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It had been a while.
She had run into him at a party. The city was big, and it had been many years. She'd gone to school in a different town, moved further away after that. But life and jobs had eventually brought her back to the same town, and she had thrived in a circle of new friends.
She'd ascended the level, become one of the major players in her job field. And in doing so, she'd left behind the has-beens of her teenage life.
Or so she had thought.
It was November -- when the big events move from verandas and stadiums to ballrooms and the homes of the more affluent. It was in one of these homes that she was this night, schmoozing with the bigwigs and feeling like such a fake.
She'd moved her way up the media world, from radio to television to advertising. Her name was synonymous with the big ads on billboards around the state. She had her choice of the big events and the big parties -- because everyone wanted to be able to drop her name later.
Inside, though, she felt like such a fake, a failure. She'd wanted to be an artist, but wound up running a staff of talented yet not quite artistic wannabes, handling accounts and making money to stick back for vacations on lonely Gulf islands or Colorado vacations.
This night, she was sipping on a Lemon-tini, wondering if the hired bartender would make her a virgin drink for a few extra bucks. She nodded repeatedly at what one of her clients was saying, a large flabby man with a ruddy complexion and white hair, as he blabbered on about how good he thought she made him look with her diligence to attention. In the back of her mind, she kept thinking if you learned how to spell, you wouldn't seem like such an idiot and occasionally she made eye contact or giggled a little. It was good to keep them thinking that you were paying attention -- kept them from thinking you were rude -- because rudeness usually lost you business.
One of the local law enforcement guys walked by and waited to strike up a conversation. Oh, yes, she knew this twerp, too -- in her college years, she'd managed to flash her way out of a traffic ticket with him when she was caught driving without taillights -- and he took that one gesture as a sign of affection.
Oh, God... why now? she wondered... and turned more towards El Flabbo as he went on about his restaurant chain.
But there was something... what did I just see? she thought as she tried to quietly glance past the big sloppy man. He moved into her way, and she sighed. If she tried to break away now, she'd just seem rude. Rude. Can't be rude to the client.
The twerp cop seemed to get the message though, and moved away in search of someone else to pester.
And then, there it was again... she thought she'd seen a particular patch of blond hair. She couldn't remember what it was that the blond resembled, but she wanted to see it again -- just to compare notes against her memory.
And then, something struck her eye... spittle from Mr. Fat Man With a Restaurant Chain in his exuberance. This couldn't really be avoided... she had to wipe her eye. Mr. Spittle apologized as she wiped away with a cocktail napkin.
As she looked up, she noticed the hostess coming towards her, leading someone. Nice body she bought, she thought... until the hostess reached a break in the crowd, and she could see past her to...
oh, no, that can't be...
and there he was, walking up to her, first a friendly smile and then a widening of the eyes, followed by a curl of the brow. He wasn't sure... no... oh, wait a minute... yes, he DID recognize her.
The hostess was leading him by the hand, and placed his hand on Gina's...
and for a moment she was 15 years in her past, fumbling in the dark, reaching out to feel flesh and wiping sweat from her eyes...
"Gina, there's someone I'd like you to meet," the hostess started, unaware of curled and furrowed brows and smiles of recognition. "Gina, Jake Davis works with my husband. He's a contractor on our latest project."
Somewhere in the background, Gina heard broken chords that sounded so familiar -- or maybe the pianist found "Tiny Dancer" or some old funky 70s tune. She curled her toes in her shoes, trying to grab the earth and hang on.
And somehow, she found the words.
"Oh, Jake, it's good to meet you. Are you working on the Shadow Hills project with Davey?"
She could tell Jake wasn't prepared for conversation, either.
"Yes, I am... Davey and I have been working together for about six years now. I just missed the Christmas party before. You know how it is... the work never ends."
Both of them managed a giggle... which, if the hostess had been paying closer attention, bordered on a nervous twitter. But oblivious, she carried on.
"You two just need to chat. Gina here is in charge over at Delta Billboards. She could plaster your face all over the state. I bet Gina knows where to place your face!"
Gina blushed, and was relieved that the lights were going dark, too. After all, this was a birthday party -- and there were toasts to be made.
Mr. Fat Guy with Spittle had just watched the whole exchange, but nevertheless prattled on. Gina had forgotten that he was still rattling until he took her elbow.
"Miss Safflower, we really do need to find a quieter place. I want to know more about these northwest corridor billboards you're proposing."
And then Jake was stepping in, and Gina swore she heard music playing. And it was -- the brief toast was made, the music had begun, and --
"Well, I don't know about you, but I would love to dance."
Mr. Spittle started to sputter, but Gina was gone. She didn't normally dance in public, and didn't feel like she was very good at it, but any escape was a good one.
Jake rolled his hand from her elbow up to her shoulder as they walked away, trying to be stylish and apparently succeeding. He didn't talk, just helped her sway appropriately at the right moments and slowly edged her out the door to the patio.
She knew she was still red, and that her breathing couldn't have been calm. She started to wonder about her earlier thoughts on slowing down the alcohol intake. Maybe she should have increased it instead.
Out on the patio, the music was distant, and few couples were enjoying the cool night by the pool. Once out of eyeshot of most of the attendees (and Mr. Restaurant Chain), Jake came to a stop and gave Gina a long look, up and down.
"It's you, isn't it? Gina Jaggery, right? From high school?"
"Yeah, I'm surprised you'd have to ask. But it's Safflower now. And like, obviously I'm not in high school any more."
She started to giggle. That last thing had seemed much funnier to her than it should have, and she couldn't help herself. Jake didn't join her. He just looked... well, what was the word she was looking for.
"What, what's wrong with that, Jake? Cat got your tongue?"
"No... I just... well, when do I get to meet Mr. Safflower?"
That sobered her up.
"Um, no Mr. Safflower. He took off on his trip to Sturgis years ago... and hell if I know where he went."
Jake's eyes widened. She noted his surprise. But she wasn't prepared for his next question.
"So, where's your date?"
"Um, well, that's the thing. I came with Cherie, my marketing assistant. She's never been to Claire's big birthday bash, and I wanted her to see just how extravagant things could get."
"Oh. OH. So, you're not like, here with the guy you're with?"
"No... I can definitely say that I'm not."
"There's got to be a reason."
"Well, there are a lot of reasons... things that have to do with advertising and being in TV and being a professional and living this sort of life and sometimes you don't make the decisions you think you should make and you end up going really far in life anyway and I think I'm starting to ramble, am I?"
He nodded. And grinned.
She started to open her mouth again, but stopped and closed it again. Who knew what was going to come out.
"So, if Mr. Right is out of the picture, why are you wearing that ring?"
She glanced down at her hands, and sure enough, there was her wedding band. It had never occurred to her to stop wearing it. It was a habit, like getting up in the morning and throwing the waffles in the toaster. It had become part of her life, and she hadn't thought about letting it go.
"I don't know."
"Well, at least I know."
"So, what is it that you've been doing?"
"Oh, this and that," he said, leaning back against a bar table that had been "casually" placed there by the wait staff. "Work keeps me busy."
"So you finally made it through school?"
He laughed and smiled at her. "Yes, eventually. Only took me six and a half years, but I'm doing fine now. I lost track of you after you graduated."
"Well, duh! Everyone did."
"Yeah, why was that?"
"Well, I felt I grew out of it, really. Everyone seemed to be failing out or taking their time and partying. I wanted to move on with my life. So I got my degree, and I did my grunt time in the trenches, and I worked my way up."
"What, billboards? Why didn't you become a painter, like you wanted to be?"
"Because there was no money in it... I mean, unless you're painting houses or you're screwing Picasso, there's no money in painting. It just doesn't happen."
"So... billboards. You plaster ads up and get money."
"No, I own a company that negotiates the sale of ad space on outdoor advertising in a four state region."
"Yeah, like I said--"
"Well, what makes you think it's just... um..." she trailed off. She hadn't expected the conversation to turn nasty.
"Look, it's all right. I was just saying-"
"I don't care what you were saying. I guess it came out -" rude, she thought - "wrong somehow."
"Maybe it's the party. I don't do well at these sort of things."
And he was right -- and she felt that way, too. And at that moment, all she wanted to do was escape. The fake feeling was back, very strong -- but here was someone who could help her reach back to what felt real.
"Hey, we could sneak around the side and leave."
"You think anyone would notice?"
"Oh, they'll just think we went into one of the bedrooms to make out," she said, and started giggling. The idea that she, Gina Safflower, pure as the driven snow, would be making out with some high school friend she'd just met at a party, seemed so ridiculous to her somehow... she just... the laughs kept burbling up.
Until he put his arm on her waist and looked her in the face. That stopped it.
"No, I don't really mean that. It would be completely out of character for me. Really it would. I just meant -- other people do that, and anyway who's paying attention to me anyway-"
"That big white haired guy seemed to be pretty interested in you," Jake told her, and Gina shuddered. The mental image had appeared of her and Mr. Spit and Flab in an intimate embrace, and she was repulsed.
"No, I don't need to see him again. In fact, that man needs a rabies vaccination. Please... let's scram. I'd love to know more about what you've been doing."
"That can be arranged," Jake told her, and then they were scuttling around the side of the house, eyes watching for the valet and other party-goers. At first, she turned towards her car down the street, but then saw that her hostess was out front of the house. Not good.
"I got wheels... we can come back later for your car. If that's okay with you. I mean, I could be the Lone Stranger or something-"
"No, that will be okay. I'd like that."
They scooted down the block to his car, an older model black sedan with a small dent in the front. She didn't care. Her brain was still screaming ESCAPE! and if this was the transport, so be it.
They crawled into the car, and he asked "where to?"
"Anywhere but here."
"We could go check out the Awful Waffle-"
"-no, that's okay. Um, where do you live?" she asked, suddenly curious.
"Oh, not too far -- just over the river. C'mon, I'll introduce you to my wife."
Gina suddenly realized that thought made her uncomfortable. Then the thought that she was mentally uncomfortable made her uncomfortable. She almost, almost visibly winced.
Until he said "just kidding. I lost the old hag years ago."
The sedan slipped grumpily out onto the street. Gina felt both relieved and cautious. Somewhere below her chest, she felt a rising heat, and she wasn't quite sure why.
That memory flashed through her head again -- and she knew why. Shortly before the last time they'd seen each other, she and Jake had spent an evening groping in the dark, both grieving over lost loves, trying to figure out if they could comfort one another.
And they'd been almost entirely unsuccessful. The evening had been full of hours of groping and saliva and back rubs and cartoons -- but it had ended abruptly. Something hadn't felt right. And after that, she didn't feel comfortable in his house any more.
Not that she hadn't wanted to be there. The night of groping had been her idea.
She exchanged small talk with Jake on the trip down to the interstate and across the river. She wasn't really sure what to expect -- some of the contractors who worked with her had seemed pretty normal, others were constructing strange pseudo-Victorian palaces with unfortunate cupolas and misplaced terraces. Well, one of them. She feared what they were driving to.
And then the mad thought hit her. I'm going home with a guy I haven't seen in 12 years, easy -- I don't know where he lives and I don't have my own vehicle.
She felt fear. And she also felt a little excited. In a strange sort of way.
As they pulled into the subdivision, Gina's heart sank. There was a Craftsman style house on the corner, cobbled together from crazy bits of stone and wood, almost unsightly, enough to make the neighbors complain but not enough to get the community action group to take action. Oh, no... not this one she prayed.
And Jake's car rolled on past it and down the street.
They pulled up to a modest gray ranch in a cul-de-sac. Gina wasn't sure about that at first, wondering if she stepped out of the car if she was heading to the right home. But Jake started walking ahead to unlock the door.
"You live here?"
"Yes. You seem surprised."
"Well, yeah, I am. I was expecting-"
"Something weird? Well, I don't like to bring my work home with me. I work on strange buildings all day. I don't want to live in one."
"Well, that's good."
Jake ushered her in and turned on the track lighting. Gina gasped again.
"You have a lot of sofas."
"Yeah, well, they were leftovers. And I just moved them out of the home theater -- because I got some new recliners."
He gave her the grand tour... a modest home, but she caught glimpses of figures in a case and a well planned corner unit. She also noticed his king sized bed in the middle of the king sized bedroom and the wall to floor curtains.
"Yeah, Missy was into the whole 'quilt everything' deal, but I couldn't handle that. So when she went back home to mamma I had a decorator come in. I love black and red."
"Red," he said, and pointed at the ceiling. And she noticed it was the same red as the carpet.
"Well, if you like it, that's all that matters."
"I do. I really do."
He walked her back out to the kitchen, and went over to stir at a pot.
"What are you making?"
"Oh, I had some chili a friend of mine made... it's supposed to just set and get better. I don't know about that, but it's worth a shot."
"I could take a look-"
"Yeah, go ahead. You know I never have been that much of a cook."
Gina went over and pulled a spoon out of the drain rack on the sink. She took a small serving, and smelled it. It didn't smell promising.
"Yeah, I'm not real sure I want to eat it, either. But what the hell -- it's food I don't have to fix."
"You know, they may have been full of good intentions, but that doesn't make up for bad cooking."
He chuckled. "You're right there. So, do you need anything?"
"No, I munched on appetizers at the party. I'm good to go."
They went back into the living room and Jake turned on the TV. He left it on an old Sanford and Son rerun and turned to Gina.
"So, what are your plans for the evening."
"I think they're getting made as we move along."
"Good. I didn't want you to think I was some sort of sex maniac, bringing you out here like this. But the party was boring."
"Yeah, it was."
"So, you ready to go back yet?"
"No, not really."
"Good. Then let's talk about things."
Gina stopped. Something didn't seem right. A guy in her life wanted to actually talk? Nope, that wasn't possible.
But he did. And they did... as TV Land piped out more stale comedies and the hour grew later. They sat together on the couch, first properly and then getting comfortable. She took off her heels and sat Indian style, while he kicked out a recliner end and lounged.
The hours slipped away as they caught up, finding out what happened to Liza and Fred and Henry. Jake seemed surprised to discover that Gina's tryst with Alan had fizzled just weeks before her college graduation. Gina was amused to find that Jake's ex Missy had been charged with harassment for allowing her poodles to overrun a consignment shop.
And playing through it all, like a tinny piano in the back of Gina's head, was the thought hey, it could be a one night stand. If I could get over being such a fraidy-cat. If I could just get over being an ice queen.
And then they both noticed some light in the sky, and it was over. Jake rolled off the couch and grabbed a jacket and his keys, and motioned at the door. Gina followed, but took his elbow as he started to work the latch.
"Not yet," she whispered, and leaned up for an impulsive smooch.
He took her kiss, sliding his hands over her shoulders and grasping her around the back. She slurped up the experience and the memory it provoked through a mental straw, and let the taste of reminiscing roll around and over her tongue.
She felt that old familiar tingle in the small of her gut, and the urge to let herself go. And she knew that right then, if she really wanted to, she could let everything go and give in to that crazy impulse.
She grew lightheaded, breathing in through her nose and not exhaling. God, he still tastes like those times, she thought, and closed her eyes.
And then, just after she pressed her body against his and drew in the feeling of togetherness... it was over. She had stepped through the door without even thinking, headed to the car.
He followed, rattling the keys gently in his hand. And after a few blocks, they started talking again.
"It didn't work before," he said.
"We had our chance, years ago," she replied.
"We did -- why did we stop? It was just getting good. You were so warm, and sweaty, and we moved so well together."
"But we were too close. We were friends. I didn't want to screw that up."
He drove on, silent for a moment, before adding "yeah, I felt about that way, too."
"It could have been good."
"Good? I could have made you see stars."
"Who says you didn't?" she asked, remembering the rush, the incredible wave of climatic urge that had swept her that night, the way she couldn't help herself moving against him. The way he'd been patient, rubbing their bodies together but not forcing the issue. The way he'd gingerly kissed her, trying to control it like bending a water hose back so it wouldn't spray, trying to make the memory last.
And that's what it had been -- this great, fantastic night of passion that had never been consummated... this rubbing of flesh that wasn't quite friendship and wasn't quite sexual but was so exciting, so exciting for a couple of twenty-somethings who weren't yet able to view their futures.
He exhaled, and she realized he was experiencing the same memory. She wondered if he could taste her the same way, if her kiss had stirred the pot they'd thrown that night into all those years ago.
She thought about asking him to turn the car around... because no one would know. No one would miss her. Sunday was here, and there wasn't anything she had to do before work on Monday.
Instead, she reached over, patted his knee chastely, and smiled at him. He returned the smile. She wondered what he was thinking.
They pulled up to her car... alone in the stretch of curb save for shreds of cocktail napkins and a couple of stir sticks. He started to pull to the curb, but stopped instead to let her out.
"Well, here's your car. You good to drive home?"
She giggled -- it seemed like a couple of months had passed since her last Lemon-tini of the night. "No, I'm good."
"You can stay awake? Because if you're sleepy, we can go get coffee."
"As good as that offer sounds, I'm going to pass. I have laundry to do."
"If you're sure?"
"I'm sure," she told him, completely knowing that was a lie, and that she wanted to crawl back into the car and escape from the craziness her life had become.
"Well, hey, call me next time you want to get together. I have some really BAD movies on DVD that you could make fun of."
"Okay," she told him, laughing and fumbling for her key. As she turned back, the sedan started rolling by, and she grabbed the door and slammed it shut.
She was halfway home when she realized they'd never exchanged phone numbers.
Gina squinted at the clock. Yeah, it was six. Yeah.
She laid back in bed and waited for the scent of coffee to strike. The automatic drip should just be starting.
The sleep was still in her eyes, and her head was still full of dreams. Oh, yeah, what was that? she thought, grasping at the thready cloth of memory, trying to remember just what she had dreamed.
And it started to come back to her -- the wood paneling, the old dresser with the video games in the bottom drawer, the posters from 70s hair bands and girl-morph-droid pictures, the waterbed.
Oh, yeah, the waterbed. Jake had a big waterbed, a king sized waterbed, where she and Fred and Hilly and Len would all wallow on a Saturday night, trying to hold cards or dreaming up a role-playing situation.
Usually it was mostly the guys -- Hilly didn't come around much to Jake's -- and then it was strip poker, and Gina always held her own. Only once did she get down to her bra and panties, but Jake had already lost by then. She remembered how they all laughed at his blond peach-fuzzed butt as he tried to hide his dignity beneath the covers.
It was a different time, that was for sure.
Gina looked over at the clock -- 6:08, and still no coffee. Oh, damn, I bet I forgot to put in the grounds she thought, and rolled off the bed.
She pulled on a nightshirt and padded down the hall. Sir Owen joined her walk.
Gina turned on the kitchen light and looked over at the coffeemaker. No light. But the clock did say six. She opened the top. The new grounds she'd put in Friday morning after her last cup were sitting loosely in the bottom of the filter. She sighed and turned on the pot. Looked like she was going to need to get a new coffeemaker -- she had to have the timer. It was part of the schedule.
Gina's glance fell to her purse, laying open on the counter. A piece of cocktail napkin was wedged in the zipper. Damn. Another thing to handle.
She went to the fridge and pulled out some of the Chinese from Friday night. Sir Owen dutifully sat down by the fridge, calmly waiting for a treat. The big Wolfhound stared up at her with his big gray eyes.
"Okay, mutt, you can have my egg roll. I'm not interested in it anyhow."
She held out the treat, just above Sir Owen's nose, and he patiently waited. After a moment, she lowered the egg roll, and he gingerly took it from her fingers.
God, if men were only as easy to train as dogs, she thought.
The coffeemaker burbled away merrily. Gina momentarily wondered why she hadn't thought to use chai instead. No -- chai is for later... coffee first. She pulled the Half and Half out of the fridge and sat it on the counter while she munched on General Tso's.
She hated this part of the morning, this time of the year. She loved the cool of November, but she hated waking up in the dark. It reminded her too much of her radio years, where she'd go to work "in the hood" in the middle of the too-freaking-early morning. She went six years without seeing a workday sunrise.
The steam started to show from the coffeemaker -- the end of the brewing cycle. Gina took a big mug-full with a slug of Half and Half and went to sit in the recliner in the living room.
She started to turn on the television, but stopped. Her mind was racing with all sorts of images, which could prove amusing. She kicked back the footrest and thought deep thoughts.
Sometimes, things surface in your head -- sort of like in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, when the crew slingshots around the sun in the Klingon ship and all those faces come out of that water-looking surface and say things. Sometimes, Gina would just kick back and let things surface.
She thought about Arty, about how he had looked the first time she'd met him. They'd been in college together, sharing classes. He used to poke at her for taking both journalism and marketing classes -- saying you couldn't really be a journalist and a salesman, too. Well, what the hell did Arty know, anyway? She'd done both, and she was just fine with that.
Arty should have been her wild fling. She’d just broken up with Alan, and she really wanted for once, just once, to have that crazy one-night stand everyone should be allowed to have. But Arty wasn't -- he ended up being her husband. She'd been a good girl through most of her days, except those couple of months between the end of Alan and the beginning of Arty. She'd done everything right -- she hadn't been knocked up, she didn't get into drugs, she remembered most of her drunken nights. And when he showed up with that CZ engagement ring on her 22nd birthday, she'd fallen for it -- just like she'd fallen for the rough guy facade and the bike.
Oh, the bike. Arty loved that bike. He was going to be a rock star reporter, riding from place to place and earning a lot of money. He knew he was going to write this great book one day. But then he met Gina, and after impressing her with his plans he dropped them.
There were days in those two years where she'd find him out on the patio of their apartment, wiping the chrome on that bike down with a shammy, like wiping a baby's bottom. If it was going to storm, he'd roll it into their tiny kitchen -- and forget about doing the laundry when it was there.
Sure, there had been fireworks, complete with Roman candles and sparklers at the first. But as months passed, Arty spent more time on the bike and on the phone and at his job. Gina wasn't really sure when he'd left -- just that at some point he mentioned he'd like to go to Sturgis one day, and a few days later she noticed that he hadn't been back to wash his underwear.
But there was still a marriage, as far as she knew. No cops had shown up at the door to ask her to identify a body, no former classmate mentioned they were dating, nothing.
Gina looked down at the ring on her hand. Silly cheap ass wedding ring.
But the ring had been her key... a key to a better life, she'd thought. Arty may have given her the ring on that day at the Little Bell Wedding Chapel, but it really belonged to her career. Gina had jumped into radio with both feet, and then TV, and then advertising. She'd managed a little extra money every time she jumped, and she never lost a business card. Somehow, she'd managed to string a set of chance encounters at business meetings and expos into a career.
But what did she have to show for it? A tiny house with a really big dog.
She looked over at Sir Owen, and grinned. He was laying on the floor with his face between his paws, just staring at her with the adoration granted only to dogs.
I'd have been better off if I'd married him, she thought, and giggled.
Yeah, Sir Owen was one of the benefits of not having Arty. Arty was allergic to dogs -- or so he said. You never really could tell with Arty.
Gina glanced at the window and thought hell, why's it still so dark? Is it gonna storm?
Her mind wandered back to Jake. She wondered if she'd run into him again at one of those big holiday to-dos. She wondered if she'd run into anyone she knew.
Oh, there had been casual dating, sure. About five years after Arty left, she'd been matched up in the office with some guy. But when he found out that she really was married -- and that wasn't a "tempt me" ring on her hand -- he bailed. At Cassius. Expensive freakin' Cassius. She'd had to cover their $120 tab herself after he slipped away for the restroom and disappeared.
But mostly, Gina worked. And she had a great work family -- Robert and Mason and Cherie and Alice, they were a great crew. And she spent a lot of time with them. In fact, they seemed to take turns, being her --
oh, shit, how did Cherie get home?
Gina grabbed the phone and started to dial, paused, then finished dialing. Cherie would probably be up already, right? Gina checked the time -- 7:08. Oh, heck yeah -- they had to be in by 8am.
"Cherie, I am SO sorry... look, I'll make it up to you. I can pick you up in about 20 minutes."
"For leaving you at the party! I just so utterly forgot."
"It's no biggie -- I saw that guy you were with. He's hot!"
"Um, yeah. But I didn't get you a ride home."
"Oh, that's okay. Robert came and picked me up. His game ended early."
"Well, look, I can drive today -- I can at least save you the gas."
"Drive me where?"
"To work! Only have about 45 minutes!"
"What? I need to finish getting dressed."
"Gina, it's Sunday night."
Gina stopped, looked at the clock... looked at the window. Dark. Of course it was dark. Geez.
"Cherie, I'm sorry. I got turned around."
"I bet! So, was he any good?"
"Was who any good?"
"That guy you were with?"
Gina stopped, thought... oh, Jake. "Oh, Jake and I went to high school together."
"So, did you?"
"Did I what?"
"Go back to his place?"
"Well, yeah, but..." Gina stopped -- she didn't mean that! "Cherie, we just talked. He had some really bad chili and some lame TV on, and we just talked about old times."
"Oh," Cherie said. "That's too bad. Is he available?"
"Well, you know, I do need a date for Claire's Christmas party."
"I thought I was your date."
"Oh, Gina, I need a man to take with me! Claire said I'd be getting my own invitation next time, and I need some arm candy. So, you claiming him or not?"
Gina looked in her empty coffee mug. She wondered if Robert would skip his Saturday night game, just this once, to take her. She knew better.
"No, Cherie, I'm going to claim him. If he'll have me. Besides, you always find a date whenever you need one."
"Yeah, us younger ones always do."
"Well, you're not getting any younger. Besides, Robert and Alice have a bet on about whether or not you're a lesbian, and I'd love to see Alice be wrong."
Gina felt herself blush. "Cherie, why would someone think that?"
"Because you never date men, and you're always taking women with you to these events and stuff."
"Well, I'll give you that."
"Look, I was going over to the country club tonight. You can come if you wanna."
"No, I'd better try to flip my schedule. I didn't know it was the wrong time of day."
"Suit yourself. You still gonna drive in the morning?"
"Yeah. I'll pick you up at 7:15."
She closed the phone and set it down. Damn. Coffee. Maybe I can burn it off with a walk, she thought. She went to find her shoes and the leash. At least Sir Owen would have a good time.
Well, that will bring on some heartburn.
Jake had gone to the Awful Waffle after all. There weren't that many places around where a single man could sit at a bar and eat breakfast, but there he could peruse someone's already bought newspaper and suck down coffee and be fine.
Now he was back home with a day to kill and try to stay awake. He knew better than to fall asleep during the day -- he'd be up all night.
He remembered how the afternoons had been with the former Missy Ashlynn... those lazy Sunday afternoons in that first year, when the two of them would lay on the bed together with all of the papers, curling up for a good read and a little sex and a lot of together time.
Now the bed was empty, and the house was empty, and there was this noxious smell.
Oh, damn, chili.
Jake paced over to the kitchen and pulled the pot off the stove. It was a mess -- the beans had long since fallen apart and a black crust had formed on the pot walls. Well, at least I won't have to eat it, he thought.
He dumped what he could of the mass into the trashcan and started running water into the pot. While scrubbing away, his mind went back.
They had been naked. He could remember that clearly -- I mean, how many times are you naked with a girl in your life? One that's not your wife? Missy always wanted him to wear his boxers, because the site of his junk bothered her. That should have been a good indication of what would happen later -- that, or when she started dressing the poodles in matching outfits. She'd take Harry and Scary (hell if he knew their real names, that's just what he always called them) places, one crooked in each arm like mutant toddlers, and she'd talk with them, too.
She was never naked for long -- just for their together time, then back on went the robe and the slippers and all. Not that it had mattered in the end. By the end, he didn't have the respect to look at her.
No. It wasn't her on the bed that night back in the early 90s, it was Gina, all nervous and pale and scared. They'd both been scared. They had talked a lot, but there had been touching, too -- first an experimental kiss, then a little rubbing, then a little Ren and Stimpy on the TV. And more rubbing. He remembered how they'd made out -- like strangers forced together in a bright room. He remembered how soft she was, and how it felt like he was making out with his sister.
He remembered kneeling over her, and how it felt very good and very sexy and very exciting. And very wrong. And how they'd both rationalized it all out and stopped. Right. There.
And how little hair she'd had on her body.
The water in the pot ran out into the sink and sloshed onto the countertop. He absentmindedly wiped it up.
They had talked later, sure... about how they'd never know if it would work, if their bodies would be compatible. He remembered how he wanted to try one more time, but he never got up the nerve.
And then one day when the gang was over and Fred and Hilly and George were all on the bed with him, playing cards and talking about the bulletin board service George was kicking up, how Gina had come in all breathless, all excited about her first motorcycle ride.
And it was that next summer that she didn't come back home from school.
Jake dumped out the water and rinsed the pot, and let it sit in the sink rack. He wondered if he'd ever be able to cook worth a damn.
He went into the living room and sat down on one of the couches and turned on Mythbusters.
Watching things get "blowed up" only reminded Jake more of Missy... of the laziness, of the utter, utter stupidity at the end. He'd come home one day to find his boots in the other bedroom, and his tools thrown out onto the driveway. Missy wanted him to move out... but then she left herself, went back to stay with her parents because she didn't know what to do.
He thought the argument was over socks.
Ever since his mom started making him do the laundry, he'd kept this box of socks. There would be the odd load where not all the socks matched up -- and he'd take and put the mismatched socks in the box. By the time Missy had come along, all these socks had taken over a mail carton, and he'd let it sit in the corner of the laundry room in his newly built house.
Missy made it her mission when they first got together to match up all his old socks. And she did find quite a few pairs. But in the end, she'd thrown socks there too -- good socks in pairs, worn underwear, whatever she didn't want to wash.
He'd called her on it, and she blew up. There were other things she could have exploded about -- like the fact that Jake didn't make enough to cover her monthly clothing budget, or that he didn't cook, or that she wanted to start making a baby and he didn't. But no, it was socks.
And when she left, what did she take? The damned socks.
Jake had already made a good start on a new box, but it wasn't the same. It was never going to be the same.
His dad said it was fine -- that every man had a bad marriage somewhere in his past, and this one would just be his. But Jake had seen Hilly and George go off and be happy and married (but not to each other) -- and they were still with their respective spouses. And he felt like he'd cocked it up somehow.
Sometimes he missed Missy, especially when it rained, or when he listened to Eddie Rabbit. But not much more than that.
Jake flipped the channel on and found a Match Game rerun. He tried not to think about the kiss. He tried. He tried. And he failed.
He wished he'd gotten her phone number. He knew she wasn't going to call.
The barking of the neighbor's dog woke Jake up around 6:30pm, and he went back to bed, where he stared at the ceiling until he fell asleep around 10pm. Thank goodness he didn't remember his dreams.
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