He stopped by work a few times. Chatted me up. I thought he was testing the water, seeing if we had the same chemistry face-to-face as we did sending messages back and forth.
It wasn’t until later that I got the text.
YOU FREE TONIGHT?
UM. THINK SO. WHY?
I squealed like a little girl.
I’m not proud.
MEET AT CRAM’S? 8-ISH?
Cram’s Sour Candy was a novelty store and indie music shop. One of the last. There’s not a big market for physical media anymore, except among the vinyl and cassette crowd, so that’s mostly what they sold. But they had some CDs too. Even some 8-tracks. The walls were plastered with band and album posters. There wasn’t an inch of free space.
I don’t know if it was fashionable tardiness or not, but I barely made it on time and still beat him there. I flipped through the LPs. I kept a nervous eye on the front door. My stomach jingled every time the bells did.
“Buzzcocks,” he said and I jumped.
He was standing right behind me, looking at the record in my hand.
“Ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t have?” he asked.
I smiled. That was my favorite track on the album. Love Bites. 1978.
“Maybe.” I replaced it on the rack.
“You’re not gonna get it?”
It was a bit out of my price range. “This may come as a shock, but I don’t actually own a record player.”
“Who does?” he asked.
“Presumably the people who shop here.”
“You don’t buy something like that to play it. Except once in a blue moon maybe.”
“The needle wears down the grooves. Slowly but surely.” He lifted another album from the rack. Neil Diamond. Touching You, Touching Me.
“Nice,” I said mockingly.
He looked at it in his hands. “Each play is a tiny act of destruction. That’s why people like vinyl.”
“I thought it was the superior sound quality.”
“Whatever, man.” He scowled and gripped the record. “This is a living thing. And it needs to be treated that way.”
“Where did you come from exactly?”
The shop clerk walked past just then, a real butch gal with a chain dangling from her jeans and black discs in both earlobes. She nodded at him as if in answer to some earlier question.
“Thanks,” he said.
He had come from the back. He knew the owners.
Of course he did.
He knew everyone.
He could see the look of skepticism on my face. “You ready?”
I nodded. He turned for the door, but I hesitated a little before stepping out, which was stupid. It only called attention to what we were doing and I was instantly embarrassed.
I bit my lip.
He waited. He got serious. “We don’t have to do this, you know.”
God, he was so gorgeous.
Let’s be honest. Women are at least as hung up on appearance as guys. And he had it. All of it. The stylishly messy hair. The chiseled jaw. The lean abs. The dark eyes that unashamedly fell over your curves. He was the guy every girl wished would notice her. If not for a night of carnal desire then at least for the pleasure of shooting him down.
“It’s okay,” I said. “I want to.”
He pushed the door open. It was dusk. People were out. Neither of us in a hurry, so we strolled slowly past parked cars and rolling trash cans and bicycles locked to street signs. Neither of us spoke. One block passed. Then two.
“So,” he said.
“So,” I said.
“Ha.” I knew what he meant. First date stuff. “Zhang Chen.”
“And?” He looked for my reaction.
I made a face like “eh” and he covered his heart like I had just wounded men everywhere.
After a moment, he asked another. “First love.”
“Uhhh, no comment.”
“Okay.” It got awkward again. But he came back quick. “Kirk or Spock?”
I turned. “Good one.” I thought. “Sulu.”
“Ramen or pizza?”
I scoffed. “Pizza. Duh.”
“First? Hm. Maison Ikkoku. No, wait. Actually, I think it was a really bad translation of Scott Pilgrim.”
He made a face.
“What?” I asked, feigning offense.
He shook his head.
“Whatever! What was yours? What was your favorite?” I emphasized it.
“My favorite? That’s easy. Doctor Strange. I wanted to be him so bad.”
“Really? Not Batman or Wolverine or one of those guys?”
“Ha,” he scoffed. “Buncha rogue military wannabes.”
“Then why Strange?”
The response was immediate. “Because he swam with demons. Because he wasn’t afraid of the darkness. Wasn’t afraid to challenge it. To master it. Wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.” He gripped the air with both of his. All ten fingers sported a different ring. One had a skull. One was chrome plastic with fake green gem.
“Neither was Batman.”
He scowled as if he’d swallowed something bitter. “Trust fund kid who got bored of serially abusing women and found the perfect excuse to indulge a brutal sadism left from years of festering undiagnosed PTSD.”
I laughed. Legitimately.
He smiled, like it was a joke. But I think he was halfway serious. “That’s not the darkness,” he said. “That’s egotistical self-loathing. There’s a big difference.”
I made face like “well, okay” and we walked another block. It seemed like he wasn’t sure what to say after that. Like he was worried he’d said too much.
“Favorite book.” I said.
“Ha.” He smiled. “Trick question.”
“Come on. Don’t give me that ‘I can’t pick just one’ bull crap.” For a second I worried he was trying to hide the fact that he didn’t read.
Please don’t be stupid. Please don’t be stupid.
He shook his head. “That’s not it.”
“It’s nothing. I just doubt you’d have heard of any of them. What about you?”
“Hold on. Have a little faith, man. Jeez.”
He smirked. “Okay. How about the Ogrosticon Orduum?” He waited.
“The Long Vacant Cupboard?”
He started listing titles. “Smales’s Compendium of Lesser Travesties. The Key of Solomon. The Reign of Massius Crane?” He looked to me to see if he should continue.
“Dude. What. Ever. You’re just making shit up.”
“Told ya.” He smiled that easy smile.
I think he was a little bit that guy who always had to know the rarest, most unheard of stuff of anyone in his crew.
But it was cool ’cuz I was a little bit that girl.
“What about you?” he asked.
I thought. I squinted. My cheeks flushed pink.
“What?” he asked.
“They’re all in Chinese.”
He pushed me. “See? And you’re giving me shit.”
I scrunched my nose. “Sorry.”
“Speaking of Chinese . . .” He stopped. He pointed down the street.
I stopped, too. “You’re fuckin’ kidding me . . .” My mouth hung open. I pointed sternly. “You are not taking me there.”
He smiled that easy smile again and started walking. After ten or so paces, he turned and asked if I was coming. But he didn’t stop.
I waited to see if he would go all the way in.
Petty, I know. But whatever. It happened.
He totally did. He opened the door, smiled at me once more, and stepped into the Chop Suey Palace. The sign jutted from the side of the building in gaudy vertical letters.
No man has ever gotten me to eat American Chinese food.
snippet from the revisions to Curse of the Red Dagger, the second course of my eternally delayed occult mystery A FEAST OF SHADOWS which is now packed with even more awesome