The evening had started out cool and passive, a slight breeze wafting over Pasadena blanketed by the soft blue layer of nighttime shade and random flickering lights trying to pierce the clouds over his head. Leonard had started out optimistic on this blind date; he was becoming eager to meet the young lady that had been fixed up for him by his friends, but as the street lights and store fronts flickered past him through the windows of his car, he started to feel the pangs of unquiet distress welling up in him like a thermo-chemical combustion of antagonistic molecules in a self-contained chamber about to explode from a small canister formed from bonded iron, such as the inhaler he took from his shirt pocket at the stop light and squirted into his mouth to quell his asthma symptoms.
Up until last April, Leonard had been in a relationship with the blonde tenant of the apartment across from his at the Los Robles Apartment House on the west side of Pasadena. Her name was Penny Parker, a struggling actress from Omaha, Nebraska with stars in her eyes and a hopeful yet fiery aspiration to realize she was meant for something better. In her, Leonard had seen the most beautiful woman he had seen in his life, and from the first flutter of his troubled heart, he pictured the two of them in a relationship that poets would have written poems. She had the long flowing hair of a goddess, the bone structure of a supermodel and that sparkling effervescent personality of a young girl, but he was trapped to mooning her from a far as he moved from acquaintance to friend and hopefully grander relations as they lived apart separated solely by the stairway and a suspiciously non-working elevator. That big change came last Fall when Leonard came back from Antarctica with Dr. Sheldon Cooper in a search for slow-moving monopoles at the south end of the world.
Dr. Cooper was Leonard's roommate and acquaintance and recurring best friend, but he was also one of the most obtuse borderline sociopaths known to the planet. The fact that he was beyond gifted was obvious, but Sheldon's major character flaw was to decide that his genius extended to his opinion on everything and everything, even forcing Leonard to a totalitarian lifestyle into a roommate agreement on paper that made "Mein Kampf" look innocent by comparison. Sheldon forced Leonard to a ridiculous schedule that affected everything from eating arrangements, daily routines, common interests and even a bathroom timetable with a side proviso that even trapped Leonard into a position of servitude as Sheldon's chauffeur and manservant at times. Leonard tried to comply with the best of his abilities; his parents were scientists as well. His father was an anthropologist; his mother a clinical psychologist. They had both reared him on a very rigid lifestyle as well that had left him both starving for human emotion and extremely vulnerable to dominating wills, so when Sheldon came about with his Nazi-like co-habitation agreement, it was basically a transfer from one concentration camp to another.
When the emotions finally burst in the developing love story between Leonard and Penny, it was both a culmination of two things: Penny's search for a decent guy and Leonard's search for an emotional anchor. She had dated a number of guys, socially stunted wastes of testosterone that spent her money and cheated on her while lying to her in incredible far-fetched detail. She had a lost a lot of self-respect in the process and even a lot of trust in others so when Leonard came around to her as her boyfriend, it was an experience for which she was not ready. It was also a bit of a demanding nightmare to Sheldon who found Penny to be the wrench in his full-functioning psychosis. Much like Leonard, she knew Sheldon was terminally anti-social and, in the words of their associate, Howard Wolowitz, "swimming in and drinking the waters of Lake Crazy." However, it was not Sheldon's antagonism that would split up the two lovers; it was three little words Leonard had uttered to her.
"I love you."
Blinking her eyes a few times, Penny froze, stalled a few seconds too long then uttered the wrong response.
"Thank you…." She forced an uncomfortable grin then rolled over in bed with a look of both shock and unprepared anxiety, leaving Leonard confused and as lost as a falling figure looking for a parachute. He tried to work past it; he really did, but it was quite obvious that the love story was over. He was just at a different part of the relationship than she was, and they separated under tense but unspoken terms. They became just friends once more, but Leonard's heart was broken. He still loved Penny, and he thought she might have still cared about him, but as the days passed, it was becoming less and less obvious. The last straw came when Howard resumed his relationship with Bernadette Rostenkowski, a bond that even he and Penny had been instrumental in creating. It was now time to reciprocate the "Girlfriend Pact." With the pangs of Penny's voice echoing her sardonic "Thank you" to his promise of devotion echoing in his head, Leonard turned into the parking lot of the Edmonds Hotel on Oak Knoll Avenue. Their restaurant was considered favored by couples in the area for its romantic surroundings. Another brief shot of his inhaler through his lips, he eyed a car with its parking lights on and stopped to take its spot when it pulled out, but it was actually pulling in as the people in it started filing out of it ready to get dinner at this top-rated eatery. Eyeing another empty spot in the next row, he drove around and took it before it became unavailable, parking just a head of a dark blue Plymouth Reliant looking for a spot of its own.
Stepping out optimistically in his blue-gray suit, Leonard adjusted his eyeglasses briefly and fondled his tie with a tug to go meet his date. The restaurant of the hotel had a long exterior entrance for public patrons lined with a long colonnade with Doric columns supporting an extended mansard roof. A light anxiety came to him as he treaded the incline with smokers talking against the wall and descending patrons departing the Edmonds. The doors opened and Leonard could smell steaks, saltwater lobsters, fresh breads and a heavenly cacophony of specialty dishes ranging from Chicken Cacciatore to Eggplant Parmesan. He had brought Penny here twice while they were dating, but he struggled once more with his wounded heart and forced himself to forget the past to make this night worth it. Turning from the archway into the hotel, he appeared in the front lounge area with other waiting guests and looked to find Howard and Bernadette waiting at the short hall to the dining area.
"Leonard, you made it." Howard looked up dressed in a dark blue suit with a brown sweater. "I was afraid you'd get cold feet."
"But I didn't…" Leonard glanced from the busty redhead in the silver dress to the petite brunette in the casual attire. "Where's my date?" He grinned with another hopeful sparkle to his eyes.
"She's running a bit late." Bernadette responded in that quirky but dainty cartoon voice she had. "But she'll be here. She promised."
"I'm getting stood up. I know it."
"Leonard…" Bernadette looked to Howard responding to the hostess that they were ready for their table. They were led past the curtains into the empty party room reserved for large groups of people. "Her name is Joy; she's from my self defense class. She beautiful, she's smart, she's funny…"
"She laughs like a horse, smells like a horse and sleeps standing up like a horse…" Howard could not stop from adding a bit of the truth as he took his seat in a table near the entranceway, getting rapped in the abdomen by Bernadette who did not care for his unpleasant commentary. Sitting in his chair and unwrapping his utensils, Leonard looked up over his glasses with worried eyes like a scared little boy. Out the corner of his eye, he saw the platinum blonde woman in the corner leaning forward over her table with her breasts almost bobbing out the top of her dress over her plate. Her guest, a young blonde beauty in an Air Force jacket, black sweater and blue jeans with expensive boots were also checking him out briefly before turning around to talk in secret. The younger girl was attractive, but out of his league, resembling a certain young blonde television actress best known as a vampire killer.
"Forget what Howard said…" Bernadette looked at him and draped her light windbreaker over the back of her chair to reveal her violet sweater and dark dress. "Joy is a very nice girl. She's going to show up."
"I don't know, Bernadette…" Leonard was starting to sound despondent again. "I guess I'm just still in love with Penny…"
"You've got to forget her." Howard spoke up again. "You tried, the relationship imploded, you move on… There's a big beautiful buffet of ladies at there and you're still pining over a box of KFC you had five days ago."
"Are you comparing Penny to old take-out?" Bernadette interjected into his morale-busting speech.
"Are you telling her what I said?"
"Then I'm not…" Howard quickly changed his outlook before he ended up like Leonard over that same box of KFC. As the waitress came to bring their water, he asked for more time for Joy to show up, but Leonard started looking over to the other restaurant patrons. It was mostly couples that came to enjoy the romantic location, but at least two families enjoying the food. The socialite in the silver dress and her niece had risen up to leave and cross behind Leonard, but scanning the room, the young physicist spotted a face that looked familiar. He couldn't place the gentleman in the blue suit and unbuttoned collar, but he knew he had seen him before on the news as part of some real estate scandal or another.
"Well, this was a nice time getting together, wasn't it?" Michael Bluth, the former head of Bluth realty sat across from his childhood infatuation, Sally Sitwell, the daughter of Stan Stitwell, who ran his old company's former competitor. Tossing back her long blonde hair, Sally looked up with her big blue eyes, flashed a little smile and reacted all aloof as Michael once again tried to rekindle old feelings.
"Michael, is this a business luncheon, or are you just trying to rekindle old feelings?" She cloyingly tested his feelings.
"Well, I'm sure any situation would be mutually beneficial to us both." Michael tried to be charming. "And for once, no one in my family will be bothering us…"
His cell started buzzing.
"I'm not answering that."
It buzzed again.
"I'm still not answering it."
It buzzed yet again.
"Michael," Sally leaned over and kissed him platonically. "You can stop trying… Please, find someone else you can really have a fairy tale with and grow old together." She collected her purse and lifted herself to her feet, striding out of the restaurant and inadvertently crushing Michael's feelings. A brief moment of depression and disbelief, he tried to listen for that Ron Howard-like voice in his head to tell him what to do, but the obnoxious and callous sound of his cell kept buzzing.
"I really hate my family." He clicked on the phone without checking the number. "Who is it?"
"Michael…" It was his mother. "Your niece, Maeby, is in jail."
"Not my problem." He clicked the phone off and dropped it into a pitcher of water on a cart getting rolled by his table. He gestured for his waitress.
"Waitress, Scotch?" He exhaled hard with his aggravated lips quivering under his breath. Another blonde beauty at another table eyed him once, then shared a look with him then rolled her eyes across the restaurant with its wood furnishings and commercial art pieces deigned to fill the walls. None of it was remarkable, and the lights were replications of regular standard designs seen in a million other places.
"The security system in the place stinks."
"Parker…" Alec Hardison looked up from his seafood lasagna. "We're trying to be normal tonight. That's what you wanted to try."
"I know, but normal is boring." Parker swayed with a light gasp from her chest. "It's nothing like the thrill of hanging twenty feet off the floor from an air vent over a valuable piece of jewelry worth three million dollars." She paused. "Where do you think Nate and Sophie are tonight?"
"We'll get another job soon kicking bad guy butt." The self-avowed computer geek looked up to his girlfriend the former cat burglar and understood her impatience. Since Nate and Sophia had departed their group, they were not as active as before, but they were still pulling off jobs for people wronged by big business conglomerates. Elliott was off arranging such a job, but in between, Parker had wanted to know what it was like to be normal, and that's what they were doing.
"I miss the old days…" Parker confessed under her breath.
"I know, baby… but you're with me tonight." He looked back upon her. "Let's just make it between us… What do you want to do after dinner?"
"Check out the museum."
"Sounds great, but I'm pretty sure its closed by now…"
"That's the best part…" She grinned that little grin she had when she was wearing a harness and descending from a roof toward private artwork. On the other side of them beyond a row of potted plants on a wall, an attractive blonde in a dark jacket and pants combo with a blue blouse sat talking on her phone in the restaurant. The gentleman she was with looked to be her husband, a character in that awkward age where the still youthful look of the thirties was gradually being interceded by the pangs of middle age. Clad in a tasteful suit for what was supposed to be a romantic night out with the love of his life, he was instead listening to the toils of his wife's distractions and enjoying his seafood plate when he would much rather be telling his wife of almost fifteen years how much he loved her and how grateful he was to have her in his life, but instead, he heard the minutiae and tribulations of his angry children calling from the family home in Collinsport, Maine.
"Tricia? Tricia!" Dr. Ally Masterson-Collins feuded with her daughter. "Stop stealing clothes from your sister's closet!" She paused to hear part of the problem. "I didn't just mean Lainey's closet, I meant everyone's closets and mine too! I know you still have my green cashmere blouse! I know you do. I know you do!"
The only son of Barnabas and Angelique Collins, novelist William Collins had planned for this trip to California to be an anniversary for the two of them since his daughter Nikki had ruined the last one by getting arrested for driving his sister's new car into the post office without even having a driver's license. His mother said it was the family curse to have kids worse than you were as a kid, and that taunt was turning out to be true. In his youth, he had nearly burned down part of Collinwood, got lost in a canoe at sea and had to be rescued by the Coast Guard and pretty much left everyone from his Aunt Carolyn to Maggie Evans, his old governess and now the wife of his Uncle Quentin, a nervous wreck. Listening to the trouble at home, he just grinned in annoyed agreement to Ally when she looked at him then set his fork aside and pulled out his own cell phone. It looked like he just might be taking charge of the predicament.
"Tricia, put your grandmother on the phone!" Ally argued with her eldest daughter. "Put her on the phone. Put her on the phone!"
"Hey, Rick…" William had called his buddy, crime novelist Richard Castle, in New York City. "How you doing, buddy? No, I'm not in Manhattan, I'm in California…."
Ally stopped talking as she heard her daughter and mother-in-law arguing through the phone.
"Yeah, they're making one of my old writing projects into a movie…" William revealed frankly. "I just needed your help to show my wife how rude it was to talk to someone else on a phone when you're trying to have a romantic night out without the obnoxious kids…"
Gradually lowering her phone at that force-fed lesson, Ally looked at him a bit annoyed.
"Oh, she got the message…" William noticed her face of contempt. "Thanks for the help… Say hello to Kate and Detective Taylor for me…."
"Mrs. Collins?" Ally heard her mother-in-law on the phone. "Thanks for interceding…" She talked much lower and discreetly. "We'll talk later." She clicked off her phone and looked up with her big blue eyes. "Sorry…"
"I know you don't like being away from home…" Her husband clicked off his phone and placed it back in his jacket. "But this was supposed be our time…" William stressed he wanted to be with her instead of having a phone between them. "We have a great suite in a nice hotel driving distance from the best tourist spots in the world and all you're doing is arguing long distance with the kids and checking on your patients at the hospital. What about me?"
"I'm sorry, but I'm not used to doing nothing and having you around…" Ally signed and struggled with her restlessness. "I do love you, I do love having you around, but I worked so hard to get where I am…"
"But how about working on us for a while?" He took her hands across the table then leaned across the side and kissed her lovingly on the lips. A small grimace of giggling from her lips later, Ally leaned back at looked down at her veal scampi and realized that she had barely touched it. Her hand was reaching for her wine as William filled it for her before sitting back and dreamily looking back on her like the youth he was when they were both attending Collinsport High School. Leonard wanted that kind of a romance. He wanted that complete and utter devotion between two people who were completely in love with each other. He barely had it with Penny, but with Bernadette's help, he thought he could finally find it. Sighing a bit, he turned back from gazing around the couples in the dining room and looked back to Howard for honoring their "girlfriend pact," especially since it had been he and Penny who had fixed them up together.
"Thanks again for doing this, Bernadette…" Leonard looked up apologetically to her.
"Oh, I take pacts very seriously." She chirped back with a happy grin. "One time at my lab, a petri dish of a genetically-modified super-virus went missing. That day, we all made a pinky swear to never admit that we crossed the Ebola virus with the common cold."
"Heh…" Howard nervously scratched himself behind his right ear. "Why the hell would you cross the Ebola virus with the common cold?"
"We never did…" Bernadette chirped back. "That would be a terrible, terrible thing…." She grinned secretly and sipped her complimentary water. Howard and Leonard looked at each other briefly nervous over the table unsure of what to say before Leonard looked back over to the Collinses at their table. Ally was once more bickering with yet another teenage daughter over the phone, apparently over something her other daughter did or did not do. William sat across from her, slightly slumped with his head resting upon on his arm on the table, partially sipping his wine and possibly wishing his romantic night out was nearly as nice as Leonard's. Their gazes across from each other was broken by the sound of Bernadette's phone squeaking from her dainty purse. She turned her head to it slung over the back of her chair and pulled it out to answer it. Her small device in her hand, she clicked the button to respond to it.
"Hello?" Bernadette slightly scowled as Howard and Leonard listened to her side of the conversation. "Yes, it is… Who is this?"
Leonard started rolling his head to the side a bit disappointed. He had been dumped. He knew it.
"Oh, dear…" Bernadette became genuinely concerned. "Will she be okay?"
"She's not showing up, is she?" Leonard exhaled depressingly and tilted his head to the side ready for the bad news.
"You don't know that…." Howard tried to keep up his spirits then turned to his girlfriend. "He got dumped, didn't he?" Bernadette waved at him to stop talking while she was trying to hear her caller.
"Oh, would you?" Bernadette was still speaking on her phone, now sounding relieved that things were working out like this. "That would be perfect! See you when you get here!" She clicked off her phone and looked to Leonard. "Joy's not coming…."
"I knew it…." Leonard felt deflated and defeated.
"Leonard, wait…" Bernadette stopped him from getting up from his seat. "This new girl, Lisa, is talking her place… I don't know her, but she sounds nice."
"Did she sound fat?" Howard asked.
"How do you sound "fat?" The cute blonde biochemist could not believe he had asked that.
"I don't know…" Howard thought about it. "Kind of like… "Hello, I'm Lisa, and I eat small animals." He did his best low husky echo and ended it with the deep-throated laugh of Jabba the Hutt from "Return Of The Jedi." Leonard looked at him once then glanced back to the empty table the aunt and niece had been sitting at before then over to the Collins now in harmony once more. They two of them looked very much in love. William clinked his glass of wine with his wife, shined his smile to her and wanted to marry her all over again. Leonard wanted that. He wanted true love. He wanted romance. He wanted the type of relationship that country songs would be written. Sighing a bit, he looked to Bernadette optimistically wishing him to wait another few minutes longer and lifted his water to take a sip. Out the corner of his left eye, he thought he saw Lisa coming down the long hall from the foyer area of the Edmonds, but when he looked closer, he realized it was Penny showing up herself to fight for him. There were a few things wrong with her image. She was not dressed in her usual casual-wear style but in a more rural adventure type attire. Her boots were expensive, far too expensive for a struggling actress on a waitress budget, and her blue jeans and brown leather jacket were practically right out of the J. Peterman catalog…. adventure-wear made chic. The most obvious distraction from her regular svelte and athletic look was her sudden voluptuous figure… Her bosom was almost as large as Bernadette now, making her look like a blonde Katy Perry coming back from a shooting of another "Indiana Jones" movie. Her eyes noticed Leonard straight away, gazing upon him with a slight regal grin that slowly broke from her lips as she brushed her long blonde locks from her face. Howard's jaw dropped as she came into view. Behind her eyeglasses, Bernadette's eyes widened in awed shock and stunned surprise.
"Are you Leonard?" She came right up to their table. "Hi… I'm Lisa… Dr. Lisa Wilder… I'm your date for tonight." She responded with a quirky toss of her head. Leonard had drawn quiet, and Howard had froze in mid sip of his water with Bernadette sitting stunned, her eyes wide open and her lips lightly parted in surprise. From somewhere, they thought they heard the light tinkling of the ivory keys on a piano slowly joined by the strings of a harp and the bouncing staccato from a flute most familiar with a series from the Fifties most linked to individuals encountering paranormal events. Whether they knew it or not, they were also being watched from afar. A nervous gentleman in a dark suit and tie at an out of the way table lightly tapped the butt of his cigarette into his ashtray and turned to an imaginary audience.
"Submitted for your approval…" He spoke. "Dr. Leonard Leakey Hofstadter, an experimental physicist from New Jersey transplanted into the South California wilderness known as Los Angeles, or more specifically, the city of Pasadena. Leonard is one of those men who believes he knows how the universe works from every tiny atom to every unseen particle of matter in between, but he is about to realize that some things just cannot be explained in a lab. Leonard has just met a woman whose mere nature and existence is a violation of all his beliefs and that which he holds dear. A woman whose mystique may be more than he is ready to understand. You see… Dr. Lisa Elinor Wilder doesn't really exist but instead originates from a realm far beyond ours… that shadowy place which we call… The Twilight Zone."