While Eric waited for Ella to come out, he looked aimlessly around the shop as James leaned on the counter, chin in hand, gazing at him. Eventually, Eric couldn’t pretend to ignore the awkward attention any longer. “Hi,” he said to James, still working hard to avoid eye contact.
“Hiiii.” James drew the word out in a smitten voice.
As soon as Ella rounded the corner, Eric took one lively step forward to meet her across the counter. “Thank god,” he whispered to himself.
“Eric, hi! What brings you here?” Ella was genuinely surprised by the visit.
“Good. I...” He was clearly distracted, and Ella could see why. James hadn’t budged. He remained as he was, staring at Eric as if he was soaking up every ounce of handsome that he could.
Ella tilted her head a bit and whispered to the man in a daze. “James,” she said firmly and with wide eyes. James took the hint and with an innocent expression, he sashayed into the office. Ella turned back to Eric who was already starting to feel a bit more comfortable. “Sorry,” she said. “You were saying.”
Still recovering from the awkwardness with James, Eric took a minute to snap back into gear. “Oh, yeah, I... I wondered if you had plans tonight.”
Ella was taken with surprise. “Um... N- no, I don’t,” she smiled, not knowing what else to say. “Do you?” As soon as the words slipped passed her lips she regretted them. Squeezing her eyes shut in embarrassment, she tried to correct herself. “I’m sorry, that was dumb. I meant to ask ‘why.’ No, I don’t have any plans, why do you ask?” She offered another smile as she silently cursed herself.
“Well, I’m caught up at work. I saw that an old drive-in theatre was opening just outside of town, and wondered if you wanted to go. It’s opening night. Free popcorn with two drinks. It is a hike, but I remembered you mentioning you used to love going to the drive-in.”
Ella’s felt her cheeks warm and couldn’t stop her smile from growing. “So, that’s why you came over the other day?”
“No, that was for sugar. But I prefer it not smell like wet dog.”
“Right,” Ella said, revealing his smile.
There it is, he thought. “So? Do you want to go?”
“Yes, I’d love to join you.”
“Great. The movie starts two hours after your shop closes.”
Eric started to back away, but felt strange doing so. He scrambled for words to distract himself. “And if you want to bring Doc’s Son... That is, if you’re not ready to leave him alone... That’s not a problem.”
“I’m sure he’ll be fine,” Ella thought his new-found nervousness to be quite endearing. “Lilly can check on him. And he’s alone now, so...”
“Right! Okay, I’ll see you later then.”
“Bye.” Ella could barely beat back her excitement as Eric turned to leave.
The remaining hours at work could not pass quickly enough. The butterflies in Ella’s stomach stirred up an anxious mix of excitement and nervousness.
“Calm down,” Lilly said. “You’re just going as friends, right?”
“Oh my god,” excitement gave way to nerves. “Are we? What if he expects more? What if I do? Do I? What should I expect?”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa! Cool your jets.” Lilly grasped Ella’s shoulders as if holding her together. She continued with a calm, soothing voice. “There is nothing to get all worked up about. Go under the assumption that you’re friends―keeping in mind, of course, that if you get lucky I want all the details.”
“That’s not helpful. Should I leave now and get a wax?”
“Hey, don’t leave me out of this,” James called. “What are we waxing?”
“Nothing,” Lilly explained. “She’s just overreacting to her date.”
“You think it’s a date?” Ella begged.
Lilly rolled her eyes and went back to work, but not before passing Ella off to James. “She’s all yours. Good luck.”
Ella looked over to James who had a grin that laid bare all evil in his body. “Oh no,” she said to herself.
Once the shop was closed, Lilly and James hurried Ella home in time for her to shower, change, and literally shake out the remaining nerves.
“Shake it,” Lilly said as the three of them stood in a circle shaking their whole bodies. “Release the tension.”
“This is ridiculous,” Ella said.
“I don’t know,” James replied. “I think it’s working. I feel great.”
“You’re not the one going out on a… whatever this is.”
“Why does it matter?” Lilly asked. “You’ve been with him to dinner, lunch, hiking, into the good old stream. Why freak out now?” Lilly sunk into Ella’s couch and Doc’s Son snuggled up on her lap.
“But it was clear to me we were no more than friends then. He’s asking me to go do a thing people do when they’re dating.”
“Not true,” Lilly argued. “I went to the movies with Jay. We’re not dating.”
“Oh, yes you are,” Ella corrected.
“We are not!”
“You think I don’t know? I know who you like before you do. I also know who you love before you do. Just by how you act and the things you say. I knew you two were doing it, didn’t I?”
Lilly folded her arms.
“You’re dating, and you’re going to get your heart broken in the end when he leaves.” The words slipped from Ella’s grasp before she even knew what they were. She cursed this unfortunate side effect of the day-long pestering by her butterflies.
“Wow,” Lilly said softly. “So glad you know me better than I know myself. Tell me what I’m going to do next and I’ll stay.”
“You’re going to try to leave,” Ella answered.
“Wrong, I am going to leave,” Lilly rose from the sofa and began to walk out.
“But you’ll stay,” Ella said and Lilly froze in her tracks. “You’ll wonder why, but you’ll know it’s because you’re right, I’m sorry, and I love you.”
“That’s a husband’s get-out-of-jail-free card, not yours.”
“Right now it is, because it’s true.”
“You’d make a great husband,” James commented, but upon receipt of her death stare he tried to retrieve the comment. “I mean tutor! You’d make a great husband tutor!”
Lilly wanted to take off with a stormy, dramatic exit, but she knew it would ruin Ella’s night―a night she had deserved for a long time. Besides, Lilly thought, damn girl’s always right. “I love you too.” She walked back to her friend and hugged her tightly. “But I’m only saying that now so you’ll go out and have a good time.”
“Oh, come on. Are we okay?”
“Of course,” Lilly answered and the two shared warm smiles.
“There he is,” Lilly said. “You good?”
“Yeah,” Ella said as she straightened herself and made a few adjustments to her outfit. “I’m good.”
“Great, we’ll get out of here once you’re gone just in case you’re gunna get lucky later. By the way, now is probably the time to tell you that I slipped a few condoms into your purse.”
“I was good, thank you,” came Ella’s sarcastic reply.
When Ella opened the door, Eric was caught by surprise that even in jeans and a t-shirt he found her stunning.
“Ready?” she asked.
As the door closed, James nudged Lilly. “Are you two really okay?”
With the door closed behind her, Ella made her way down the steps, careful not to trip or knock Eric down or do anything else that could potentially ruin the night before it even began. At his truck, Eric opened the door as a gentleman would and offered his hand to Ella to help her in. Maybe this is a date, she thought.
“Mind if we make a quick stop on the way?”
“Of course not,” were the words she spoke aloud, but silently she corrected previous thought. Maybe it’s not.
Eric pulled into the gas station in town and ran inside, leaving Ella in the truck. She waited for what seemed like an endless amount of time. She watched as the sun ducked down behind the treetops, creating a silhouette of a forest against a fiery canvas. The eastern sky turned to darker shades of blue, and the west became painted in bright shades of gold. As the radio began its fourth song since Ella had been sitting alone, Eric finally emerged from inside, concealing something behind his back.
“Sorry about the wait,” he said as he climbed into the truck. “I wanted to get you this.” Ella felt her heart lift as Eric handed her a rose. “I’m sure you have better, but you’re shop is closed, so…”
“It’s lovely, thank you,” Ella inhaled the rosy scent with satisfaction. It’s a date, she thought. “I didn’t know they sold single roses here.”
“They don’t. That’s what took me so long.”
“How did you get it?”
“After arguing with the cashier enough, I finally bought a whole bouquet and gave him the rest for his wife. Stubborn old man,” he mumbled. “I thought it would be more romantic to give you a single rose. Not that I’m trying to be romantic. I mean, I’m not taking you out to… Unless you… Oh, hell.”
Ella laughed. “It is romantic. And that’s okay. Promise I won’t bail―unlike some people.”
Eric took his time driving along the wooded roads. The sun still peeked through the trees, it’s light spattering across the truck as it traveled. The two were comfortable riding quietly together. Ella secretly counted the petals of her rose. It is a date, it’s not, it is a date, it’s not. She noticed that one of the outer petals was torn. Does that count as one, making this a friend’s night out? Or does it count as two, making it a date? Does it not count at all? Two, she decided. After all, it must have been torn because of the exhausting argument with the cashier, and without the tear it would be whole.
As they continued their drive, Ella noticed for the first time the shifter between herself and Eric. “You know, I never learned how to drive standard.”
“Nope. Never had to, I guess.”
“Hmm,” Eric thought on this for a moment before pulling to the side of the road. The truck came to a stop and he said, “Hop out.”
Ella followed her orders, unbuckling her seatbelt and hurrying to the driver’s door where she stood and stared at Eric. “Well, get in,” Eric helped her into the driver’s seat before jogging around to get in on the other side.
“Oh boy,” Ella whispered, buckling her seatbelt and giving it a firm tug to make sure it was secure.
“Alright,” Eric said, fastening his own belt. “There’s nothing to it. Hold down the brake and clutch to start the truck. Once it’s started, let off the clutch.” Ella followed his instructions and the engine began to hum. “See? Easy enough. Now, same thing to shift into first, you know where that is, right?”
“Yeah,” Ella shifted, holding her feet in place.
“Okay, now for the hard part.”
“Don’t worry, everyone has trouble with this at first.”
“You want to give it gas as you let off the clutch, like this,” Eric held up his hands and tilted one forward as he tilted the other back. “Just like that.”
“Okay,” Ella said, nerves shaking inside her body.
“Give it a go.”
Ella took a deep breath and tried to make her feet do whatever Eric was trying to portray with his hands. The truck jumped ahead with several jerks before stalling and settling in place.
“Okay, now when you feel that, you need to give it a little more clutch, okay? It’s a dance.”
“That’s entirely unhelpful.”
Eric chuckled, “Go back to neutral then start her up and try again.”
Ella followed his instructions, keeping all focus on her feet. The truck jumped forward, she danced, and stalled. Again from square one. The truck jumped, she danced, and they took off moving forward. Once they were going, she pushed the clutch and shifted into second… third… fourth... “I’m doing it!”
“See that? The hardest part is to get going. Once you’re moving, it’s easy. Not bad for only your first time.”
The road wound between the mountains, in and out of what sunlight that could still reach them. The truck continued to curve around the bends smoothly, until the drive-in was finally in sight.
“What now?” she asked.
“There are a few options, but in your case it may be best to slip into neutral to slow down. About half way through the turn, throw it into first and give it some gas.”
Ella did this with impressive ease. In neutral again, she slowed to a stop in a line of cars waiting to pay for their entry into the drive-in. “Uh oh,” she said. “There are going to be a lot of stop and go’s here.”
“Don’t worry. Just remember how you got her going before.”
The cars ahead moved up and the ones behind piled in just as quickly. Ella could feel the pressure building. Ignoring Eric’s advice to take her time and let the other vehicles get ahead, Ella shifted into first and tried to move forward. The truck jumped a few times and stalled out. Brake, clutch, ignition, first gear, jump, stall, and again. The tires seemed to spin with every inch they moved forward. The cars ahead were moving along nicely as Eric’s truck bounced and jerked around the dirt drive. Finally, Ella stalled within a few feet from the booth. The teen working the entrance walked over with a smile.
“I’m learning,” Ella said.
“Standard? That’s embarrassing.” Eric chuckled as the boy continued. “Pull into any of the first few rows―if you can.”
“I can,” Ella scolded him. “I might just be a few minutes.” This time, take-off went smoothly. “Hey! There we go! What did he mean by asking if I was driving standard anyway? Does he think I’d be driving an automatic that way?”
“Of course not,” Eric laughed and Ella pinched his arm as she pulled into a spot straight ahead, safe from stalling or use of gas. “You’re stopping here? The last row? We’re not even centered to the screen.”
“Then you’re moving us!” Ella exclaimed as she hopped out of the driver’s seat and into the passenger’s.
Eric backed them into a spot right in front of the screen and shut the truck off, thankful to have arrived without an accident.
“So, what now?”
“Come on,” he answered as he waved for her to get out of the cab once more. Eric led Ella to the back of the truck where he let down the tail gate. He lifted her onto the back as if she were a paper doll, leaving her dizzy with excitement. Climbing up himself, Eric pulled out two camping chairs, complete with ottomans, pillows and blankets.
“Ah, you are no novice.”
“I like to plan ahead. It makes for a more meaningful experience.”
“That is one way in which we are different. I like to see what happens. It makes for a more memorable experience.”
“You make a valid point, but I still prefer it my way,” he smirked.
After setting up the truck bed to their liking, the two made their way to a large building at the front of the property. The sun was still hanging and they had fifty-four minutes to spare. After a rather amateur game of putt-putt, they ordered their snacks and walked back to the truck. The breeze blew gently as they wrapped themselves up in the blankets and settled in for the movie. Two previews in, and the movie and all lights went dark. Voices instantly began popping up throughout the crowd.
“What’s going on?” Ella asked. She leaned up in her chair to see the manager and attendants walking through the crowd informing them that the town had lost power and all customers would receive a full refund. The sound of engines and the flash of headlights fired up all throughout the property, but Ella and Eric remained where they were, enjoying popcorn and each new star that appeared in the sky above them.
“Oh yes, Lilly comes up with the most outrageous things to say! Once, she even asked what would happen to Black Friday if Thanksgiving didn’t fall on a Thursday.”
“No. Tell me she was kidding.”
“Most likely. Usually she says things just to get a reaction.”
“Well, I imagine that makes your life very entertaining.”
“Oh, you have no idea.” Ella pulled the blanket a little closer to her chin and looked up to the space above them. The sky was nearly black, speckled with tiny bright, white stars. “So, who’s Mel? Anyone who has visited since you’ve been here?”
“Mel?” Eric took this question with surprise and some offense. “Where did you hear that name?”
“Steve mentioned you were talking to some guy named Mel that first night you met him.”
“Oh yes, when you had him standing outside on Valentine’s Day. You should have left him out there, you know.”
“Hey, people do not think clearly on Valentine’s Day! It’s the one day a year they get to be completely irrational.”
“That is not true!”
“There are plenty of days each year where people can find excuses to be irrational,” Eric said. “For example, Christmas where parents spend hundreds of dollars on gifts for their kids. Gifts, mind you, that the kids will hate, break or forget they ever had.”
“New Years where nearly everyone around the world celebrates a new beginning when, in reality, they are going to get seriously drunk, kiss someone they don’t really care about and may not even know, and make resolutions they are going to break within two weeks. Arbor Day…”
“Arbor Day! What could you possibly have against Arbor Day?”
“Why hug a tree one day a year. They give us so much. I think we should hug them more often.”
“Fine. Say I’m kidding. We’ll call everything I just said a ‘bunch of lies.’ But keep in mind that the most convincing lies hold an air of truth.”
Ella laughed and reached over to give him a playful smack on the arm.
“Sir,” the manager called from beside the truck. “I’m sorry, but I need you to vacate the premises. You can get your refund at the booth on your way out.”
Eric looked around the field to see that they were the only vehicle left in the place. “You know what? I think we had a pretty good time. You can keep it. We’ll be out of your way in a few.”
Wishing all of the customers that night had been so generous, the manager quickly left the two alone as they packed their things and got ready to go. Eric opened the driver’s door as Ella opened the other. “I’m not opening this for me,” he said, looking across the truck to Ella.
“You really want me to drive? After my very noticeable entrance and the way that kid poked fun at me?”
“Practice makes perfect.”
“Huh, alright,” Ella said as she reluctantly climbed into the driver’s seat. “Fasten your seatbelts, folks. It really will be a bumpy ride.” Brake, clutch, ignition, first gear, gas, and they were off. “Wow, not bad, actually.”
“See? Now I’m going to rest my eyes while you drive. Let me know when we’re home.”
“You are not!” Ella laughed, although she couldn’t distract herself from hearing him say the words ‘when we’re home.’
Unlike the ride out, the ride back to their driveway was surprisingly gentle.
“Okay, stop on the hill of the driveway,” Eric said.
“Starting is hard, right?”
“Well, starting on a hill is harder. You want to do it without rolling backwards.”
“Oh, great,” Ella said, wishing she hadn’t listened to him and stopped the truck where he asked.
“This time, add a bit more gas to your dance. You know what to do, just trust yourself.”
“Okay, here goes…” Ella shifted into first, the car jumped and the tires squealed, until finally they stalled.
“It’s okay, try again.”
After several failed attempts, the two watched as several lights flashed on the dashboard and the engine revved for no reason.
“What’s happening?” Ella asked.
“I have no idea, but maybe I should drive now.”
“Agreed,” Ella said as she pulled the emergency brake and nearly flew out of the truck. Eric pulled the truck into the driveway like a pro. When she got out once again, Ella smelled something awful. “What’s that smell?” she asked, looking over to find Eric staring at the front tires.
“You burned rubber,” he said. “Let’s go inside.”
“Okay,” Ella agreed, happily. They walked inside together, feeling a bit awkward after seeing the state of the truck. “So, all rubber burning aside, I had a really nice time tonight.”
“So did I.”
“I know you don’t mean that,” Ella said as she unlocked her apartment door.
“My truck will hate me for saying it, but yes, I do mean it. Thank you for going out with me tonight.”
They hesitated for a moment. The space was tight and Ella’s body tingled by his close proximity. Then, Eric leaned in slowly. Ella leaned against the door as he pressed his lips to hers. Ella wrapped her arms around Eric, feeling a shiver of adrenalin as he slid the door open. They swayed back into the apartment until they reached the wall in the foyer. As Ella kissed Eric, she pressed her body against his. Eric pressed back, leaning Ella hard into the wall behind her. “Ouch!” she cried out. “What was that?”
“What? What happened?”
Eric felt the wall. “The light switch.” They both laughed it off. Eric slipped his hand around to Ella’s back, guarding her from the light switch. Their kissing was suddenly interrupted when Ella burst out laughing. “Oh no,” Eric said.
“No, no,” Ella managed as she continued to laugh. “I’m sorry! It’s just that... Whenever I’m around you, or even just thinking about you, things like that happen.”
“Things like what?”
“Like the light switch―clumsy things. And I can’t explain it. It’s as if I lose all focus when you cross my mind.”
“Hmm,” Eric stepped back. “Then, I hope you start becoming a lot clumsier.” He smiled gently at Ella as he gazed into her eyes. “Although, I would appreciate you not expressing your clumsiness around me, because when I’m near you I always seem to pay for it, one way or another.”
“Hey, I thought we had a pretty good night.”
“We did, you’re right. Oh, but don’t forget about my melted tires, exhausted engine, and clutch that will need some rehabilitation in the morning.”
They both giggled together, unsure of the next move to make. Out of nowhere, Ella felt a wave of bravery. “Eric, I’d like to give us a shot and see where it goes. What do you think?”
Taken completely off guard, Eric struggled to find words to respond. “Well, who can argue with a girl who knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to go get it?”
They smiled at one another and their eyes met for a long moment. Finally, Eric pulled himself from his daydream and leaned in for a soft, gentle kiss. “I’d better get going. Have a nice night.” With one last kiss, he closed the door quietly behind him.
Seeing what a gentleman Eric was made Ella want him all the more. She imagined walking down to his door, knocking, and throwing herself at him as soon as he answered. Instead, she went to bed, savoring the innocent yet romantic night they had shared together. It was a date, she thought happily.