(Author’s note: This is a companion piece to a short story called Drama Boy and both are really chapters from a chick lit that resides in a trunk. It’s also technically too long to be flash, but an Internet outage yesterday kept me from working on a follow-up to Rex 84. Next week. Promise)
He was waiting on the bench next to the gazebo, just as he said he would be. She was late, on purpose, because she had not wanted to be the one sitting there alone, waiting for her date to show up. He was leaning forward, forearms resting on his legs and hands clasped loosely in front of him, studying the sidewalk and occasionally glancing from side to side. In the fading evening light, Julie thought she had never seen a man so utterly at home in his own skin before. The thought of being at that much peace with oneself drew her forward even as it sent her thoughts spinning. Smoothing her skirt, she took a deep breath and moved determinedly on.
Walt grinned slightly at his shoes as he spied her approach. He had caught her arrival out of the corner of his eye, but her more than apparent skittishness kept him from rising to greet her. He would give her every opportunity that she needed to run away. He was in no hurry. He wondered if she knew how her every emotion played across her face and telegraphed through her every movement. Probably not, he concluded, as he slowly lifted his head to watch her walking towards him like a prisoner to the gallows.
He smiled. His gaze meeting hers. He just had a smile Julie could feel and eyes that matched. She never known someone who could smile with just his eyes. It was art without the lighted frame. Caught and held, she wished she could get lost in the moment and never find her way back. She stopped short as he rose. Julie was glad of the evening light. It hid the blush she could feel burning her cheeks and hopefully the flush she felt on her open neckline.
“I was beginning to think I got stood up.”
She looked down and bit her lip, and Walt instantly wished he could take what he had said back. Accepting his invitation had been easy for her, he was sure, but anything that required initiative on her part, like dressing up and actually coming here to meet him, was likely a drain on an emotional reservoir that had no longer had a reserve.
“The sitter was late.”
Determined to give rope only not cause for flight, Walt accepted the lie without hesitation He sensed her relief rather than saw it as the sunlight was too far gone behind the still leafy bluff to make out her expression well, but he imagined that her blue-green eyes were scanning the air in a manic search for conversation. He had never met a woman less able at the art of small talk than she was. Until Julie, he had imagined that the ability to flit from one inane topic to another was hardwired in women like the preoccupation with other people’s business or the near primal urge to shop.
“We didn’t discuss preferred entertainments, so let me run a couple by you and go from there.”
Not finding this particularly encouraging, Walt offered her his arm and led her to the street. Julie managed to cover her momentary hesitation and linked her bare arm through his. The warmth, the way his thick fingers twined around hers, reminded her in such a tactile way how much she missed the simple physicality of a relationship. She resisted the urge to snuggle in and slip her other hand between his upper arm and side. It was just a first date, she reminded herself. If she were ever again have a second, she was going to have to stop following her impulses and try to be less relentlessly herself.
“So what did you have in mind?” she said.
It was an innocent question. In the short time he had known her, Walt knew she seldom weighed her words unless she was writing them down. Still, a loaded question given the way her hand had so easily formed to his own and their shoulders bumped and rubbed together as they walked down the street towards the Ice Harbor.
“Well, there’s the Boat, but I know you don’t like to gamble and all that smoke isn’t any better for me than it is for your asthma. So, I thought maybe Java’s, there’s a band, and possibly the river walk after, if it’s not too late?’
“That sounds nice,” she said.
She probably would have agreed to anything, but he had gone out of his way with reconnaissance and discovered from her friend Karen, the school nurse, that she loved to walk along the river and that she was addicted to chai lattes.
The city had changed only superficially since Walt’s boyhood. Most of the old buildings had managed to survive the urban renewal of the 1970’s and 80’s, and many were refurbished and home to thriving businesses. The main street he remembered was run down and seedy looking. Now the old Orpheum theater was partially enclosed in the new civic center, and the dirty book store catty corners from it was now a touristy boutique.
“It changes but it doesn’t,” Julie said.
“What? Oh, yeah. I haven’t been back since I left for college. Funny, how your childhood seems frozen like scenes in a snow globe waiting for you to step back into them,” Walt replied, chagrined having been caught wandering.
“Why did you stay away? If that’s not too personal to ask,” Julie said.
“It’s not. I just didn’t feel the need to come back. My family’s not particularly close. Even now that I’m back I can go for weeks without seeing anyone – my sister or my mom.”
“My family wasn’t close either, and yet we can’t seem to spend more than a day out of each other’s sight,” Julie said.
They had reached the doorway of the coffee shop, and Walt let go of her arm reluctantly to open the door. She stepped through ahead of him, and he noted for the first time that sandals made her walk on the balls of her feet giving the illusion that she was on her toes. He purposely hung back a bit to get a better vantage point. He had never seen her in a skirt or wearing anything on her feet but running shoes. The effect on her walk was startling, and he wondered why he hadn’t noticed it earlier at the park. She was much more of a girl than she liked to let on.
Julie glanced back over her shoulder. She had hoped he would at least take her hand again but catching him in a semi-ogle was nearly as nice. His eyes met hers squarely and unapologetically.
Walt noticed her brows furl and she stepped closer to him and peered closely at his mouth. His hand flew up involuntarily. He’d forgotten.
“It’s nothing. An allergy.”
She raised a skeptical eyebrow but said nothing.
“Why don’t you grab us a table and I’ll get drinks. You’d like…?” he asked.
He nodded, and headed to the service counter, feeling strangely self-conscious about his appearance in a way that was too reminiscent of the sixteen though perversely, the insecurity Julie’s scrutiny evoked made him oddly confident at the same time.
He found Julie at a small round table with high-backed caned-chairs near the window. She was staring intently out the window onto the street. Not people watching he was sure. He’d never met anyone who lived as much inside themselves as she seemed to, and he wondered if her husband had ever realized this, and if he did why he had never tried to pull her out.
“Your chai, madam.”
“You’re staring,” he said as he sat.
“What? Oh, sorry. It’s just that. My god, even my sister-in-law doesn’t have lips like that, and she is a collagen junkie.”
“I’m allergic to paint thinner,” Walt said.
“You drink paint thinner?”
“Indirectly, I was helping Mom paint the bathroom, and I wasn’t wearing gloves. Stupid. Thought I had washed all the thinner off but it’s like chopping jalapeños . You can scrub off two or three layers of skin but ultimately it has to wear off.”
“When I was a kid, our dog got tar all over his paws when the city resurfaced our street.”
“She said for no apparent reason.”
“Paint thinner. It reminded me of my dad. And the dog.”
“So was it your dad or the dog that was allergic to paint thinner?” Walt asked.
“The dog was tracking tar everywhere. Mom was having a conniption. So Dad took him into the basement and used turpentine to get it off his paws – five feet away from the water heater.”
“And the dog caught fire?”
“Dad’s hands too,” Julie said.
“What happened to the dog? Did he die?”
“Thanks for being concerned about my father. No, the dog didn’t die, but he hid behind the living room sofa for two days. And he stunk. So much so that Mom made Dad sleep out there with him.”
“Does anyone beat you at this game?” Walt marveled.
“You mean the ‘my dysfunctional childhood was more dysfunctional than yours’ game?” she asked.
“That would be the one.”
“Good to know. Scary. Thought provoking, and not in a good way, but good to know.”
Julie smiled in the tight apologetic way of someone who knows she has crossed the revelatory line into the DMZ of awkward social chitchat.
“You know, this might be why you don’t have second dates,” Walt said.
“Thought has crossed my mind too.”
“And the little voice in your head that says ‘don’t go there’?” he asked.
Julie’s brow and nose crinkled in confusion. Walt stopped himself before he laughed.
“Good to know too.”