
"Exactly," Odessa smiled. "That was one of mine."
"Did you come up with the design for it?"
"No," Odessa said, "so you can insult it as much as you want, if you don't like it." She winked at him.
Alphonse laughed. "I don't like it," the minotaur said, "but then again, I don't know what good architecture is supposed to look like from the outside. Just give me a set of blueprints, a way to get through a structure from beginning to end, and I'm fine with that."
"Oh, and while I was in the region," Odessa said, "that was where I got my mask."
The gorgon demurely pointed to the white skinlike mask that was bonded to her face. "I bought it in a souvenir shop in Singapore a couple of weeks afterward," she said. "The material is new, so it doesn't have the same glare that a lot of the old metal masks used to have. And it's plastic-based, so it won't break like the ceramic ones do. What's more, it molds itself to your skin, so you get to see me smile."
"Well, it looks great on you."
"Thank you," Odessa said, flashing the same winsome smile that she had mentioned.
"I confess that sometimes I wonder what you look like underneath," Alphonse said. "I mean, I see gorgons every now and then, and they're all wearing masks of a sort."
"We have to wear them, of course. I mean, otherwise..."
"Oh, I'm not saying that you shouldn't wear them," Alphonse said, "I'm just saying that I wonder what you look like underneath."
Odessa laughed. "You'd be taking a lot of risk," she said.
"Not as risky as my stocks," Alphonse said, and they both laughed.
They lingered at the end of the meal, Alphonse with his coffee and Odessa with her Earl Grey tea. The bill was covered and paid for, and both now eyed each other gamely.
"So," Alphonse said, "do you have a ride home, Odessa?"
"I live just three blocks away," she said. "I was just thinking of making my way back directly."
"I can walk you if you'd like," Alphonse said. "I'm parked nearby anyway, and I know the garage manager, so he won't get me towed."
"That would be nice," Odessa smiled.
Ten minutes later, she was on the minotaur's arm as they exited the restaurant and onto the city streets. He was certainly seven feet tall (or somewhere in that area), but Odessa was used to having largish companions and merely adjusted her coils in order to compensate. The two of them walked down the evening, one taking step by step with cloven hooves and the other slithering down the concrete and asphalt.
They laughed about more than a few things, about how absurd it was that Alphonse's brother would go halfway around the world to study baby seals, or about the strangest designs that Odessa had ever seen for habitable structures. They laughed about stone, and they laughed about passages. They laughed about the zipper debacle earlier that evening (for even Alphonse had to admit that this was funny), and they laughed about how nervous they were that the evening was going to turn out anything but good.
Finally they reached Odessa's apartments, which turned out to be a two-story building of significant size divided into a series of quarters, each with their own entrance. The gorgon slithered up to one of the wrought-iron gates, reached over and unlocked it from the inside, and then returned to place her hand on the minotaur's arm.
"Just walk me to the steps," she said, and Alphonse obliged.
When they had reached the front porch, Odessa felt around in her purse for a key, then unlocked her front door. With the date finally at an end, she turned back to her companion.
"I had a nice evening," she said, smiling at him.
He smiled back, doing the best that he could with his dark countenance. "So did I."
"Okay," she said, wondering what else to say. Odessa knew that she wasn't very good at these sorts of things. After a while, she finally gave up trying to figure out the next thing to do, and just moved closer.
"What are you doing?" Alphonse asked, curious.
Odessa flexed the lower half of her body, enough to allow her to reach the minotaur's height. "This," she said, and kissed him.
He held one hand to his cheek, surprised at what had just transpired, and then grinned.
She passed through the doorway, enough so that he could spot nothing except for the outline of her shadow on the pastel wallpaper inside. Then, just as he was about to leave, she gently reached one arm out, and beckoned him to come in.
By this point, Alphonse had nothing more than a goofy smirk on his bovine face. This was turning out to be a more interesting night than expected. He had a feeling that he was definitely going to enjoy this.
He stepped through the doorway, and closed the heavy wooden door behind him.
Above, the night sky glistened with stars.