Thirty-six Questions

early morning birdsCharlotte was ten minutes early to the coffeeshop.

It was a terrible habit.

She could hear her best friend, Emily, scolding her now. “Early looks eager,” Emily would say. “And eager and desperate are way too close. Bad enough that you’re doing this ridiculous speed-dating thing, you don’t want to look needy, do you?”

Needy was a bad word in the modern dating scene, Charlotte knew. You weren’t supposed to “need” a partner, “need” a companion, “need” love — you were supposed to be perfectly happy on your own, entirely self-sufficient, even in love with yourself. Not conceited, of course. No, charmingly self-deprecating, but completely confident at the same time. Intelligent, but not intimidatingly so. In the words of every other top pop song sung by a guy, “beautiful, without knowing you’re beautiful.”

Dating sucked.

Charlotte honestly wasn’t sure why she was bothering.

But she did need somebody. Or at least she wanted someone. Someone to come home to, to wake up with. Someone who could make her laugh and who would make her tea when she got caught in the rain. Speaking of which, the sky was about to open up, so despite the time—still early—Charlotte got out of her car and hurried into the coffeeshop.

She glanced around. Only one table held a single man. She didn’t recognize him from his photos, but it had to be him. Athletic, dark hair—well, she would have said on the skinny side and balding, but maybe he was fitter than he looked. And what guy ever told the truth about losing his hair?

She headed in his direction, reminding herself not to hurry. A confident saunter, that was the ticket. But he wasn’t watching so he missed her approach entirely. Charlotte tried not to let it annoy her that he had his head in a book—she was early, after all, and she liked to read, too, reading was good—but it would be nice if he acted at least a little interested in meeting her.

She put her hand on the back of the chair across from him. “Hi.” Her voice came out husky, more out of nerves than deliberate intent, but when he looked up, her throat went dry.

From across the room, he was nobody special, but his eyes were a gorgeous gray-green and his welcoming smile lit up his face like… Charlotte scrambled for some sort of mental comparison as he stuck a napkin in his book but she couldn’t find it. Like a lighthouse on a dark night, or a sparkler on the 4th of July, maybe. It was a very nice smile.

She put her hand on her chest and introduced herself. “Charlotte.”

“Nice to meet you, Charlotte.”

His voice was nice, too, she decided. Sort of warm and smoky. She thought she might be flushing, so she glanced away, down at the seat next to her. “Are you—“

“Please.” He interrupted her, gesturing at the chair.

Okay, no points for not standing or introducing himself, even though of course she knew his name. Or was supposed to, anyway. Was it Russ? Ryan? But at least he was setting his book aside.

Flustered by not remembering his name, Charlotte slid into the chair. “So,” she said briskly, trying to cover up her confusion. “Do you want to go first or shall I?”

“Ah…” He started.

“I know the rules say three questions each, but I was kind of thinking we should maybe answer the same questions?” she continued before he had a chance to speak. “So we pick a number and then we both answer that question? We could flip a coin or something for who gets to pick the third question to be fair?” All of her sentences were coming out as questions, her nerves showing up in her breathless hurried speech, so she paused.

His smile, still warm, looked uncertain. “All right. If you like.”

“Great!” She smiled back at him, bright in her relief. “I’ll go first. I like number one, so… Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?”

He chuckled. “That’s a great question.”

She raised her eyebrows. Had he not read the questions ahead of time? Oh, but of course he must have. He was just complimenting her on the one she’d picked.

But he was looking thoughtful, tapping the cover of his book. “In the world,” he mused. “That implies currently living, so not someone historical. And dinner, so we’re looking for an interesting conversationalist, not just a fanboy moment.”

Fanboy. He’d just used the word fanboy. Charlotte felt every cell in her body wake up and start paying attention.

His expression went abstracted, as if he were running down lists of names in his head. Finally, he sighed and said, “You know, I’m going to have to go with JK Rowling.”

Charlotte blinked at him. “What?”

He shrugged apologetically. “I know, so many more worthwhile options. World leaders, Nobel prize winners, the Dalai Lama. But what can I say? I’d love to talk to her.”

“That’s who I’d pick, too,” Charlotte told him. She had a strange feeling in her chest, like her heart was rising into her throat, and her cheeks were definitely flushing now. “There’s so much I’d like to ask her.”

“She must have incredible stories,” Russ or Ryan or whatever-his-name was said. “Think of the people she’s met. And the places she’s gone. I’d love to know who she’d pick as her person to have dinner with.”

Charlotte laughed. “First on my list of questions to ask,” she agreed. Their eyes met. There was a pause. Charlotte was the first to let her gaze drop, looking down at the tabletop. “Um, yeah, so your question next. Which number do you want?”

“How about, uh, seventeen?”

“Seventeen?” She looked up. “We’re only supposed to pick from the first set on the first meeting. Three questions, out of one through twelve. Seventeen’s one of the six for a second date. If, you know, we decide to meet again.”

“Right,” he said. “Right. Of course. How about seven?”

Charlotte’s nose wrinkled in distaste. Seven? Really? She hated seven. “Uh, okay.” She sighed. “Secret hunch about how you’ll die… well, my mom has Alzheimer’s. And her mom died of Alzheimer’s. And her grandma did, too. My great-grandmother, that is. So, you know, family history, not on my side. My secret hunch about how I will die is that I’ll wind up with Alzheimer’s.”

“I’m sorry.” He sounded genuinely sympathetic. “That sucks.”

“I… thank you.” Charlotte traced a line on the table. Probably she should have ordered a coffee. She’d just jumped right into the intimate portion of the date. Still, at the rate they were going, this speed date would be over in ten minutes. They were halfway through already. Halfway through and she still couldn’t remember his name.

Not that it would matter. Telling a guy on the first date that you expected to die of dementia was a pretty good guarantee that there’d be no second date. What guy wanted to deal with that?

But she couldn’t lie. Speed dating with the New York Times intimacy questions was supposed to be about quickly discovering your compatibility with your potential partner. Lying defeated the purpose. “Your turn,” she said.

“Secret hunch about how I’ll die.” He paused. The silence went on and on and on. Finally Charlotte looked up.

He was looking pained.

She shook her head, questioning. “Yeah?”

He spread his hands. “I got nothing. I feel so… un-analytical. Total lack of creativity. How could I never have pondered this deep and troubling question? It’s so unlike me. But as it happens I’ve never spent much time considering my fate.” He dropped his voice. “I hope this doesn’t make me sound unrealistic, but I think my plan is to live forever.”

Charlotte choked out a laugh. “Maybe a little unrealistic?” she suggested.

“Maybe a little,” he conceded, but his eyes were smiling.

“It’s okay,” she said. “The full question is something like ‘Do you have a secret hunch…’, so…” she shrugged. “No secret hunch. Count your blessings.”

“I do.” He nodded. “I definitely do.”

There was another pause, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. Charlotte finally spoke. “Last question. Do you want to flip a coin for it?”

“Why don’t you choose?”

“You sure?”

He nodded. “Positive.” He smiled again. “Make it a good one.”

“All right.” Charlotte thought. What did she want to know about the man sitting across from her? Everything. She wanted to know what his perfect day would be and she wanted his four-minute life story and she’d like to find out what he felt most grateful for. And she definitely wanted to know whether his answer and her answer would match on a quality or ability gained—magic, of course—but there was also the singing question…

“Excuse me?” The strange male voice broke into her concentration.

Charlotte looked up.

Athletic, dark-haired, attractive, and looking somewhat annoyed, he left her totally cold. “Charlotte?”

“Yes?” she asked.

“I’m Russ.” He glanced at his watch. “I’m sorry I’m a little late. The rain…” He glanced at her companion impatiently.

Charlotte looked from one man to the other. “You’re Russ. Oh. Oh. I…” She pressed her lips together trying to hold back the semi-hysterical laugh that wanted to break forth. “I…”

Should she apologize? To which one of them? To both of them?

“I’m sorry.” Her erstwhile companion leaned forward, putting out his hand. “Michael Overton. I thought you were asking to take the chair.”

Charlotte shook his hand automatically. His grip was firm, his skin warm under hers. “I should be the one apologizing. I just jumped right into that, didn’t I?”

“I was a little confused,” he admitted.

“You rebounded well.”

“It was a great question.” He gestured to his book. “I’m reading this for work. It’s dry. I was delighted to think about something more interesting.” His eyes were warm.

Charlotte craned her neck to see the title. “Bioethics Issues for the Twenty-first Century? Are you a doctor?”

He winced. “Philosophy professor, actually.”

“Seriously?” The world still contained philosophy professors? How unexpected. “Isn’t that a little…retro?”

He laughed. “First time I’ve ever heard it called that.”

Russ cleared his throat. “Charlotte?”

Charlotte looked up at him. “Right, right.” She stood, shoving her chair back so quickly that it nearly fell over. Russ stepped away, but she grabbed it before it hit the ground, fumbling with her bag. “So, um, yeah, it was nice to meet you, Michael.”

“You, too.” He nodded at her, opening his book again.

Charlotte got a coffee before sitting down with Russ. He didn’t offer to pay. His choice for dinner companion was the Dalai Lama; the last time he’d sung to someone else was back in grade school; and his four-minute life story took ten. Twenty minutes later, he walked her to her car, courteously holding his umbrella over her in a now gentle rain. They made vague plans for their second date—maybe sometime over the weekend, he’d text, his schedule was packed—and then he left her.

Charlotte sat behind the wheel. The key was in the ignition, but she didn’t turn it.

She should leave.

Or… she could go back inside.

No, she should leave. She’d already embarrassed herself enough for one day.

But she wanted her third question.

No, she had no idea who he was. It wasn’t like he’d been online, looking for a date. He might be married for all she knew. She hadn’t checked for a ring. And he probably was married—all the good ones always were. Some smart woman would have grabbed him years ago. She should go.

Or… she could go back inside. She could find out whether he was married. She could just ask him. She tried to picture how that would go, what she’d say. He’d be reading and she’d stand by his table again and he’d look up at her and…

She should go. She put her hand on the key, but she didn’t turn it. She bit her lip. Then, abruptly, she pulled the key out of the ignition and shoved open the door. It was raining still, but she got out of the car anyway.

Michael was standing in the doorway of the coffeeshop, looking in both directions, up and down the parking lot. She paused.

He spotted her. His smile lit up his face again. Ignoring the rain, he hurried toward her.

“Hey,” he said when he was close enough.

“Hey,” she replied.

“I thought I might have missed you. I didn’t want to interrupt.” The rain was plastering his remaining hair to his head but his eyes looked even greener.

“I wouldn’t have minded.”

“Not a JK fan?”

“The Dalai Lama,” she said with a sigh.

“Well…” He shrugged.

“Exactly.” She nodded.

He laughed, then rubbed a hand over his head, looking sheepish. “Twelve questions, you said. That means we’ve got ten left.”

“You want to do all ten?” Charlotte asked, surprised but also delighted.

“No.”

She had just enough time to feel a brief flicker of chagrin before he said, “I mean, yes. And no. There’s supposed to be a second date, right? With more questions. So ten more for the first set and then a second set?”

“And then a third,” she told him. “Thirty-six questions in all. The rules — the speed-date rules, I mean — say three questions on the first meeting, six on the second, all twelve for a third date.”

“I already know you’re a rule-breaker,” he said. “Want to break the rules some more and answer all thirty-six questions with me?”

She couldn’t contain her smile. It was pulling at her cheeks, drawing them high on her face. “They get pretty personal,” she warned him. “The idea is, at the end…”

She wasn’t sure how to say what was supposed to happen next. The idea, of course, was that at the end of the questions, you’d be in love. Or not.

She didn’t have to say anything further, though, because he said, “At the end, you’ll know whether, given the choice of anyone in the world, you’d want the person sitting across from you to be your dinner guest for a great many dinners?”

She laughed. “Exactly.”

“I think our odds are pretty good,” he told her.

Standing in the rain, looking into his eyes, at his smile as wide as her own, she had to agree.

 


The NY Times Questions – According to their rules, you should answer what you can of each set in 15 minutes, but that was less interesting to me than a choose-your-own speed date.

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