Charles Wilbanks had the cold look I had seen earlier in the week. Eric looked scared. The standoff lasted less than fifteen seconds. Charles let him go. Eric shook his hand.
"You deserve the bitch," he said and he walked away.
I realized that I was shaking from the encounter. I drank the rest of my champagne, and put on my shoes.
"Thanks," I said as I walked away from him.
I slept late on Sunday, later than I had planned. I was exhausted when I had gotten home from the party, and I had barely gotten into my bed before I had fallen asleep. I turned the radio to a station that played rock bands singing Christmas songs and made heuvos a La Americano and fresh squeezed orange juice. I picked through the paper as I ate breakfast. I really didn't want to do it, but I had signed up to help put together the gift boxes and food baskets from our group. My phone rang with a number I did not recognize.
I reflexively said yes, and then asked who was calling.
"How did you get this number?"
"You gave it to me."
"I didn't. I said thank you."
I hung up the phone. I programmed my phone with his number and set it to be blocked. I grabbed my coat and headed for the hall.
Sometimes it is easy to lose the Christmas holiday in all of the trappings of the season. I don't mean the religious part. And I don't mean the commercial aspect. It can be a fun time of the year. I get to see the excitement in my student's lives every day. People seem to be nicer to each other. And even though I was tired, and it was my day off, I actually enjoyed being there putting together baskets for people. We were going to make days better for some people because of what we had done the night before. We had bought the food and gifts and toys and had hoped to make enough money from the gala to pay the bills. At the end of the day, Vivian announced that the gala had been a huge success, but we were still short about two thousand dollars for the baskets that we had put together. She said that the merchants understood, our group had a couple of weeks to pay for the goods, and she was certain that we'd get the money.
The following week my life started to get back to normal, whatever that was. After school I stopped at the fitness club and worked out. I was exhausted as I dragged myself home because I was so out of shape since I had not gone for several weeks. Each night I graded homework or read trashy novels. I went to bed early, and started living a dull, normal person life. On the weekend I splurged while I was out shopping and stopped at a coffee shop and got a pumpkin latte. When I saw the calorie count, I realized it would take an hour to burn the calories. I sat at a table, reluctantly enjoying the coffee and thumbed through the day's newspaper.
"Seat taken?" Charles Wilbanks asked, and he sat down before I could answer. "You came and got the notes," he said, no small talk.
"Look, I paid for them; I've got the receipt somewhere if you want to see it."
"Look. For the last time, I said thank you for what you did with Eric, okay. Last time. Second, you're really starting to creep me out with the calls, coming up to me. Do it again, I call the cops. Third, and finally, not that I need to tell you this, but I screwed up. I told the group we would have those cards to auction. They were on the program, we needed the money. Simple as that. Now, leave me alone."
I walked away and started to shake internally. I wasn't sure if it was because of the confrontation or something else. He was actually okay this time, he didn't confront me. He was polite when he asked the question. He almost smiled. If he hadn't been such a jerk the first time, he might have been okay.
Later in the week I was sitting in my classroom catching up on paperwork when Justin, another teacher, knocked on the door and came into the room. He sat down and we made small talk. We had started working at the same time, spoke when we saw each other, but nothing more. He was short with dark hair and had a round face with perpetually red cheeks. The conversation drifted from one topic to another and he got up to leave.
"There's a party Friday night at the Palace. Would you like to go?" he said. His speech was fast and he sounded nervous.
I should have just given him an answer. Instead, he got twenty questions from me.
"So, is this just hanging out, or is it a date?"
It didn't seem possible, but his face flushed even more.
"Does it matter?"
"Justin, of course it matters! Hanging out is one set of clothes and expectations. A date, well that's a whole other level."
He looked flustered and looked down at his feet. I had seen him with a classroom of kids and he ruled the room with an iron fist, no one got away with anything. Now, he looked befuddled and uncomfortable. It was funny, but endearing.
"I was thinking a date. But if that's not okay, if you want to just hang out, then I'm fine with that, I guess."
"A date it is," I said. I wrote my address and number on a card and slid it across the desk. He walked out of the room with lightness to his step.
I looked forward to the date and it crept into my mind during the week. Justin came and got me and we had a good time. It felt like a combination of a prom dance and a fraternity mixer, there were a lot of people there, trying to make conversation, and like ours, there were lulls of silence. The band took the stage for the last set and launched into a fast version of "Do you love me?" I grabbed Justin's hand and dragged him to the empty dance floor. The good news is a lot of other couples followed, emboldened by my decision and we danced through the song. He turned to leave when the song ended, but the band went into "It's my party" and then a great rendition of "Sugar Sugar". The lack of exercise was showing, and I was getting tired and they started "I'll be home for Christmas." Justin came over to me and wrapped his arms around me and we slow danced. We are about the same height, and I leaned my head on his shoulder and he held me close. I enjoyed feeling his arms around me. The song ended, we moved apart and held hands as we left the dance floor.
It had been a while since I had been on a first date. This one was better than most, but I was still not sure what would happen, or what I should do at the end. Justin pulled his car up outside my apartment building. I took charge.
"I had a great time," I said. I leaned over and kissed him on the lips, holding it for just a second, before I left the car and walked to my door.
The kids were excited as Christmas got closer. I struggled to keep them focused on math and reading and the weekly performance tests that seem to litter the education highway. It was the last day of school, the kids were on their way home and my phone rang. It was Vivian.
"You have an admirer," she said. She gave no pretext or context for her statement. "We got an anonymous gift, in your honor, for the gala. We broke even. Everything's paid for."
She started saying something else, but my mind was a blur. I knew how much the gala was short for the baskets, and the number baffled me. All of the people I knew were like me, comfortable, but getting by, and most did not have $2000 looking for a new home. Even if all my friends made a contribution, it wouldn't be that much.
"So are you coming? Seven o'clock?"
I snapped to and asked her to repeat herself. She had invited me to a dinner party, at her house, that night. It started in three hours.
I was in a panic when I got home. I would have had a glass of wine to calm my nerves, but the bottle was empty and I didn't think I had the time for it. I went through my closet looking for something to wear. My work wardrobe is a collection and mish mash of dresses, skirts, and blouses that are plain, comfortable, and only suited for a room of fifth graders. I finally found an above the knee black dress. After a shower, fixing my hair, and makeup I ran out of the door with barely enough time to get to Vivian's house.
Her house was bigger than my apartment building. Accent lights illuminated the walkway and there were a single strand of Christmas lights at the roof line. A full size sled and eight life size reindeer sat in the front yard, ready for flight. She opened the door before I rang the bell. She was elegantly dressed in a red dress that showed a lot of cleavage. A strand of pearls rested against her tanned skin. She kissed me on the cheek, a level of intimacy that she had never afforded me while we worked on the gala. It was clear what happens when you have money, or know someone who has it.
The house was decorated with garland and lights and a live, nine foot spruce resided in the living room. I had never seen a real tree so elaborately decorated. Vivian introduced me to her husband, Bill, who has dressed in a dark suit. He poured me a glass of wine and we walked to their living room. There were nearly a dozen people present, some I recognized from the gala. Charles Wilbanks stood talking to a couple near the fireplace. Vivian walked me from group to group and made the introductions.
"Of course, you know Charles," she said.
He extended his hand, grasping it as if he was going to kiss it and he bowed slightly.
"It is good to see you again."
After nearly an hour of drinks and hors d'oeuvres we were ushered into a dining room with a table set for twelve. There were assigned seats, and I was at one end with Charles to my left, Bill to the right at the end of the table, and another woman named Janis across from me. Staff brought and cleared dishes and we had an endless variety of soups, salads, entrees, and a choice of deserts. Wine flowed like water in a brook and we talked about a variety of topics. I spend my days with fifth graders and then with teachers who complain about their jobs, pay, and the students. It was an amazing evening of thoughtful conversation about arts and politics and modern culture.
As I looked around the table it was reinforced that I was the youngest person in the room; everyone else in attendance was twenty to thirty years older than me. I tried to figure out why Vivian had invited me. Surely not for my witty conversational skills. Nor for my insight into the problems with our test score driven educational system. It had to be for the donation. The one I had no role in acquiring.
I spent a lot of time listening. Charles had a breadth of knowledge and spoke eloquently about a lot of topics. Every now and then, when I hadn't spoken for a few minutes, he would stop, look at me, and ask for my opinion or insight on whatever we were talking about. The others would become silent and wait for me to speak and then ask me more questions or amplify my points.
The evening came to an end and I drove home, getting back to my apartment after midnight. I was exhausted. It had been a long week, and busy night, and it being December 23rd, I'm certain I at least thought about sugar plum fairies in my dreams.
I was probably hung over the next morning, Christmas Eve day. I looked at myself in the mirror and was glad that I didn't have to see anyone that day. Then I remembered that I had no food in the refrigerator and realized that the grocery clerk would see me. It was nearly noon; the stores would close early for Christmas Eve.
My phone pinged with a text message. It was Charles. He asked if he could meet me for a few minutes for coffee. I thought about the night before, he seemed to be different than before, but then remembered the woman who looked back from the mirror a few minutes earlier. I was no site for anyone's eyes. I said no, I'd take a rain check. He said it was important. We went back and forth and I finally agreed to meet him.
He was at the shop when I arrived and he waived me to his table. He already had two coffees.
"Grande, milk, not half and half, half pack of sweetener."
I slumped in my chair and stared at him. It was exactly what I ordered.
"You can be real creepy. Anyone got a restraining order on you?"
He threw his head back and laughed hard, a deep, chest laugh that brought tears to his eyes. He wiped his eyes with his hands. He looked at me.
"No," he said. I stared back. "I was with you for three hours last night, remember me; I was the guy to your left, at Vivian's house. I noticed what you were doing."
I shook my head and drank my coffee. I had a headache and felt like I could sleep for another day. The coffee helped. But I had things to get done before everything shutdown.
"So, what's so important that we had to meet?"
Charles reached into his pocket and took out a small package. It was wrapped loosely in tissue paper and neatly tied with a pretty pink-purple ribbon. He slid it across the table towards me.
"I'm sorry. I was a jerk when we first met, when I came to the office, and I shouldn't have done that to you. Please accept this from me."
I looked at the packed. It was simple and elegant. I looked at Charles, and he was staring at my hands. I undid the ribbon, turned the package over, and gently unfolded the paper. There was a white linen handkerchief. There was a "P" embroidered in faded yellow thread in the corner of it.
"My grandmother's name was Patricia," he said.
"Thank you," I said as I gently rubbed my finger against the fabric.
Three days after Christmas, Charles sent me a text and asked if I would call him. I did, and he invited me to a dinner party at his house on New Year's Eve. He said it would just be a couple of people and hoped that I would attend. I thought about it for a moment, and I agreed. The moment I hung up the phone, I started to panic. I had one good dress, and he had already seen it. I had the week off from school, so I hit the road for a shopping trip. I found a good rock and roll station on the radio and sang my way to Nashville. I hit the first mall and quickly regretted my decision as I waded through the store with all of the post-holiday shoppers. I got online and created a list of thrift stores and made the rounds.
Let me tell you, no one shops thrift stores after the holidays. So, they're happy to see you and the deals are great. I went to the Junior League Regift Boutique and it was like walking into a high end department store. I had trouble making a decision, so I ended up with three great dresses that were really sexy and cute. I also got four pairs of shoes and new clothes for work. They offered my change from my $50, but I considered it a gift.
I fretted about the dinner party for the rest of the week. New Year's Eve arrived and I redid my hair three times. I chose the deep blue dress with sharp angles, a low neck line and the hem a couple of inches above my knees. After trying it on after my shower, I realized I needed my push up bra to make it work. The new shoes gave me some height. I tucked the linen handkerchief into a black clutch I got at the store.
The weather was supposed to be bad that night, and Charles insisted that I not drive to his house, so he sent a limousine. I felt both incredibly ridiculous and spoiled as I rode in the back of the car to his house. Dinner was to start at 7 pm and I arrived at six twenty. He answered the door and he looked like a stranger. In every other setting he had been composed and calm. He looked like he had been in a wind tunnel; his gray hair blown around on his head, and his shirt was rumpled. He led me to the kitchen.
I'm not a good housekeeper. My refrigerator is usually bare. But I know how to run a kitchen and assemble a meal. My parents owned a bed and breakfast, we lived on the first floor, off the kitchen, and I knew the breakfast drill. I asked Charles the menu, the order of the meal, stage of preparation, and where the key equipment was located. It was six thirty when I sent him to get dressed.
The house was a 1920's arts and crafts bungalow, but the kitchen had been remodeled with a subzero refrigerator, a Viking stove and a great island. There were six guests, and I quickly assembled the salads, put out the soup bowls, and arranged the plates for the main course. I opened the wine, let it start to breathe, and got out the wine glasses. Charles was tying his bow tie as he walked into the kitchen as the first guest arrived. He turned to let them in.
We sat in his living room and ate arugula crepes and had a terrific Merlot while we talked about the New Year. The other guests were Vivian and Bill and Jean and Carol, Charles' across the street neighbors. We moved to the dining room and spent the next four hours feasting on roasted butternut squash soup, salad with toasted pecans, a spinach soufflé with risotto, and ice cream. It was midnight when Jean and Carol left for their house.
"Let me call the driver to get you home," Charles said as he walked into the kitchen.
"Let me help with the dishes, you don't want to greet the New Year with this mess."
He pointed to the clock.
"New year's already here."
I turned and started to rinse the dishes and filled the dishwasher. In fifteen minutes, everything was picked up.
"So, how'd you learn to be such a great cook?" I said. I leaned against the island as we each sipped from out wine glasses.
"My wife taught me," he said.
The word wife hit me in the chest like club. When we first met, I never wanted to see him again. Over the past week, I had started to like him. He was smart, witty, and when he wasn't being an ass, he was quite charming. I hadn't planned on the "w" word.
"And where is she tonight?"
My friends had always told me that I didn't conceal my emotions or opinions well. It was plainly obvious that night.
"Oh, no. Wrong idea, she's dead. Jean died five years ago. Heart attack. Went to the store, never came back," he said, a look of loss flashed across his face.
"Sorry, I didn't mean ..."
"Well, it never came up; it had no reason to be talked about."
A quiet settled on us for a moment.
"She was a good teacher," I said.
"She could have taught you some kitchen time management skills, though. If I hadn't gotten here when I did, well, let's just say things would have been iffy."
He laughed that deep laugh of his. For the first time since meeting him, I felt like I was finally connecting with him. There had been a connection at the coffee shop. But tonight, there had been another and deeper one.
"I need to ask you a question," I said. The smile slipped from his face, he got serious again. "Did you make a donation to the Women's Society in my name?
He was quiet for a minute and took a sip of his wine.
"Yeah." I looked at him, and he looked at me. "I screwed up over the note cards. The store was Jean's idea. Her baby. And I keep it open for her. Her memory. And it is hard sometimes, to go there, to keep it open, but I don't think I can close it. Not yet. It breaks even, makes a couple of bucks some months. And I just was a jerk. And I took it out on you. And you did the right thing. You didn't tell anyone what you did, you just did it. You didn't try to get credit for a good deed. So I tried to honor that."
I put my wine down and stepped toward him and rested my hands on his hips and my forehead on his chest. He was warm and his shirt smelled like the toasted pecans. He put his arms around me and rested his hand on my head. It felt nice as he caressed my scalp. I looked up at him and kissed him on the lips. His body shivered and he hugged me close.
"I haven't been with anyone since Jean died," he whispered in my ear.
"I'm sorry, I just wanted ..." and I started to pull away from him.
"No. I want you. Well, I mean I like, I should ..."
I stepped back and started to laugh.
"You can do asshole without thinking, but man, when start to get romantic, you start to lose it."
I took his head in my hands and kissed him, hard, slipping my tongue between his lips. He kissed me back, hard, hungry, and urgent. I asked him to take me to the bedroom and he led me by the hand. I sat him on the edge of the king bed and turned so he could unzip my dress. It slipped off my shoulders and dropped to the floor. Charles let out a moan as he looked at me from behind, and I suddenly felt self-conscious about what I wore. I had the push up bra because the dress needed it. I wore a thong because all of my panties caused lumps and lines under the dress.