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Licking the foam from her lips after a sip from her spruce Italian cappuccino — a move Fergus interpreted as the equivalent of a fist pump intended to congratulate herself on her very first non-evasive answer to one of his questions — it was now Willow’s turn to act the interrogator.
“What’s the last book you read?” she fired, mentally selecting from her list of pre-researched icebreakers while popping the lid on a plastic bowl filled with vegetables sliced up into spears she had decided to bring from home for whatever reason.
“10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5...”
This time it was Willow performing the mental countdown. Unbeknownst to them, it was a secret they both shared — using a quirky psychological ploy to cope with a world that made each of them feel, to quote Fergus’s own father, “like a piece of pepperoni that had flopped onto a vegetarian pizza.” Having found each other’s profiles on the dating app Serendipity, whose motto was “Finding Love on the Spectrum,” it was just one of many things, as it would turn out, they would come to understand they had in common.
“That’s easy! It was a book published last year by the renowned Irish author Sy Lent titled Conversations and How to End Them. It was a pretty gripping read.” Shifting in his seat and finally beginning to feel relaxed enough to take in the fruity aroma from the steaming cup of herbal tea located on the table next to theirs, Fergus felt the whole scene turn a corner right before his eyes.
Reading social cues had never been one of his strong points (or hers!) but what he next witnessed made him think that maybe, just maybe, one of the tumblers was about to unglue itself and fall into place. Beginning with a curve at her mouth’s corner and a slight raise of the eyebrow, Fergus watched in fascination and then delight as Willow’s not unattractive face gradually spread itself into a wide smile followed by her tossing her head slightly back and proceeding to let out what he could only think to label a small ‘yelp’ of laughter in response to his humor.
He even thought he saw Willow lean in a little, though this may just have been her naturally adjusting her position. It didn’t matter. Somewhere a clock on a wall that had been stopped for many years had begun to tick again. Was this the clumsy, awkward and ridiculously drawn-out start of a happier, together version of himself and the person opposite him? The same person who actually laughed instead of cringed at one of his jokes?
Fergus wasn’t sure but he knew he needed a drink. He stood up, feeling pleased with himself. Like a mountain bear emerging from winter hibernation he completed an impressive, fully purging stretch. With arms swinging side to side as he moved, Fergus walked to the front counter. When he got there, he turned around to see if Willow’s eyes had followed him. They had. In his triumph he hadn’t bothered to count the steps from the table, as was his regular practice.
Ordering a mocha coconut chiller and at the last second discovering the confidence to specify “with extra caramel drizzle,” Fergus allowed a grin that conveyed secret knowledge take hold of his face. He thought to himself, “This may just be the start of something delicious.”