Gills, Part 1.

He told her about his gills over dinner. Very matter-of-factly. “I’m semi-aquatic,” just after declaring that he’d have the steak—medium well—and snapping shut his menu. He barely waited till the server had left earshot.

Lisette’s response surprised her. “You mean you’re amphibious.”

Usually, she eschewed labels, and here she was defining him. Flatly, unquestioningly. She smoothed her bangs away from her eyes and waited.

“No.” He was terse and determined. “I need water. Or I’ll die.”

“We all need water, Gray.” She sipped from her glass, for emphasis.

This was their first date.

He shook his head. “My skin—all of it—needs water. Every three to five hours, ideally.”

“Or you’ll die?”

“I’ll come close.”

She immediately envisioned him flopping across the break-room floor with bugging eyes and parched, puckering lips, his tie flipped over his shoulder and waggling like a tail.

If only that’d been their first encounter. She could’ve swooped down and rescued him with mouth-to-mouth (or a dousing of tap water). Every day thereafter, she would’ve been more to him than the frumpy junior ad exec he barely said hello to in the hall. Every day thereafter, she would’ve been Wonder Woman.

She scrambled for a comment that’d connect them, something that’d assure him she wasn’t skeptical or mocking. At this point, he couldn’t have been sure.

“I had scales once,” she said hopefully.

The server, who’d just returned with a basket of brown oat mini-loaves, raised an eyebrow at her. Lisette shot back a dirty look and the server had the good sense to look chastened, walking away.

“When I was nine,” she finished. “Really bad eczema.”

“Yeah, that’s… not the same thing.”

“I know.” She snatched an entire mini-loaf from the basket, rather than being dainty and deliberate about slicing an edge free with her butter knife. When it plopped onto her bread plate, it made a small thud. They both stared down at it.

Before they’d decided to go out, Gray and Lisette hadn’t talked much. They’d been working together for almost a year. Gray was in Creative; she was in Accounts. He got to wear jeans to the office and the CEO paid for him to take trips to Brazil and Cancun and Egypt, just to pitch to high-profile clients or to supervise important photo shoots. She hated him for it. But he was also broad-shouldered with sun-bruléed skin. Whenever he rushed by her, with freshly approved copy in his large hands, she just wanted to tap him with one of her fingers and crack into him, like the skin atop a custard.

Finally, their plates arrived. Gray’s medium-well steak looked promising with its crust of rosemary and parmesan. But Lisette’s meal was problematic. Gray, who hadn’t flinched when she ordered it, looked instantly nauseous. She’d ordered red snapper but hadn’t expected it to reach the table with its head still in tact. She and Gray peered down at the one watery eye ogling back at them. Gray, turning gray, made to excuse himself from the table.

“No, wait,” Lisette said, both to the server and to Gray. “Could… could you take this back? It’s not what I thought it would be….”

She tried to look apologetic. One of her pet peeves was listening to herself utter stupid-sounding sentences, but this time she had no choice. The fact was: she could’ve eaten around the fish head. But doing so would’ve cost her the date. It seemed on par with expecting a vegan to kiss you, after he’d watched you masticate lamb all night.

When the server made his retreat—a little too testily, if you asked Lisette—Gray leaned in and whispered, “I’m not a fish or anything….”

“Of course not.”

“I don’t… I’ve eaten fish.”

Lisette nodded, slathering honey butter on a tuft of bread.

“I was born with gills,” he shrugged, his voice leaping an octave on “gills.”He sounded terribly defensive.

And there was something in his tone, in that petulant way he’d snapped just then, so obsessive about clarifying the statutes of his condition, that really rubbed Lisette the wrong way. Who did he think he was, this six-foot-five glorified copywriter who barely deigned to return her frequent smiles at work? She’d practically asked him out herself; she’d dropped so many hints. And when he finally suggested they “grab dinner sometime,” he’d almost made it sound like an imposition.

She’d chosen to ignore all that before, because he looked like an ad for men’s cologne and she’d loved every campaign he’d helmed in the nine months she’d worked with him. And Lisette hadn’t had all that many opportunities to date, what with her under- and post-graduate years all spent at women’s colleges. Her life was bereft of eligible men, and at 30, the few she knew were all engaged or married with one or more kids on the way.

But none of this meant she had to subject herself to an evening with someone who couldn’t stop explaining his similarities to Aquaman.

She slammed her butter knife onto the bread plate with unusual force, startling herself and unnerving Gray.

“To be frank,” she began, “I’ve heard just about enough about fish and gills and The Life Aquatic with Gray Davis.”

“Of course.”

“This is a restaurant, not a marina.”

“Right.”

“I mean, I think I’ve been very cool about this, considering.”

“You have; of course you have. Look, I’m sorry.”

She had worked herself into a lather and his apology only exacerbated the outrage.

“And now, it’s the only thing you seem to be able to talk about.”

With one indignant snatch, the linen napkin flew up from her lap and landed with a huff on the table. Lisette stood and gathered her coat and clutch. She’d already envisioned her dramatic exit and how she’d swing her hips like a bell so his eyes would have no choice but to follow the swish of her skirt out the door.

“I hardly think I’ve been awful enough to be abandoned at a dinner table, Lisette.”

She stopped, her lips parting, a dry squeak escaping her throat. A calm and rational response, after all his fishy chatter, was the last thing she’d expected from him.

Suddenly, standing beside their table, gripping her overcoat and grimacing, felt as absurd as it probably looked. There was genuine hurt on his face and, worse, an earnest bewilderment.

“It seems all my relationships end this way.”

“What way?”she asked, easing back into her chair.

“With some perfectly lovely woman, storming off, appalled.”

“And this usually happens because of the gills?”

“I’ve never mentioned the gills.”

“But how is that possible? How long was your longest relationship?”

“Six—no, eight—months.”

“You’ve been able to keep the slits somewhere on your body—that you have to keep hydrated, in order to live—secret from a girlfriend for as long as eight months?”

“We really should talk about you for a while now, right? I mean, that was why I was about to lose you, yes?”

Lissette shook her head. “No, this is too good. I can’t carry on a rational, rote, first-date discussion now. We’re already down the rabbit hole.”

His face flushed. “You never ordered a replacement dinner.”

“I really wanted that snapper.”

Gray laughed and the low roar of him thrilled her. He stood and extended his hand; she took it. Using his free hand to fumble with his wallet, he grabbed a few bills and scattered them onto the table.

His parmesan steak went untouched.

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