The remainder of the now even tenser evening is passed with stilted, small-talk-style conversation and theatrical gagging on my part, following my discovery that mackerel pretty much tastes like those cod liver oil capsules that my mum used to give me. I end up just eating the rice and asparagus, all the while wishing that I’d just gone with my usual safe prawn dish. Thanks to my Latin heritage, I’ve grown up around a lot of seafood, but I guess I now know the reason why our parents never subjected us to such an atrocity as mackerel. Thomas’ regular old pizza is beginning to look extremely appealing.
Needless to say, he notices me shooting glances at the thick Hawaiian topping and makes a subtle gesture to the final slice.
I shake my head shyly. No, I couldn’t. Could I?
Our eyes lock in a silent battle, but eventually I figure that mine register defeat because he lifts it tentatively to my mouth, which has slipped open, lubricated by saliva.
Although my heart rate is rising steeply and my skin prickles like it wants to leap away from my internal organs, I fight the feeling. The isosceles triangle approaches, the tip of the cheese teasing my taste buds until I can no longer restrain myself and I bite down. And I chew. I let the flavours drip down my throat.
I am euphoric; I’ve overcome the anxiety – the virus is not stronger than me. Almost shivering, I allow a grin to spread across my jaw.
Thom’s expression is synonymous.
I try not to let that bother me. Maybe I should give this thing a chance.
Reaching out for my hand in slow motion, reality speeds up again as he clasps it; I give it a shake so that we end up swinging our arms back and forth, brushing the side of the table – a rope of skin. It is not love or even lust that I am feeling, but appreciation: deep, untainted, heady gratefulness for his simply being. For his bamboozling desire to make me his. Although he is hardly the counter-weight to my see-saw, the strength of his smile alone keeps me elevated, optimistic. Yet I need him to know the truth – tonight has proved to me that Thom is more delicate than he seems and I cannot take advantage of that.
“I’m so glad that you’re here.” I articulate, trying to let my sincerity shine through. It is difficult to fight against the physical urges to jump up and embrace him – to share the intense warmth that fills me, however I know that I mustn’t let anything spin out of control. If I cannot restrain the heart then I must restrain the head. Unfortunately, I am used to doing quite the opposite. “But I don’t love you.” I say explicitly, still cracking my widest smile.
Thom’s grin doesn’t falter either until, 30 seconds later, he sighs. “I am aware.”
With these four syllables, as if I have been on a sugar high my energy levels plummet and I beseech for him to explain.
He sighs again. “I asked Luca to watch you – how you behaved around me and your aura – so that I could decipher what you truly felt. It’s intrusive I know and I had no right, but I was desperate. All that he reported back was concern, sympathy, anxiety, terror. I guess that tonight was me trying my good fortune in the hope that your desire had somehow manifested itself into all of these.”
I wait for him to continue, but it seems that he’s done.
“I’m sorry.” I apologise pathetically and he cringes at the evident pity. “I’m sorry that I can’t be the one, though I wish you luck in finding her.”
I’ve never been particularly adept at consoling others but with the right mood to work with, the virus changes that. I’m still me, just – exaggerated. Involuntarily, I pick up both feet, one then the other, so that I am shuffling out from my side of the booth and padding over to Thomas’ side.
His irises jitter in a startled manner. He clearly wasn’t expecting this; neither was I.
I lean down to press my lips against the soft cartilage of his left ear. “I can’t bear for you to be upset; you’ve made such an effort and I’m so grateful; you can kiss me if you like.”
I hold my breath but he shakes his head vigorously enough for the light to catch the field of straw atop it, making the strands appear to be flaming – burning – smouldering. “How can I let myself get so close to something that I cannot have?” His tone is such that I am unable to tell whether this question is meant for himself or for me.
“Okay.” I agree softly, trying hard to direct my response towards that of relief rather than offense. “Okay.”
I refuse to muck things up any further.