I wound up closing on the house a week later. I took out a loan for it, as my agent had told me it would probably be close to seven or eight months before I'd see my first royalty check. The bank was more than happy to make the transaction. I couldn't help wishing that my mother had been there to see it. I couldn't count the number of times my mother had begged for a loan to buy a newer car, only to be turned down by some smug loan officer. Now they were bending over backwards to accommodate her daughter. She would've loved it.
Claire and I began the long process of packing up our stuff from the apartment. It seemed too small to hold everything we had, but somehow we'd crammed it all in there. We planned to move in as soon as we'd moved the beds and most of the furniture, but Claire remembered something that I hadn't.
"What if Colin calls?" she asked.
"Colin who, she says. Colin Jeffries. You remember. Tall, blond, gorgeous? He gave you his number at C.J.'s and promised to call you when he came back."
Of course I remembered who Colin was, but I really wasn't expecting him to call me back. After all, he'd been on vacation in Florida for two weeks - plenty of time for him to forget me. My overactive imagination pictured him sitting in a beachside bar, a tropical drink in his hand, surrounded by half a dozen beautiful bleached blondes wearing that dental floss they called string bikinis.
"Yeah, I remember. I bet he doesn't remember me, though."
"Just in case, I think we ought to stick around for a couple of extra days."
I thought about this for a minute. "I doubt he calls."
"You know him so well from hanging out in a bar?"
"You'd be surprised how well you can get to know people at a bar if you hang around often enough."
Still, Claire didn't need to exert much effort in order to convince me. I figured up how long it would take for us to get everything moved, and realized we'd still be living in the apartment until the Tuesday following Colin's return from Florida. Not, of course, that I expected him to call.
But on the day he was scheduled to return, I got a message on my answering machine.
"Maya, this is Colin. You remember Colin Jeffries? From C.J.'s? Why am I talking like this to a machine? Uh, well, I got into town just today and I was wondering if you'd like to see a movie or...something. In case you lost my number, it's 555-2262. Call me."
I smiled and picked up the phone, dialing the number I could've recited from memory without him telling me what it was.
Hi, this is Colin Jeffries. I'm unable to come to the phone, so leave your name, number, and the answer to the meaning of life at the beep. Bye.
Just my luck. An answering service. When the machine beeped, I said, "Colin, this is Maya Harte, returning your call. I'd love to go out to a movie, so call me back." I was about to hang up when I remembered the last part of his message. "And the answer to the meaning of life is getting to read a good book without interruption."
Claire stepped out of her bedroom, carrying a bunch of towels, which she put into a box. "Who were you talking to?"
"An answering service."
"Damn. I meant to tell you he'd called while you went to get more boxes. I was out."
"I got his message."
"Yeah, but you don't usually check the answering service."
"That's because no one ever calls me."
"Until now." Claire smiled. "It's a good thing he got back before we moved, otherwise he'd never have gotten through to you."
"I guess we would've had to go back to C.J.'s to tell him."
"And here you aren't the bar type."
"There are exceptions to everything."
Claire just smiled, shut the box, and headed back to her room.
The phone rang just then. "I'll get it," I said, practically running to get to the phone before the machine turned on.
I smiled. "Hi, Colin."
"How's it going?"
"Pretty good. How was your vacation?"
"Relaxing. I should do it more often."
"That's good to hear."
"My stepsister liked your book. When I told her I knew the author, she asked me if you'd mind autographing it for her."
"Not at all."
There was a long pause. "This is ridiculous," I said.
"Paying money to hear you do nothing but breathe? Maybe not."
"No, I mean paying money to listen to dead silence."
"Especially since there are things we could actually talk about," he said. "You know, I thought that a movie would be a good idea, but I wondered if maybe you'd just rather go to dinner."
"Sure, dinner would be fine. When?"
"Uh, well...tonight's not a good time. I try to mingle with people at the bar and everything. How about tomorrow?"
"Dress casual. The place I have in mind isn't real formal."
"Well...I'll let you go."
"Okay...oh, I meant to tell you. I'm moving back to Barnesville."
"Everything should be finished by Tuesday."
"Then I'll still be able to pick you up here in Newstead. Which reminds me, how do I get to your place?"
I laughed and gave him directions, along with the number he would be able to reach me at when I moved. We talked for a minute or so more before hanging up.
"So I take it you have a date?" Claire called from her room.
"I definitely have a date," I replied.
There turned out to be a downside to moving out of your apartment right before going out on a first date. You have absolutely nothing to wear. Everything I would've considered wearing had been packed and sent to the house in Barnesville, and had yet to be unpacked. I considered going there and getting an outfit, but anything suitable to wear on a first date would need ironing, and I wasn't too certain where the hell the ironing board was, much less the iron.
Claire and I hit the mall the following morning, looking for the perfect outfit. Unfortunately, as had happened the night I went to C.J.'s, our ideas of "perfect" fell far short of being compatible. Just as I was on the verge of telling her that I intended to go out wearing what I had on at the moment--which I wouldn't have done, as I was wearing a plain white T-shirt underneath flannel, with baggy jeans and frayed sneakers--we were able to compromise as we had that night we went to the bar. She picked out a nice blue silk shirt, and I chose a white jacket and pants to go with it.
"Not nearly as bad as those other choices," Claire said. "And the blue brings out your eyes so well. We have impeccable taste, Maya."
"If only we could take less time to agree," I replied. "It's nearly three now, and Colin's coming to pick me up at six. I'll never get anything done with my hair."
Claire smiled and led me to a beauty salon. "We just need a minor styling," she told the hairdresser.
"We need a miracle," I grumbled.
We managed to get both. Within an hour, the hairdresser had trimmed my usually unmanageable hair, layering it and bringing out the natural curl I'd never known it had. After some styling (and way too much hair spray), the beautician whirled me around so I could see. I was a bit startled to see the face in the mirror.
"Is that really me?" I asked.
"I told you that you could be pretty," Claire said smugly.
Rather than making my face look heavy, the curls made me look younger, softer...prettier. I had to admit that I loved the way I looked with this hairstyle. Now all I needed was the makeup.
"Now you're ready to go out," Claire said. "Except for some mascara and foundation."
"Just what I was thinking."
We returned to the apartment with about an hour to go so I could finish getting ready. Claire watched as I applied a light brushing of makeup.
"I hate you so much," she said. "You've got the longest eyelashes I've ever seen."
"Yeah, well, what's so great about them if you can never see them?"
"If you would use mascara every day, you'd see them all the time."
I didn't deign to answer that.
"You know Maya...in light of our talk a few weeks ago; I felt I had to ask this as a friend. Of both you and Colin."
I frowned. "Look, Claire--"
"I know you're going to get bent out of shape about this. But Colin's a really nice guy. He reminds me a lot of Reed--women like him as much as they lust after him. I don't want to see him get used."
"I'm not using him. The thought never entered my mind. We're just going out on a date."
"It never once crossed your mind."
"No, it didn't. The end. That's it."
"After buying the house in Barnes Estates? What about your plan of finding a gorgeous guy to go out with?"
"I don't deny the reason I bought the house. But Colin found me, not the other way around, remember? I would just have soon not made a complete fool out of myself at the bar that night."
"I'm not using Colin. I barely know him. Anyway, I wouldn't do that to anyone. I realized a long time ago that it would make me just as bad as they were in using me to be their whipping girl."
"Right. I just wanted to be sure."
"Well, now you are." I stuck the mascara wand back into the bottle and screwed the lid on. Taking a good look at myself in the mirror, I smiled. I was beginning to think that maybe I was an attractive young woman, just like the stranger who had been peeking out at me on the jacket cover of my book.
"No, no. We've been over everything. I'm not using Colin for any other purpose other than a meal and good evening's conversation--hopefully."
Claire waited with me until the knock came at the door. I opened it, and there stood Colin, looking absolutely sexy. His wavy blond hair was slicked back but not greasy-looking, but I was disappointed because I wouldn't have the chance to reach out and brush it back. He wore a pair of jeans that looked like they were brand new with a red shirt and a black tie. He carried a small bouquet of roses. "Hi," he said.
"You look terrific," he said with a bright smile. God, he had a sexy smile!
"Thank you...so do you." He handed me the flowers, which I took. "They're beautiful. Claire, do you think you could find something to put these in?"
"Sure." Claire took the flowers and headed for the kitchen. I said goodbye to her as we walked out the door, but if she said anything in reply, I didn't hear it.
I'd had several dates in college, but most of the guys I knew either thought I'd be an easy lay or were using me to get to Claire. Suffice it to say that they were unlucky whichever way they went. I'd been on two or three dates after college, but I'd been too involved in my writing to take much interest there, either.
None of these experiences quite prepared me for Colin Jeffries. From the moment he opened my car door, I knew that he wasn't interested in me just to get to Claire or to get laid. And I rather liked the feeling.
He took me to a small Italian restaurant in Newstead called Candicci's. I'd never been there before but I'd thought about it, because I heard they had great food and I loved Italian food. He ordered a bottle of red wine for the two of us, then a salad with fettuccini Alfredo. I ordered a salad with fat-free dressing along with the lasagna. Colin was somewhat startled when he heard my order, and I asked him about it.
"You're staring at me as though I've grown a second head," I said.
"It's because...this is going to sound bad, but I would need your fingers and toes along with my own to count the number of dates I've had where the woman has ordered nothing but salad and meatless, sauceless pasta."
I smiled. "Well, don't let what I ordered deceive you. I normally try to eat very healthy food, but I cave in when it comes to Italian."
The salads arrived a minute later, and we began eating.
"How long have you known Claire?" he asked.
"Since I was twelve, so that would be thirteen years or so."
"Wow." He took a sip of his wine. "You know, if I didn't know you were good friends, you and Claire would be the last two I would put together. You seem so different."
"We're not all that different. She's a respected social worker, I'm a published author of a...how was it put by one review? 'A scathing look at small-town society in the sixties.'"
"I'm not talking about professionally. I meant..." he smiled. "I'm probably going to offend you, but you seem so quiet, while she...isn't."
"No offense. She would agree with you. Sometimes, people become friends not so much on the basis of what they have in common, but rather what they don't."
"How did you two meet?"
"In a library. Claire had just moved to town and came in to see if the library had any books on sex, and she found a book on reproduction that was like one in the library in her old hometown. I practically spent that entire summer living in the library, so I was there when she found it. She asked me if I'd ever seen a picture of a naked man, and since I hadn't, she showed it to me."
Colin laughed. "That certainly sounds like Claire." When he'd stopped laughing, he asked, "You'd really never seen a naked man? You'd never walked in on your parents...you know...as a kid?"
The salad turned tasteless in my mouth, and I swallowed with difficulty. "That was kind of tough since I never knew who my father was."
"Oh, God..." Colin was clearly flustered by his gaffe. "I'm really sorry, Maya. If I'd known, I wouldn't have..."
"No, no. Don't be sorry. You didn't know." I managed a smile. "I guess that boring 'getting-to-know-you' garbage does come in handy."
"Yeah, it does."
"I guess this means we probably ought to go through it then, huh."
"Yeah. So where do you want to start?"
"Well, since the whole thing came up because of family, I guess we should start there."
"Since you bought my book for your stepsister, I take it that your parents are divorced."
"No, actually, my mother died in a car wreck when I was fifteen."
"Oh." If we'd never exchanged another piece of information, I would've felt a bond with this man. I knew all too well how tough it was to lose a parent so young. "So your father's remarried."
"Yeah. He remarried two years later."
I grimaced. "You didn't take it well."
"Nope. I thought he was marrying far too soon, and he said that I would react that like no matter how many years he waited, so why bother waiting another year or two until it wasn't so soon for me. He was ready to move on, and he did." He sighed. "I was furious with him. The way I felt, he should've remained married to my mother's memory and his remarrying was a betrayal. I barely spoke to him for a year."
"Do you get along with your stepmother today?"
"Not really. I get along with my stepsister just fine, but Rosalind and I have never really been close."
I took another bite of my salad. "Do you have any brothers or sisters?"
He shook his head. "My mother had a lot of miscarriages before I was finally born, and two more after. The doctors told her not to try again." He took another sip of his drink. "So how about you? What's your family history?"
I sighed. "When I said that I never knew who my father was, I didn't mean that my mother didn't. He was someone she met and fell in love with while she was living with an aunt. When she got pregnant with me, the aunt kicked her out and we moved here. She was...hit by a car and killed when I was twelve."
"That day I told you about, when I met Claire, was the same day I met her parents. They took me in, and I've been living with them ever since."
"That was good of them. They'd never met you and yet they were willing to take you in just like that."
"Yeah. Just goes to show that there are good Samaritans out there, even today."
"You never wondered why they did it?"
"Just about every day for the first year or so. I didn't trust them for a while, because they did this for absolutely no reason. I wondered about their motives, until I realized that they didn't have any outside of being good citizens." The rest of the story wasn't really one to talk about on the first date - how no one else had bothered.
"Did anyone ever try to locate your father?"
"I think a couple of people did. They asked me several times where they could find him, but when they realized I couldn't tell them because I didn't know, they gave up." And that's when the comments about my mother not knowing him cropped up.
The main course arrived just then, which kept both of us quiet for a while.
After dinner, Colin drove to Rosings Park, which was a popular playground for the kids of Newstead during the summer, and during the spring was used for junior high and high school baseball games. The junior high team was playing that evening, and there was a large crowd out.
"Did you play baseball in school?" I asked.
"Yeah, I was a catcher. I went on and played baseball all through high school. I was good enough to get an athletic scholarship to Bradley University. Even got drafted," he said.
"Really? By whom?"
"Did you ever get to the big leagues?"
He shook his head. "Blew my knee out playing a game of three-on-three basketball with friends a few weeks before I was to report to spring training my first year. Even after three surgeries, I was never the same, and it was bye-bye, Cooperstown."
"You don't sound like you were crushed."
"Don't get me wrong. When it happened, I was furious with myself for being stupid enough to join the game. I knew my friends sometimes played rough. I got over it eventually." He looked out at the playing field. "Anyway, I wasn't drafted until the fifth round--so how great could I have been?"
"You might've been the next Mike Piazza."
"Actually, he might've been the next Colin Jeffries. He's younger than I am."
We sat in the bleachers to watch the game. He bought a bag of popcorn and two sodas. Every once in a while, our hands would reach for popcorn at the same time and end up touching, which sent pleasant tingles through me.
"So after the disappointment of losing your baseball career, what did you do?" I asked.
"Odds and ends for a while. Worked bar at Granny's here in town, but the guy who owned the place was really a d***, plus he was sloppy as hell when it came to the bookkeeping. I got my degree in business, so I knew I could do better, but every time I thought of a change to make the guy would tell me to go to hell. IRS caught up to him a year after I started working there, and there went that job. That's when I decided to open up my own place."
"I don't need to ask how you run your place," I said. "It was obvious from the way people acted around you that you're a terrific boss...and a wonderful host."
"I try to be." He cheered as the third baseman for one of the teams caught a sharp line drive and barely managed to keep it from hitting him in the face. "Great reflexes on that kid. He'll make a terrific third baseman."
"Maybe you should've been a talent scout," I suggested.
"Nah. The baseball part of my life is history. I love what I do, and it's the perfect job for me. I'm my own boss, I get to see people all the time, and the place makes good money." He finished his soda with a loud slurp. "So, how did you end up becoming a writer?"
"I was programmed to do it from the womb," I said.
"Are you serious?"
"Absolutely. My mother loved to read, and she passed that love on to me. She used to encourage me to use my imagination when I'd tell her what I thought happened to characters after the story ended. No matter how many times we'd read a story together, I could come up with a new ending every time. Writing just sort of grew from that, until I was coming up with my own characters and stories and ideas."
"You're lucky. A lot of people don't end up getting to do what they originally intended."
"Well, lucky I may be, but it wasn't easy. I've been submitting things to magazines since I was fourteen. Writing's a business where you get a lot of rejection, and it toughens you up. By the time I submitted my first novel, I was prepared for rejection even as I dreamed about success."
"And you got success after all."
"No, actually, my book was turned down by every agent I sent it to. Standing in the Rain wasn't my first novel, though."
"Oh, I see. I thought it was."
"No. Just the first one I'd had published."
We watched the game for a while longer. I didn't normally watch sports, but I must admit that this game had me completely engrossed.
Once or twice, I caught Colin looking at me like he had in the restaurant. "You're looking at me in that way again," I said. "I take it you've never taken a date out to a ball game."
"Once I did, but she wasn't too interested. I told her that I'd been drafted, and she asked me why I'd decided to be a bar owner rather than a ball player."
"Sounds like you haven't had a lot of luck with women."
"I have. I've had several girlfriends who were just fantastic. It's the rest of them that sometimes made me want to give up trying to figure out women."
"Take a piece of advice from Reed Martin - men will never figure women out."
Colin smiled. "Yes, I know that now. But men will always try, and the more futile the task, the longer they try." He glanced at the field. "Did you ever go out with him?"
"Reed? No. I was too young for him - and by the time I was old enough to be considered, he was married. He always jokes that he knew he should've waited for me to grow up. But he's been making jokes like that since I was fourteen." I reached for the last few kernels of popcorn. "The idea is bizarre to me. I mean, he's not only Claire's brother, but I lived with him for several years before he got married and moved out. It just wouldn't seem right somehow." I tentatively asked, "How often have you done this?"
"I told you, only once."
"I meant, how many times have you picked someone up at the bar and taken them out on a date?"
"More times than I probably should have. Before you ask, I've never asked Claire out. Claire's idea of fun with anyone at C.J.'s pretty much runs out when she walks out the door."
"Yeah, I know. I knew you'd never gone out with her."
"Of course you did...you live with her."
The game ended about thirty minutes later. Colin and I left a few minutes ahead of everyone else and got to his car before the rush to get out started. He drove me back to my apartment.
This place you're buying in Barnesville...is it in a better neighborhood than this?" he asked.
"As a matter of fact, you can't get much better than where I'm going to be living. It's in Barnes Estates."
"I can't wait to see it."
I smiled. "You're so certain you're going to see it?"
"I was hoping to." He smiled back.
"Is that an offer of another date?"
"I believe it is."
"Then I accept. You happen to be lucky, because all my nights are free. I write during the day."
"I can't say the same, unfortunately. I'll be busy until Wednesday."
"Just as well. We don't move in until Tuesday."
"Then is it a date?"
He pulled into the parking lot of my apartment building and turned off the engine. "I'll walk you to the door," he said.
"You don't have to."
"No...I want to."
"Do you do this for the other girls you go out with?"
"You know, you're showing a very unhealthy interest in the other women in my life for someone I've only gone out with once."
"You started it by saying that I was the only woman you ever dated who ate something."
He laughed as we reached my apartment door. "So I did. Well, you can stop thinking about the other women. You're more interesting than any of them." And with that, he leaned over and gave me a quick kiss. "Good night, Maya."
"Good night," I breathed, eyes on him as he walked away. He turned back to look at me before he turned the corner and blew me another kiss.
And damned if I didn't feel that one, too.
© 1999 Copyright held by the author.
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