Chapter 2: The Gummy Worm Fish - Part 2

After Wednesday's dinner, I check Facebook to see if the kids have posted or sent any messages. Instead I find a friend request by Ryan, so I accept. Almost immediately Ryan sends a poke.  I poke back.

A chat window opens up: Hey Jackie – What are you doing tonight?

I'm starting the next book on my “Iconic books to read before the end of the year” list.

Cool.  What’s this one?

Love in the Time of Cholera. I've been meaning to read that for forever!

Oh, I read that. It’s long but it’s full of truths.

Most of Garcia Marquez’s writing seems like that. Did you like it though?

We spend the rest of the evening debating the pros and cons of different books and authors and Ryan’s on-going intentions to major in communications and English literature.

I forget about actually starting the novel.

Over the next weeks, Ryan and I Facebook poke each other a number of times in succession, which often leads to chat conversations about books and writing.  Sometimes I comment about the apartment’s weekend party and sometimes he asks about some chore I might need done, and then he shows up to help me clean the gutters or mow the lawn again.  I don’t need him to help me with these chores since Mrs. Swensen has offered to hire someone, but his attention tweaks my ego and encourages my night-time fantasies. Our conversations now include sexual innuendo and coy comments. Maybe I should cross that scary boundary from talk to action. I know I’m using a lot of batteries for my Rabbit vibrator.

About two weeks before Christmas, things seem to change.

We are having our post-chore beer after Ryan’s cleared my walk when he asks “How about having dinner Friday? We can go to The New York Soho West Café. About 8.” His typical offhand attitude makes this suggestion sound like a regular thing. Has he discovered my inner lusting?

"Sure.  I can meet you there.” I try to match his laissez-faire attitude, although my insides are cheering and I feel like bees are in my stomach. 

I walk into the café and squint to adjust to the dark lighting. I struggle to get out of my oversized knee-length down coat, manage to collapse it into a semi-organized bundle, and stamp the snow off my boots while apologizing to everyone crowded into the entry.  When I finally finish my winter disrobing routine, the hostess asks impatiently, “Can I help you?”

“I’m supposed to meet someone.” I peer about the room for Ryan. Table with mostly young people eat and talk while new jazz plays at the perfect background volume. 

“Who might that be?” the hostess sighs with fatigue.

“Jackie!” Ryan waves from across the room.

“Him.” I somewhat smugly push past her.

When I get through the room, it’s not just Ryan but Ryan and a few of his friends perched on tall chairs drinking dark beer or pastel cocktails, and sharing appetizers and stances about university politics.  I feel a little let down and very stupid for getting so excited.  I'm suddenly self-conscious about my slightly form-hugging bright red sweater and what I wanted to be a sexy ponytail, although heaven knows why a ponytail seemed sexy.

“Here!  Pull up a chair!” I drag a chair from the table behind us while Ryan begins introductions.  “Jackie, this is Tanya, Sam, Jacob, Tony and Alexa.  Everyone: this is Jackie.” 

Awkwardly I reach over and shake hands or nod hello while I try to move my chair into position and then struggle to sit on my coat without falling off the seat.  The others each say hi but no one moves over, and in the end I'm a little outside the group, barely able to reach the corner of the table, and opposite instead of next to Ryan.  I’m feeling more like an extra wheel – an old extra wheel – than the reason for a dinner out.  Within moments a waitress comes around and I order a glass of Reisling. I lean in and try to listen to the conversation, but everyone has taken up the discussion where they had left off and I’m outside that topic as well. I gulp the wine down and then order another.  Ryan smiles at me again while reaching for a stuffed potato wedge.

“Hey, grab any of the food.  It’s all good!” Ryan leans down as if to talk under the debate.  He pushes some of the plates towards me and then sits back as Jacob-Tony-Sam (I can't remember which) appeals to Ryan for support of a position.

I'm definitely hungry – I thought we were meeting for dinner! – and as people pick up and put down glasses, grab food without looking at each other, and generally ignore me, I try to reach through the hands and elbows for the bruschetta crisps and goat cheese.  Just as I get close, Tanya-Alexa reaches down and pushes the plate towards Sam-Jacob-Tony who is motioning towards Tanya-Alexa for some food.  I pick up my wine and look around the place.  How long do I need to stay before it’s polite to leave?

Kim should be here, not me.  I feel terribly out of place, and even though there are people of all ages in the café, I have the distinct feeling I'm not pretentious enough for the crowd.  I've been to the café a few times with Stacey and Jane, but we're usually here earlier and on a week night. Also, since I'm with my girlfriends, I've never noticed if the general collection of people are like me or not.  Tonight the somewhat insecure feeling I have about my friendship with Ryan seeps through me and I feel distinctly mundane.  I order a blue-cheese stuffed ½ pound hamburger with home fries.  I might as well eat something before excusing myself.

My head's a bit buzzed when my food comes, so I greedily grab my hamburger in hopes it will re-anchor my head and confidence.  Nothing has changed at the table. The conversations have swirled around and through each other but no one has taken any more interest in me.  Which is why Alexa-Tanya turns to me and asks, “So Jackie, how long have you lived in Vestal?” as soon as I hunch over my plate with a mouthful of hamburger and ketchup juices dripping down my hands.

Of course! “Ummm” I mumble. I wave off the question, pointing awkwardly to my mouth and chewing as quickly as I can without choking.  Alexa-Tanya patiently watches me, her large expertly made-up eyes disconcertingly unblinking and her deep red lips in a partial smile.  After what seems at least five minutes but probably is only a few seconds, I swallow. “Um, sorry – I always seem to take a bite at the wrong moment.” No helpful sympathetic comment from my questioner. “Well, I've only lived in Vestal for a few months, but I've lived in the Binghamton area for about 24 years.”  I'm acutely aware that she's the age of my twins and that I've lived in Binghamton longer than she’s been alive.

“Interesting.  Did you grow up here?”

“No.  I grew up in a small town in Illinois.  I came to the ‘big city’ after I graduated from Aurora University and got married; my ex-then-husband had gotten a job at IBM and I planned on writing so could go anywhere.  When the marriage fell apart, I came to Vestal after I had been divorced for about a year.” I have no idea why I'm babbling this detailed biography; my hamburger is calling me and Alexa-Tanya’s face registers polite boredom.

“Interesting,” she says again, flipping her hair over her shoulder. “What do you do, then?”

Is this woman truly interested or is she practicing to be a newspaper reporter or police detective?  “I write – freelance mostly.  How about you?” I reach for my hamburger.

“Write, huh?  Interesting.” I realize “interesting” is more conversation filler than truly a response to my words.  “I'm in my third year as a finance major.”

I take a bite. Just as I swallow to ask about her plans, though, she turns back towards the group.  I’ve been dismissed.  I hurriedly finish the rest of my food and stand up.  Ryan looks up from his conversation, laughing and then catches my eye. “Oh hey, Jackie!  How're you doing over there?”

Everyone turns then, appearing to notice me for the first time. Shit! “I'm fine!  I have to go, though.”  I wave my bill as I sling my purse over my shoulder and gather up my coat.

“Why are you leaving?  We didn't have a chance to talk.” Ryan works his way around the table.

“I have things to get done tomorrow.” I don't mention I'm tired of feeling out of place and disappointed.

“Well, ok.  I'll poke you later.” His red-brown eyes flash conspiratorially.

I smile and nod and walk over to the bar to pay my tab instead of wait for the waitress. Obviously I've let my imagination make this friendship more than it really is.

But the next couple days assure me that my imagination isn't completely working overtime.  I’ll barely get on my computer when a chat window from Ryan will pop up.  He texts me as well.  The day I decide to put Christmas lights up, he comes over and we end up in my kitchen afterwards drinking hot chocolate through peppermint sticks and singing off-key to my CD of Bing Crosby carols.  As he leaves that day, the touches my arm and lets his hand linger a little.

“A few guys I know have a band that’s playing at Joe’s Garage Bar next Saturday. You want to go with me to listen to them?”

“Sure.  Do I have to be alert so I can remember the other people’s names, or can I come a little groggy?”

“Whatever, although you won't be groggy the way this band plays. It’ll just be us.”

Friday I call Jane.

“I have some issues with my love life – or what seems to be becoming a love life.”

“Really?  You have a love life starting?” Jane’s incredulous tone is a bit irksome.

“Yes!  The issue is that he’s younger than I am. Much younger.”

“How much is "much younger"?  40? 35?”

“um, 30.”

“Oh you slut!” Jane laughs.  “You and a 30 year old?  I'm so jealous!”

I consider how this reaction would go over if Jane becomes a therapist. “Well, I don’t know if it’s really a ‘thing.’  He seems interested and we keep getting into these deep conversations that end up filled with innuendo. We’re supposed to go to Joe’s Garage Bar tomorrow, and I have to confess, I'm not sure what might happen.”

“What might happen?  I'll tell you what might happen!  You just ‘might’ end up in his bed – or he in yours.” Jane crowed, then takes on a business tone and I wonder if I now owe her five cents. “But if he seems interested, what are you worried about?”

“Jane – he’s 30!  And I’m 50 with a 50 year old body that has had three children – who are almost 26! What if we do end up together?  What if he has second thoughts once we’re naked?” Panic creeps up and I'm painfully aware of my lack of experience with men other than John.

“Oh Jackie, you worry too much.  To a guy, a real live naked woman’s a naked woman – boobs are boobs! If he has second thoughts, it'll be because of your lack of certainty.  Don’t worry about your body and be confident that you're the best thing he’s ever encountered.  Confidence is sexy!”

“So the fact that I have this almost overwhelming wish to have him kiss me and undress me whenever we're together isn't a problem?”

“If it’s that cute guy who stopped by when you were moving in, I think it'd be a problem if you didn’t want that.”

Posted by Jackie Connolly

Chapter 2, Part 3

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