“One Curry Burger. One basket of Masala fries. A side of pickles.” Rick, the cook, glanced at the ticket dangling in the kitchen’s window one more time. “Order up.”
Grabbing the ticket, Paisley stabbed it on the little skewer at the end of the service window, which was already stuffed about halfway to its sharp point. After five hours of rushes, one half gallon of spilled lemonade, and one whiny toddler that scared out two tables before they’d ordered, lunch was almost, finally over.
“I’ll never get why we don’t have anything Chinese on the menu,” Paisley said, taking the plates in hand. Next to her, Trish, her pastel pink and green hair tied up in a loose bun, stood with arms folded, her eyes on the dining room’s mounted TV.
“Hm,” Trish murmured.
“Kung Fu is a Chinese martial art,” Paisley said. “And yet we’re called Kung Fu Curry and we serve a mashup of American and Indian.”
“Uh-huh.” Trish absentmindedly ran her thumb across her lips, and Paisley realized the other waitress probably hadn’t heard a single word.
“Actually,” Rick said, “Kung Fu might have originated in India. It was so long ago, though, who’s to say?”
“That doesn’t sound like much verification to me,” Paisley said.
Before she could get sucked into a full-blown conversation, which would be sure to leave the food cold, Paisley made her way to table four. She set the food in front of the two guys there, but they didn’t even seem to notice their plates had arrived. Like Trish, they were glued to the TV.
Footage of puffy-eyed children, wrapped in blankets and surrounded by adults, played as a headline scrolled at the bottom of the screen.
“What’s happening?” Paisley asked, her heart flipping. “Are those the Vanuatu kids?”
“Yeah,” one of the guys at the table said. “They got them out of the cave.”
Paisley sucked in a quick breath and let out a long, shuddering exhale. “Thank God.”
The kids in Vanuatu had been trapped in a cave for--how long now? Ten days? And they were finally out!
“What happened?” Paisley asked. “How did they get them out?”
“Hey, will you turn it up?” a man across the restaurant called.
Trish seized the remote and turned the TV to its full volume, and every head in the place turned for the screen. A female newscaster appeared, talking from a studio somewhere.
“The rescue is thanks mostly to Prince Alessandro of Belmonte,” the newscaster said, “whose generous financial donation allowed this nightmare to come to an end.”
A picture of a black-haired man appeared in the corner of the screen. It looked like it had been taken at some kind of event and the prince wore the kind of tight smile someone who didn’t like being photographed would.
A warm shiver went through Paisley and one of the female patrons whistled. Paisley had seen pictures of Prince Alessandro lots of times before. She didn’t make a habit of following celebrities, but when a picture of the handsome European prince cropped up somewhere, it was kind of hard to miss.
The news story moved on to more specific details of the rescue, and the clock near the TV caught Paisley’s attention. Three ten! Her shift was over.
Whirling around, Paisley ripped off her apron and rushed to Trish. “Bathrooms are clean and silverware is rolled. Want me to do anything else?”
“No. You’re good.” Trish tore her gaze from the TV and looked at Paisley.
“Are you sure?” Paisley eyed her. “I can stock the ice.”
“No, no.” Trish waved her hand. “Just go. You have an internet date to make it to.”
“I… It’s not… We’re—” Paisley swallowed and shifted her weight in discomfort.
Trish cracked a grin. “Relax, girl. I’m only messing with you.”
“It’s not an internet date.”
“I know.” Trish nodded seriously. “Usually, when people use that term, they mean they’re going to meet up in person with someone they met online.”
“Alex and I are friends. Just because we’ve never met face to face doesn’t mean—”
“I know,” Trish said with a smile. She jerked her chin at the door. “Go. See you tomorrow.”
“Okay,” Paisley breathed. “See you.”
Closing out her tables, she ran her sales report, stuffed it in the drawer in the office, grabbed her purse from the hook there, and ran out of Kung Fu Curry.
Late May in Manhattan. It was hardly ever pleasant unless you happened to be sitting in a park somewhere. The city trapped heat, which curled up out of the asphalt so that Paisley baked from both the bottom and the top.
She hurried along the sidewalk, dodging tourists looking around in confusion and people glued to their phones. Should she take the subway? What if they were still doing construction and the train was delayed?
The Starbucks across the street caught her eye, and there was the answer.
“Yep,” Paisley said out loud.
The light changed and she crossed the street with a group. Inside the coffee shop, the tables were all taken but about half the seats at the window bar remained. Hustling up to the counter, she ordered a half-caf latte with only one shot. The small jolt of caffeine would be enough to help her clean her studio apartment later, but hopefully not enough to leave her lying awake at three a.m. wondering whatever happened to her friends from eighth grade summer camp.
Paper cup in hand, she took a seat at the window and pulled out her phone. Three twenty-five. A few minutes to go until Alex logged onto the app they used to chat on.
Paisley tapped on her MovieGeeks app, and her profile page popped up. She’d been leaving reviews on the site for a couple of years, but it wasn’t until about six months before that she’d made logging in a daily habit.
Finding the review she’d posted the day before, she did a quick scroll through the comments. She knew almost everyone who had replied to the review. That was the most unexpected thing about the site--the community.
Maybe it looked weird to some people, but having others to discuss one of her passions with, even if it was online, made the hectic but lonely life of New York City much more bearable.
A notification pinged on her phone and a little icon showed at the top of the screen. Paisley’s lips slipped into a smile. Alex.
ALEX: Am I late?
PAISLEY: Very funny.
In the six months they'd been chatting online, Alex had proven himself to be consistently punctual. They'd initially connected over reviews. It seemed any movie Paisley saw, Alex saw as well. Their banter back and forth on the reviews’ comments pages had gotten pretty intense pretty fast and, when a moderator suggested they ‘take it somewhere else,’ they listened.
PAISLEY: Did you see the Another Autumn trailer?
Dots bounced as Alex typed back.
ALEX: It looks… interesting.
Paisley sipped her latte.
PAISLEY: Interesting? With a pause? Does that mean you'll be skipping it?
She considered asking him what theater he would go to if he did see the film.
Here were the things Paisley knew for sure about Alex:
One, he also lived in New York. Two, the eighties was his favorite decade for movies. Three, he considered the frozen yogurt place on 22nd the best in the city.
All three of those things they had in common, but other than that, Paisley knew close to nothing personal about the guy she'd been chatting with regularly for half a year. Oh, except that he was a few years older than her.
Once or twice, she’d suggested they go together to see one of the movies they constantly talked about, but Alex had avoided giving a ‘yes’ or ‘no.’
And so Paisley hadn't pushed it. Some people loved the anonymity of being online. Who was she to push someone to be more social than they wanted to be?
Having another person to hang out with in the flesh would have been nice, though. Paisley's two best friends not only lived in other places, they were busy with their families. Nicole had a new baby and Lauren was still a newlywed trying to juggle setting up homes in two different states. Trish was Paisley’s friend, but she also had her own stuff going on. As a single mom to two kids, she didn’t exactly have oodles of free time.
ALEX: I’ll see it. At least it looks better than Reflection of Infinity.
Paisley’s eyebrows flew up, the sting from the comment immediate. Reflection of Infinity, the action movie due out in about a week, starred Noah Armstrong, who happened to not only be one of the most sought-after movie stars in the world right then, but who was also Lauren’s husband.
And yeah, okay, a movie like Reflection of Infinity wasn’t exactly high art, but Noah being married to Paisley’s best friend basically meant he was family. She wasn’t going to let anyone bad-mouth his movie.
PAISLEY: Give Reflection of Infinity a chance. You know some trailers do an awful job at representing the film. They’re just trying to sell it using the most exciting parts.
ALEX: Are you seeing it?
Paisley paused, her thumbs hovering over the screen, considering the crossroads she found herself at.
Of course she would see the film. How could she not?
But did she want to tell Alex exactly why she couldn’t miss it?
In an honest moment a couple of months before, she’d told him her two best friends were married to famous men. She hadn’t revealed their names, though. The conversation hadn’t really been about them and Paisley thought name-dropping was kind of pathetic anyway. Really, she’d brought the topic up because it felt strange to have her two friends living in a space where they had to deal with things like paparazzi and gossip blogs.
Sometimes, Paisley felt like Nicole and Lauren had moved to another planet and left her behind. She was happy they had found such great men, but Paisley couldn’t imagine living the kind of lives they were forced to. And so she’d revealed that to Alex, and maybe ranted just a tad about how, unlike so many women, she would never want to date a famous guy because she hated the idea of losing her anonymity and living in the spotlight.
ALEX: Hello? Paisley?
PAISLEY: Sorry. I’m here. Yes, I will definitely be seeing it.
ALEX: All right. Well, let me know how many times you nod off during it.
“Hah,” Paisley said under her breath. “Not likely.”
PAISLEY: I’m watching it three times the day it comes out, Paisley wrote. So there.
ALEX: Wow. Didn’t you show me?
A text message came in and Paisley glanced at it.
LAUREN: Flying in now. Tomorrow morning good?
Excitement filled Paisley. That’s right! Lauren would be on the east coast for at least the next week or two.
ALEX: I have to get back to work. Talk tomorrow?
Paisley nodded, then remembered he couldn’t see her.
PAISLEY: Yep. Have a good night.
ALEX: You as well, Paisley. I always look forward to our conversations.
Unexpectedly, a warm shiver went through her. She put her phone face down on the bar and looked out at the traffic and people passing by. Alex was always so formal, unlike… well, basically unlike almost every other person she knew.
What had made him that way? Who had raised him to be so polite?
For not the first time, she wondered what he looked like. She knew he was thirty, that much he had given her. So that made him three years older than her.
Certainly, they would get along just as much in person as they did online. So why had he brushed off her suggestions that they meet face to face? Was he shy, or did he have something to hide?
Paisley grabbed her phone and latte and stood. Asking such questions would drive her crazy. It was better to stop while she was ahead.