I always heard that, before the pendants and the Institute, people just felt something when they met their soulmates. Some connection that they couldn't explain away, but didn't always recognize for what it was. For me, with a good once-over of this newcomer as he takes off his hockey mask tells me everything I need to know. This fellow, with his chiseled facial features, slight goatee, and wavy hair looks like a face I feel like I saw in a dream once. This has to be...
"Diane, this is my brother... Hernando..." Max's wince is nothing short of painful to see, but there's a pretty obvious reason at this point as to why. I look over at Hernando's dark eyes as they glitter with interest in my direction.
"Oh, no no, don't call me that. 'Al' is a lot easier." Hernando- Al- leans in toward me while he stares covertly at Max, "My middle name's Alfredo, after all." He leans back again with a tactful glance at his younger brother, and I suddenly find myself wondering if Max ended up telling his family about me. Would that explain why his brother is unexpectedly here, at the skating rink, ready to start a familial brawl? I can feel the awkwardness settle over this situation as the tension rises between the two brothers, and all of a sudden I feel like I'm in a Harlequin romance novel. This is not a good turn of events. Raising my voice in true Irish fashion, my heart pumps about a thousand times a minute as it keeps running through my head that one of these two brothers is surely my soulmate.
"It's nice to meet you, Al. Are you practicing alone today?" I extend my hand, which he takes and warmly shakes. "No, no, my friends on the team are here with me, we're just taking a break in the commons. Would you two like to join us? We've got pizza." He smiles a charismatic smile, and I'm left wondering just what the safer option is for me as Max speaks up again.
"I think not, brother, this is our..." He sighs, shakes his head, and continues, "We're together here today. You go back to spend time with your friends. Diane, Hernando. Hernando, Diane. Now, go!" He gets up to try and put his hands on his brother's shoulder pads, shoving him back with little issue. I wince a little bit as that vision of romance novels comes back (isn't there always that part where a fight breaks out? I think we've reached it... or one instance of it, at least). Al, for his part, laughs it off a little bit and pushes his brother back with relative ease. I guess the thickness of that hockey gear isn't just for show, is it? Nervously, I watch them without knowing quite how to approach this subject as they continue to push at each other. Other hockey team members and even some staff members are looking now, which doesn't bode well for our date. With a final push and a swing toward his brother's eye, however, Max is restrained- not by me, his brother, or his brother's hockey team. Rather, a well-dressed security guard with the badge of approval written on his shirt pocket holds him from behind by the arms.
"Sir, I'm going to have to ask you to cease and desist. For today, your funds will not be returned, but I'll have to ask you to leave the premises or be banned from this rink for a month."
Professional. Not very nice, necessarily, but definitely professional. Before either of these two brothers can say anything more to the other than, "I'll see you later at home, and then we'll settle this for sure," I'm up and packing my stuff out of the locker and unlacing my skates. If I was any other girl, I'd just say first date ruined and go back home with a pout on my face and a sore attitude at dinner. But, no matter how excitable she can get sometimes, one of my mother's saving graces is teaching me better than that. She always told me that, if a guy can't do the job, well then I'll just have to. To not rely on anybody but myself. Look, Mom, it looks like your lectures to a teenage me actually came through this time! Huffing a little bit, I shake my head and grasp Max's arm a little bit. "I'll take it from here, before the Hero turns back into a Zero." With a wry smirk, I sort of half-drag him to the lockers and then out of the rink.
He practically stomps his foot on the pavement as we exit out into the relative cold. "Why did he have to be here, today of all days? Why did you have to take up for him? Wh-"
"Hold up," I interrupt his raging with a strong voice, "When did I ever take up for him? You agreed that we're on a date, so wouldn't it make more sense for us to just leave before a fight breaks out between you two?" He quieted with that, adjusting his glasses with a hint of prideful shame. I leave it at that for a moment, letting the cool breeze slip its fingers through my ginger locks before making another comment. "Look, we don't have to let this be the end of it. I've got a great idea of where we can go next. Unless you already had an idea?"
I give Max the most brilliantly confident look I can muster at the moment. Between the head-spinning nature of what just happened and the once more unconventional meeting with Al, I just can't muster much of one right now... but I think it's still convincing enough to put his mind at ease. Taking a deep breath to keep my legs from trembling, I stumble across the pavement toward the car. Max, to his credit, has decided to just follow my lead on this, I think. Though... he still has to drive. I think he might just have to put up with some spontaneity today where he expected there to be none... or, at least less.
"So, where are we headed this time?" He revs the engine as he lets the car warm with our butts in the seats. I try to answer, but just as I open my mouth, the sound of my phone's loudest ringtone starts to play. Mom. Again. Wincing just a bit in apology, I figure it's rude to take it... but if I don't, I'll have to deal with a police visit, which is much less fun, both for myself and the police in question who'll have to deal with my mother's insistent calling. "Hello?"
"Honey, where are you? Are you on your date?" I sigh, and remember something that somebody told me when I first started in the nursing program- that mothers just know things that they're not supposed to know. Is she just testing me, or is she really and truly on to me? "Mom, I'm kinda busy. Remember? Going out with a friend today?" I wince again even as I say it. Max's face looks a little bit grim, as well, and I think this is going to have to become a topic of conversation between him and I as this date rolls on. "No, Mom, and I'm not going to go to a gay bar, either, so you don't have to worry about... Yes, Mom, I'll definitely call you if I get into any danger or trouble, okay? Okay, bye. Love you." Exasperated, I hang up and find myself face to face with Max's troubled face. I think this might just be his idea of a worst first date, as well. But... how do you explain to your date that your mother is kind of hard to convince and hard-headed when she gets something in her mind? How do you say that without just sounding like it's an excuse to keep them a secret. The most I can get out before shame lights up my face is just, "I'm sorry, she's very nosy, and has a mind of her own. I can't... lead her on... until I know."
He shakes his head at me, and I feel like we've each had our first disappointments in each other. Is this how love really works? Or is it just something they don't tell you, like a side effect of having a soulmate? We drive on in relative silence, me giving directions and him following them with an almost practiced ease. It's around the time that I spot where I want to take him that my face starts to show a much more normal color again. "You still want to know more about me? Or are you totally turned off by now?"
He stares at me with a look so serious that it almost doesn't fit him. "I want to know you. And, bit by bit, I want to get to know who you are much better than I do now." That elicits a laugh from me, knowing that we don't know each other well, and something in my laugh breaks up his tension enough for the laugh to be reciprocated. He's too close to having fun to be so mad anymore, and I think it might just make for a good time. Smiling, I lead him out of the parking structure and toward the vast expanse, with the decorative trees lining the highway that runs by Lake Michigan. Pulling my phone out of my pocket to take a picture of the cloudy sky over the great lake, I feel as though Max's jaw drops at the notice of where we're headed.
"What in the world are we doing here?!"
My only response is, "You'll see!"