I was kind of embarrassed to have Summer riding in my car. I had been living out of it so long I was afraid it might say something about how I was as an individual. Apparently it did, because she delighted over the whole ‘living in my car’ look.
“Don’t you just hate cars that are immaculately clean?” she asked. “You have to wonder if anyone ever drives the darn thing. If there ain’t trash in the back floorboard you wasted your money.”
I laughed nervously. “Then I definitely got my money’s worth,” I replied, looking over into the back floorboard at all the empty soda bottles and fast food bags.
She patted my hand for reassurance. “Don’t worry; I don’t think you’re a messy guy. Cute when you blush, yes. Messy, no.”
Of course I blushed and she laughed at my embarrassment. “Ha! Love it!” she squealed in delight. “Let’s ride, Clyde.”
I started the car and backed down the drive to the gravel road. As I turned onto the gravel she reached for the stereo and turned it on.
“Let’s see what we got to sing to tonight,” she said, as the car was filled with some mid 90’s grunge song. “Nope, not that. I grew up with all that angry music; tonight I want to have fun.” She started scanning through the radio stations, passing over jazz, hip hop, and modern rock stations before she found the song to stop the dial. “Oh hell yeah, here it is!”
The sound of a harmonica in a rhythmic country groove came over the speakers and she started swaying in her seat to the music. She looked over at me, smiling sexy enough to melt an iceberg. “If you wanna get to heaven, you got to raise a little hell,” she cooed, and I nearly ran off the road.
I grew up in the 70’s and remembered this song. Ozark Mountain Daredevils. Never thought of this tune as sexy but once she started singing it I changed my mind. There are certain images that you just know will forever be ingrained in your memory, and watching her shimmy and sway in her seat to the country rock classic, singing it word for word with her head hanging out the window, assured that it would be scorched into mine. There are some days, even now, that when I get behind the wheel of the car and turn on the radio all I can see is Summer laughing and singing to that song. And when she propped one of her feet up on the dash and her dress slid up just a little to reveal the full shape of her leg I knew we were going to be in a ditch if I didn’t concentrate on the road.
If she had let down her guard in the orchard and afforded me a glimpse of her crumbling soul, out here on the road with “if you wanna get to heaven” blaring at top volume brought her back to the fun loving girl she wanted everyone to believe she was. And in that moment I truly believed this was the girl she wanted to be: in love with life and trying to infect everyone else with that same zest. I grinned when she let out a long playful squeal as we passed by an older couple sitting on a porch. I couldn’t help but laugh, because as we passed I swore the couple were shaking their heads and probably mumbling something like, “dern kids.” They would have fallen off their porch swing if they knew it was a guy in his mid 40’s and a sweet hell raising thing pushing 30.
We spent about 30 minutes getting to the restaurant she had chosen. The long winding road led us from Orchard House into the heart of Bedford. Not far from the old rail yards that used to bring passenger trains through the area, we crossed a bridge and she directed me to a small parking lot beside an old red brick building. A window in the front had painted on its glass, ‘Little Italy in the heart of the country.’ Above that you could see traces of stenciled letters that must have at one time been the name of the place. Now it couldn’t be read.
After parking and standing in front of the place I could tell just by looking in the front window we were indeed overdressed. Several people sat around tables dressed in their everyday clothes. A young couple wore jeans and tie dye shirts staring into each other’s faces over a large pizza. An older man in bib overalls sat in the corner hunched over his Stromboli. A pair of ladies shared a booth chatting, and they too were dressed casual. I looked at Summer and she realized how out of place we were going to look in our attire, and the fact we were a couple who to some looked more like father and daughter than two lonely people on a date.
“You ready to do this?” I asked.
She gave me a reassuring smile. “We aren’t here for them. We are here for us. “
“In other words if they don’t like it, screw them?”
She grinned. “Exactly.” She reached for my hand and I opened the door.
There are times when you feel so out of place in public that when you open the door you imagine everyone has turned to look. This was not one of those times. When we came through the doorway, some dared to glance up to see who had come in, but then they immediately went back to their own world, leaving us in ours. It was a relief. Here they didn’t seem to care like they would have in the big city. Back home I had seen how people stared and often glared at May-December couples. If there was more than an obvious five year age difference you were nearly branded as either a lecherous old man or a gold digging tramp, something I was sure neither of us was. But here there was none of that vibe. The waitress, a pretty dark skinned girl, greeted us with a smile that was both welcoming and genuine. She told us to go ahead and sit where we liked and the waiter would come take our order shortly.
We chose a small table at the very back of the place in an effort to not only have privacy but to continue going on unnoticed. The waiter, a young man of college age with the slight remainder of teenaged acne, soon arrived at our table and set our menus in front of us. He took our drink order. Summer had tea; I ordered root beer, naturally. Sitting across from me Summer barely glanced at the menu. Instead she looked up at the waiter, who seemed so awestruck by her you could have pushed him over with the slightest nudge, and asked him if they served Cheese Calzones. Speechless he nodded and she flashed him a smile. “I’ll take one then, sport.”
You would have thought she called him Baby cakes or something, for his enamored face flushed and he replied, “My pleasure.” I wondered if he was thinking about her order at all. Finally, he wrote it down on his order pad and turned to me. I couldn’t help but tease him. “Spaghetti, sport,” I said. He didn’t seem to like it that a man called him sport and he turned towards the kitchen with our order.
“You’re so bad,” Summer said. “I can’t believe you called him sport.”
“You said it first.”
“Maybe I should have called him sexy sport.”
“You trying to make me jealous right off the bat?” I asked.
She teasingly smiled. “A girl likes to have some power over her man.”
Her man. What a notion that was. I’m not sure how it made me feel to have her refer to me that way. In some ways it made me feel like the luckiest guy alive, but in others it scared the hell out of me. I wasn’t ready to be anybody’s anything, much less their man.
The waiter brought our drinks out. Maybe it was just me, but when he sat my drink down I could have sworn he intended it to come splashing out on the table a little. Summer snickered.
“I don’t think he likes you very much,” she reasoned.
“He better behave,” I joked. “Unless he wants a dollar tip.”
“Mmm, I like a tough guy,” Summer softly sighed.
“I thought you were all about nerds.”
“Oh yeah that’s right,” she replied playfully. “Had a relapse. Tough nerds then.”
I smiled. This was fun. A little playful banter never hurt on a date. Of course, it had been ages since I had even been on a date. Ashley and I had long passed that stage, and even date nights we had before our intended wedding were dull, going-through-the motions affairs. We’d sit there and eat, maybe talk about our day, and then go home where she would do her thing and I would do mine. This date with Summer wasn’t anything like that, and I was amazed by the fact that this was our second day knowing each other and already it was natural for her to flirt with me and I to try to come out of my shell to flirt back.
Our food soon arrived and this time the waiter was friendlier. Of course, he was still trying to make eye contact with Summer and I had to silently berate myself for my own shyness. How come a kid barely out of high school could stare into her eyes with no problem and I could barely look into those dark depths for a few minutes before getting scared and looking away? What was it that I was afraid I might see there? Or was I afraid she might see something secret hidden within my own.
“You coming back to earth any time soon?” I heard her say, and I realized I had been staring off into space, lost out there somewhere in my own thoughts.
“Oh, sorry,” I apologized, turning my attention to her and the big plate of food the waiter had set before me.
“Please tell me you weren’t thinking about her.”
“No, I wasn’t,” I replied, daring to look at her for the briefest moment. “I was thinking about you actually.”
To this she smiled. “Now if I could just get you to look at me for more than two minutes.”
“I’m afraid you’ll think I’m staring.”
“Maybe I want to be stared at.”
I picked up my knife and fork and began to work on my plate of spaghetti. “Let me rephrase that,” I said. “I’m afraid you’ll think I’m being too..um… lecherous.”
She laughed. “I love your choice of words. I don’t think I’ve ever had a guy to use the word lecherous on me, even if they were lecherous themselves.” She cut a piece off her calzone and eyed it hungrily. “But I don’t think you’re like that.” She took a bite of her food. “I could be wrong,” she added with her mouth full.
“You’re not. I’m one of the nice guys.”
She seemed to snicker at this. “That’s exactly what a lech would say.”
I could tell she was teasing and so it was only appropriate to tease back. “Damn, busted.”
We both smiled and dug into our plates of food as if we hadn’t eaten all day. In between bites she would look up at me as if she were studying the way I ate, or how I looked around the room, or sat in my chair. She had that way about her. Summer just seemed to be studying you as if her desire to get to know you was the most important thing in the world.
I did have a habit of looking around the room when I ate and she noticed this I’m sure. It’s a habit I picked up from my father, who always seemed to be sizing up every room he was in, possibly looking for a way out if it got too uncomfortable. I noticed that this little establishment was definitely nostalgic. Italian style paintings depicting villas and vineyards decorated the walls. In one corner laid out on a table were pieces of homemade jewelry for sale, necklaces and bracelets made of gems and local stones by an area artist. A card read proudly, ‘Visit Me at the Artist’s Village.’ In another corner sat an old jukebox. So old in fact it played 45 rpm records. I imagined the records inside must be pretty scratchy by now, but still I was curious. I pointed it out to Summer.
“Look, that jukebox is almost as old as I am.”
She grinned. “So play me something old then. Educate me, oh wise music nerd.”
I took a bite of my spaghetti, and got up. “Be right back, young un.”
As I went past she playfully squinted her eyes at me as if she was mad. The jukebox was old indeed, but the records inside weren’t too ancient. At least not to me. Mostly from the 70’s, there were a lot of one hit wonders that I imagine no one knew now. I found one that I thought might be appropriate for a date, though maybe not the first one. I put in several quarters and made the selection. I found a second one as well, and happy with my choices returned to the table.
“This first one was popular before you were born,” I joked. “You may have heard it on an oldies station.” I made sure to emphasize ‘oldies’.
“You ever had calzone in your eye,” Summer threatened, and then she stopped. The song had come on. The smile had left her face and the dancing light that had been in her eyes seemed to snuff out. Suddenly I got the feeling I had ruined another perfectly good time. Obviously she had heard the song before and it meant something to her. And not something entirely good. She stopped eating and turned to look at the jukebox as if the machine had intentionally offended her. Then she turned back to me, a neutral look upon her face. She closed her eyes and then with a sigh said, “I always liked this song.”
“You don’t look like you do.”
“No I do,” she tried to convince me. But the sad look on her face said otherwise.
“But it reminds you of someone.”
She looked down at her plate of food. “When I was little my parents used to dance to this song in the living room. My dad bought my mama this record by them. Rock n roll alternative, it was called. They played this song over and over until I imagine even our next door neighbors knew the words. I didn’t know it then, but I was even conceived to this song.” She began to quietly sing. “I am so into you, I can’t think of nothing else…”
For a moment I thought she was going to cry. She closed her eyes as if to fight any tears from coming. Her soft singing dropped off and I felt bad for making her sad. It seemed to me to be just another example of how I could never seem to do the right thing to make her happy for a while. “I’m sorry, Summer. I didn’t mean to bring you down.”
She seemed to push the sadness away from her and opened her eyes. She attempted a smile at me. “Like I said, I do like the song. It’s great.” She looked down at her plate and picked at her calzone. “It just makes me think of my parents in happier times.” She took a bite as if the food would bury her memories. Again, she smiled and this time it seemed genuine. “So, what were your parents like?”
“They were great together. Of course, they didn’t dance to Atlanta Rhythm Section. They were more Dave Brubeck Quartet. I can remember them slow dancing too. Their song was called ‘Audrey’.”
“Was that your mom’s name?”
“No, it was pop’s favorite actress, Audrey Hepburn. Mom didn’t seem to mind. She had a sexy favorite too. Gregory Peck.” I looked at Summer, and for a moment she seemed lost. I realized she probably had no idea who I was talking about. “Well anyway, they loved to dance to slow piano jazz. Stuff from the late 50’s, when they were young.”
“Too bad you don’t dance. It is liberating.”
“That’s one thing I didn’t inherit from my parents.”
She nodded, taking a sip of her tea. Then her face got serious. “Promise me something.”
“Uh…okay,” I replied, suddenly wary of what she might ask.
“Before I leave, dance with me.”
“Summer, I can’t…”
“Yes you can.”
A new song coming from the jukebox saved me. My second selection had rescued me from committing to making a fool of myself. “What’s this?” she asked.
“True Fine Love. Steve Miller Band.”
She smiled in approval. “I like it.”
“Ever find one of those? A true fine love?”
I thought about this a moment. I reached for my soda and took a sip. It was nearly empty and I signaled the waiter for a refill. He took my glass and returned with a new drink. I thanked him and then gave Summer my answer. “I think we all believe we have when we first fall for someone. Each time you fall you feel like it’s the first time you have ever loved.”
“But does that make it a true love?”
“If it’s true, it doesn’t end.”
“True,” she agreed.
“So, the answer is no. I believed what I had with Ashley was true, but obviously it wasn’t.”
“Perhaps on your part it was. There’s always one who loves more than the other.”
“It’s not supposed to be that way.”
She nodded and gave me a sad look. “I agree.”
The song from the jukebox had prompted some of the restaurant’s patrons to look at us. Two rock n roll love songs in a row. I guess they were expecting a proposal, or at the very least doe eyed looks across the table. We disappointed them on both counts.
“I don’t think my parents believed in a true fine love,” Summer said. “I guess that’s why I want to. The things they believed didn’t last, so I want what they never had, you know.”
“Yeah,“ I replied, and I knew she was going somewhere with this, so I waited.
”What do you want?”
The question surprised me. “Excuse me?”
“What do you want out of life?”
“Oh. I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“Well, I used to think I wanted a fairy tale romance. You know picket fence, little pink houses for you and me. But now I’m not so sure. I find it hard to believe in those things now. I guess if I have to give a real answer I would say I just want someone to love me, and not be trying to look for a way out behind my back.”
“Sounds fair enough. I think all I want is not to end up like my parents. To spend all that time falling in love, starting a family. All to watch it disappear in an instant. I guess that’s why all my relationships go straight out the window, because I’m afraid of devoting all that time and energy for it to come to nothing. Does that make any sense, or does that make me seem selfish?”
“It makes sense to me, and no, it doesn’t sound selfish.”
“You know I came here with what seemed to be my life’s purpose to find out from my father why he left mom and I behind. But, now I’m wondering if there is any point in that. I mean, what would that really accomplish? I fear it’s not going to make me happy to know. And it won’t give me lost time with my dad back.”
I didn’t know what to say. She had her reasons for wanting to track down her father and none of them had anything to do with me. I wanted to be there for her in her quest but what could I do, really? I had to be careful what to say; I didn’t want to influence her to make what could be the wrong choice. Lucky for me she didn’t give me a chance to respond.
“You know, I really didn’t want to talk about, or even think of, my father tonight.” She shook her head. “I just wanted to go out and have fun with someone. Forget my troubles and all that.”
“I’ve had fun,” I reassured her.
She smiled and reached across the table to pat my hand. “So have I.” She paused for just a moment as if listening for something. It wasn’t the jukebox; the songs I selected had finished. “But he’s still there,” she said after a moment. “A shadow hanging over everything.”
I thought to myself, her father wasn’t the only shadow. Ashley seemed to be in the background too; thoughts of her looming on the edge of the evening. I thought how crazy this seemed, for Summer and I had each other to make conversation with, to enjoy time together, and here we were still overwhelmed by the two people who caused us the most pain. I wondered if we would ever be over our pasts, whether they would ever let us go. I found myself wishing I could talk to Ashley right now, so I could ask her why she had….I stopped. This was wrong. To even think of her right now was wrong. If I was ever going to have any kind of relationship, even friendship, with another member of the opposite sex I had to put her out of my mind long enough to do so. Easier said than thought.
Summer seemed to be lost in thoughts of her own. Perhaps she was thinking something similar about her life and the place her father had in it. She looked up at me and downed the rest of her sweet tea. “I think I’m done if you are,” she said. “Want to get out of here?”
“Yes, I do,” I replied. I had been feeling like the walls were closing in on us here at the restaurant. I needed some fresh air.
Outside, the night had cooled down a little but you could still feel the humidity of the day lingering, much like our own demons hung out of sight, yet close enough to make us feel uncomfortable. We walked to the car, her hand clutching on to my arm, just as much for comfort as for guidance, for it was dark in the small parking lot. I opened the passenger side door and she got in. I closed the door behind her and went around to my side. I got in and rolled down the window to try and air out the car.
“You know, that is the first time in ages anyone opened and closed the car door for me,” Summer said, glancing at me.
I smiled at her. “Well it is our first date. After playing the wrong song I guess I better try and dazzle you in other ways.”
“It wasn’t the wrong song. Just kind of took me back and made me have too much to think.”
I grinned at her analogy and put the key in the ignition to start the car.
“Matthew, can I ask you something?”
I took my hand off the key. “Yeah, I guess so.”
She was looking at me with a solemn expression. “Have you ever felt a connection with someone you haven’t been in love with?”
“What do you mean?”
She turned in her seat so her back was to her door and she was facing me directly. “I mean, have you ever felt something special with someone you weren’t romantically involved with?”
“I don’t think so. Why do you ask?”
“Liar. Why do you ask?”
She looked away for a moment and seemed to be deciding what to say. Finally she was ready. “Well, I feel something special with you. When we’re together I feel great. I feel like I could do anything. I’ve had male friends before, and I’ve had lovers, but I don’t know…you make me feel special, and I feel like there’s something between us.”
“But you don’t know what it is,” I added.
Now it was my turn to look away and decide what to say. I opted for the truth. “I feel the same way. I’ve never felt this kind of connection, but I like it.”
“I do too.” She laid her head over on my shoulder. I wasn’t used to such closeness, but I didn’t say anything. The truth was I liked this. It was comforting. Maybe she found comfort with her head resting on my shoulder. I know I felt comfort just having her do so, but I wasn’t sure how to say it out loud. She seemed to know what I was thinking as always. “Does this bother you?” she asked.
“No, it doesn’t.”
“You’re scared, aren’t you?”
Sometimes I don’t like her perception. “Yes I am. Aren’t you?”
“Always,” she replied, and wrapped her arm around my own and softly cried into my shoulder. A streetlight shone down on the car and for a moment I felt we were actors on a stage fumbling with our lines. If so, I had completely forgotten mine, and we sat there in a silence that was only broken by her muffled sniffles in my shoulder.
“I had a nice time tonight,” I finally said.
“Me too.” She lifted her head from my shoulder and looked right into my face. “Do you like me, Matthew?”
I almost laughed. “Well of course I like you. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.”
“No, I mean…do you like me…you know…a lot.”
I felt a huge lump in my throat. It was like I escorting my first date to her front door and not knowing what to say. “Yes, I like you a lot.”
She leaned closer to me. Her chin was nearly resting on my shoulder, her face just inches away from my own. “I want that dance, “she breathed.
I swallowed, trying to rid myself of the lump. “I want…”, I began, only to be interrupted by a knock on the car window. She jumped, letting out a little yelp, and I have to admit I was startled too. A figure stood beside my open window. It was the waiter kid.
“Hey, I don’t mean to be whatever, but you forgot to sign for the tip.”
In his hand he held our bill. I had given him the credit card and he had run the ticket but I hadn’t signed it. In our desire to get out of there we had just left. “Oh sorry.” I looked over at Summer, and silently mouthed, ‘one dollar.’ She gave me a stern, ‘you better not’ look, and I filled out the bill with his tip and signed it. “Here you go, “I said. “Sorry about that, really.”
He grinned as if to silently tell me he would have forgotten too with the company I had this evening. The waiter walked away and I turned back to Summer. Our moment had been broken. In a way I was glad I didn’t have a chance to complete my sentence. I was afraid of what I wanted to say. And to be honest, she seemed relieved too. “I still expect the dance,” she said, as she put on her seat belt, letting me know that whatever almost passed between us would have to wait until both of us were daring and fearless again.
“Orchard House & The Heart Of Everything” 2014 Paul D. Aronson. All Rights Reserved.