Steve likes the outdoors, so far, and he likes Ann, so far.
They hike side by side until, halfway up the hill, the path narrows and the brush closes in.
“So,” he asks Ann, “would you rather lead or follow?”
Ann scrunches up her mouth on one side of her face. “Depends.”
Oh no, Steve thinks. “On?”
Ann speaks with reserved hand gestures. “Depends on who I’m leading or following. I think it’s better to lead followers and follow leaders.”
“How can you tell between them?” The sun is low in the sky. Steve pictures the two of them immobilized by indecision until the sky turns from red to purple to black, still wondering who should step in front of the other.
“A bad leader wouldn’t have asked if I wanted to lead or follow. A bad leader wouldn’t question that question, like I’m doing now. So, since we’re both competent leaders when it comes to walking a clearly marked path, what remains is whether or not one of us is better at being a follower.”
“What does that duty entail?” Inside, he’s screaming, just pick.
“Probably the biggest qualification for a good follower is not criticizing or overanalyzing everything.”
Steve bows and gestures to the path. Ann takes the lead. Good humor, so far. Everything’s full-on megacordial, so far.
Red Magic Dating Service had put the two together. Red Magic Dating Service had arranged everything: the time, setting, and itinerary. They’d done everything short of picking the actual path they took up the mountainside, and all for free.
There is, of course, a catch. The service promises one bad date for every good date. Steve doesn’t really care about the bad date. He’s been able to manage plenty of those without Red’s help. It was the certainty of something good that had roped him. A guarantee. Steve doesn’t even know what a good date would look like. Every time he tries to picture an ideal courtship, the image sours in his mind. He pictures an attractive woman, then pictures her cheating on him. He pictures a funny woman, then pictures himself as the less-funny partner. But he likes Ann, so far, and he likes the outdoors.
“I love the outdoors,” he said. He says what he feels, most of the time. He hides frustration, but everything else just sort of springs out.
“When it’s nice, I think everybody does.”
“Yes,” Steve says. “But not the way I do.”
“How’s that?” Ann keeps up a pace that makes Steve’s breath short. He is well-built by any measure, but cardiovascular exercise makes him feel like flatlining. He should run more. But if he does, he’ll loose muscle. He can picture it. He pictures Steve, a stick figure. A boney boy. A stickness sickness. He’s got a great imagination for things not turning out great.
“I mean,” says Steve, “that people love the outdoors when it feels like the indoors.” He raises his hand, as if this will give him a better feel for the air. “When it’s seventy, when it’s still, when it’s clear, clean. Lots of people like the outdoors, but not many loathe the indoors, like I do.”
“What’s your position on awnings?”
“Yawning. Indifferent. But, truly, if the outdoors is not visible to me in some form, I will dedicate myself to making it visible.”
Ann looks over her shoulder. She’s got great, dark eyes. “What’s the reason behind this love so strong that you despise all others?”
“It’s…” Steve finds his words in the mountainside. “The dirt beneath my shoes. Every step is different from the last. The shadows of the leaves have never and will never fall the same way, ever. If I am dissatisfied in any way, I am satisfied that things can change. I look forward to daylight. If I need darkness, it’ll come.”
“Pretty soon, in fact.” Ann looks down at her wrist pedometer. “There are two overlooks. We’ll make the lower one in time to see the sunset. Not sure about the higher overlook.”
“Have you encountered light switches?”
“But those lights are my choice,” Steve replied. “If you choose darkness, you wonder what you’re missing in all that black. If you choose light, you wonder what you actually might have been better off missing. Outside, it’s chance. It’s either apples or bees.”
“But to refuse to control something is itself a choice.”
“But a choice of the unknown.” Steve is smiling now. The sun will set over the ocean. He will have a good date. Whether this date or the next, he is guaranteed something that he’s incapable of producing for himself, even in his imagination. “Without mystery, everything good would have to be of your own doing. And it could have always been better, and the fault would be yours. If we knew the future, why would we bother to live into it? If it already happened in our minds, where’s the pleasure of it happening in reality?”
They come to a fork in the path. A signpost marks their possibilities.
“Fifteen minutes ‘till last light,” Ann says. “We could just make the higher point, if we run.”
Oh no, Steve thinks. “And the lower?”
“A three-minute walk downhill.”
Steve tries to picture the possibilities in his mind. In one future, he and Ann arrive sweating and panting but painfully alive at the peak of this mountain by the sea. In another future, they are casual and reap casual rewards: a time that’s nice, but not spectacular.
He was guaranteed one good date, and one bad date. He might as well go for broke.
“No time to decide!” he says, then sprints up the path to the high outlook.
Ann laughs as she follows. Steve is winded already.
He takes loping strides, as if climbing stairs three steps at once. It’s like squats, he tells himself. But though he takes an early lead, he can hear Ann closing. He feels breath on his left hand as it rises near his face. Three steps later, and he feels it again. This is why he hates distance running. It’s just light reps. Hours of light reps. He hadn’t stretched, even.
Ann passes him. Her body is a fluid line, her legs are pistons, her footfalls are wings beating air. Steve pictures the future. She’s great. But maybe she’s too great. Maybe he’ll be overshadowed. He can tell that Ann is slowing down for him. The sky is red.
“You mentioned a job search,” Ann says.
Steve can’t spare his breath. The sky is purple.
“Maybe you shouldn’t. Search, I mean. Maybe you should do your own thing. Be spontaneous. Be caught up.”
“I’m trying to catch up,” Steve pants. He’s too fatigued to decide if he’d meant that as a joke.
And when they reach the top, Ann laughs. The sky is blue-black, and Steve’s vision is too starry to know if he’s really seeing constellations. “We missed it,” she says. “But it’s like you said. Another one is guaranteed.”
Steve – lightheaded, humiliated, disappointed – hopes so. Another date is guaranteed. A good one.