Chapter 2: The Gummy Worm Fish - Part 1

“Hey, need help with those?”

I turn from pulling bags of groceries out of my trunk to see Ryan standing on the sidewalk.  I was just thinking that I had bought too much again. “Sure; that'd be great.”

We get the groceries into the house in one trip.  He sets his bags and the milk on the table while I drop the other bags on the counter.  “Thanks for the hand.” I pull groceries out of the bags and then notice Ryan has moved into the living room and not out the door.

“This is a nice place.  Much nicer than the dump next door.”

“It’s easy to have a nice place when there’s only one person making the mess,” I laugh.  What’s he doing walking around my house?  “Well, thanks again,” I call out.

Ryan returns to the kitchen and, holding the top door frame so his shoulder muscles become defined against his t-shirt, watches me put food into the fridge, a fact of which I'm keenly aware. He steps towards the side door with a grin as I turn around. “You're welcome, Kim’s mom.”

“You can just call me Jackie.” I suddenly feel oddly awkward. 

“Ok, Jackie,” and he winks as he goes through the breezeway to the drive.

Why is that wink so unnervingly attractive? I finish putting my groceries away.

September becomes October and I have settled on a place at home to work in relative comfort. Every Friday at four in the afternoon, though, the apartments next door start their weekend ritual of kegs, blaring music, and groups on the lawn and balconies.  That first evening was the rule instead of an exception. I couldn't write a more stereotypical college scene if I tried.  Today I want to finish one article, but the sound of beer pong competitions, music and shouts win.    

I remember for the millionth time Megan’s “Vestal virgin” comment. Considering the classic Vestal virgins were abstinent Roman goddesses of the hearth, my celibate state and my usual Friday night social life spent at home fits perfectly.  The gathering crowd next door only completes the picture of a full-blown Roman bacchanalia, including the toga(less) experience of my first weekend.  I consider going to a movie with some friends, but it’s been a tiring week so I decide just to walk down the block for take-out at the Indian restaurant.

“Hey, Kim’s-Mom-Jackie, come join us!” Ryan yells across the noise and front walks as I lock my door. “We have a whole keg of Yuengling!”

“No thanks,” I shout back.

 “Ok, maybe next time,” and he turns back to a group of long-haired, long-legged girls.
Right, I'm sure that'll happen. Still, his wink and muscled upper body comes to mind while I walk to the strip mall along the Vestal Highway. This is truly ridiculous musing.

I give my order to the young woman at the restaurant counter and wander next door to walk around one of the last movie-rental brick-and-mortar stores until my order’s ready.  Maybe I'll find a movie – like Bambi - that will counter the wild time at the apartments.  The store’s movie soundtrack plays loudly as I walk sideways along the current releases’ aisle. Of course I bump into someone.  “Oh, sorry,” I blurt out and then notice it’s David. I haven't seen him since our walk that first evening. “Hey! Good to see you again.” 

“We seem to have a habit of running into each other while searching for something. What are you looking for this time? A puppy?" he teases. "How is the house working out?”

“Pretty well, although the college neighbors have weekend parties every weekend, so Friday nights I have my own kind of spicy evening with some Indian food and a good movie. I’m looking for something to mask the sound of revelry and hooking up next door.”

“Ah, yes.  Student parties are a problem living where you do.  My place is just far enough away that the houses in between dull the noise.”

“That's a little detail you didn't mention at the diner."
“Could I make it up to you by paying for your movie tonight?”  There’s that warm smile of his.

“Sure.  I've just started to look, though.  What are you looking for?” I note how easily we talk.

“Something that will fill a quiet evening while the girlfriend's away, although I don't quite know what I want either.” 

“Then you pay for my movies and I'll give you movie suggestions.” We walk through the store pointing out possible options and reciting favorite scenes for each other.  In the end, after showing off our respective impressions of Jack Nicholson, we each decide on Nicholson movies: Easy Rider and The Shining for David, and As Good As It Gets for me.  I also pick up the original Toy Story just because I love it; I'll save Bambi for later. 

“Well, maybe next time I'll see you at Wegmans and help you find some organic mustard,” David laughs while paying for the movies. 

I remind myself that David is taken and can't be more than a friend. By the time I get home, the beer pong games have broken up and the parties have moved inside.  Hopefully my tandoori chicken and my movies will counter any challenge to the throne of kegs later.  Still, as I dish out my peas pulao and naan, I can't stop thinking about Ryan's offer to join their party.

The next morning my house exposes its assortment of drafts signaling it's time to put up the storm windows.  I struggle into the crawl space over the breezeway and wrestle down the old heavy wood and glass storm windows and stack them against the garage wall. I set my kitchen step stool under the first window and try to hook the little metal brackets over the little metal hooks above me. I need to buy a taller ladder than my step stool.  I hold over my head the bottom edge of  a window that weaves around and threatens to fall backwards. I try closing my eyes and imagine the connection of hook and bracket.

“Here.  Let me get this.” Ryan’s bare muscled arms reach around me and grab the edge of the pane. He easily holds the pane up and hooks it onto the brackets. I try ignoring his chest pressing against me through his t-shirt. 

I turn around, nearly bump my head into him and end up looking into his eyes.  Look away! “Thanks.”

“Well you look like a damsel-in-distress, and I just happen to need a good deed to do today.  Why don't you let me finish these for you, Kim’s-Mom-Jackie?” Before I can object, Ryan carries some of the storm windows around to the front yard.

“Ok, I won't say no to that offer,” I call after his receding back and suddenly the dirty dishes in the kitchen seem urgent to finish.

“How old is Ryan Miller?” I frantically text Kim.

“abt 30 – non-trad student. Y?”

“Oh, no reason.  Just have seen him around a little and he seems older than the other students.”  I hope my lie doesn't read as lame as it feels.

“ok. i’m off to work, then.  Ttyl.”

He’s 30! 20 years younger than I am! I feel so old.  And yet Ryan’s interest has raised the possibility that I can compete in this dating game.  “Truly, Jackie, do you really think this is a good idea?” I mutter to myself. I am standing at the sink when the side door closes and startles me back to reality.  

Before I can turn around, Ryan says, “They're done, Jackie.” 

“Oh good!” I emphatically turn around, and for the second time that day, I nearly bump my head on Ryan’s chin.  Does this boy understand the concept of personal space and not sneaking up on people?  I quickly slip out from between Ryan and the sink. “Well, thank you!”

“Anytime. Just call if you need any help at all around this house.” He follows me to the door and hands me a slip of paper with his number written on it.  When did he decide to write this up?  And why does his attention make me feel special?

Monday afternoon I go to The River Fork Times offices to check on assignments and write in a different spot. I also want to talk with Mary.

“Hey Jackie!” Mary calls from her desk, “Have any crises with that pink and gray bathroom yet?”

“No, nothing has gone wrong yet.  That apartment building next door still has a non-stop party every weekend, though.  I know I should have expected it, but I forgot how ‘non-stop’ college parties truly are!”

“Ah, such fun!  I envy you!  Truly!” Mary’s words are a mix of teasing and exaggerated sarcasm.  She and Donald live in a ranch house in the First Ward, far from the chaos of student dorms and only about a mile and a half away from where John and I used to live.  The only students that might be even near where they live are graduate students in some of the 1920s brick apartment houses. “Have you seen that cute red-head since you moved in?” Mary always always on the lookout for potential dates for me. 
“Well, he showed up yesterday to help me with the storm windows, and he invited me to one of the parties,” I say a bit cautiously.  “But that doesn't mean anything; I'm sure he’s just being nice.  You know he’s 30 and used to date one of Kim’s friends.  I think he’s more than a bit young for me.  He calls me ‘Kim’s mom,’ for heaven’s sake.”

“You never know. I've heard that the latest fad is young men attempting to bed as many middle-aged women as possible.”

“Oh yeah, that’s what’s happening,” and I roll my eyes to hide the immediate thrill inside me.  “Maybe I should do a short expose on it.” I picture Ryan’s dark brown eyes ringed with those thick lashes.

Right then the editor in chief, Dick Beetle, barrels across the room, his short squat body moving with purpose and his arms swinging with intensity. “Jackie!  I’m glad you came in,” he bellows. “Starting in November I want you and Mark Perry to do a monthly historical series on the Triple Cities area.” 

“Sure, Dick. I can do that.” Dick did keep giving me work – and so a paycheck – even if he could be a real problem.

I had heard of Mark from Mary who off-handedly mentioned him a couple times as a good looking and smart young man.  Although he is a fairly new graduate from Buffalo State, he’s about 36.  Apparently he traveled around the world “couchsurfing” on almost no money before he decided to become a free-lance journalist and return to college.  I had argued then 36 is a bit young. Now I am considering a 30 year old as a possible option.  I can't decide if I’m intrepid or desperate.  Maybe I'm both.

Posted by Jackie Connolly

Chapter 2, Part 2

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