Go for an hour-long walk outside.
OK, so Leni cheated on this one.
She knew it was in there, so she rummaged around and opened up half the remaining slips before she found it. She hadn’t fudged on one single day yet, so she thought it would be OK if she took a few liberties at this stage. After all, she’d followed the instructions to the letter of the law until now, and why not knock one out when she knew she’d be doing it anyway?
She fed Opie and enjoyed her coffee when she went to check her phone. No message yet. Since it was technically her turn to text, and she hadn’t written in 12 hours, she sent off a quick one.
Morning! Still up for a walk this afternoon?
It took a will of iron not to stare at her phone, but she showered and did her hair before she checked her phone again.
Good morning yourself. You bet I’ll be up for a walk this afternoon! Any ideas when and where?
Leni named a manmade lake not far from the mall she worked at. It was a beautiful place with a high embankment surrounding most of the lakeshore. They could walk around the bike path on the dam, and they could enjoy the lake, the parks and the golf course that abutted the lake. She also gave a parking lot and a time.
I’ll see you at 3:30 he texted back. Have a good afternoon at work.
It was going to be the longest afternoon until she got off her shift.
Leni was going stir-crazy.
She was so tired of having nothing to do on the weekends cooped up in her little room. It was one of those weekends she wasn’t going out for a road trip. There was no work for her to do, she didn’t particularly feel like studying, and she just wanted out of her little damn apartment. Everything was closed down on Sunday afternoon, so what was she supposed to do? No TV, no radio…books can only entertain you for so long.
A walk. I am going on a damn walk or else my head is going to explode from boredom!
Leni put on her jeans, plain black flats, a t-shirt and a sweater. She threw a scarf on around her neck and tucked an umbrella under her arm. She was going out and damn it, she was going to take in the local scenery.
She decided to walk along the two lane highway that led out of town. She didn’t really know where it went, nor did she particularly care. She just wanted out of the town she had been living in the last five months, get some fresh air and maybe have an adventure.
Thankfully she didn’t run into any students or co-workers on her way out of town. She wasn’t quite sure how she managed to accomplish that, but she wasn’t about to complain!
She admired the pine trees, the fences and the quaint farmhouses that dotted the highway. She was about a kilometer out of town when she saw a sign for the neighboring village, just another kilometer away. Leni had heard of the village—she had a few students from there—but she had never actually been there. She was up for the adventure of going to a new town!
She made her way down the highway, admiring the fencing next to her. About 100 meters past the sign, she saw a large pony or a small horse munching on grass right at the edge of the fence. Leni was no agriculture expert, be she loved horses. Hell, her favorite badge she had ever earned in Girl Scouts was the Horse Riding Badge! Plus, hadn’t she grown up on the Great Plains? She wanted to pet the pony.
Looking furtively around, she saw she was quite alone so no awful French farmers would nag her. She quietly approach the bay horse, who looked up from his snack and looked curiously at her.
Best not to make any sudden moves on…him? Leni backed slightly up to get a look. Yup, it’s a him all right!
She sidled back up and inched her hand up to his nostrils. They flared as he took a few sniffs. His ears flicked slightly but he didn’t make any other moves.
Leni reached her hand out further so and gently pet his nose. It was white, soft and silky to the touch.
“Nice horsey,” she whispered in English. She was transported to all the ponies and trail horses she had ever pet as a kid. There was something about horses that she found almost sacred. She had once read teenage girls had particular obsessions with horses because they were masculine—strong and reassuring. Whatever the psychological mumbo jumbo, she thought this horse was quite nice. His nose was indescribably soft, and he whickered when she pet him.
She could have pet him for hours, but of course Leni was in France and of course something had to go wrong. She’d only stroked his nose a few times when the horse angled his nose towards her arm, nudging it.
“No, pony, I don’t have any treats!” Leni laughed.
As is the horse actually understood what she was saying, he gripped her jacket sleeve with the edges of his teeth.
What the hell?! Is he trying to eat me?!
Leni tried pulling her arm away, but the horse had a firm grip on her sleeve. “C’mon horsey, let go.” She tried gently tugging her arm away, but he seemed to sink his teeth in further.
This horse is trying to kill me! She looked around in a panic, and there was nary a soul on the road or in the field back behind the horse. What am I supposed to do? Leni wasn’t sure what to do so she started weighing her options while she panicked. I could hit him…but that might make it worse. I could scream for help…but who’s going to respond to, “Help! I’m being attacked by a horse!”?
She decided the DIY approach was going to be her only ticket out. Leni planted her feet firmly, braced herself against the fence and gave it one more yank.
She tried one more option. She opened her jacket and shimmied out of it. Horsey didn’t move; he was still standing there with her nice rain coat in his mouth. Leni grabbed her jacket lapels and pulled with all her might, hurling her weight in the opposite direction.
The violence of her gesture forced her to tumble backwards and land butt-first onto the road. She scrambled to her feet, her palms stinging from being scraped on the ground. Clutching the jacket to her chest, her eyes widened in horror when she saw what the pony had done.
A patch of blue fabric was hanging out of his mouth.
She looked at the right sleeve and, sure enough, a big, gaping hole was there where the elbow had been.
Her parents had bought her the light grey-and-royal blue waterproof jacket just before she left the States to spend a year abroad. She had had many adventures in the coat that year, and now there was a honking huge hole where her elbow had been.
And the horse stood there, part of her jacket in his mouth, and his tail swished like the smug bastard that he was.
Screw it. I just want out of here!
Since it wasn’t raining, Leni tied the jacket around her waist and kept pressing on to the village. No one in a million years would believe her if she told them a horse tried to kill her. What if the horse had torn her flesh instead of her jacket? What if the horse had kicked her? She ran through a dozen scenarios through her head, all of them thoroughly unpleasant and all of them involving her lying dead or bleeding by the side of the road with the damn smug horse stamping its hoof with glee.
No one ever suspected the horse…
Pony had done plenty of damage. Torn jacket, bleeding palms and a whopper of a story no one would believe in a million years. Leni learned her lesson—no more petting horses. Ever.
She it only took her 10 minutes to reach Echenay-sous-le-Montfaucon, which translated to “Echenay under the Mountain of the Falcon.” It was a grand name for a sweet, tiny though unimpressive village, considering there wasn’t a mountain to be seen anywhere—only gently rolling hills as far as the eye could see. There was the town square that contained a city hall, the small country church, the post office, a bakery (closed of course, as it was a Sunday) and a bar. There were about 30 limestone-colored houses in the whole village, so the population couldn’t have been more than 150.
Leni looked at the mandatory cross in the village square dedicated to all the townsfolk who died in World War One. Considering how miniscule the village was, her heart tightened in her chest when she counted 42 deaths. That must have been a devastating blow to such a tiny village…so many young men killed before they were even in their prime…
There was a sign indicating a cemetery on the outskirts of town. Leni liked visiting French cemeteries because they related a village’s history so much better than any history book ever could. She followed the arrow to the very outskirts of the village and found the surprisingly large cemetery which was bordered by a shoulder-high brick fence.
She quietly walked in and absorbed the atmosphere. There was definitely a sad component to cemeteries—hundreds of lives that had converged at some point over the years, now all gathered together in a final resting place. There were lives that were struck down in their prime, before they even got a chance to really live, or ones that lived to a ripe-old age. Millions of laughs, tears, conversations, hopes, fears and dreams…all in one half-acre plot.
Leni tried to dismiss the maudlin thoughts that crept into her head. Instead, she walked among the rows of wrought-iron crosses and marble slabs that had iron plaques with the dates inscribed on them. Some had (what she guessed were) porcelain old-timey portraits of the deceased so strangers like her could see how the family wanted their loved one to be remembered as.
The graves were covered with silk and plastic flowers, mums, wreaths with expressions like “To my godmother/father, “In memory,” “With Love,” and the like. There were small crosses, little statues of the Virgin Mary and dried, colorless bouquets of flowers Leni couldn’t identify. Haunting and beautiful at the same time.
Leni decided to play a game she liked to do when visiting a new cemetery. “Game” wasn’t quite the right word, but it was an activity to get her active and interested in the particular site she visited. She walked around and tried to find the oldest grave, the longest-living person and the most recent one.
Leni wandered around for about 30 minutes, picking up carelessly strewn trash as she went along. She found the oldest grave, Albert Duclos, from 1842. There were probably older ones, but they probably weren’t clearly marked or maybe even never marked. Jeanne Aubois died at the age of 102 in 1983. She lay next to her husband who died in World War One. Leni saw no indications that she ever remarried, so she must have really loved her husband. Who knew what other stories Jeanne could have told. Jean-Louis Rochefort passed just six months ago at age 82.
The wind picked up a little bit and it began misting. Suddenly feeling very tired, Leni decided to take a break before heading back to her town. First, she grabbed a plastic bag to hold the two pockets of trash she had gathered up. She knotted the bag to one of the posts at the iron gate and took one last look at the sweet little cemetery.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord. Let Your perpetual light shine down upon them and may the rest in peace. It was an old prayer she learned years ago in Catholic grade school, and she found it was always a suitable prayer for those she never knew but wanted to give a shout out to.
Tears stung the backs of her eyes as she thought of her grandparents, one set in a tree-covered cemetery and the other in a country church cemetery in the middle of the open prairie. I’ll never meet any of you, she prayed to the graves surrounding her, but God bless each and every one of you.
She brushed her hand over her eyes and made her way back to the café. Much to Leni’s shock and delight, it was open. Suddenly she wanted nothing more than a hot chocolate to revive her before she made her way back home. The adrenaline rush from the horse and the grief from the cemetery had sent her on a complete emotional roller coaster, and she wanted something to put her on a more even keel.
She walked up to the bar—many French bars didn’t have stools, though Leni could never figured out why—and ordered a hot cocoa from the middle age, bald man.
“Oui, mademoiselle,” he said.
While the barkeep bustled to fix her order, one of the mustachioed men—the only patrons in the café—sitting next to the bar ashed his cigarette and sized Leni up. “You’re from the area?”
Leni turned to look at him and his two cohorts playing cards. “Excuse me?”
“You aren’t from the village.” It was a statement, not a question.
French Redneck #2, cigarette glued to the corner of his mouth, didn’t even flick a gaze in Leni’s direction. “You have a slight accent, mademoiselle. Are you German?”
“No.” She tried to pay attention to the tiny TV mounted in the corner which broadcast the Ajaccio soccer match.
“Swiss?” French Redneck #3, sans cigarette, guessed.
“British?” #1 asked.
The trio took turns trying to ascertain Leni’s nationality. They guessed Irish, Canadian, Australian, New Zealander, Argentinean (?), Austrian, Belgian, Luxembourgian, Dutch…and they struck out every time.
Leni had gotten her cocoa and turned back to the bar. They still hadn’t guessed correctly. #1 stubbed out his cigarette. “Where are you from, then? If it’s not too indiscreet.”
If it’s not too indiscreet. She set her mouth into a grim line. That was something the French always said when they were basically demanding an answer.
The barman wiped down the counter and clucked his tongue. “You morons, can’t you even tell? It couldn’t be any clearer that the young mademoiselle is American.”
Leni choked her hot chocolate and narrowly avoided doing a spit take on the only person who could correctly guess her origin. She also espied the three men in the mirror behind her. The cards practically fell to the floor as they stared at her with naked curiosity.
“American?!” they gasped collectively.
Her head shot from the barkeeper to the rednecks. “Why? What’s such a surprise about that?”
Redneck #2’s cigarette dangled so low that it almost burned his five o’clock shadow. “You came all the way from America just to visit our village?!”
Oddly enough that wasn’t the first time the question had been posed to Leni. She didn’t know why, though if she had to guess it was probably sheer French ego and machismo, but when she went to really out-of-the-way places, people assumed she was there just to visit that particular little bass-ackwards town!
Yeah, I took a 10-hour plane ride just so I could visit Echenay-sous-le-Montfaucon just to meet you three crackers, she wanted to say.
The bartender leaned his hairy, bulky arms on the counter. “Oh, it’s just been a while since an American has visited our town for any reason.” His eyes twinkled at Leni and his smile was gently mischievous. “Don’t you know? Mademoiselle’s grandfather died liberating the village back in ’45 and now she’s come back to see what he died to save. Isn’t that right, mademoiselle?”
Leni hesitated for a split second. She’d had such an scary and sad afternoon at the same time, did she really need to compound it with a lie? Oh, what the hell. “Yup. Nazi sniper caught him in the forest in April ’45. Dad was born a month later.” She drained the rest of her cocoa.
The truth was her dear paternal grandpa had fought in World War II. In the Pacific Theater. And he came home in one piece. And Dad wasn’t born until well after the War. Aw hell, they didn’t need to know that.
“Damndest thing.” Bartender resumed his wiping. “If you idiots would ever put your stupid cards down and read the paper, you’d know there’s a ceremony tomorrow at city hall tomorrow. At noon. Mademoiselle is going to accept a medal on behalf of her family in her grandfather’s memory.”
“C’est ça,” Leni confirmed.
“No shit,” Redneck #1 mused.
“Yeah,” Bartender deepened the lie. “Channel 3’s doing a report for the news. You twits should come and see how war heroes are honored. Michel, wasn’t your father a collaborator during the war.”
“Fuck you, Dany” Redneck #3 hissed. “Mademoiselle, I was going to put manure on my back fields, but if it’s OK with you, can I attend the ceremony tomorrow?”
“It’s open to the public,” Dany lied. “We have a free country thanks to mademoiselle’s family!”
Rednecks #1 and #2 both agreed they would attend the fictional event as well.
Leni thought it best to leave the village before everyone came out to gawk at her and ask uncomfortable questions. Wanting to pay she inquired, “Monsieur, how much do I owe you?”
“It’s on the house to the prettiest American girl in this village in the last 50 years,” Dany winked.
“Merci, monsieur. Merci beaucoup. A demain et au revoir.” She split post haste, not wanting to answer any more bizarre questions about a battle she didn’t know if it actually happened. She did something she’d never done before. She winked at Dany (she usually was paranoid about inviting any unwanted attention from Frenchmen, but Dany had a sense of humor), turned on her heal, and headed back to town.
What a weird afternoon. Leni had set off down the road looking for adventure. She found it in the most unlikely places. A walk in the country turned into a life-and-death struggle with a seemingly innocent yet out-for-blood pony. It led her to a sad cemetery that unlocked memories of her own loved ones who’d gone on before her. An innocent stop at a café turned into an elaborate practical joke about her accepting the award for her grandfather who’d “died” protecting the village. French Tweedledee, Tweedledum and Moe were going to be pissed when they arrived in an empty town square during lunchtime tomorrow.
But something told Leni that Dany could handle those idiots. I just hope I don’t run into them in town, she thought. But she reckoned their wives probably did most of the shopping. She also had a feeling they didn’t leave the village much if they spent their Sunday afternoons smoking cigarettes, playing cards, harassing Dany and asking strange American girls uncomfortable questions.
Leni was about half-way home walking on the opposite side of the highway from her journey to the village when she saw two Holstein dairy cows hang out by the fence. She hadn’t noticed them on the way to the village, though. Their heads were bent, cropping grass to put in one of their four stomachs.
Even though she’d been attacked by a horse, Leni thought there was little to know chance of being attacked by a cow. After all, weren’t cows supposed to be a lot dumber than horses? What harm could come from looking at a cow?
Leni approached the duo and just stared at them. They didn’t pay her much mind as they seemed more interested in eating dinner. They had actual bells around their necks! They were huge—pregnant?—but they looked docile as all get out.
She didn’t dare touch them in case either of them were up to any mischief. She was just about to back away when she felt a pebble in her shoe. She put her foot up to take her shoe off when one of the cows took a step forward. Its giant hoof came down on the tiniest part of her big toe, but mostly it just crushed her black flat.
Leni screamed in terror more than pain. For the second time that day, she stumbled backwards and very nearly lost her footing but somehow her bare foot whipped onto the gravel road shouler to steady her just before she fell back on her ass.
She did yelp in pain because she managed to scrape her bare foot on the gravel.
Jesus, these animals aren’t going to give me a damn break!!!
The weird part was that the cows didn’t budge or even glance at Leni flailing around in pain. They continued to calmly chew the grass and ignore her panicked presence.
Leni hopped on one foot to snatch her shoe up and hastily threw it on. Gingerly putting her weight on the foot that was stepped on, she was relieved to see nothing was broken and she’d been more frightened than anything else.
For the first time since she was a little girl, Leni ran the rest of the way home. She didn’t pause to look at any animals, houses, trees or anything else.
Screw nature! Screw Sunday walks! I just want to get home, crack open another boring book and pour myself half a bottle of wine. Goddamned fresh air is freaking overrated…
It was probably just as well Leni had to work from 11 to 3 that afternoon. It was also probably just as well she focused her nervous energy on her customers, helping them find jeans, dress slacks, shirts, underwear…
She could forget her date (was it really a date?) for about two minutes at a time. But when the thought of Erik flashed through her mind, her palms sweated, her heart raced and she felt like throwing up. Fucking hormones!
She was uncharacteristically tight-lipped about her afternoon plans, but one of the girls noticed she hadn’t touched the treats on the break room table. “Hey Leni, you know I brought those cinnamon rolls, right?”
“Yeah, thanks, Elise. I’m not really hungry right now, though. But I bet they’re good!”
“You usually love treats. You OK?”
“Yeah, fine. Sorry hon, but I gotta go check the stock.”
Leni really did try to keep her mind on her work, but her hands trembled and she had no idea how her knees could hold her weight up. She wouldn’t have been surprised if her pale face was grey. Fucking hormones!
Her shift ended and she clocked out. Leni went back to the staff restroom to give herself one last look in the mirror before she left.
Skinny jeans, striped nautical t-shirt, black fashion sneakers. Mascara and lip gloss were the only makeup she usually wore, and she saw no reason to doll herself up any more for Erik than when he’d seen her last night.
All right…show time, Synergy!
She was completely oblivious the drive to the lake. It was miraculous that she didn’t run a red light or have a head-on crash because all she was was a bundle of nerves. Why was she so freaking nervous? Oh yeah…first date jitters!
She pulled into the parking lot and opened the windows. It was unseasonably warm for October, so Leni rolled down the windows, tried to jam out to the Rod Stewart song on the radio and let her brain create dozens of silly scenarios that could happen on her walk.
So engrossed with her thoughts she was that she didn’t even see the white sedan pull into the parking spot next to her. She caught some movement out of the corner of her eye and jerked her head to the left.
He was there!
Leni quickly rolled the windows up and turned off the car so he couldn’t hear her geeking out to bad 80s music. Drawing a deep breath, she got out and forced a bright smile. “Hey! You made it! Did you have any trouble with directions?”
Sweatshirt, jeans, sneakers and sunglasses. God he looks so casual and so…comfortable. “Yep. I haven’t been here in years, but it was easy to find.”
“I’m glad. I usually suck ass at giving directions.” The words had no sooner left her lips when she clamped her hands over her mouth and her eyes widened in horror. “Oh, God, I’m sorry,” she said behind her hands, “I swear a lot when I’m nervous.” Well, actually, I swear a lot any way…
Erik laughed. “Oh, my virgin ears are burning,” he teased. “C’mere.”
Before Leni could react in any way or even take her hands off her mouth, Erik wrapped his arms around her and drew her close to him in a huge hug.
Her spine stiffened from the uninvited contact, but she willed herself to get her hands off her face and around his torso. Thought she was as rigid as a board, she noticed his spicy aftershave—or was it cologne—and enjoyed the feeling of two strong arms holding her close to him.
He held her a couple seconds longer before giving her an extra squeeze. He released her.
“Hi,” he whispered.
In spite of her fear, apprehension, hormones and confusion, she smiled back. “Hey.”
“You ready to go?” he asked, indicating the steep embankment they had to climb up before they could walk along the top.
“Yup. Let’s go!”
The scrambled up the hill and spent an hour walking the length of the lake. It was a perfect fall day. The sky was a crystal azure color with just a few puffy, dazzlingly white clouds drifting past. It was windy but the waist-high grasses danced in the breeze and she could hear the far-off song of wind chimes. Joggers lapped them, couples with babies in prams, cyclists passed them on their left, dogs and their humans were out enjoying the nice weather and couples just like Leni and Erik were all out enjoying the nice day.
There was a lot to see besides fellow pedestrians. The goofy golfers hit the links, the waves rolled onto the pebbly lakeshore, the scent of pine hung in the air, kids were screeching in delight on the playgrounds…Leni didn’t think she could have asked for a more perfect scene.
Erik was respectful at the boundaries Leni set. She wore a light fleece jacket but kept her hands balled in the pockets, her arms straight as two by fours. He walked close alongside her but not close enough to touch.
He laughed at her bad jokes and told plenty of his own. He gave her amused sideway glances, insisted on stay to Leni’s left so he could protect her from the oncoming foot traffic. Leni was also a slow walker and he didn’t try to force her to increase her gait.
They spoke of many things. They started with banal chatter like Leni’s just-ended shift, the nice weather and the show last night. Then they moved on to more personal topics—work, hobbies, families.
Erik was amazed Leni came from such a big family. “You’re really from a family of five kids?”
“Yeah. Doesn’t seem weird to me, though. Never really have known any different.”
“And none of you are married, no nieces or nephews?”
“Nope.” Leni knew it was weird that out of five adult children, not a single one of them had kids, was married or even dated.
“You don’t find that very often,” he observed neutrally. “Well, Jason is the only one of the three of us who’s never married.”
Leni stopped dead in her tracks. A trained linguist, she caught the verb tense he used. Her eyebrows furrowed as she looked at him. “Wait…what?”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean I’m married right now,” he hastily continued. “I’ve been divorced about seven years.”
She resumed walking in silence.
Divorced. He’s fucking divorced! She had never been more grateful for the big, Jackie O sunglasses with dark lenses that completely covered her eyes. Leni couldn’t bear it if Erik saw her crying.
Why was she crying? Though she no longer went to weekly Mass or even identified herself as a Catholic, she always wrestled with the idea of dating a divorced man. Of course at 34 Leni knew the vast majority of datable men in her age bracket had been married or at least in very long-term relationships. But old habits die hard it and it was quite difficult to accept the fact the man she was crushing on—or had been until just a few seconds ago—was divorced.
“What’s wrong?” Erik genuinely had no idea of the battle that raged in Leni’s head.
As much as she wanted to answer the stereotypical “nothing,” she reached deep down within her and put forth a mighty effort not to run away. Leni simply said, “Can we sit down a minute?” The dating gods must have been smiling on them because not ten yards away was an empty bench.
She plopped down and Erik sat carefully next to her, leaving a cautious distance between them. “What?”
She wiped the snot off with her sleeve. All the emotions that had been pent up in her all afternoon welled up to the surface. “I-I didn’t know you were…” She couldn’t bring herself to say it.
“Divorced?” he said gently.
Leni vigorously nodded her head. “I’m so sorry. It’s just that I was raised Catholic. I’m not anymore, but…” She shook her head and took a deep breath to steady herself. She exhaled in a long, shaky sigh and wiped her nose again. Smooth move, Ex-Lax, her brain screamed.
“You’re not allowed to date divorcés?” The pain in his voice was pretty obvious.
She chomped the inside of her lip as her thoughts drifted back to The Catechism of the Catholic Church. “No. We…they can.”
“I know plenty of Catholics, Leni. I know you aren’t allowed to marry them.”
Leni nodded and stared hard at the lake glistening before them. “Yep.” She didn’t bother to correct him when he included her in the plural you. She may not have gone to church every Sunday, but it was very hard to break herself out of the doctrine that had been beaten into her skull from 13 years of Catholic school. She shoved her arms into her sleeves and crossed them over her chest, hugging herself tight and shielding herself from him.
At first he didn’t say anything. He looked at her a long minute then turned his gaze out at the lake.
She took her wrists and furiously scrubbed the tears under her sunglasses and the snot that collected at her nose. In spite of her distress, she couldn’t help but give a teary, rueful snort of laughter.
He looked back at her. She couldn’t see his eyes under his sunglasses, but he probably was confused as hell by her mood swings.
“This is fine first date behavior,” she finally said, hugging herself tighter. “You’re going to go back and see your buddies and say, ‘I was on a date with this girl I met and she started crying on our first date.’” She laughed again. “I’ve had guys field calls from their mothers, do Sudoku puzzles or tell me Hitler wasn’t such a bad guy on first dates. If they didn’t stand me up. This is the first time I was the one acting like a jackass.”
“Oh, come on. I’d hardly call you a jackass.” She heard the gentle teasing in his voice. He scooted closer to her and he extended his arm over the back of the bench, his hand touching her shoulder. She shrunk away from him, wishing the earth would swallow her up, she could disappear and make this all go away.
He paused and raked his hands through his dark curls. “I usually save this conversation for a later date, but can I tell you what happened?”
Leni nodded, not daring to look at him.
“She was my college sweetheart. We married when we were 27. Three years later I found out she cheated on me, so we got divorced. It’s about as simple as that.”
“Do you have any kids?”
“No. We talked about starting a family before she left me, but I don’t have any kids.”
Well…at least there’s that? “She’s an idiot,” was Leni’s assessment.
He laughed slightly. “I think I called her a few more things than that, but I’m glad I found out her true colors before anything else happened.” He hesitated again. “But, after we broke up, I started going back to church myself. I go to a good one in the City. They’ve helped me through a lot.”
“I wish I could say the same. I haven’t found a church I’ve liked yet.”
“Well, you still have pretty strong morals, don’t you?”
She nodded. “I guess you can take the girl out of the Church, but not the Church out of the girl.”
“That’s not a bad thing.” The hand touching her shoulder gently started scratching her.
She looked at his hand, then warily at him.
“Can I tell you something?” he asked.
“Tell me if I’m wrong here, but I like to think I’m a pretty good judge of character. I see a shy woman who doesn’t date much and who’s afraid to let people get close to her.”
Damn, Erik, you’re good!
“I usually don’t hit on random girls I meet in random coffeehouses or bars, but there’s something about you. There’s a lot to you, probably more than you let on.”
“You’re not wrong,” she admitted. Leni found herself inching towards him ever so slightly but still cautious—an instinct borne of a lifetime of disappointment.
“I want to get to know you but I don’t want to pressure you. Right now we’re just two people out on a walk, just talking. Well, we’re sitting right now but that’s all we’re doing—talking.”
Jesus Christ, it’s not like he’s asking me to marry him! He’s got my insecurities pretty well pegged. Damn, Erik. You’re good. Leni scooched even closer to him and let his arm drape across her shoulders.
His hand squeezed her reassuringly. “He took a call from his mother? Really?”
There was the goofy Erik she liked. He was breaking the ice for her, gently trying to gain her confidence—but at her own pace. “We met on eHarmony. We chatted for weeks and I drove three hours to meet him.”
“Well, I got totally lost in the City so I made him meet me at the diner I pulled over to call him from. We talked for a while, then his phone rang…”
“Yeah. I knew he was close to her, so I went to the bathroom while he took the call. I came back and he was still on the phone. I busied myself with the coffee and playing on my phone. He talked to her for 30 or 40 minutes.”
“And you drove all that way to see him? What a jerk! Was there a second date?”
Leni and Erik stayed on that bench another hours swapping dating horror stories but the sun was setting and Leni’s nose was dripping—this time with cold. Her scarf was shoved over half her face and she was shivering in her light jacket. But she wasn’t quite so cold. Throughout the hour he made her feel so at ease that she got closer and closer to him that her head was on his shoulder, looking serenely out at the lake and she felt like…she had come home.
He could still feel her shaking. “Are you getting hungry?”
She had been such an awful wreck of nerves that day that she hadn’t eaten, and Leni was suddenly ravenously hungry. “Yeah.”
“Want to go get some dinner? Is there a good restaurant around here?”
After some discussion, they decided to take separate cars and meet at a local sports bar. The polished off a plate of nachos, onion rings and two pitchers of beer. They yelled at the game on TV, made new friends at the table next to them and couldn’t stop talking.
Leni couldn’t tear her eyes away from Erik’s warm brown ones. It didn’t even register in her brain when his hands brushed against hers or she accidentally kicked him under the table. She was taken with his intelligence, his sarcasm, his wit and his goofiness.
And his big heart.
By about 9:00, Leni was yawning into her sleeve. It was such a bizarre day with a busy shift at work, the emotional free-for-all and the feeling of being completely twitterpated by a man she’d only met 24 hours ago. She’d only just met him, but he made her feel like they’d known each other for ages.
“You getting tired?” he asked. They’d finished their last beer an hour ago and Leni felt good enough to drive home.
“Yeah, I-“ she let out another mammoth yawn.
“Dang, am I that exciting?” he teased.
“Shut up,” she laughed. “It’s been a long day.”
Erik raised an eyebrow. “But a good one, I hope?”
“Not bad,” was her assessment.
“Can I see you again tomorrow?”
Her heart lurched. Tomorrow was Sunday, and he’d have to get home to the City. “What were you thinking?”
“I was going to hang out with the family during the day. Want to go out to dinner?”
“Sure, but don’t you need to get home, too?”
“Meh, it’s only an hour drive. So long as get home at a decent hour, it should be OK. I’ll text you tomorrow…will that work?”
Erik paid the tab and walked Leni out to her little car. For the second time in two days, they were standing awkwardly in a parking lot. Shy Leni had absolutely no intention of inviting Erik over to the filthy little apartment she hadn’t had time to clean since—
Two strong arms enveloped her in a massive bear hug, and this time she didn’t stiffen up, freak out, hesitate, or try and back away. She hugged him right back with all the strength her puny girly arms could muster.
She was safe. And happy.
Leni looked up at him and smiled softly. “I had a great time with you today, Erik.”
“I had a great time with you, too. See you tomorrow.”
He gave her one more solid squeeze and reluctantly let her go. She didn’t know how normal people ended first dates, but Erik was moving at her comfort level.
She unlocked the car door, slid in, and grinned like a happy moron all the way home.
She was asleep before her head hit the pillow, but warm brown eyes that crinkled at the edges haunted her dreams that night.