A little Friday Flash. A fantasy, of sorts, called "Asking."
"Do you think," Joshua began, "that there's any chance that, maybe, you might be interested in having a . . . different kind of relationship?"
"What do you mean?" Maria asked from across the small round table.
Joshua tipped his ceramic mug back and peered inside. Except for the few motes of damp coffee grounds stuck to the bottom, it was still empty. "You know. Like a . . . a romantic relationship." He gripped the mug tightly to hide his trembling fingers and continued staring into it.
"A romantic relationship? With you?" Maria said.
Joshua forced himself to look up. Maria stared back at him, her head tilted to the side like a curious puppy, but twice as adorable. Joshua curled his toes down into the soles of his shoes, trying to root himself to the floor.
"Yeah," he said.
A silent moment passed while they just stared at each other. Then Maria straightened her head and eased back into her chair. "Joshua, are you asking me to be your girlfriend?"
Joshua instinctively crossed his arms in front of him. He realized immediately his defensive stance and uncrossed them. Then he didn't know what to do with his hands, so grabbed his knees under the table. "Uh, yeah. I guess I am. If you want to think of it that way."
Maria rested her chin in her hand, stretched her index finger up to her perfect cheekbone, raised an eyebrow, and studied Joshua. Her expression revealed little of her mind's machinations. The turned-up corners of her pink, closed lips could have masked a grin, a grimace, or a sneer. Joshua couldn't tell which.
Her silent stare was too much. Joshua was finding it hard to breathe.
"I know we don't know each other very well," Joshua said, breaking eye contact, "But what I do know about you . . . I like. I think we might have a lot in common."
Maria put her hands in her lap, tilted her head again and bit her lip. That little movement made Joshua melt inside.
"What . . ." she started. She took a quick breath and started again, quietly, "What is it you like about me?"
A simpler question has never been asked. Joshua had been thinking about Maria continually since the company Christmas party six months earlier. After all that time, he could see nothing but her best qualities. "I like that you like to try new things. I like that you're creative and artistic. I like that, no matter what you're doing or where you're going, you always look so self-confident. Assured. Not in a snooty, superior way, but like you always know what you're doing."
"You think I look confident?"
"Completely." Joshua looked across the table into her blue eyes, and this time Maria broke eye contact. She smiled and looked down at her hands in her lap. She might have been blushing.
Joshua picked up his mug again. It was still empty and cold. When he couldn't stand the silence anymore, he said, "I know that there's a little age difference between us. And you're probably wary about . . . dating . . . a divorcee. I don't have a lot of money. I'm a little, um, pudgier than I'd like . . . there are a million reasons why you shouldn't be interested in me--"
"You're right," Maria interrupted.
Joshua was hit by a wave of nausea. He closed his eyes and swallowed hard.
But then he felt a warm touch on his hand, still clenching the mug.
"You're right, Joshua," Maria said. "We don't know each other very well." She took both of his hands in both of hers. Her warmth radiated up his arms, settled in his chest, and burned there.
"Let's remedy that," she said.
[Edited 5/15/11 to fix the spelling of breathe. Hat tip to RedPenner.]