I pour a packet of oyster crackers into the soup and start to eat it, a little faster than I had intended. I feel completely justified though, since there's no point in savoring it so I blitz my way through the cup and just as I'm about to put it back into the plastic bag to throw it out later, I feel my earbud get pulled out of my right ear. Before I can react, I hear a voice tell me that if I had wanted a good cup of clam chowder I should've stayed in the second restaurant and that they charge more because they're better.
I hesitate just long enough for the voice to sink in and I remember that I had talked to her not too long ago and I turn to see the girl from the cake shop sitting on the retaining wall next to me, facing the street but looking right at me with a very pretentious grin on her face. I'm getting to the point that I'm starting to wonder if someone is messing with me on purpose but then I remember nobody knows who I am enough to want to mess with me so rather than let the dead space grow even more awkward I serve first, and ask her if she knows from experience.
She says that she has, although she's not a fish person generally. Nope she's a girl that's all about a nice, big, juicy piece of meat. The range of emotions that hit me in the next few seconds feel mind boggling. It cannot be a coincidence that this girl that I bumped into has shown up while I am eating a mediocre cup of clam chowder, and worse than that she has a terrible sense of humor. And thinks she's funny. This girl might be a sociopath and for some reason she has an interest in me. I know I've been lonely and all but this is legitimately terrifying. But she is cute.
I must have gotten lost in thought because the next thing I know, the girl is waving her hand in my face to get my attention and telling me that it's not nice for a guy to sit there spacing out and not introduce yourself when a girl is talking to you. She has me there so I apologize and tell her my name and she perks back up, crossing her arms. She tells me she figured I'd have a boring name like that but she can probably work with it.
More confused than ever, I ask what she means by working with it but she ignores my query and asks me how was it in the restaurant while I was ordering. I must not have hidden the surprise on my face because she starts to giggle and laugh before I've said a word. I recount my experience inside to her, stopping twice to let her laugh at me, and when I finish she asks to see the receipt. I take it back out and hand it to her and she breaks out into a full guffaw when she reads it. I look back to see a couple of people looking at her as if something is wrong, so I just shrug and tell them it's the laughing gas and they smile a little too politely and hurry away, probably regretting their impulse to butt into people's business.
Once she regains her composure, the young lady tells me that she didn't expect Bobby to go this far, she only suggested he have some fun with me. I stare at her like she is daft. She holds back her laugh this time and tells me that the guy is a friend of hers, since she likes coming to the beach a lot, she knows a bunch of the people that frequent and work in the area and when she saw me going in she told him to give me a runaround to see if I had what it takes. My face slowly crinkles as she explains all this to me and when she finishes I don't hesitate to ask if that was just a giant test. She responds affirmatively, so I ask what it is she was testing for. She wanted to know if I was someone worth talking to. I ask how I did and she tells me that I've passed the first three tests.
I'm rather disarmed by this admission. I've passed three tests? I can gather that one test would be with Bobby in the clam shop. The second test would obviously be something in the cake shop. But how on Earth could I have passed a third test. As I'm opening my mouth to ask the question, she reaches her hand out and puts a finger to my lips to stop me. Boy does it. I close my eyes because if I look at her, I'll start blushing madly. Her finger is so soft but she presses it strongly to my lips just for an instant to restrain me, then lays it easily once I'm docile. I simply feel paralyzed, even when I think of pressing my lips back against her finger, or when I want to pull away and shrink away from my growing embarrassment. All I do is sit there, holding my breath, feeling my heart jump up in my throat. Just from a finger.
My brain doesn't seem to be functioning but my ears still work. I hear a whisper telling me to open my eyes because I won't bite. It takes a moment to realize she's not saying I'm going to bite myself and I scream at myself in my head to comply so loudly I'm shocked nobody else can hear me. But that seems to be what I need because I finally open my eyes and look at her. The smile and goofing around have faded away and she's looking at me earnestly. She explains that she thinks I've figured out the third test was Bobby and seeing if I could handle a fun little situation and I did pretty good since Bobby thinks I'm actually kinda cute. The first test I passed was when I didn't try to sneak a peek down her top when she was kneeling in front of the displays at the cake shop. Then she smiles again and takes her finger off my lips and says I can ask the question in my head now.
Question? I have a question? I surely can't think of anything besides wanting to feel that touch again. How could she be so bold and intimate with someone she saw for 2 minutes? The people walking by must be looking at us like we've known each other for years but I know nothing about this girl. Except that she might be insane..and she has very soft fingers. She quietly reminds me to ask my question and the tone in her voice sounds familiar to me. I start to come through the haze when I realize that she's using the tone with me that I probably use with Nana when I'm being patient and trying not to get annoyed. I don't know why but I don't want her to use that tone with me. I don't want her to become disinterested so I try to remember what we're talking about and I go ahead and ask what the second test was.
She shakes her head and tells me that wasn't the question she was looking for, but she will tell me. Then she goes about explaining that she had gone off ahead of me and was sitting in the park when I got to the picnic area and saw the girl face plant off the picnic table. She was impressed, not just that I went over to check on the girl, but that I acted so decently when the girl's parents came over and ran me off like I was a child predator. Most people wouldn't notice that but she did.
By now she's shifted herself on the retaining wall and is sitting cross-legged, facing me with her elbows on her thighs. I am being inspected and it's completely off-putting. I should be insulted for feeling like I'm in a glass jar being poked, prodded, and experimented on like I'm something being kept in a display case for her enjoyment. But I'm enjoying it too and I don't know why I am. I must be much more starved for attention than I ever figured. I must look ridiculous to her and maybe that's what's so fun to go about tormenting me.
I get told that I can try again whenever I'm ready. I'm not sure what the game she's getting at is, but I do want to know something so I ask her how long she's been following me, really. She starts to try to look at me sincerely, but the mask breaks and she can't help but wear that stupid grin like she was messing with me again. She tells me that she really didn't follow me until I got to the picnic area but she made sure she was going to see me there. I ask her what she means and she says that I took so long sitting by the marsh that she went and dropped off her box of stuff and I was still sitting there when she came back through.
She kept talking but I couldn't help but latch onto that. She knew that I had walked in the park, and kept tabs on me long enough to follow me even after I stopped to watched the guys fishing and came back just to see if she could find me again. I was so interesting that she put all these machinations into place to see if I would be worth talking to? Okay, it's a little hard not to be intrigued by it. A little bit more than intrigued, in fact.
I finally start paying attention as she tells me that she really doesn't have much time left because she does actually have someplace to go soon, so I should hurry up with my last question. I decide to test the waters and tell her that it's a two-part question and ask if that's okay. She says that will be fine, Bran Flake.
And that momentary feeling of having my feet under me was an illusion, because the quick sand starts dragging me under, all over again. What the hell is Bran Flake? I mean, I'm not really a nickname person. Really the only nickname I ever had was Bran Muffin, but only my mother ever called me that. And that was only until I was 10, before the sheer thought of someone saying that in public was too mortifying for words. I guess you can count some people calling me B, but that doesn't count. B is a letter, it's not really a nickname. All I know is right now I just feel naked, having this stranger breaking me down so effortlessly. But why aren't I running away yet?
I look at her and she seems really disappointed, and then I realize why when she asks me of all the things the things I could've asked her, why did I ask her what the hell is Bran Flake? In that moment, it dawns on me that I was so dumbfounded by her nickname that I actually asked my question aloud. I can't hide the consternation from my face and plead for a do-over but as much as she'd like to give me another chance, she's only got time to answer one question and that's the one.
She turns herself so that she's facing the ocean with me and dangles her legs off the side of the retaining wall like me. She earnestly turns her face to meet mine and looks into my eyes. I hadn't noticed before but her eyes are dark brown, with flecks of white and black in the pupils. They're completely gorgeous, like a well crafted marble. I could probably get lost studying every detail about them for hours and never even consider coming back to reality. I wonder if her boyfriend appreciates the precious gift he has available to him whenever he wants.
I'm so lost in thought that I barely even register when she starts talking. Bran flakes are so dull and boring. There's nothing fancy to them, and nobody ever goes "hey you know what I need right now? Fucking bran flakes"?
And that moment I had spent feeling connected to her is dead to me. What a pretentious...I was thinking but I guess she saw the look on my face because she puts her finger, that magical delicate finger, back to my lips and everything shuts down again. Once she has me fully enraptured, she continues.
But bran flakes don't need to be wanted all the time. When you need them, they're there. They're dependable, you always know what you're going to get from them. They're not pretentious. They just are what they are and you can believe in them. And I think that might be what you are. And lets face it, the world needs more bran flakes.
I smile sheepishly, because I don't know what else to do. I'm legitimately touched. I've known this girl for about 10 minutes and she gets me. Way better than the people that have known me for my entire life. I don't have words to say, but I think I am able to stutter out a hopelessly inadequate thank you. In response the girl kisses me on the cheek and tells me she thinks I'm a nice guy. An idiot fool, but a nice guy.
I didn't think I could be any more mesmerized but that did it. Her lips were so soft and warm on my cheek that I feel on fire now. Nobody has been this intimate with me, in far longer than I can even remember. I don't know what to do and I don't know what to say. All I know is that I feel something that I haven't felt in a very long time, because of this girl. And I'm lost to her.
Before I realize it, she jumps off the retaining wall and starts to walk off but I call her back. She's about to roll her eyes at me because I obviously wasn't listening that she's late to....something, but it's her turn to stop short when she sees a cupcake in my hand. I smile and tell her to take it, as a show of my gratitude for the weirdest, most insane, but nicest day I've had in a while. And I surely mean it. It might take me a month to dig through everything that happened here and even begin to try to make sense of it, but I'm smiling and laughing so something about this is right. And she deserves to know I appreciate this meaningless moment of time.
She takes the cupcake and does me the service of holding my hand for a couple of seconds longer than is necessary. Only then does she roll her eyes at me and tell me she hopes she is the highlight of my week, as she walks away. I don't even dare to turn my gaze from her until she's crossed the parkway and is heading down some street, away from me. The hurricane has finally blown through and moved on, and I'm left pleasantly sifting through the wreckage
Highlight of my week? Man, if she only knew...
Then it dawns on me. What the hell is wrong with me? I didn't even get her name.