Unexpected encounter, part III

Here for the first time?  Read part I and part II before getting started here… and thanks for reading!


Steve was still rattling off statistics about Yale and its merits as Zara’s world shifted on its axis.  Jack?  She was suddenly intensely aware: of his presence, of the subtly angry cast of his face as he gathered a bottle of wine from her tiny collection on the counter, of the faint smell of his cologne, the same cologne he had been wearing since he graduated from high school.  It was a gift from her.

Oh dear, she thought to herself.  Jack wasn’t attending this little meal as a casual friend, a pest intent on disrupting her evening for fun.  He was jealous, and she was suddenly incensed.

For the first three years of their acquaintance, Jack had been a spectacularly platonic friend to Zara: they spent hours sitting on the concrete steps to her front door, perfecting the basketball spin between games of HORSE, they hiked through the woods behind their neighborhood, talking for hours and picking through muddy ditches.  But Jack spent the summer before his senior year lifeguarding at the beach near his grandmother’s house, and Zara took a job at the local Twistee Treat.  She was surrounded by gossiping girls, who quickly discovered that Zara’s best friend was the very tall, very handsome Jack Cooper, and Zara was suddenly forced to reckon with the fact that her best friend Jack was more than the goof ball who stole more than his share of popcorn at the movies or exploited his height advantage in basketball.  It made her nervous, unnervingly so, to even speak to him on the phone.  She steadily built a crush on Jack while he was 100 miles from home, convincing herself that he would come home in August and fall desperately in love with her.  Unfortunately, the reality was less pleasant; in the small town where he spent the summer, Jack became a hot commodity, and he came home with a serious tan, muscles honed from the outdoor work, and a girlfriend named Amelia.

Their reunion was one of Zara’s most uncomfortable memories.  He called to tell her he was back in town and asked if he could come by Twistee Treat that evening for an ice cream.  Zara, who didn’t know anything of Amelia, complied instantly with his plan, and spent the two hours before her shift primping in front of the mirror, blowing her hair until it fell smooth into soft waves down her back, applying unfamiliar black eye liner and mascara, and obsessing about what to say to her best friend.  She even rehearsed a few flirtatious lines she heard her coworkers use on the hopeless boys who made the shop their summer hangout.  Zara even practiced laughing demurely at the mirror.  The rest of this story is pretty obvious: Zara worked nervously until nine when she caught a glimpse of Jack through the tiny glass window, her smile huge until she followed his hand, which was pulling Amelia behind him.  The only consolation to her heartbreak was that Zara never revealed her crush on Jack to any of the gossiping girls at the Twistee Treat.

“Hey Z,” he had said when he sidled up to the window, “Since when do you wear eye liner?”

And in that moment, Zara schooled her expression as he introduced Amelia, a tall, very buxom blonde with a beautiful tan.  They had met lifeguarding.

From that summer night, Zara decided that it would be best for her if she protected her heart from Jack.  So his sudden and inconvenient jealousy was wholly unfair to her and Steve and whatever they had started at the coffee shop three weeks before.

Zara stiffened and bristled as Jack moved away from her, snatching potholders carelessly to drain the pasta, and burning her finger in the process.  When she snatched her hands away from the offending implement, Jack relieved her of her potholders and carefully took over the task.

“I’m sure Steve doesn’t want to waste this evening at the emergency room, Z.  Be more careful,” Jack said, smiling at Steve where he still stood at the edge of the counter.

“Uh, yes.  Zara, please be more careful.  Kitchen incidents are responsible for a significant number of insurance claims, after all,” Steve said solemnly.  Zara couldn’t help but roll her eyes.

Finally, dinner was ready.  Zara poured the drained pasta into a massive serving bowl, and then poured her famous sauce over the whole, arranging meatballs artfully on top.  Jack arranged Zara’s garlic bread into a basket.  Steve, who finally seemed spurred to action by both Zara and Jack finding their way to Zara’s living room laden with some dinner necessity, found Zara’s impressive cheese grinder and followed.  Zara placed the massive bowl of pasta into the center of her square coffee table with a flourish, sat cross-legged on the floor across from the couch, and made quick work of serving herself some spaghetti.  Jack toed off his loafers and slid to the floor as well, loosening his tie before serving himself some salad.  Neither paid Steve any attention as he seemed to battle internally with proper etiquette for the situation: both his host and her other guest had made themselves comfortable on the floor, but that was not where he would be most comfortable.  Ultimately, he decided to follow Jack’s lead, and after removing his shoes, he sat on the floor beside Zara.

“Can I serve you some spaghetti, Steve?” Zara asked amiably, suddenly certain that the only course to take was to ignore Jack and his jealously as much as possible.

“Please,” answered Steve, who still seemed quite unsure of how to handle this strange meal.

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Unexpected encounter, part II

Wow, I’m having fun thinking about Zara, Jack, and Steve.  But this story is already bigger than I intended.  Read ahead for Part II…  and if you have any ideas for a better title than “Unexpected Encounter,” please let me know in the comments!

Read the beginning of Zara’s story here.


Zara had met Steve Kaufman, predictably, at her favorite bookstore, where she was grading papers one Friday evening.  She had ordered a black coffee from the friendly barista, but managed to pick up his latte instead.  His sputtering upon taking a hearty gulp of her coffee when he expected the much more mild latte and the ensuing confusion had all the makings of a meet-cute, but his restraint prevented anything more than a few shared words over the mishap.  Steve was cute in an absentminded professor sort of way, and Zara offered a few attempts at conversation, but he went about scolding the barista for her mistake and requesting another latte.  At his apparent disinterest, Zara shrugged her shoulders and waited patiently for another cup of coffee before returning to her papers.  A solid 10 minutes later, Steve seemed to remember himself, finally approaching her and striking up a conversation.  He even apologized to her and the barista for being so short, and Zara was persuaded to give him her phone number as he arranged to take her to lunch that Sunday.  That had been three weeks ago.

Before she could open the door herself, Jack stepped quickly to the entryway and opened the door for her guest.  Just as Steve hadn’t really seemed to notice anything of Zara’s appearance in their earlier meetings, Zara didn’t really notice how Steve looked until she saw him in contrast to Jack.  Steve, too, had just come from work, but his long day didn’t really seem to agree with him.  He wore a pair of subtly shiny taupe slacks, which she supposed would be pretty luxurious if they weren’t paired with a brown crew neck sweater.  He wore his brown, curly hair long on top, which, paired with his dark framed glasses, gave him an impossibly youthful look.  Steve looked completely perplexed to find Jack at the door, and looked down at the index card he held in his hand as if to confirm that Jack was in the wrong place.

“You must be Steve,” Jack began, solicitously.  “I’m Zara’s best friend, Jack.  I hope you’ll forgive me crashing your dinner.”  Jack moved to the side, allowing Steve to pass, but didn’t offer any explanation for his presence.

“Of course,” Steve began, his deep voice confused but untroubled, “Zara has told me a lot about you.”  This information caused Jack to grin blindingly, giving Zara a meaningful look from across the alcove.

“Hello, Steve,” Zara began, and leaned in to give Steve a peck on the cheek.  Jack’s grin faded instantly.  “Yes, Jack conveniently ignored the fact that I had a dinner guest tonight and showed up unannounced.  I can kick him out if you like,” she said, and frowned lightly when he shook his head.

“No, no.  That won’t be necessary,” he said as he looked around her apartment.  There was only interest in his eyes, and she was glad for it.  Her tiny one bedroom apartment wasn’t much, but it was home.  In a way, this was a test.  If Steve was going to be a snob about her place, she would rethink spending time with him.  Jack closed the door and found his way back to his usual spot at the bar and an uncomfortable realization struck.  She didn’t have any place for three people to share a meal; she didn’t have a dining room table.  With a resigned shrug of the shoulders, she realized they would be huddling around her coffee table to eat their spaghetti and salad.

“So Steve, tell me about yourself.  What do you do for a living?” Jack began amiably.

Steve blinked a little at the direct question, but looked Jack in the face.  “I work as an accountant for an insurance firm here in the city,” he answered steadily, almost flatly, without elaborating further.  He stood, looking vaguely uncomfortable, at the edge of the counter with his hands pushed into his pockets.

“I’ll just start the pasta,” Zara interjected, suddenly uncomfortable.  “I’m afraid we’ll have to eat in the living room, gentlemen.”  At her words, Jack started gathering plates and silverware to take into the living room, but Steve stood fast.

“I hope you’ve had a chance to read the article I emailed earlier this week, Zara,” Steve began, as if he was aware that he needed to make some conversation.

“Yes,” Zara’s response came, clipped.  “Why else do you think I invited you over to dinner tonight?”

“What article?” Jack asked, amused by Zara’s tone.

“In my field, I am regularly reminded of how very important it is to be wise about our spending.  I shared with Zara an article from the New York Times about how twenty somethings are notoriously reckless about their spending habits,” Steve responded with more vigor than he’d managed since he got there.  Jack barked out a laugh.

“Yes, it is very important that we are wise about our spending, isn’t it Zara?  Some of us don’t have lucrative careers, do we?” Jack’s pointed stare made Zara’s blood boil.

“As it happens, I agree with the points made.  I am a teacher, after all, and I shouldn’t be frivolous,” Zara’s concession, even though it was made to silence Jack, still set her teeth on edge.

“It isn’t only about income, Zara,” Steve cautioned.  “I am so lucky as to have secured a comfortable living, but I am constantly reminded that I should be more frugal.”  Jack smiled to himself, but sensing Zara’s discomfort, he changed the subject.

“Where did you go to school?  You must have a very impressive education if you’ve been so lucky to secure such a great job,” Jack asked.

“I graduated from Yale, and you’ll never know a finer institution,” Steve declared boldly, but suddenly remembering himself, he added, “Of course, the University of Virginia is a very respectable regional institution.”  At that, Jack’s smile faltered somewhat, but he gritted his teeth.

“When is that pasta going to be done, Z?” Zara, for her part, had been quiet for this brief exchange, and she smiled at Jack’s discomfort.  Jack was a proud Wahoo and would take any insult to his alma mater very personally.  But he had insisted upon these games by coming to her apartment tonight and provoking Steve, so she fought a smile.

“In just a few minutes.  Steve, why don’t you tell Jack about Yale’s admissions numbers?  Jack, Steve is a generous benefactor of the university.” With that encouragement, as Steve started rattling off statistics about the most recent class of students admitted into Yale, their high school GPAs, their SAT scores, their remarkable achievements, Zara turned away and barely concealed her laugh.  He deserved it, she thought.  But she stopped short when Jack pressed against her with the pretense of reaching over her head for another glass and whispered low into her ear.

“You’ll pay for that,” he warned.

Unexpected encounter

This is a departure from the writing I’ve done here so far.  I’ve done a whole lot of writing ABOUT myself, but today I hope you’ll indulge me as I do a little writing FOR myself.  I love fiction, and in my reading over the past few months, I’ve been struck with the desire to write more of that… making up stories and helping characters to come to life.

So here is the beginning of a short story about a woman who begins an evening expecting to entertain one date, but who finds herself caught between two.  When I took part in the Tampa Bay Area Writer’s Project a few years back, my instructors told me to stop prefacing my work, so without further ado…


“Just a minute, I’ll be right there!” shouted Zara over her shoulder toward the front door of her apartment.  “He’s thirty minutes early,” she grumbled to herself as she pulled the comb through her still wet hair.

Zara gave herself a brief glance into the mirror before leaving her bedroom.  Her wavy brown hair dangled limply around her shoulders, her face was washed clean of makeup that she hadn’t had time to reapply.  But her skin was smooth and porcelain, her blue eyes bright and darkly lashed.  Briefly she was tempted to apply a little lip-gloss, but shook her head to herself.  Steve wasn’t picky.  In their three dates he hadn’t once made a comment about her appearance.  Perhaps a low maintenance guy was exactly what she needed.  Her favorite, well-loved jeans and a classic gray t-shirt would have to do.

A sharp knock sounded again.  It wasn’t like Steve to be so impatient.  She rolled her eyes to herself as she made her way to the door.

“Hey gorgeous,” the completely unexpected visitor drawled when she opened the door.  He swept into the room, pulling her into his arms and lowering his nose deliberately to the top of her still damp head, taking a deep breath.  “Z, I love your shampoo.”

“Jack, what on earth are you doing here?” Zara couldn’t keep the irritation out of her voice.  When they had spoken earlier in the day, she made it clear that she wasn’t available that night, that she was making Steve her famous cooks-all-day spaghetti and meatballs.  But her best friend was often hard headed, and hard of hearing.  Or that’s what he would like to pretend, especially when she told him what he didn’t want to hear.

“I’ve come to visit my favorite girl in the world, of course,” Jack beamed, and Zara relented; she couldn’t resist his charm.  Grinning, she looped her arm around his waist and led him into the kitchen where he promptly claimed his usual spot at her counter.  He was still wearing his work clothes, dark gray, perfectly tailored slacks, a crisp white Oxford, and a slim argyle tie.  For someone who had just wrapped a nearly 12-hour day, Jack looked impossibly fresh.

“Well, my friend, you have about 30 minutes before you’re going to have to make yourself scarce.  I’m making Steve dinner tonight.”  She pulled her enormous pasta pot from under the counter, and turning away from him, Zara started filling it with water.  At that mention of spaghetti, Jack took a deep breath.

“That must be why I couldn’t resist coming over.  I’m a sucker for your sauce,” he grinned, leaning over the counter for the wooden spoon she’d left there, snatching the top off of her slow cooker, and stirring the sauce before sneaking a taste.

“Stop that!” Zara scolded as she turned around to catch Jack with a mouth filled with her wooden spoon.  He at least had the grace to appear repentant, but Zara had to reach over the counter to wipe away a spot of sauce that was caught at the corner of his mouth.  It was unexpectedly intimate; Jack coughed a little and the moment was broken.

“I thought I’d stick around for dinner, meet this Steve,” Jack said dismissively.  When Zara opened her mouth to object, he smoothly continued.  “You’re not going to wear that, are you?  What about your makeup?  This is a date, after all.”  His distraction technique worked.

“I think it’s refreshing that I don’t need to worry about what Steve thinks about how I look,” Zara said, but even to her own ears the excuse seemed thin.  “Besides, I just got home from work and I haven’t had a chance to do anything more than shower.”

“Well then, it’s good I’m here.  I can finish up the salad and bread while you finish getting ready,” Jack said, stepping off his perch at the counter and gently leading her toward her room.

“Oh fine,” Zara said, almost to herself as she walked into her room, suddenly grateful for a few more minutes to herself before Steve’s arrival.  She would have to deal with Jack’s inconvenient visit before Steve arrived, but she was too grateful to have a little help that she was willing to overlook it, for the moment.

This is pretty typical Jack behavior, and to be honest, Zara should have known to avoid mentioning her spaghetti to him.  But they had been best friends for years, since meeting for the first time when she was a brand new student at their high school.  She walked into her first period class, hopelessly tentative, a recent transplant from Suffolk, England, and froze, completely shaken by the dozens of pairs of eyes that landed on her instantly.  Jack walked in behind her, towering over her even then, as a sophomore in high school, and warmly greeted her.  “You must be new here.  My name is Jack.  Come over here and sit by me.”  And that was it.  They were fast friends, and as it turned out, lasting friends.  When Jack graduated from high school and left for the University of Virginia, Zara followed a year later.  When Jack was admitted to law school at Georgetown University, Zara followed a year later, accepting a teaching position in suburban northern Virginia.  He teased his shadow endlessly, but Zara didn’t complain.  She loved being close to him, even when it meant her date nights would be interrupted.

At her vanity, Zara suddenly wasn’t terribly interested in fixing herself up, but dutifully she applied blush, a swipe of eyeliner, and the subtlest lipstick she could find.  Then she went to her closet to replace her gray t-shirt with a royal blue sweater that revealed more of her shape.  After scrunching her waves artfully, Zara rejoined Jack in the kitchen, where he was layering vegetables in a serving bowl.  His eyes fell on her, and she stopped, turning briefly as if to get his approval.  All of his earlier levity was gone; his gaze was more serious than any he’d had all evening.

“That’s better,” he said gruffly.  “And dinner is nearly ready.  You just need to drop the pasta when this Steve gets here.”  Jack wouldn’t meet her eyes.

“Well, thanks so much for your help, Jack,” Zara attempted.  She bustled into the kitchen to take over washing the cutting board in the sink, but Jack wasn’t having it.

“Oh no, you’re not getting rid of me, friend.  I said I wanted to meet this Steve, so I’m going to meet Steve.  Plus, you have to feed me.”

Just as Zara opened her mouth to protest in earnest, a gentle buzz began at the door.  Steve was right on time.


I’ll write more about Zara and Jack (and Steve) next week!

 

Falling in love, in fifty words

If you’ve been reading here this month, you should know that I don’t have any trouble with word count.  I’m pretty verbose.  My dad often complains that I take forever to come to the point of any story I tell, and any application that requires 100 words MAX causes me to have a fit.  And I almost NEVER write only 100 words; the readers of those applications don’t actually count, do they?

Well, I’m writing this post as a response to this Weekly Writing Challenge, the Fifty.  The challenge is really poignant for me, especially since I can’t manage to be concise.  The object: write a story in exactly fifty words, with the purpose of using every word, every sentence, every thought purposefully.  So here goes.  (and if you’re interested in irony, the preface to this post is 126 words.  Good grief)


She crouched to pick up her dropped papers, stunned by his intense glare that revealed only pity at her clumsiness. Kneeling, he reached to hand her a sheet that escaped her, grazing his hand over hers. Embarrassed and intrigued, she stammered a thank you. His answering lunch invitation stupefied her.


Can you tell I’m a romance writer?  This felt a lot like writing a haiku, but now even I’m excited about the story that can come from this little nugget.

As always, thanks for reading!

Throwing up at Carrabba’s

I hadn’t been feeling all that great for days.  Weird stuff was happening.  I couldn’t brush my teeth in the morning without gagging.  My sense of smell was nuts.  I mean, NUTS.  I couldn’t figure out why I was so uncomfortable in my bras.  To most women, these symptoms are pretty obvious, but to a young woman whose closest friends hadn’t started having kids yet, well…  even I knew that I should maybe take a pregnancy test.

Stu and I went to Carrabba’s for dinner on the night we found out I was pregnant with Cari.  The Bruschette Scotty Thompson was delicious for almost 15 minutes before I started feeling sick.  I excused myself, leaving a concerned Stu at the table, and went to the bathroom where I threw up.  I’ll go pretty far to make sure I never throw up–it is THE worst sensation in the world–so I knew something was up.  But I didn’t tell Stu my suspicions right away; instead, I was quiet and thoughtful for the rest of the meal.  We left Carrabba’s to drive up to Hudson Beach for a peak at the water.  Sometime between Carrabba’s and Hudson Beach, I finally gathered the courage to tell Stu I thought I needed to take a pregnancy test.  That changed the trajectory of the night significantly.  Stu wasn’t impressed by my lack of urgency, especially considering my many, many symptoms.  I remember telling him, “But we just got here,” at his insistence that we leave Hudson Beach for home, as if I was crushed to leave that place.  I really think I was avoiding the inevitable, thinking that a confirmation could wait until I was one of those women on I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant.  

Stu and I had only just gotten engaged on my birthday that July, and we certainly would have liked to be married before getting pregnant.  Plus, there was the added complication that we were in the middle of classes for membership in a local church.  Couples have babies out of wedlock all the time, but this pregnancy wasn’t at all what we had planned for ourselves.

Stu drove me to my apartment at about 70 miles per hour, stopping at a 24-hour CVS.  I should add here that I didn’t step foot into that CVS again for years.  Literally years.  It was as if I was attempting to pay CVS back for being the bearer of such scary news.  We bought a digital read test, convinced that we needed the clearest result possible, even though the digital read test took much longer, according to the box, for a result.  It turns out that a digital read test doesn’t take that long after all.  I had the result before I was finished washing my hands.

I was eight weeks pregnant, a doctor confirmed the following Monday.  Cari was born in May of the following year.

It’s hard to believe now how much drama Stu and I had when we discovered we were pregnant with her.  Now I can’t imagine my life without her.  That seems cliche to type, too cliche to communicate the complexity of how motherhood has shaped my identity.  I don’t even remember who I was before I had Cari.  It’s as if I wasn’t fully ME until I became her mom.  But I’m so blessed to help shape the person she’s becoming.Cari

A beginning

April Fool’s Day isn’t exactly sentimental for most people, but I always kinda look forward to it.  It isn’t like Christmas or the Fourth of July, obviously, but it is a special day for me because an AFD prank is the reason why I’m married to my husband.  We both count AFD as the beginning of our relationship.

Stu and I had become friends a bit inadvertently through a mutual friend, Chip, whose life was way more complicated than ours…  he had high maintenance girlfriends and troublesome roommates, and always managed to make plans with us to only back out.  So Stu and I found ourselves thrown together more and more.  Turns out, we had great times together and laughed a lot.  He was my best friend.  That semester I audited a pottery class at the community college where Stu was taking classes part-time, so we would park next to one another and say that our cars were on dates.  If our classes ended at the same time, we would lean up against our cars and talk for an hour in the light of the street lamps.  Yeah, I realize that it should have been more obvious to us that we were interested in one another, but we both seemed to enjoy just being friends.

I’m not sure who came up with the plan to prank Chip for AFD.  But one night, over dinner of steak and cheese sandwiches, Stu and I formulated an elaborate plan to get back at Chip for always ditching us.  Stu was to tell Chip that he had professed his love for me, but that I had turned him down.  Meanwhile, I was to tell Chip how awkward the declaration had been and seek his advice in moving forward.  Poor Chip was in the middle of an estrangement for a relationship that didn’t even exist.  At the height of our deception, Stu and I would call Chip from our separate cell phones while at dinner together, forcing Chip to click from one call to the other as we both complained about our situation.  It was all we could do to not blow our cover.  This went on for at least a week, a remarkable feet considering how terrible I am at keeping secrets.

Finally, on AFD, we constructed a big reveal.  I had complained that I couldn’t possibly see Stu for the awkwardness, and Stu, being as lovesick as he was, couldn’t see me without pain.  So we “accidentally” ran into one another in Chip’s classroom after school on April 1.  He looked positively stricken at the embarrassment.   Once we were all in the same room together, it wasn’t long before Stu and I were grinning at our victory and shouting “April Fools!”   I’ve never seen Chip so mad as he was when he realized that we’d been scheming behind his back for all those days while he had played supportive friend to the both of us–and rarely had I been so delighted with the wickedness I’d done.

It turns out the joke was on us!  By May, Stu quit his job so he could help me with the prom, winning major points with me (not so much with his managers at JC Penney).  By June, we were dating.  By July, I was convinced I would spend the rest of my life with him.  We were married a little over a year later.

A story about a beginning seems a great place to start with this blog.  I have been itching to spend my time doing something creative, but without the commitment of a project like NaNoWriMo.  My dad has inspired me with his blog journey, too… and he won’t call himself a writer.  So I’m planning to blog five days a week for the month of April, to see where that beginning takes me.  If nothing else, it will be a chance for me to share some of the craziness and loveliness of my life.