“Would you like the bill, Miss?”
It’s Friday evening, and Rayla’s trying very hard to be nice to this waitress. Key word being “trying”. So far she’s been quite polite, even as the panic’s set in and she’s grown more and more irritated with the universe at large.
But her patience is waning, and she cannot afford to lose it at this waitress. So instead she grits her teeth and replies in the most bright tone she can muster at the moment.
“No, thank you. I think I’ll wait just a few more minutes. May I have more water, please?” She holds up the glass that’s full of nothing but ice, and the waitress blinks, pity creeping into her blank smile.
“Of course, Miss.”
Rayla smiles just as tightly back. “Thank you.”
The waitress leaves, high ponytail bouncing, and Rayla resists the urge to bang her forehead on the tabletop. Why did she ever agree to this? How could Claudia have possibly thought this was a good idea? Oh, she is going to throttle that smug black-haired bitch when she gets home if this has all been a joke…
“So sorry I’m late.”
“There was a horrible traffic jam uptown, and I had to take a cab since the A was delayed so badly from that flood… Again, I’m very sorry I’m late.”
Rayla looks up from her staring contest with the tablecloth to find a man standing across from her. His hair and jacket are wet from the rain, and he’s smiling nervously. Why is he talking to her?
“Um, do I know you?” Rayla asks, sitting straighter. She wishes, not for the first time tonight, that she’d worn her hair up instead of down. She always feels more in control with her hair up in a nice, tight bun.
“I’m Callum, Callum Adler. You’re Rayla Lann, right?” Callum sits carefully in the chair across the table, shrugging off his sopping jacket and running an anxious hand through his hair. His calloused fingers are slightly colored around the cuticles, as if they’ve been repeatedly ink-stained. “I work at the Spire. Graphic Design and Junior Visual Arts Coordinator.” He says it like he’s tired of saying it; like it’s something he doesn’t like telling people.
Rayla’s never heard of the position itself, but if he works at the Spire, that would at least explain why he’s familiar with her. There hasn’t been a season in years that Rayla hasn’t been the focus of every advertisement for the Spire’s prestigious dance company, and she’s kind of hard to miss, white hair and startling blue eyes and all.
“I was waiting for someone, Mr. Adler,” she says carefully, and he nods.
“Yeah, I figured. But, um, you’ve also been waiting long enough that the waitress looks like she’s debating kicking you out, so…” Callum looks over his shoulder and Rayla notices said waitress glancing in their direction as she whispers something to one of her coworkers.
“So you’re sitting with me out of pity?” Her tone comes out icier than she intends, but then again Callum is basically a stranger, and it’s been a rough evening.
Unfortunately, Callum himself looks rather cowed by the accusation, wincing and fiddling with the edge of the napkin folded in front of him. “Yeah, it kinda seems like that, doesn’t it? Oh, God, I totally made the wrong call with this, didn’t I?” He glances back at the waitress again, and then to Rayla. “Look. You looked kind of desperate, and I was just coming here to eat alone anyway, and I’ve been meaning to talk to you for ages so I thought it would be okay, but if it isn’t and you want me to I will totally leave because I definitely don’t wanna be that guy.” He sighs, running his hand through his hair again and looking so sincere Rayla knows she doesn’t have the heart to say no.
“It’s… It’s fine, Callum.” She exhales, reaching for a drink that’s not there and instead fiddling with the flickering tea candle in the center of the small table. “He probably wasn’t coming anyway, whoever he was, and you don’t seem like some stalking murderer or anything, so…” Rayla shrugs, and Callum gives her a grateful little smile.
“So, the company’s been in pretty intense rehearsals for Swan Lake recently, right?” Callum asks, and Rayla raises an eyebrow. They’re gonna talk about work, then, are they?
“Yup. Today’s our only day off all week.”
“Wow.” He’s pulled out a pen from somewhere in his jacket and is doodling on the paper table cover, hand moving in quick, practiced strokes as he talks. “I have a friend in the company, and she says it’s going to be a really good show. I can’t wait to see it when it opens.” He looks up from his drawing to smile at her, and Rayla nods, smiling reluctantly back. Callum’s hair has started to dry in the warm air of the restaurant, and it’s a lighter brown than she expected it to be, slightly thin and a little disheveled from all his nervous hand-combing.
Kinda cute, really, she thinks, and then stops herself. Nope. Not gonna think about that at all right now.
“You’re going to see the show when it opens?” She asks instead. Callum’s gone back to his doodling, and she decides watch his hands instead of awkwardly looking at the top of his head.
“Yeah, of course. I go to all the Spire shows, if I can. I’ve got two left feet myself, but I love watching dance.” There’s an odd reverence in his voice, and even though he’s still focused on his drawing Rayla can tell he’s actually present in the conversation. She can’t remember the last time someone was present in a conversation with her. Then again, that’s what happens when you spend most of your days dancing or talking to your constantly-occupied roommate. Rayla likes Claudia, sure, but she’s usually knee-deep in at least three things at once.
“Do you have a favorite?” She finds herself asking, and Callum looks up again.
“A favorite what?” He asks. His eyes are green; Rayla hasn’t noticed that until now. Not the muddy sort of green she’s used to seeing, the almost-hazel green most people’s green eyes are. Callum’s eyes are forest-emerald green, bright and keen and remarkable.
“Um, ballet.” She clears her throat. “Do you have a favorite ballet? That, you know, the Spire’s done.”
Callum grins at that, capping his pen and leaning forwards slightly. “I mean, it’s really hard to choose because they’re all spectacular, but I’ve always loved Giselle.”
“Oh, really?” Rayla wasn’t expecting that. Giselle is not a headlining ballet. It was wedged between their student corps showcase and the holiday program last season, unremarkable compared to the main event of Cinderella. People don’t usually know Giselle, let alone name it as their favorite.
“Yeah. I know it’s not very popular, but I think the story’s fascinating. And that pax de deux in Act II? The choreography for that was gorgeous last year.”
At that, Rayla blushes despite herself. It had been a hard choice to give up Cinderella for Giselle last year, and their director, Aaravos, had fought tooth and nail to try to keep her as the main program prima, but that pas de deux was exactly why she’d stood firm. It was just too heartbreakingly beautiful to let anyone else dance it.
And Callum thinks it was gorgeous. He probably thinks she was gorgeous…
“I’m more partial to Tchaikovsky from a musical standpoint, though,” Callum continues, and from the short, sharp movements of his pen it looks like he’s moved onto shading whatever he’s doodling over on the table cover. “Something about his ballets just settles into your soul in a certain way, you know?”
“Mmm,” Rayla agrees idly, slightly mesmerized watching him shade. “Are you a just a ballet enthusiast beside being in graphic design, then?” She asks.
Callum shrugs. “My little brother was super into ballet before he went into theatre professionally. We listened to a lot of soundtracks as kids. Tchaikovsky and Sondheim in my house my whole childhood, with a decent helping of big band swing and cheesy '80s pop.” He grins, glancing up at her. “What’s your favorite kind of music? Just ballet and classical and stuff, or something else?”
Rayla laughs, winding a finger around one of the short hairs that frames her face. “I don’t listen to much classical outside of dance, actually. I’m mostly into indie rock and some other random stuff. We listened to pretty much only folk when I was a kid, though.”
“Nice.” Callum says and nods at his drawing in approval, then looks up at her. “Were you going to eat?”
Rayla frowns. “To be honest, I don’t really wanna pay for it. I have stuff at home.”
“Yeah, I get that.”
They look at each other for a moment, before Rayla’s phone chimes loudly, breaking the surprisingly pleasant silence. She fishes it out of her purse to check; it’s Claudia, asking with an alarming amount of emojis how the date is going. The clock at the top of the screen reads “9:05”.
“I should go,” Rayla sighs, returning her phone to her purse and standing. It’s stopped raining outside, finally, and she’s got rehearsal bright and early tomorrow anyway.
“Okay, yeah.” Callum stands too, slightly awkward, and gathers his damp jacket. “Do you…” He pauses, swallows, then starts again. “Do you want me to walk you home? Or at least to a cab or the subway or something?”
“Oh, I only live a few blocks North of here, it’s fine.” Rayla waves a hand, walking past him, but he keeps in pace behind her as they exit the restaurant and step onto the warm and dark city sidewalk.
“Well, I’m going that way anyway, so we might as well walk together,” Callum insists, and Rayla shrugs.
“If you’re trying to be chivalrous or something, it’s not working, Callum.” She turns to walk backwards for a moment, giving him a playful look. “I got my black belt in high school; I can handle myself.”
“I promise I’m not being chivalrous or anything,” Callum assures her, holding his hands up in surrender. “Just walking with a pretty ballerina woman in the same direction we both happen to live.” He blushes at the admission of pretty ballerina woman but doesn’t seem to falter too much.
Rayla smiles, blushing slightly herself. She hopes it’s dark enough that he won’t notice. “Thank you,” she says softly as he falls in step next to her.
Callum just smiles.
Rayla’s apartment building seems to arrive too quickly, and soon they’re standing on the walk in front of it. It’s time to say goodbye, and yet she doesn’t seem to know whether she really wants to, or what it means. Does it even mean anything?
“Well, thank you, I guess,” she says instead.
Callum nods slightly, still smiling. “Of course. I’m glad I made up some stupid story and sat down when I did. You’re a fascinating woman, Rayla Lann.”
“You’re fascinating yourself, Callum Adler,” she chuckles, and Callum laughs slightly with her, scuffing his toe on the concrete.
“Seriously, though, thank you,” Rayla says after a moment, voice much softer. Callum looks up from his feet, those green eyes sparkling just a little in the light from the streetlamp. “Tonight was turning out to be shit, and you made it better, if a little weirder. I’m glad you sat down too.”
Callum’s gaze holds her own, his smile dropping just enough to be less joyful and more content but with a hint of melancholy. They’re delaying the inevitable.
But then Rayla has a thought. A crazy, probably much too impulsive thought, like going for a jump for the first time in a new pas de deux.
“Can I borrow your pen for a moment?” She asks, and Callum blinks.
“Uh, sure.” He digs it out of his pocket, handing it reluctantly to Rayla. She takes it, and grasps his fingers before he can pull them away. Carefully, she turns his hand and inks a string of digits on the back of his hand in her small, cramped print.
“My number,” she says simply, handing him back the pen. “In case you ever wanna take me on a real date sometime,” she adds, keeping his fingers held in hers for just a moment. As she lets them go she raises onto her tip toes in a momentary relevé, pressing a quick kiss to his soft cheek. “Good night, Callum,” she whispers, then lets go, darting away from him and up the steps.
When she turns to look before she goes through the door, he turns to her, eyes wide, grinning. And just as she slips inside, he blows her a kiss.
There’s already a voicemail waiting on her phone by the time she gets upstairs.