On a scale from cherry cough medicine to her aunt’s sweet potato pie, this date was a choke-inducing disaster with a horrible aftertaste.
Friday night had brought the obligation of this societal norm, the First Date. For most, the First Date often hung out in the same friend group as Nerves, Excitement, and Hope. However, for our lovely protagonist, any pleasant or positive emotions were left on a desert island with no date of return. All she felt were Dread and Exasperation.
As far as Olivia Pope was aware, meeting someone for the first time was not supposed to feel like a root canal without local anesthesia.
The irksome outing had been set up by her cousin Mia. She loved Mia, she adored Mia. When she needed someone to remember something obscure like the last time Johnny Gill came out with an album, Mia was front and center—and with a tracklist—but when it came to the opposite sex…oh Mamma Mia.
Where did she find this guy? Olivia thought. And how in the world did she think we had anything in common? Except being part of the same species. She raised an eyebrow as her date picked a piece of meatball from his teeth and examined it. Barely.
Not to mention she was sure he hadn’t updated his wardrobe since Zapp and Roger came out with “I Wanna Be Your Man.”
However, promises were promises—and Olivia Carolyn Pope was a Woman of her Word. Despite her wanting to chuck that damn Word down the drain of the bathroom beckoning from across the room—and possibly execute a CIA-agent-esque escape out of the tiny window—she remained in her chair and pushed around the mushrooms on her half-full plate. Where were those black holes from the Acme warehouse when you needed them?
As if a herald from a merciful deity, Olivia’s phone trilled. She fished it out with the same urgency an asthmatic would with their inhaler during an attack. She didn’t even look at the caller ID. She also ignored the disapproving look her date—what was his name again?—gave her as she clicked send to answer the call.
“Hello?” she said into the mouthpiece.
A hushed masculine voice came on the line. “Liv? Did I call at a bad time?”
Olivia suppressed the grin that nearly spread across her face, and instead fixed her features into a worried frown. When Opportunity Knocketh, We Shall Answer the Call. If it wasn’t a scripture or a rule somewhere, it should have been. “Mama? Mama are you okay, you’re breaking up…”
On the other end of the call, the male sucked in a breath. “Oh shit—you’re still there aren’t you?”
“No Mama this is not the best time,” Olivia went on in a louder than normal speaking voice. “What? Did you say that Granny tripped down the stairs again? I told her not to do the Cha Cha Slide on the landing—” At this part she passed Myron-Maybe-Byron an attempt at an apologetic smile and began to gather her things. “No Mama I was not trying to – no, I am not saying Granny shouldn’t have any fun before you put her in the home…”
She heaved a long-suffering sigh and rolled her eyes up at the sky. She blurted out an apology, citing a family emergency by way of her Granny’s phantom broken hip.
She didn’t even linger to see if he’d gotten all the meat out of his teeth.
A few moments later, when she was safely behind the wheel of her car, she brought the phone up to her ear.
“Do I still have to play the role of Maya Lewis or did your diversion tactic work?”
Olivia sighed and stuck her key in the ignition. “It worked, so you can put your Kelly Rowland wig away.” She placed her head on the steering wheel and closed her eyes.
“You know, on behalf of all men everywhere, no would have been a cleaner option,” the caller quipped.
She chuckled and lifted her head. “And on behalf of women everywhere, I would like you to remember how pushy you menfolk can be.”
“Do you really want to have this debate, Liv?”
“That depends, how badly do you want to lose, Mr. Rhodes Scholar?”
His laugh brought back memories of sun-washed summers and delirious study binges into the twilight hours – some of her most treasured times. “Fine, let’s start this conversation over.” His voice took on a friendly cadence. “Hello, Olivia.”
A warm and cozy feeling washed over her, like the weight of a beloved blanket. In the wake of the unpalatable date, this sensation relaxed her tense muscles, smoothed her prickled nerves. In this moment, the state of her personal life mattered very little. All that mattered was the voice on the other end of the line.
What use did she have for other men when she had him?
“Hello Fitz,” she greeted her best friend.
So how did this whole predicament begin?
Well, a tiny mistake involving an inopportune sales ad and a misplaced file—
We need to go back farther.
All the way back to the beginning.
January 30, 1999.
It was a snowy January evening on the eve of Olivia Pope’s sixteenth year. The soon-to-be birthday girl was enjoying a game of Pacman in the arcade while she and her friends waited for the movie to start. The din of conversation and laughter mingled with the sound of Lauryn Hill singing a cautionary tale. The oil of popcorn and the fizz of carbonated drinks made her stomach grumble.
“Hey birthday girl?” Olivia looked up as game over flashed on the video screen. Freshly turned seventeen-year-old Michelle Johnson neared her with her fifteen-year-old sister Mia and the redheaded sixteen-year-old Abigail Whelan in tow. “You ready? We better get in line for popcorn before it gets too long.”
“We’ve got plenty of time. You already know nobody pays attention to the credits,” Mia pointed out.
“Look, that may be the case, but I’m not spending the whole movie trying to look around someone’s head because we got stuck with horrible seats,” Abby groused. “I am only here to see Paul Walker’s fine ass and I will not be deterred.”
“Look at you using a vocab word!” Olivia teased. She fell into between Abby and Mia as they walked out of the arcade and into the lobby of the theater. “It looks like you were actually paying attention in English class. Quick, what’s a dangling participle?”
Abby rolled her eyes as Mia snickered. “It’s on the same plate as a knuckle sandwich.”
“Y’all better stop tripping,” Michelle chided them. “I don’t think they’d let us come back if we got blood on the tile.”
Abby slung an arm around Olivia’s shoulders. The four teens positioned themselves in line for snacks, Michelle and Mia first and Abby and Olivia behind. “Liv knows I’m just playing. Besides, I know her weakness, so she can’t be angry with me for long.”
Olivia frowned at Abby in confusion, and Abby raised her eyebrows suggestively, gesturing toward the candy display. When Olivia gasped in delight, Mia shook her head. “Oh lord. I forgot about the Buncha Crunch. We’re buying you your own popcorn, girl. I can’t afford to get chocolate on these pants.”
“Who told you to wear yellow pants in the middle of winter anyway?” Michelle demanded with an arch of her brow.
“The same person who told you you could wear sunglasses on the top of your head but the sun’s been down for like five hours,” Mia shot back. “And for your information, it’s goldenrod.”
Olivia snorted loudly, and everyone else fell into laughter. “Mia, what the hell is goldenrod? Like seriously, were you playing with Moni’s 64-pack of Crayola again? I can already hear it now: the asphalt was the color of slate and the sky was a perfect cerulean.”
“What? It sounds better than plain old yellow.”
“I personally like the sound of chartreuse myself.”
The deep voice from behind them cleaved through their conversation. The four of them turned to find a tall, dark-haired young man with amused blue eyes clad in jeans and a letterman’s jacket over a jade green henley. Cursive lettering on the left breast of the jacket revealed his last name to be Grant.
For a humming moment, no one said anything; the girls absorbed the sight of the specimen in their midst, from the head of curls to the dark shoes he stood upon. Mia’s eyebrows furrowed, for she was instantly suspicious. Michelle’s look was cautiously appraising, while Abby appeared openly and unabashedly willing to divest him of his clothing.
But it was Olivia who ultimately spoke. Something about the way he looked at her made her feel comfortable, at ease. “Hopefully it’s just the sound of it,” she countered. “Because you would look horrible in that color.”
The young man took no offense to her comment; the corners of his mouth turned up into a small smile. “Thanks for the advice. And you are…?”
Mia stepped in, lashing out like the Crab* she was. “Too Young for You,” she broke in, taking her cousin by the arm. “If you would excuse us…”
Mia led her gaping cousin up to the counter to place an order for snacks. “Mia—what was that for?” Olivia hissed.
“That guy is obviously too old to be talking to us,” Mia hissed back. “Just look at him!” Olivia started to look back and Mia shook her head frantically. “Not for real, Liv! He’ll know we’re talking about him!”
“I’m sure he already knows,” Olivia informed her. “He’s standing like two feet away.”
Mia waved a hand in dismissal. “Forget it, let’s just order. Do you want the medium or large bucket of popcorn?”
“What kind of question is that? You already know I want the large. And the jumbo box of Buncha Crunch for pain and suffering.”
As Mia gave their order to the associate behind the counter and Abby suggested just to combine everything, Olivia hazarded a look over her shoulder to see if the guy was still looking at them. He had been joined by two friends wearing the same jacket he was. He was in the middle of a sentence when he paused and raised his eyes as if her stare had weight. His friends talked around him but for a beat, he didn’t engage them.
Something fluttered within her when their eyes met. A slight mortification shot through her as she realized that she was enthralled with this young man she had never seen before. She gave him a small smile before turning away and willing herself to forget him.
Before they walked out into the cold night after the movie, Olivia felt a certain sensation and groaned. Abby looked at her bemusedly, and she announced she was going to the bathroom before the ride home.
“We’ll be waiting in the car,” Michelle told her, keys already in hand.
Abby gave her a quick smirk. “Getting it warmed for the birthday girl!”
Olivia shook her head with amusement and disappeared into the bathroom. She took care of the nagging urge and washed her hands. So preoccupied was she, thinking about what sort of things her new age would bring, that she didn’t pay attention as she was walking out.
One moment she was on her feet—the next, she had landed soundly on her ass.
“Ow,” she managed. She opened her mouth to lodge a complaint with the form that had been in her path, but a pair of contrite blue eyes appeared in her vision. The diatribe died on her lips as the features sparked recognition.
It’s him, Olivia thought. From earlier. He’s here.
A curl had fallen into his forehead and his face was flushed with embarrassment. His mouth had been parted, and he would have asked if she was all right, except…well, the ability to form words had fled him momentarily. He seemed to be unduly focused upon something on her face. Oh no, do I have chocolate or popcorn in my teeth?
So when he successfully uttered a word, all he could manage was, “Hi.”
She seemed to be blessed with the same affliction. “Hi,” she returned simply.
Above their heads, a new song floated out of speakers. Later, when they were older, they would laugh and joke about this moment without admitting to the other how enthralled they were.
Boy you should know that
I’ve got you on my mind
Your secret admirer
I’ve been watching you
“Ohmigod, Olivia—what happened?”
The sound of Mia’s panicked voice broke the spell. He clasped her hand and helped her to her feet hastily. She dusted herself off and Mia came to her side like a protective pet. She laid a fierce look upon the tall young man and held out her hand, palm flat.
“Driver’s license, please,” Mia said briskly.
They both spoke at once. “And why should I—?”
“Mia, for God’s sake—”
Mia would not be deterred, it seemed, either. She could be more tenacious than Abby when she got going. Without warning, she leaned over and plucked his wallet from his pocket.
“Hey!” he protested.
She gave him back the wallet, minus his license. She peered at the card, then her eyes flicked up at him over her glasses. After a second, she handed that back to him as well.
“Mhmm,” she muttered. “Nice to meet you, Fitzgerald Thomas Grant. Now, if you’ll excuse us, we gotta go before we miss our curfew and you catch a case.”
They were a couple of steps away when he said, unexpectedly, “It’s good she has someone like you to protect her. Otherwise that would be very annoying.” That comment put an Excuse me, whatchu talkin’ ’bout Willis? look on Mia’s face and Olivia smiled. He smiled back at her and strode up to them. “Good night and be careful getting home.” His gaze lingered on the soon-to-be birthday girl. “Olivia.”
As he walked toward the exit, Mia shouted, “See you around, Creeper!”
Over his shoulder he tossed back, “You too, Maneater!”
Mia rolled her eyes but Olivia snickered. When he disappeared, Olivia remarked, “You are horrible, Mia. Really, did you have to look at his license?”
“Hey—if you come up missing, I know where he lives. These may be size eleven pants but I will take him down at the shins, he don’t even know.”
Olivia shook her head in disbelief. It seemed that her cousin had taken the adage Be prepared a little too seriously. “Mia, we probably won’t see him again so you really are getting agitated for nothing.”
But little did they both know, that moment would be the start of a beautiful friendship.