Illusions: a nice surprise


photo by Alex Schroeder

Nicole Schroeder

As the watch in the next room beeped 8:00 p.m. a few weeks later, Gemma groaned from her spot at the bathroom sink. Slipping in her third pair of earrings of the night, Gemma stared, unimpressed, at her reflection in the mirror. She still looked too … plain. Yes, that was the word. Sighing, she glanced down at the few pieces of jewelry she owned that lay spread out on the counter, debating which she could wear and still manage not to look out of place next to her date.
Then again, she thought to herself, who cares if I look out of place?
Well, she cared, but she wouldn’t let herself think about that. Besides, if she was indecisive much longer they were going to be late for their reservation. Before she could argue with herself any further, she grabbed the silver dangles and pinned them to her ears, briefly watching them catch the light around them and send it dancing outward. Then, grabbing her wallet and phone from the kitchen table, she slipped out the door, butterflies fluttering slightly in her stomach as she left.
Elijah was waiting at the bottom of the stairs for her as she descended from her apartment, his piercingly blue eyes meeting hers as she walked.
Dependable. Resolute. Contented.
It was strange, but for once, the Label echoing in her head was comforting and brought a nervous smile to her lips. “Hi,” she offered as she reached the last step, taking the hand Elijah held out for her.
“Hi.” He grinned before stepping back to admire her dress. “You look amazing.”
“Oh… thanks.” She glanced down at her flowing black dress to hide her bashful smile. “Not as great as you.”
He laughed. “This? Oh, this is nothing,” he said, gesturing to himself before leading her out toward the car. “If you really want to see me dressed up, go find the picture of me in my prom tux.”
“Yeah, I remember that. Seeing that once in my life was enough.” Being able to tease him seemed to lighten Gemma’s worry about the night. Any butterflies she had felt earlier happily melted away with his warm laugh, bringing a comforting smile to her lips.
“Okay, it wasn’t that bad, was it?” he asked as he graciously held the car door open for her. He waited until she was situated in the passenger seat before walking around to the driver’s side door and climbing in.
“Mmm, I don’t know. It was pretty bad.”
“Ouch,” he said, wincing playfully. “I worked hard to pick out that suit.”
She shrugged, turning to watch the world whiz by outside her window as she spoke. “I’m just saying, that shade of blue with that white tux was not very flattering.”
Elijah feigned shock. “I’m so offended, Gemma. You’ve just gotten so rude since you started working for those magazine snobs.”
“Yeah, well,” she said, flourishing her hands dramatically, “I guess you’re just jealous of all my fame and fortune.”
“Something like that.” He turned briefly to wink at her, and Gemma was glad when he turned back toward the road so he didn’t see her blush.
As Elijah pulled into the parking lot of Pacifica, Gemma could understand why she hadn’t recognized the name of the restaurant when he’d first mentioned it to her. She couldn’t help but stare at its patrons as Elijah helped her out of the car, and as he finished locking up the car she began wringing her hands nervously at the number and type of people she saw going in. Even if she didn’t think about the number of Labels she would see, she could practically smell the money these people waved around; undoubtedly more than she would ever hope to make in her lifetime.
Elijah seemed to sense her distress, and a worried look crossed his face. He placed a hand on her shoulder, gently turning her to face him. “Hey, what’s wrong?” he asked. “If you don’t want to go here, we can leave and find somewhere else….”
“No, no, it’s not that. It’s just —,” she paused, searching for the right words. “I don’t normally fit in with these kinds of people. I don’t know… I mean, what… I’ve never been to this kind of a place before.”
A small smile spread across his face. “Just act like yourself. That’ll be enough for me.”
Taking a deep breath, she nodded. Anyways, she didn’t want to ruin his night by being stubborn. Steeling herself for the Labels that would come inside, she let him guide her toward the front doors. She avoided making eye contact with anyone as Elijah asked the Maitre D for their table, his smooth voice fitting perfectly with the atmosphere of the restaurant.
“Right this way,” the girl’s cheery voice said, leading them through a crowded dining area to a back corner of the restaurant. As they walked, Gemma fought the urge to close her eyes for the rest of the night in an effort to block out all the Labels she could see around her. As the girl slipped past a velvety red curtain, however, she quickly realized she wouldn’t have to. Turning to Elijah, her jaw dropped.
“I knew you weren’t a fan of people, so I had Theo pull some strings.” He gestured to the room in front of them as he spoke, completely empty except for a small table for two in the corner. “Do you like it?”
Gemma nodded, unable to speak for the lump forming in her throat.
“Thank you, Elijah.”
“Don’t thank me. It was all Theo. And he said a premature ‘you’re welcome’ at work today, anyway.” He laughed.
And for the first time that night, Gemma laughed, too.