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a sea of beating hearts

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          Cassie's hands are sweaty and she's painfully aware of the fact as she slips her hand into Evan's outstretched one. He gives her a small nervous smile and squeezes her hand, the small gesture easing some of her own nerves. Good, he's as nervous as I am, she thinks. A valet greets them and wishes them a great evening as he takes Evan's car keys and rounds the car to the driver's side. They watch him turn a corner into the underground parking lot.

          Evan clears his throat and Cassie's eyes find his, the melted chocolatey brown reassuring. "Ready?" And she nods.

          She nods because the lump in her throat might threaten to rise up in the form of bile if she parts her mouth. God, why am I so nervous. This is Evan. My Evan. But perhaps, this is all part of it. The experience. The jitters. The butterflies. The clammy hands. But apart from his wavering smile, Evan seems calm. Collected. Whereas, she's sure the sudden warmth she feels must stem from flustered embarrassment.

          And why is she embarrassed? Perhaps because Cassie feels that all eyes inside the restaurant are on them. Specifically on her. The customers must be wondering what a god like Evan, with his chiseled features and heart-shaped lips, is doing with a whale. Yes, those must be their exact thoughts.

          Evan gives her another reassuring squeeze, and she wonders for a second if she'd voiced her thoughts out loud. But a quick glance in his direction, those calm and collected eyes staring down at her, confirms the opposite. They near their table at the back, where the nice lady at the front motioned, and Evan lets go of her hand so he can pull up her chair.

          "Oh," she ducks her head and sits down. Soon, Evan is in her line of vision. Across from her. Perfect white teeth visible as he smiles.

          "I'm about to pass out I'm so nervous." He confesses and almost instantly Cassie notices his trembling hands. A heavy weight lifts off her shoulders at his words and she laughs. Laughs because Evan, cool-calm-and-collected-Evan, isn't so cool, calm and collected it turns out. Laughs because the relief flooding her system consumes all other senses. Laughs because she's so stupidly in love with this idiot and he has no idea.

          Cassie inches her hand toward his on the table and tangles their fingers. "So far so good, right?" She watches as he visibly inhales and exhales, his eyes darting toward the front door of the restaurant.

          Ben.

          All three were supposed to meet in front of the restaurant at the same time. To make things a bit easier on everyone. And they'd waited five minutes, then another ten minutes and another fifteen minutes in the car for him, Evan texting him for the hundredth time and Cassie staring at her reflection on her phone, hoping the fake lashes didn't look too, well, fake, and hoping that Evan wouldn't catch onto her vanity.

          Evan had pressed his palm against his chest, directly above his heart, at the sight of Cassie when he'd picked her up. And it was as if the wind had been knocked out of him, her beauty stealing every last bit of breath in his lungs. He hadn't known whether it was the light flooding in from the curtain-bare windows of her living room or if it was the doing of firstdates or if it was her, simply, that glowed so majestically. What he did know, however, and felt the second he stepped foot onto Cassie's porch, was that the shadow lurking behind the windows wasn't a tall piece of furniture but Cassie's dad. And that despite the alarming low oxygen traveling to his brain, a voice in his head kept him from closing the distance between himself and his daughter with a kiss.

          Evan, instead, escorted Cassie to the passenger's side ("it's 2016, I'm more than capable of opening my own car door") and drove a couple of miles down the block, at a safe distance from Cassie's house, before coming to a complete stop. And it'd been silent for a short moment, Evan sorting the swirl of words in his head. Then the compliments came pouring out and finally, he kissed her. Again and again and again. Until they were both out of breath, lips raw. And Cassie hadn't wanted to stop. And neither had Evan. But it would be unfair to Ben, who had the right to be a part of such an intimate moment.

          "Has he responded?" Cassie asks, cradling the glass of water the waiter had deposited on their table as he assured them three menus were coming up ("Do you still need that third menu?") and that they could help themselves to the appetizers in the meantime. Evan shakes his head. Do you think he bailed on us, his eyes seem to say. Or perhaps, it's a projection of Cassie's own thoughts. It's the nerves talking—of course Ben didn't bail.

          "He'll be here," Evan smiles. And all doubt seems to fly out the window, and cool-calm-and-collected-Evan makes another appearance. Cassie can't tell whether the confidence is genuine or just a defense mechanism, but she believes him wholeheartedly. Evan's right. Evan's always right. "Probably just traffic. You know Ben."

          And she does.

          Tardy, disorganized and clumsy Ben is probably somewhere stuck in traffic, phone dead. No biggie. It's only been a few minutes. Few several minutes. Oh god, Evan say something, she thinks, and Cassie sips on her water, hoping to press down the lump in her throat.

          Their menus arrive and the same waiter instructs them to flag him when they're ready to order. Evan politely declines any further assistance and the waiter walks away. Cassie puts her glass down and starts for the menu but stops when she notices Evan's menu sitting in front of him, untouched. Right. Ben.

          "This is a nice restaurant." This is a nice restaurant? Should I comment on the weather, too?

          "Hey, it's cool." Evan replies, light chuckles emitting from his lips. Evan can read minds, too, did you know? "Give me your hand." And Cassie gives it to him, his large soft hand caressing hers. His touch loosens some of the knots in her stomach. "We're just hanging out, right? This isn't different from any other time we've spent together." What Evan is saying makes sense—makes a lot of sense—but she can't help but think that it is different. First dates are meant to be different. At least that's what people in the movies and books say. First dates are meant to be perfect. Not...awkward. Only, Evan is not awkward. He's cool, calm and collected. And she's...awkward. And Ben is absent.

          This isn't perfect.

          "Just a bigger crowd and fancier food. Can you imagine Ben pronouncing," and he picks up the menu. "Caviar? Or foie gras?"

          Cassie laughs and picks up her own menu. "Or beignet." She reads ("ben-gay") and goes quiet at the end, Evan's chocolatey eyes taunting her.

          And though he heard her, he still asks. "Say it again?"

          But a rather loud ruckus shifts both their attention to the front door. And standing there, two bouquets of flowers in hands and flushed cheeks, is Ben. He's speaking to someone out front, the nice lady, who points toward the back, where Cassie and Evan are sitting. Ben follows her finger and meets the eager eyes of his dates. Running a hand through his hair, he smiles at the nice lady and makes his way to the back. Evan stands, ignoring Ben's dismissive hand.

          "I'm so sorry." He sounds winded and looks it, too. "I lost my phone, not sure how, and my car wouldn't start." Evan loops an arm around his waist and Ben leans into the kiss. "Um, for you." Ben sounds uncharacteristically shy as he pushes the flowers in their respective directions.

          Cassie smiles as Ben hands her her bouquet of flowers, pecking her lips softly, and watches as Evan, who blushes profusely (him, not so uncharacteristically), surprised, accepts the flowers and insists Ben sit. Ben rounds the table and sits to Cassie's right and Evan's left, and once he's seated, Evan lowers himself in his chair, too.

          "You should've started without me," he frowns. "I can catch up quite quickly." Ben reaches for a menu and flips through the pages. He puts it down just as quickly as he picked it up. Like he's just remembered something, something important, and needs to get it off his chest. "You look great. Both of you."

          The table is silent.

          At last.

          All three are present. It's officially their first date. This is real. Terribly, achingly real. And all three seem to realize it at that moment.

          Cassie glances at Evan, who is hiding a million and a half things in his mind—things he considers unleashing (things like, "I'm irrefutably in love with you both!") but fears might be too prematurely unleashed. He smiles at her, a million and a half things gone, and turns to Ben. Ben, who's staring back at him with round, bright eyes, like Evan is the most beautiful thing he's ever seen and at any moment might disappear, so remembering that beauty becomes a priority, a necessity. Evan breaks the stare, overwhelmed, though feels Ben's fingers curl around his thigh.

          Cassie clears her throat, feeling left out. Clearly. Two pair of eyes focus on her. "Are we going to order," she rolls her eyes (attempting and failing to seem nonchalant) and pretends to read her menu. "Or should I leave? Let you two make googly eyes at each other all evening long?"

          Ben's face breaks into a grin. "I don't know. What do you think, E?"

          "Making googly eyes at each other sounds nice. Less expensive, too."

          Cassie says nothing for a moment, eyes darting between Evan and Ben. Evan's face is suspiciously red but that's only because, unbeknownst to Cassie, Ben's fingers are trailing up his thigh. She doesn't prod. She's too busy being nonchalant, remember? "Anyway, I think I'll get..." She hums in wonder, endeavouring to focus on the words printed on the menu and not the two morons behind it.

          Before Cassie can zero in on anything, however, someone's finger presses down on her menu. Ben's finger. And only when Cassie's face emerges from behind the menu, does Ben withdraw his finger. "Is that eyeshadow, baby?" He asks, eyes unblinking. And her stomach flutters. Because Ben loses himself in people (especially Cassie and Evan), or rather, they lose themselves in him, and in that moment, however long that moment is, nothing and no one else seems to matter. It's just CassieandBen, or EvanandBen, or CassieandEvanandBen.

          But there's three of them. And though, neither Evan nor Cassie possesses the ability to enthrall others with a look, they do each other. It then becomes CassieandEvan, the circle complete. However, they've fallen prey to polyamory's challenges and obstacles. Many times. But that's the thing about life. Challenges arise to provide life lessons. And Cassie, Ben and Evan are still learning to listen, understand, empathize and communicate. With each other.

          "Yes, it is." Cassie tucks her hair behind her ears.

          "You never wear eyeshadow," he continues. Cassie shrugs. She omits to tell them she'd spent two hours in front of the mirror following a makeup tutorial on YouTube.

          "I thought it was appropriate considering...." She gestures toward the restaurant and at her boys, dressed in their immaculate suits, (Evan's) hair pressed back.

          He turns to Evan, all serious-like, "Why didn't we think to wear eyeshadow, E?"

          It's Evan's turn to grin. Cassie smiles, too, despite herself, and then she gets it. She gets what Ben is doing. He's doing what Ben does best; he's lightening the mood; he's seeing to it that everyone's comfortable. Ben knows that Evan responds best to touch. It calms him, grounds him. It helps him focus on the now instead of the noises in his head. Ben pulled him in with his eyes and shut the noises with his hand. And Ben knows that Cassie responds best to humour and his signature Ben Parish smile. So, he pulled her in with his eyes and brought a smile out of her with poorly executed comedy.

          And it's infectious, isn't it? Evan's grinning, staring back and forth between Cassie and Ben, and Cassie's face is flushed, yet she doesn't understand why—Ben is no Kevin Hart, and Ben's smile soon takes over his features. Shy fingers reach for each other, love-stricken eyes dart from one to the other, the atmosphere pleasant, comfortable.

          They're still nauseatingly nervous.

          But they have each other and that's all that matters. Evan raises a hand and they order, Ben stammering, tongue twisting over the foreign words, and Cassie, traumatized by the beignet incident, decides to play it safe ("I'll have what he's having, please").

 

~~

 

          "I can't believe I'm dating two dorks who can't even pronounce chef-d'œuvre." Evan says, both his and Cassie's bouquet of flowers cradled in his arm.

          "Oui oui baguette," Ben responds, fake French accent and all. Cassie giggles beside him and both Ben and Evan poke fun at her for it ("Did she just giggle, E?" and "I think she did. Let's hear it again, Cas").

          Evan, then, steps aside, giving Ben and Cassie, who haven't had any real time alone all evening, some space. And he does it discreetly and naturally, by busying himself with the valet and their cars, because Ben and Cassie would dismiss the offer, insisting that Evan remains with them—all three together, as it should be. But Evan feels they need it. They need to share a moment together, alone, on such an "important" night.

          Ben and Evan had theirs. Earlier. Back when the first jitters did nothing but arouse the promise of what would become full on anxiety. Ben and Evan were playing a video game at Ben's place and were sat so close to each other, they're shoulders kept knocking with each twist and flick of their controller. No one brought up the date but nevertheless, it lurked just beneath their skin. So, Ben and Evan distracted themselves with Uncharted 4, a pizza delivery and make out sessions. The time ticked and tocked and for the most part, it felt like any other Saturday afternoon.

          Ben is staring at Cassie and she's staring back, taking in the brightness of his eyes. "So this wasn't a total disaster."

          She shrugs. "I wouldn't make a movie out of it."

          He shrugs. "Ben Affleck could play me."

          She tilts her head to the side, uncertainty kissing her features. "We wouldn't be able to afford him and I don't think he can pull off the whole teenager thing."

          "Teenager?" Ben scoffs, cutting his eyes to the side. "I'm a man, Cassie. Ben Affleck is a man. There's no teenager thing."

          Ben's cheeks have a rosy tint to them and Cassie can't tell whether it's the cold's doing or her doing. "Whatever you say. Your hairstyle's kinda boyish, though." His hand flies to his hair and as he attempts to mat it down, Cassie touches his elbow. "I never said there was anything wrong with it. I like it." She whispers the last three words, almost inaudibly. Cassie: Queen of Never-Giving-Compliments-To-Already-Ego-Inflated-Men. Aka Ben and Evan.

          "I'm sorry, I didn't quite catch that," He lowers himself, his ear in her line of vision. "You said something about... loving something about me?"

          A laugh, a breathy one, surprises its way out of her throat. "Don't push it, Parish. I said like. And I am not afraid to punch you in front of this restaurant. First date or not."

          "I will always remember you threatening to punch me on our first date. So sweet." But Ben's all smiles and teeth.

          And when the valet brings up their cars, Ben and Cassie crowd around Evan, and they all stare at each other, a comfortable silence settling in the middle. Cassie's hands are clammy again. Evan's biting on his bottom lip. And Ben's hands burrow into the pockets of his slacks. It's as if the evening had just begun and they're about to step into the restaurant for the first time.

          Ben's about to suggest they hang out at his place the following day but the words never leave the tip of his tongue. Too son? Perhaps, they need a day or two to let everything sink in? Ben doesn't know. He usually leaves the whole relationship dynamics to Evan and Cassie because he simply doesn't know. Ben Parish is good at serial dating and quickies in the bathroom at school and short-lived passions, not committed relationships. So he remains quiet.

          Evan swallows the I love you's threatening to tumble past his lips.

          And Cassie, tired of feeling so shy and helpless, grabs both their hands and coaxes them forward, closer to her and each other. And they kiss. All three. And it's hesitant and messy and slow at first but then, it becomes more urgent and natural and in sync. And they fit almost perfectly.

          Almost perfect.

          This isn't perfect, Cassie remembers thinking earlier. And it's true. But almost perfect is just as good. Better even.