I felt him before I saw him. I looked to my right and recognized him instantly. He gave a crooked smile and looked down to his left, and I quickly appraised his profile. Soft faux-hawked brown hair gave way to a stunningly sleek jawline sporting an enticingly peppered scruff. A genuine, eager smile stretched across his face as I attempted to feign a confident stride toward him. In that moment, the hubbub around us slowed to a crawl. Over the faint hum in my ears, I thought I heard him whisper, “there she is.”

Kai scooped me into a warm, enveloping embrace that lasted much too long for first date decorum standards. But as I mentioned before, this was no ordinary first date. Through his marled tan and white sweater, I could feel the warmth of his broad chest radiate towards me. My hands innocently cupped his back, observing the smooth, lithe muscle between his shoulder blades. My head began to swim with the intensity of our much-anticipated first touch.

Our embrace was abruptly interrupted as someone attempted to move past us, and I let out an awkward giggle. Through the hum in my ears, I barely heard Kai ask, “how about that tea?” I was still incredulous that a living, breathing straight man had asked me to tea for a first date. But there were many aspects around this person that defied all that I had come to assume about modern males.

We walked to the tea counter and I nervously placed an order for golden milk, staring at my trembling hands to avoid his gaze. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught him glancing down at me with crinkled, bemused eyes. Is he laughing at me?? My shadow cried. No, it was something else. I…just couldn’t get a clear read.

We sat down in a sunny corner of the coffee shop, and I immediately leapt back up to outfit my tea with accoutrements (and distance myself from his beguilingly magnetic energy). I pretended not to notice that he was intensely watching my every move. Is he waiting for me to make a fool of myself? I clumsily dropped a packet of honey, narrowly missing my tea. Jesus Christ Ella, you deliver speeches to hundreds of people, why are you such a fucking hot mess right now??

I strode back to the table in the hopes of regaining sure footing. As soon as I sat, he locked his amber eyes on to mine. He immediately sensed my discomfort and asked, “is it too soon for eye gazing?”

“YES,” I said too quickly, and awkwardly looked out of the window while sipping my tea. He had already begun to unnerve me with his terribly intense, soul-shifting eye gazing he attempted on an early Skype chat. I couldn’t recall ever having such focus on me, and it triggered memories of trying to peer into my ex’s eyes to create a heart connection with less than stellar results.

He laughed warmly at my flustered response, and I gradually relaxed into a more casual conversation.  Within moments, we were delving into depths around what love should look like. We shared ideas on our respective efforts in conscious uncoupling and of the trials and tribulations of monogamy.

A few minutes later, he escorted me to a lovely farm-to-table establishment. Out of habit, I absentmindedly strode up to the door and grabbed the handle. “DON’T you dare,” he admonished. I jumped back, confused. “Touch another door handle and I’ll chop your hands off,” he playfully threatened in my ear while dashingly opening the door for me. Oh my…chivalry. I had forgotten what it was like to have a man lead me like that from a place of service, despite his thinly veiled threat. It was so…refreshing and thrilling.

We approached the host desk and announced ourselves. “Table for three?” the hostess inquired. Confused, I turned to Kai. “Surprise! Olivia is waiting for us,” he proclaimed. My heart leapt into my throat. Oh god, was he serious? Did he really bring his girlfriend on this date without telling me?! Panic rippled through me as I imagined a flood of awkwardness. “Relax!” he joked. “Kidding…” he said with a devilish grin. “Hilarious,” I shot back with mixed relief. Good lord, what was I walking into?

Olivia. The “other” woman. Although, she wasn’t the other woman, was she. By standard narrative terms, I was the other woman, and it was a role I was all too familiar with. A role that had brought me deep, penetrative shame and guilt throughout my adult life. I played this role for a man whose manipulative influence left a searing gash in my heart that took over a decade to heal.

I had wondered if it were a coincidence that Kai bore eerie resemblance to my dangerous ex-lover in intellect and charisma. I embarked upon this journey in part to put a finishing move on this wounding. Nonetheless, Olivia had haunted my thoughts frequently since the day I met Kai and had learned of his lovestyle. I found myself silently begging her for forgiveness on more than one occasion.

The hostess seated us in an animated yet cozy corner of the restaurant, surrounded by post-industrial decor and reclaimed wood furnishings. The room radiated a warm glow that glinted off our delicate wine glasses. It was heady.  Just as I felt settled and calmer, he abruptly pushed aside the tableware and grabbed my hand. Okayyyyy…this was way too soon, way too- and now his hands were traveling along my arms as he fiercely peered into my face. I closed my eyes and tried not to faint from the intensity of his touch and gaze. He finally stopped after I began hyperventilating, and the hum in my ears began to die down. I tried in vain to ignore the surprised/annoyed stares of the middle-aged couple seated to our left.

As we settled into our seats, he looked at my eyes once again. This time, I intuited what he was about to ask. “What color are your eyes exactly?” Bingo. He continued, “I think they’re blue, but they’re so different, with gray and green. I’ve never seen eyes that color.” Having answered this question many times past, I gave my stock response, “Oh, they’re just sort of a dark blue, gray, green, thing. They don’t quite know what they want to be when they grow up.” He face spread into a warm smile. I had been thinking the same about his; with this opportunity to gaze myself, I was immediately drawn to his amber iris with a hazel ring around the edge. His irises appeared a mile deep, and his pupils were a striking black that completely unsettled me in my chair.

He immediately launched into probing questions about my marriage, sexuality and deepest desires. The conversation ebbed and flowed in a depth of disclosure many long-term couples may not reach. About my progressive bladder condition which triggered searing pain every time I would have sex. How my body responded in fear by constricting my nether region during intimacy. How I had incarcerated my inner vixen to keep my life from coming to a screeching halt. How I had spent the last five years of my marriage reluctantly allowing sex out of wifely obligation, numbing myself and traveling to distant, exotic and erotic shores during lovemaking to escape. And about how I had healed my friendship with my ex through a year of intensive relationship coaching, and ultimately ended my marriage just one month before.

I looked away as I found my eyes welling up in a particularly vulnerable moment, and I could sense his desire to launch himself across the table at me. To break the intensity, I asked, “Is there any chance we can talk about something more mundane? Like how fragrant this salad dressing is?” He broke out in laughter, and then took a slow, sensual bite of his salad. He moaned in ecstasy as he chewed his food, remarking on how incredibly delectable the dressing was. I nearly choked on my massaged kale, coyly responding that this wasn’t quite what I had in mind. The electric charge in our banter was undeniable. This was the intellectual match I had searched for my whole life.

As the dinner and my nervous prattle came to an end, I sipped my cocktail and shyly looked around the room to avoid his piercing gaze. As I attempted to fill the blank space with small talk, he whispered, “Shhhh…,” over my nervous prattle. “Please just let me take you in.” I steeled my nerve, closed my eyes, and opened to return his gaze. I had read about the impact of eye gazing in creating a heart-centered connection, but had never experienced its full power until this moment. Watching his irises expand and contract in the light created a hypnotic effect that dulled the outside world. The hum of the coffeeshop returned, and I heard unitelligible whispers from…where exactly?

The reverie broke as our bill was delivered, and we stood to leave. He helped me with my jacket, gently scooping my hair from underneath and grazing his fingers against my neck. Every fine hair on my neck stood on end. He is certainly well-practiced, my inner skeptic thought ungenerously. So what? I retorted. He’s here with me now, why can’t I benefit from his vast experience in tapping into a woman’s radiance? Why is it we feel someone is cheating on us with their past?

He took my hand in his, deftly stroking the vulnerable center of my palm before interlacing his fingers through mine. He turned to playfully ask if that was alright, and I shyly nodded. His kinesthetic awareness was mesmerizing, and I began to surrender to its seductive power. I let him lead me to a nearby bar with a lovely ambient atmosphere.

We settled into a quiet corner of the bar, and immediately he moved his stool much too close to mine for appropriate personal space. When the server approached with a cocktail menu, he politely turned it down and instead requested a tea menu. To know that a man wished to be with me without the influence of alcohol was…lovely. I continued wondering how this man actually existed outside of my mind’s recesses.

Kai talked about how he became an entrepreneur at the tender age of 19, building a hugely successful sales business from scratch, and his vivid journey into polyamory after two decades of monogamous marriage. He spoke of tales of sensual exploration and devastating heartbreak of women who chose the easier path of monogamy path over life with him. It revealed a raw vulnerability and wounding that tugged at my heart.

As he spoke, I watched him carefully as he prepared his Earl Grey. I couldn’t help but notice his hands; sculpted, elegant fingers tore open the tea bag with an alien grace. So deliberate and sensual, my mind began to wander to possible scenarios of those hands exploring my body. A pointed question snapped me out of my reverie.

“What is this crystal?” he asked. “I, um, what?” I stupidly stammered. He gave a lopsided grin and repeated, “This crystal…what is it?” As he spoke, he traced his beautiful fingers around my crystal necklace, caressing my jugular notch. My chest constricted as I tried to breath through his expert touch, but the ripple of goosebumps under his fingers gave me away.

“Uh, it’s fluorite,” I muttered confusedly, not expecting him to have a clue or care as to my crystal’s composition. He gazed intently, waiting for me to proceed. I slowly continued,”It cleanses negative energy, encourages nonconformist thinking, and releases suppressed urges.” “Mmm, how interesting,” he replied with a smile. “You know, there’s a beautiful crystal shop in my town that I would love to take you to.” Of course there is, I thought sarcastically. And of course you would. Because, you don’t actually exist.

He paused to stare for a moment and declared, “I’m more than cautiously optimistic about us right now.” And, now we were getting down to it. I had hoped to defer the subject of what our relationship was realistically going to look like until at least our third date. He had positioned himself as a “cautious optimist” whilst getting to know new connections.

Most potential lovers were intrigued by his philosophy and charisma, but then walked away after a few weeks when their societal conditioning and collective consciousness kicked in. I wasn’t far from that place of self-intervention, and gave an exasperated sigh. “What’s wrong?” he asked tenderly. “It’s just…” I stammered. “I have no idea what this is going to look like in the context of my life. Especially with everything going right now with my divorce, my son, my job. What am I supposed to tell people, they’ll think I’m crazy! And by the way, the person I’m supposed to be with can’t be the first person I date, ok??”

He surveyed me for a moment, and asked evenly, “And why can’t it be the first person?”

Shit. He had me. This was an excellent question, and I had no good answer. So many lonely women dream that they’d hit the love jackpot on their first try. Why is it we’re told that you can’t buy the first car you drive, even when it molds so perfectly around you?

“Look,” I protested. “Standard narrative says my dating life should go something like this: I’ll go on a string of mediocre dates and eventually lose hope that no one can possibly handle my high-maintenance brain and overdramatic passion. I will spend years wondering if I’ll ever find a life partner who stokes my fire and likely settle for someone who I can have a good laugh with, has a reliable job, and doesn’t cheat on me (to my knowledge.) Until I get bored and find the next source of entertainment.”

He chuckled at my little rant. “Yes, standard narrative does say all of those things, indeed. And all that work sounds really fun,” he smirked, “but I do have an alternate suggestion: you could take the chance that just maybe, Aya answered your ask for the man you’re supposed to be with.” Feeling emboldened and looking to deflect the gravity of his theory, I stated, “Well that is not so cautiously optimistic; you’re making a few assumptions without enough data. We don’t even know if we have any physical chemistry.”

Amused by my coy remark, Kai leaned in seductively. “You don’t say,” he whispered inches from my face. I could detect a spicy, fragrant essential oil blend on his scruff that delighted my senses. My heart pounded in my chest. Here we go, I thought. He’s going to kiss me. The first man I’m dating in twelve years is about to kiss me. Did I even remember how? Oh god, was my breath ok? What if he’s disappointed??

He continued, “Well…I’m not even going to kiss you.” My jaw dropped in disbelief. Wait, what?? He is NOT going to kiss me? But he’s the guy! The girl doesn’t kiss the guy!!! Who is this sadist?!!

“Come on, Ella,” he purred. “Push that edge.” And with that, Kai closed his eyes with his head tilted dangerously close to mine. Goddammit. So it’s like that, the gauntlet’s been thrown. Ok, I thought. I remember how to do this. I just needed to lean forward, pucker my lips and somehow make contact with his. All while squeezing my eyes shut in humiliation. Simple enough.

And then beyond my control, my fist balled in courage and my body lurched forward, clumsily mashing my lips against his with the skill of an amorous 5th grader. I hastily pulled back in embarrassment and stammered, “Oh God that was so, so terrible, I’m sorry-“  I cracked open my eyes to watch his face spread into a huge smile, amber eyes shining with glee. He stood up suddenly from the bar stool, nearly knocking it over. I froze, trying in vain to anticipate his next move.

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