Saturday is long. Longer than long. Suddenly my beloved day of doing nothing but lazing around is making me crazy: I can’t stop thinking about Kris. It has been thirty-six hours since we met.
“Damn it, Vero,” I say out loud. Of course I like him – she knew I would and from the second I saw him I knew it too. I think through the reasons why I shouldn’t, the reasons why I can’t, but I shake the image of his face. Beautiful, devastated, resigned.
No one should feel that way, I tell myself. No one should be made to feel that way. But if that is to be undone, surely it needs a hand skilled by practice. I close my eyes against the memory of his soft hair against my skin.
I lace up my sneakers and head for the gym. A few miles on the elliptical and a lot of Lady Gaga should help clear my head. It’s not crowded and I choose a machine in front of a television – today calls for double distraction.
I run for half an hour before the show changes. The television is set to FSN and I nearly stumble from the pedals as Penguins Live starts. They begin with highlights from the night before and I slow almost to walk. “Bad Romance” pumps through my earphones.
I finally spool back up and find that at a dead run, I can watch the show. Enough of my mind is occupied that it actually just feels good to see these guys I’ve come to know performing well and having fun. TK’s goal plays in slow motion and I laugh out loud. Endorphins always help settle my mood.
Later, clean and showered, I head for the grocery store. If I occupy myself with making a big dinner plus a book or a movie, then maybe see what some of the girls are doing tonight, I can keep myself from falling for a guy I cannot have. I continue thinking that right down the cookie aisle and into a bag of Double-Stuff Oreos.
I’m eating from the open package as I turn into the beer aisle. Everything is on sale, so I make a few passes trying to decide what I’m in the mood for today. On my third turn, I stop dead.
“Riley, hi,” Kris says. He’s got a baseball cap on backward, hair tucked behind his ears. A gray hoodie sweatshirt is zipped to mid-chest over a white t-shirt, with dark jeans and sneakers. His winter coat is tossed into the cart.
“Hi Kris.” I hope it comes out at a normal volume because I suddenly feel like I’m going to burst.
He has a pre-cooked rotisserie chicken and a plastic container of mushroom risotto along with a bag of salad and two tomatoes. And beer. Bachelor’s dinner, I think and it instantly makes me sad. I’m also going home alone but I have enough food for five: four pound pot roast, a pound of carrots, celery, potatoes, onions, chicken stock and biscuits, plus the fixings for my favorite appetizers. And that’s just for tonight.
“Are you having a dinner party?” he asks.
I blush. “No, I just eat the leftovers during the week. At work.”
He nods like that makes perfect sense, his lips pinched thinly and looking at his own purchases. “I couldn’t decide what I wanted.”
“Those chickens are really good,” I say then instantly regret it. Those chickens are really good? I carried a watermelon? God I hate myself.
This is it, I know. This is the sign that I was looking for. Riley is looking sadly at my selection, probably wondering if I can even take care of myself. I want to tell her that I’m not usually like this, that I simply don’t have the energy to do more right now. At least I’m at the store unlike the last week of nights where I’ve ordered take away to avoid having to interact with anyone. I thought that was why Vero wanted me at her dinner, but it turns out I was wrong.
Her long hair is pulled into a ponytail over her shoulder, silver hoop earrings glinting in the overhead lights. A blue winter parka covers a black sweater and her jeans are tucked into snow boots. There’s a hat on top of her purse – it’s a Pens Winter Classic knit cap with a pompom on top.
I should invite her over. Or ask her out. This is the last chance I will get – I’ve known her only two days and already the window is closing. She won’t stick around forever while I figure myself out. And forever is how long I think it will take.
Am I a sad loser or am I on my way to getting better?
“Do you want to come over for dinner?” I hear my voice say the words though I hadn’t yet decided on them. Her eyes widen slightly in surprise. Maybe she thinks I have forty cats and ten years worth of newspapers all alphabetized and sorted by the first letter of second page. I want to tell her I’m not crazy, but maybe I can show her instead. “I can make something else – actually cook something.”
She looks to her own cart, probably to get a moment to think. I reach into the cooler and pull out the case of beer I was going to buy. “And there’s beer.”
Her eyes come up and my heart lets loose like it was at the top of a waterslide. She’s smiling. “I could cook,” she offers. “If you like pot roast.”
We get in the checkout line together. I watch her unload the cart and then nudge her forward until I can add my stuff to the belt. Then I insist on paying for everything. “You saw how much we can eat.” My joke works and she purses her lips like she was thinking the same thing. “I will leave you some leftovers for lunch, I promise.”
Her car is a charcoal gray Mazda 3 hatchback. She gives me her number and I text her my address. She needs to go home for a few cooking supplies that I don’t have, or at least don’t recognize. We make a plan for her to come over in two hours. Only her six pack of beer goes with her when she leaves.
I sit in the parking lot for a minute, watching her pull onto the street on the far side. Again she lives in the direction opposite me, but my urge to follow her is quelled by the knowledge that she’ll be coming in my direction shortly. I make a quick mental list of things to do when I get home – it’s become a trick to focus my mind during the emotional roller coaster rides of late.
To stay on track, I begin as soon as I get home. Everything goes in the fridge. I quickly clean the kitchen – just a few rings on the counter from old glasses, some crumbs from the cheese and crackers I’ve been living off. There’s no mess because I haven’t been present in this part of the house for some time.
Anna never really liked to cook, but in the beginning we did it anyway. I was trying to impress her. She would have rather been out at a fancy restaurant where the only work was seeing and being seen. I thought it was romantic to stay in, just the two of us, and be creative. I was wrong. I gave up shortly after and only cooked for myself, which was hardly inspired. But the pots and pans are clean, the oven ready and I even have some perishables like butter and eggs in my fridge, in case Riley needs something.
Next I straighten the living room and the bathroom. It only took a few days of being alone in the house for me to make a mess of clothes and towels. The only people who’d been through since Anna left were the deliverymen with my mattress. Now I throw the discarded clothes onto that bed and shut the door.
My house is nice. I’d decorated everything before meeting Anna, so there wasn’t much of her footprint here. In fact, Vero had helped more than anyone. For the first time in a long time, I look around the place and feel proud to call it mine.
I stand in front of the mirror on my closet door, halfway into a pair of jeans. What am I doing?! I ask my reflection. Opposite Riley had nothing to say. I really am some kind of glutton for punishment, going to this guys’ house and practically begging him to make me fall. When I hit the cold bottom there would be no one but myself to blame.
Still I pull on jeans and boots, a bright green sweater than clings to my frame without being too revealing. I brush my hair till it shines, tie on a necklace and rub some scented lotion onto my pulse points. Just in case. I wear the same makeup I wore to Vero’s, trying not to look like I’m trying too hard.
The last things I do are tuck my mom’s pot roast recipe into my pocket and pack up my roasting pan and a few surprise items. Without giving myself a chance to get flustered, I head for the address in my phone.
It’s a slate gray house with white trim, big but friendly-looking. The garage is open and I pull in next to Kris’ sleek sports car. He opens the door to the house as I’m taking my things from the trunk. “Hi,” he says, taking the bag from my hands. He wears a light gray sweater with dark jeans, his hair gelled and pushed back from his face. Black crocs are slipped onto his feet, but he ditches them at the door and pads through the house in socks.
I let out a low whistle in the kitchen. It is gorgeous: granite countertops, modern fixtures and one of those overhead racks full of hanging pots and pans that I’ve always wanted. He’s laid out two cutting boards and knives, opened all the veggies and even peeled the potatoes. Some things, like the appetizer pieces, he didn’t know what to do with. He lifts his hands, palms up, and shrugged.
“I hope I started right.”
My fingernails bite into my palms as I clench my hands tightly. The tiny spikes of pain keep me grounded – otherwise I’d have kissed him right then. Instead I settle for a deep breath.
“It’s perfect, Kris.”
He stands aside and lets me separate all the ingredients, asking what he can do next. I silently thank God for the task at hand, because Kris keeps coming near me to help. I show him how to lay out the meat so it won’t take all day to cook – he watches me do it then does it again from the start himself, making me check his work. It isn’t difficult and he gets it on the first try. Next he carefully cuts the potatoes while I peel and chop carrots and celery. We add them to the pan with onions. Kris slowly and deliberately minces the garlic then laughs when I show him how to pound it with the side of the knife blade. He’s so strong I have to tell him to go easy. Finally the chicken stock is mixed with that garlic and spices and poured part of it over the meat.
He inhales deeply, smiling like a kid who just won the spelling bee. “It smells so good!”
As he reaches into the fridge and cracks two beers, I again wonder how long it has been since a girl has been nice to Kris. One who hadn’t wanted anything from him. Not that I don’t – I have a headache from keeping my eyes riveted well above his waist. But that isn’t what I mean.
“How long does it take?” he asks.
“An hour and a half.”
A flash of panic crosses his face. Ninety minutes with nothing to do – neither of us would survive that. His dark hooded eyes, the forever five o’clock shadow of his beard and the impossible size of his shoulders beneath that shirt… we’d either be insane or pregnant in under an hour.
“We can make dessert,” I say. The last bag I brought is something I had been saving for myself. It seems selfish now. Two pints of strawberries, a package of pound cake and a very pretty bottle of expensive balsamic vinaigrette join a pint of vanilla ice cream on the table.
I show Kris how to stem and slice the strawberries. He giggles as they stain his fingers and he eats every fourth one. I pour the vinegar into a bowl and add the cut berries to marinate. Finding a widely circular cup in the cabinet, I have him slice the pound cake thickly then use the glass like a cookie cutter to make circular pieces. I can’t resist eating a piece of the leftover cake.
“So good,” he says with his mouthful. The sweet, dense cake is heavenly but a very bad idea when you watch a devastatingly sexy guy eat it. His eyes close as he savors the taste and again I find something sharp to needle myself with.
My stomach growls loudly, making us both laugh. He thinks I’m hungry but that is really my hormones.
“One more thing.” I instruct him on removing the stems from the mushrooms, but only let him do ten. Then he swipes a dollop of cream cheese into the divot on each one. His giant hands dwarf the spoon and the tip of his tongue presses into the corner of his mouth with the delicate work. I put bacon strips for five minutes then we wrap half-cooked bacon around the mushroom caps and fix it with toothpicks. The whole thing goes in for another five minutes before they’re done.
Kris keeps his puppy dog eyes on me as he bites into the hors d'oeuvre. Then his eyes drift closed. I have to laugh – it’s the exact same face I make every time I eat one.
“Mon Dieu,” he says softly, breathing into his full mouth against the hot food. He was impressed before but now he is amazed. I may not be destined for Kris’ heart, but I’m still going through his stomach.
“That’s why I only made ten,” I smile.
He taps his bottle against mine. “Already an excellent dinner.”
I sip the smooth liquid and wonder why I never mind the fall until my face hits the ground.
I feel better than I have in months. Riley steals the last strawberry, chases it with her beer and I think how I haven’t been this happy in as long as I can remember. She’s taking her time. She doesn’t laugh at me for wanting to help and she actually takes the time to show me little things. I could have figured some of them out, but I like letting her teach me. And I want to get them right.
This is how I thought it would be with Anna: the two of us in the kitchen, laughing and eating half the ingredients before they made it to the dish. Of course I can’t touch Riley, that would be insane. But I hadn’t really touched Anna in a long time either. It doesn’t feel like it’s missing if you can’t really remember. So instead I watch Riley make herself at home in a place that hasn’t felt that way to me for ages.
The pot roast smells like a dream. The strawberries taste like sex. The bacon-wrapped mushrooms are a low blow to my already weakened defenses. If Riley so much as winked at me now I’d get down on one knee and propose.
She just goes into the living room and examines my pictures on the mantle. It was Vero’s idea and she even updates them at the start of every season. Riley picks up one of me and Sid at batting practice at PNC Park, right after Sid hit the ball out of the park. Our inside shoulders are touching and we each have a baseball bat over the other shoulder. If you don’t know Sid, I don’t think you know what his real smile looks like.
“How’d you do?”
I shrug. I did alright – some fly balls, a few grounders. Nothing like Sid. “It was fun. Sid played as a kid, could probably have gone pro. We thought the Pirates might offer him a contract after that.”
The corner of her mouth twitches. “You guys look so happy.”
She browses my bookshelf while I sit on the couch and torture myself some more by admiring the shape of her body. Her clingy sweater shows nothing but makes sure you want to see everything. Horseshoe-shaped stitching crosses her back pockets in case you weren’t already looking.
“Do you read in English?” she asks. All my books are in French.
“I can. It helps with speaking – sometimes I remember more vocabulary if I can picture the word.”
She tucks a leg underneath and sits on the other side of the couch. The bright green of her sweater illuminates her skin, making her hair darker, her eyes brighter. “What’s the hardest thing about English?”
That French is sexier, I want to say. Then I want to tell her exactly what I think of her, in a soft whisper, in my native language. I can express myself better and know exactly what I say without thinking. But I would just end up telling her how broken and hurt I am – it’s good for that kind of expression too.
“So many words are the same, but mean different things. Wind and wind. Read and read. Even if they’re not spelled the same: hear and here, write and right. If you don’t see the word and know the… context, it’s hard to understand.”
Riley nods. “I always thought the hardest thing about French was how the words all start with vowels and flow together. Just add an apostrophe and it’s like one long word instead of a sentence.”
If anything about me right now would flow together, I could teach her all the tricks to listening to French. I’m thinking about the perfect example to show her how meaning changes with conjugation, a phrase that will sound sexy when I say it, when the timer dings.
“Dinner’s ready,” she announces.
3 years ago