The Thursday afternoon sky resembled a sad, dull grey as storm clouds rolled in. April showers would soon arrive, wash away the bleak winter, and welcome the first blooms of spring. Yet, the forecast called for the possibility of a few inches of snow later tonight. Winter would not go easy this year.
Jenny had finished unpacking a shipment of six 19th century crystal vases she purchased from a distributor in Chicago. Putting one aside for Mother’s Day, which would make an easy gift with flowers from a street vendor, she placed the rest on the shelf behind the counter. Not only the least crowded area of the shop, it was also the safest since it was out of the customers’ reach. Once she finished the task, she picked up the telephone to update Mrs. Chadwick on the antique button. Jenny waited as the phone rang six times, and expected the answering machine. Instead, Mrs. Chadwick answered, sounding a little impatient and tense on the seventh ring.
“Hi, Mrs. Chadwick, it’s Jenny from Pine Street Antiques,” she said. “I have good news. I believe I tracked down a button for your gown. I found a vendor in Boston who is overnighting the piece so you can take a look. From the photo he emailed, it’s a perfect match.” She had tracked down three, but kept the information to herself, realizing Mrs. Chadwick may also be interested in the extra buttons, but the other two would be added to her collection. “It should arrive tomorrow morning, so I should be in touch with you by noon.” She poured it on a little thick and hated playing up to the Queen Bee of the DIH, but she did good work tracking down an impossible to find button, and wanted her just reward.
“I’ll expect a call from you then,” Mrs. Chadwick said, a bit too smug for Jenny’s taste. Sales work was a crazy profession when you lived by the mantra the customer is always right.
The afternoon had dragged on, but it was Thursday, which meant she would not have to cook tonight. Thursday was takeout night, a tradition from her childhood. She kept the tradition faithfully, but her tastes had changed through the years from pizza and fast food to Thai and Indian delicacies.
About an hour later, Jenny locked doors, the one to her shop, and the one leading to her apartment, and headed out into the cool night air. As usual, she would enter her apartment directly from the street entrance next door.
For a March night, the temperature felt right. Although the air did not smell of snow, it was brisker than the afternoon now that the sun began to set. Still, the light struggled to hold on a little longer these days. Jenny walked the few crowded blocks to Chen’s Chinese Takeout for a spring roll, and a quart of vegetarian wonton soup. Her thoughts wandered to Andrew and his cryptic email message, as they had for most of the week. “I thought you’d like to have dinner and discuss the next selection,” she dreamed he would say. “I value your opinion. We have a lot in common, don’t you think.” She would look into his eyes, and he would realize as if she had long ago that they were having a moment, and then he would kiss …
“Oh, excuse me,” she said after bumping into the man in front of her who stopped for a red light. Caught up in her daydreams, she was no longer aware of her surroundings.
The man turned around and she drank in the surprised look on his familiar face.
“Andrew,” she said, feeling a little shaken that she crashed into the very man she was conversing with in her mind. “I didn’t realize…”
He smiled. “I’ve had my fair share of pedestrian collisions,” he said. “I’m a careless walker, too, but no harm done. What are you doing on street at rush hour?”
“Running an errand,” she said, suddenly feeling shy. She could have said she planned to pick up dinner. That might have been a prompt for him to say he wanted to join her. They could eat in the dining room of the Chinese restaurant with the other couples who would meet there after work. Takeout to eat alone seemed awfully pathetic.
“I’m doing the same,” he said. “I found a shoe repair shop on the next block and I’m picking up a few pairs that I had fixed. Sometimes I wish we repaired more items like we used to, instead of disposing everything.” He smiled. “But look who I’m preaching to,” he added. “You and your specialty shop do exactly that, don’t you?”
She smiled. She hadn’t thought of it that way before, but she liked his analogy. “I suppose I do,” she said, feeling a little more at ease.
He looked handsome and academic in his brown tweed blazer with the suede elbow patches. Missing from the scenario, a pipe, which would complete the picture, but she knew he did not smoke. From what she knew, he was too health conscious for that, which also eliminated the possibility for Chinese food. Jeesh, even in her own mind, she rambled.
When the light turned green, they walked along in uncomfortable silence for a few seconds before she mustered up the courage to speak. “How are you enjoying the new book?” she asked. She though it to be a safe question and one that required a lengthy answer that would get her off the hook to create small talk. He would talk and she would listen. She preferred that.
“Haven’t started making discussion notes yet,” he said. “I’ve been caught up in grading papers, which is why I had to cancel on Tuesday.”
“It’s a busy time,” she said, nodding. Not everyone had the free time she did, after all. Most likely, he had an active social life, too. What would she talk about now? The fact she desired him and she thought they would make a great couple. That might make him run away fast.
“Besides, I know it pretty well since I wrote it.” He added with a grin.
She wondered if her cheeks turned red because she felt so embarrassed. “Of course you did,” she said. “Silly me.”
“Which reminds me I did email you, didn’t I?”
Ah, the conversation she wanted to avoid for now, yet she had to acknowledge it, and nodded her head. She wanted to savor the mystery a little longer before it played out. “You did, and I answered you a few days ago.” Apparently, he did not plan to wait by the computer for her response.
“Do you have some time now to chat? We could go into Starbucks on the corner here and grab a coffee or tea, if you’re not in a hurry.”
“I have time,” she said, although she wanted to say she did not. Somehow, the dream of spending time with him seemed safer than actually doing it. She wallowed in her apprehension, thinking about what a head case she had become. Still, admitting a dream or fantasy life was preferable to real events was the first step toward sanity.
Once inside Starbucks, he ordered two peppermint teas, and he paid for them, making her imagine this as their first date. Small talk ensued about the weather, nice for this time of year, and an early spring, they both looked forward to the colorful blooms. She learned he was a bit of a gardener, and once they had their teas, they seated themselves at the small table closest to the door, appropriate if he wanted to make a quick getaway.
“I value your opinion, you know,” he said, beginning the conversation like in her daydream and a feeling warm and comforting embraced her as if his words doubled as a hug. For a second, she thought maybe the moment she dreamed about arrived. “You have a knack for knowing what to focus on in each chapter and what’s important to discuss. I think you could do my job.”
She looked a little puzzled, but she tried to hide it. “You think I’d be a good history teacher?” she asked, realizing this direction is not where she expected this conversation to go.
He laughed. “Yes, you probably would, but I was talking about leading the book club.”
“Oh, that,” she said feeling foolish, and offering a small laugh to cover it up. She still held out for the big moment, the one that would make it all worth it. For the first time, he looked deep into her eyes and she jumped in, and imagined him peeling all of her prickly layers of protection to find the softness inside. She wanted to say he had beautiful eyes, but he needed a haircut because he looked a little scruffy when his side burns covered his ears. That is the way to a man’s heart, she thought. Insult him. Criticize him. She grew up knowing how painful both could be, and felt chastised for the mere thought.
“Would you be willing to fill in as lead for the meeting after next? Either that or we’ll have to cancel again since I don’t think else can handle the job.”
Panic set in for a moment as she tried to gather her thoughts. “You’re leaving the group?”
“Not permanently, but I will be away for a bit,” he said. “You see, I’m traveling to London for a conference and plan to take a little vacation after. Maybe head to Paris for a few days.”
Feeling flattered he thought she could handle it she nodded. She did not want to disappoint him. “I’d like to help you, so sure,” she said. I would rather go to London and Paris with you she wanted to add but did not have the nerve.
“Fantastic,” he said. “I didn’t want to cancel and put us behind schedule. You’d be helping me tremendously.”
She nodded. “I’m glad to help, but you know I’m not the world’s best public speaker,” she admitted. “I can give it a go, but Melissa might be a better choice. She is a high school history teacher, right?”
He smiled. “Are you questioning my decision?” he asked.
“No,” she said, taken aback. “I didn’t mean to…”
“I’m teasing you, Jenny,” he said, with a warm smile that showed off his tender side. She liked when he said her name. “I’m about to let you in on a little secret. I’d prefer it if you kept it to yourself, too, if you don’t mind.”
“Melissa is coming with me. We have been dating for the last few months, and it has become serious, but we thought it might be awkward to make it known to the group. It might change the dynamic, which is the last thing we want. I can’t be accused of playing favorites, now can I?”
As she felt his bittersweet words wash away any possibility for their romance, Jenny prayed that her face did not show the disappointment sweeping her body. Could he see that her shoulders sagged and her cheeks burned when he said those words? She hoped not. Jenny wanted to cry, but could not explain it if she did. Instead, she plastered on a smile and said, “That’s wonderful for you, congratulations.”
She tried to focus on her breathing as she listened to him go on, feeling her world continue to crash around her. How long did she have to sit here and pretend she was OK? Worse, could she hide it from him how she felt?
Back on the street again 20 minutes later, alone and heartbroken, she lumbered back to her apartment. She could not remember what happened in the last 15 minutes of that conversation, and she hoped and prayed she made it through it with a little dignity. Gone were her dreams of dating Andrew Gordon. Not only that, she had agreed to lead her book club in Andrew’s absence, which terrified her and crushed her heart into a million pieces.