“I can’t figure out what I did wrong.”
my best friend since the third grade, when I’d come out to
“I can’t either – we both know you’re a perfect gentleman.” He snorted at his own joke, but sobered when he saw I wasn’t responding. “Look, Cory, maybe there’s something going on that you have no idea about. She’s just spooky – maybe she’s getting out of a bad relationship, and something you did reminded her of the jerk.”
been quite a jerk,” I mused, looking up at the sun filtering through the maple
tree we were sitting under. Summer was such a brief week in
see the way she dashed out of the house,” I told him, recalling the way
“She was just such a sweetheart in the office.” I scrubbed at my nose with the side of my hand, feeling a familiar pressure escalating just under my eyes. “All helpful and chatty, really cool.”
“But maybe that’s where she’s comfortable.” Tom reached down to pluck a blade of grass from the lawn, brushing the end of it against his fingertips. “You know, scripted conversations of a sort, a nice professional distance kept between you and her.”
“Yeah,” I gulped, the pressure transforming itself into a persistent buzz that no amount of scrubbing with my hand could erase. “I suh –“ The buzzing backed off for a second, and I sighed with relief. “I suppose you’re right.” Before I could reach for my handkerchief, however, I felt the pressure sluice out in a rush, and my head snapped forward. “Heh-shhh! Uhr-esh!”
“That it, man? Hardly worth the effort of a ‘bless you.’” Tom liked to tease me about my allergies, and had once counted twenty seven sneezes in a row from me before I told him to knock it off.
“Not quite.” Mercifully, my nose took just enough of a time out to allow me to roll over onto one hip and pull out a handkerchief from my opposite front pocket before I sneezed again. “Chhh! Huh-chhh. Ih-shhh.” My nose ran profusely, a thin stream of watery mucus that I caught between folds of white cloth. “Ksssh!”
As my fit gradually subsided, I heard the sound of feminine giggling to my right. Looking up, I saw two brunette coeds smiling at me, one of them waggling her fingers at me in a little wave. Tom, for his part, waggled his fingers right back, and I elbowed him with one arm while keeping my handkerchief clamped to my nose with my other hand.
“I don’t suppose either of you are nursing majors? My friend could use a little TLC, you know.” That remark earned him another elbow in the side, but at least by that time I could sit up and take the cloth away from my face without embarrassing myself.
“No,” the pretty brunette who had waved at me said. “We’re theatre majors.” She giggled again, which set off her friend, and I wondered just what sorts of roles they would end up getting. They’d probably be identified in their first roles as “Giggly Coed #1” and “Giggly Coed #2” in some low-budget slasher, where the masked villain would decide he didn’t like brunettes who giggled and dispatch them in the first five minutes of the movie.
“We can play nurses, if you want us to,” the other said, even more brazen than the first. The thought was momentarily appealing, but I realized that these two young ladies, nice as they probably were, didn’t attract my interest even a quarter as much as the young woman who had run out of my home a few days before.
I shook my head and turned away from them, blowing my nose and expelling a mini-flood of watery mucus into a fold of soft cotton, swiping at the tip of my nose just in case any had escaped. “Sorry, ladies, but I have to find a garbage can and then get to class.” I wadded up the handkerchief and placed it in the front pocket of my backpack, intending to dump the wet cloth into the next can I saw. Not frugal or recycling friendly, I knew, but my grandmother regularly sent me a baker’s dozen of the same for birthdays and Christmas, a tradition that had started the first time I met her.
“Mom, this is our son, Cory.” My foster mother, Arlene, placed a protective arm around my shoulders as she faced the steel-haired matron before us. The older woman looked at me as if I had been dropped from a distant planet, and I wriggled uncomfortably under her scrutiny.
“How old are you, Cory?” Her soft Southern accent belied the hard look she was giving me, and she clutched her pocketbook tightly.
“Eight and a half, ma’am,” I told her, using the “company” manners my birth mother had taught me only a few years before.
“Well.” She seemed momentarily impressed by my use of “ma’am,” but then hardened again. “And what are you studying in school?”
I did my best to stop fidgeting, but I noticed the strong odor of what I presumed was some big Southern flower wafting off of her in my direction. The scent filled my nose, and set it to itching.
“History, math, art, English.” By the time I got to “English”, my nose was itching so much that I scrubbed upward with the palm of my hand, a gesture my doctor had told me was the “allergic salute”. When I snuffled, Arlene’s mother gave me a look as if she’d just bit into a lemon.
“Do you have a cold?”
“Dough,” I told her honestly, thinking it would be rude to say that her perfume was bugging me so much. However, the nose rubbing and snuffling had done little to quiet the itch in my nose, and to my horror, I let loose with a loud “Uuuh-shoo” aimed at Mrs. Cortland’s feet.
“Buh-less you.” She jumped back a foot, probably thinking I was contagious, and Arlene patted my shoulder briefly before leaving me with this stern, imposing, and strong-smelling woman.
“Huh-shhh! Ehh-shooo!” I finally managed to cup my hands to my face, but it did little to muffle the noise I was making. Arlene’s mother snapped open her pocketbook and extracted a dainty-looking patterned hanky, offering it to me insistently. I took it without a word, grateful to have something to sneeze into other than my palms. “Ehh-chhhh! Hpt-shhh!” The cloth muffled my sneezes a little, which appeared to make Mrs. C. happier, because when I could finally catch my breath and look up, she was regarding me with a soft smile.
“Bless you, Cory.” She shook her head and made little clucking noises as she guided me over to the living room couch. The cushion beside me bowed under her weight, and I felt her begin to rub my back in small circles. “Good heavens, so much noise out of such a little boy.”
I snuffled again and tried to protest, but she placed her hands under mine, forcing the hanky back up to my nose. “Blow,” she whispered in my ear, and I complied willingly, the itch subsiding as I blew a few more times for good measure.
“There.” Arlene’s mother made a satisfied little sound as I swiped at my nose and then crumpled the hanky between my hands.
“Bless you, Cory.” Arlene entered the room holding one of Bob’s huge white cotton handkerchiefs, and seemed about to give it to me when she noticed what I was holding in my own hand.
“Cory and I were just getting acquainted,” Mrs. Cortland told Arlene, pausing to reclaim her hanky. I wasn’t at all sure why on earth she wanted to touch the thing, but she placed it back into her pocketbook. Winking at me, she leaned forward to take Bob’s handkerchief from my foster mother and placed that into my hand. Even though the thing was folded in half three times, it still covered both of my palms, and I had to fold it again to get it to fit into the front pocket of my jeans.
later, a package arrived from
what are you going to do about
“I don’t know. I mean,” I said, grabbing onto the dashboard as the car lurched forward again. Tom was not, perhaps, the world’s smoothest driver, but I often let him drive when the pollen counts were particularly high, not wanting to risk a crash due to sneezing and thereby missing seeing an oncoming car. “I sure do want to see her again, but I can’t think of a thing to say that will persuade her to se me again.”
Tom thought a moment, then smacked the steering wheel with the palm of his right hand. “Your mother’s birthday is coming up, right?”
“Yeah.” Every year, I struggled to find something for my mother, and it was always a hit-or-miss proposition. As a Realtor, she dressed conservatively, yet wanted to be up on the latest fashions, so a few years ago I had started consulting Vogue and Vanity Fair in desperation to determine what was “now” rather than “so five minutes ago.”
“Well, what if you call her up, explain to her that you’re lousy at getting the knack of what women want, and suggest she accompany you to find something. It’s task oriented, somewhat impersonal, and if she freaks out again or decides you’re a creep, there will probably be a lot of security guards she can call upon to drag you away from her.”
“Thanks a lot.” Tom’s idea, however, did have real merit, and after dinner that evening, I flipped through the telephone directory to find David Carlson’s number. Certainly, he’d know his daughter’s number, whether she lived on campus, in a sorority house, or in an apartment with friends. Whether he’d give it to me was another thing, but I had to try.
Moments later, I heard someone pick up on the other end. “Hello?”
It was Mr. Carlson, so my luck was holding so far, at least. “Hi, Mr. Carlson, this is Cory Marshall. I was in the office with my father a few days ago – he needed to see you about prosecuting the drunk driver?”
“Yes, Cory. You’re feeling better?”
“Yes, sir. Lots of chicken soup and orange juice seemed to do the trick.”
good.” He paused a moment, then asked, “I take it you’d like to speak with
“If you could give me her phone number, I’d appreciate it.”
“Actually, Cory, she’s come back home for a little while. If you can hold on for a few minutes, I’ll go get her.” He set the receiver down gently on what sounded like a hard surface, and a moment or two later, I heard the phone being picked back up.
She sighed into the phone, a quiet little puff of air. “You…” She sighed again, and I could almost picture her looking up at the ceiling of what I assumed was her parents big, elaborate kitchen, trying to find a polite way to tell me to buzz off. “Cory, I … you didn’t say or do anything wrong.” Another long pause. “You were really, really sweet, and I enjoyed talking with you. I’m just kind of on the rebound from a bad relationship, and when you grabbed my wrist, it reminded me of – him.”
pictured some clumsy oaf chaining
“I promise you right now, Lynn, I don’t think that anyone, woman or man, deserves to be slapped, punched, insulted or abused in any way. If my grasping your wrist reminded you of a bad situation, then I’m really sorry, and I won’t touch you unless you say it’s okay.”
waited a moment before pushing my advantage. “Say,
“Well, what does she usually wear to work?” With that question, I knew I had at least a chance to meet her for a short excursion to the mall or an antique store or something.
“She’s a Realtor, so I guess she wears pretty much the same thing you were – suits, scarves, a lapel pin every once in a while.”
“I’d try one of the personal shopping services at Nordstrom’s or the Bon Marche, maybe poke your head into one of the boutiques in the mall.”
“I’m afraid I’d just get lost. Would you mind coming with me, be my personal shopper? You can just be my impersonal shopper if you want.”
She laughed, the sound light and free over the phone. I pictured her wide mouth opening into a smile, revealing her bright teeth. Little lines would probably appear around her eyes, the sort that women in their forties tried to smooth out with Botox injections, but which I thought showed that a woman liked to have fun and be free.
“Okay, you talked me into it. When and where?”
I suggested that Saturday afternoon, when we would both have time free, and she countered that she’d like to meet me at a designated spot in the mall, drive her own car there and back.
“How about Pacific Desserts?” I named a small store at one end of the mall, famous for their chocolate indulgences, including one cake called, simply, Illegally Chocolate.
We agreed on a time, and as we said our goodbyes and hung up, I was suffused
with hope that perhaps I might actually be granted the opportunity to get to
was waiting at a small square table at Pacific Desserts, watching the door,
when I saw
“Cory!” She had found my table, and sat down in the back iron chair across the table from mine. “I hope you haven’t been waiting too long.”
I could wait an eternity for you, darlin'. Whoa, boy, down tiger. “Oh, no, I just got here a few minutes ago. Would you like to order dessert, or share one? I hear they make some really rich stuff, and if you can eat an entire slice of anything by yourself, they give you a medal.”
“And a stretcher to haul you out on, too?”
I laughed. Even if her joke seemed a bit strained, she was trying, and so I’d try even harder to make sure she could just be herself and not worry that I’d swoop in like the Wolf in Into The Woods. Hello, little girl…
“Maybe we could look around at some of the stores, and then come back here as a reward,” she reasoned, and I got up from my chair immediately.
“Sounds good to me.” I waited by her chair until she had gotten out of it, then pushed it back under the table. Good manners, as taught to me by all of my relatives, sure couldn’t hurt.
We headed for Nordstrom’s, and Lynn made a beeline for the women’s accessories department, skirting the overeager perfume sellers and shaking her head at them as we hurried past. I held my breath through the gauntlet, and emerged generally unscathed.
explained that my mother had been raised in
“Daring?” I echoed. “Skydiving, bungee jumping, kayaking? That sort of daring?”
of those ladies look like they applied their faces with a trowel this morning,”
“You think?” That got another laugh out of her, and I hoped she’d touch my arm again, but no such luck. Instead, she stood still in front of me, exhaling with a little “hooo.” Her hand fanned daintily in front of her face, and I could see her nose wrinkle as if someone had passed a skunk by her.
“It’s my breath, isn’t it? I just can’t stand chewing gum, and – “
She shook her head and grimaced, plowing briefly through her purse but coming up empty-handed. Her mouth hung open, and she was breathing in little gasps, pressing her fingers hard against her upper lip. It was then that I recognized the pre-sneeze expression she was fighting against, and I yanked my handkerchief out of my back pocket, offering it to her.
“Th-uhhh.” She accepted it from me with a thin smile, holding it uneasily to her face as two powerful sneezes ripped out of her, bending her forward at the waist. “Ehhh-shoo! Kshhhh!”
Unlike some women I’d met, who either sneezed at such a high pitch that dogs would have run away, or who extended the sneeze to make it cute and somehow more “acceptable,” Lynn’s sneezes were on the loud and somewhat masculine side, if sneezes could be said to have a particular gender.
“Hiih-kssh. Ksssh. Kssh!”
“Bless you again.” I wished I could look away from her, but for some reason, the sight of her was kind of hypnotic, the contrast between her delicate features and my handkerchief obscuring most of them compelling me to watch. She was just plain cute like that, kind of alluring somehow.
“Keep it. You might need it again, after all. I don’t really need it back.”
“Oh. Okay.” She regarded it dubiously, but tucked it into the front pocket of her jeans anyway.
“So, you were going to show me some neat little place you know of here in the mall,” I offered, gesturing forward.
sorority sister of mine works at the Beadery Boutique.”
stopped underneath a big, sparkly sign and said, “Here we are.” I looked inside
at rows and rows of plastic bins, each of them filled with beads of particular
colors or shapes. “You can choose your own beads,”
labeled trays were all back at the cash register, and as we got there, the
beautiful, mocha-skinned employee looked at
“And what handsome young thing did you bring with you? Do you have an exclusive on him, or can I borrow him some evening to drape over my arm?” The woman’s enthusiasm was astounding, and I grinned at the idea of being called a “handsome young thing.” Reverse sexism, perhaps, but it was fun.
“Hi, I’m Heather.” She stretched out a slender hand, and I shook it, impressed with the strength of her grip. “I work with pliers and wire every day –I’m stronger than I may look. And you are?”
“Cory.” I wondered at Heather’s ability to cram so many words into the space of a few seconds “We met in her father’s law office. My father’s trying to sue someone who was driving drunk and hit him broadside.”
Heather frowned and shook her head. “I want to go into law to prosecute those
idiots, and other idiots, too, but it’ll take a while.” She looked at
“Birthday. I can never seem to get her anything that’s just right, but she does like necklaces, so maybe this would be a good risk.”
“Oooh, good!” Heather handed me a tray, and explained the store’s system. Each bead had its own price, corresponding to labeled sections of the tray. I was to drop each bead I wanted into its correct tray, and then after I’d made my choices, I could sit in the back of the store and string them up on fishing line, wire, or beading thread.
wandered through the store, boggled at the array of choices, until
“Great.” If she noticed the resemblance, she didn’t mention it. “Now, you’ll want a few more, slightly smaller and less flashy beads for ‘stations,’ and after that, you can fill in with small glass beads of whatever color you think works.”
a guy who hadn’t done anything artistic after leaving sixth-grade art class, I
felt I did pretty well, grabbing assorted round beads in varying shades of
green and blue to complement the dominant colors in the focus bead. When I sat
down with my tray at a table in the back of the store, even Heather
complimented me on my aesthetic sense, and she was even more artistic and
“Great!” Heather enthused over my choices, measuring out sixteen inches of wire for the necklace. “Now, thread your main bead on here, and just remember to add to each side evenly.” She handed me a pair of tiny needle-nosed pliers, indicating that I should give the wire a twist around the main bead. “You don’t want that going anywhere.”
I agreed, and began the delicate task of making sure I was getting each side symmetrical. Five minutes later, I had worked my way halfway up each side, having slid the beads off a few times when I realized I didn’t like the pattern I’d created.
looks so nice, Cory.”
“Bless you,” Heather and I offered in unison, looking across the table at each other as we did so.
“I’b going to go fide a bathroob,” she told us, getting up from the table. Heather and I both watched her exit the store.
“She must be coming down with something,” I explained unnecessarily, and Heather nodded.
guess so.” She frowned, and she fixed me with a dark, imposing stare. “Cory,
you seem like a really nice guy and all, and
The bead I’d been holding fell out of my numb fingers and rolled away across the table, falling off and landing on the floor with a soft tap. “Uhm, yes. Yes, ma’am.” Heather suddenly reminded me of my grandmother, that first time I’d met her, but I doubted Heather was going to lighten up and accept me any time soon.
“Good!” She gave me a Cheshire-cat smile and picked up the bead I’d dropped. “This one goes on the left side.”
I admired Heather’s degree of loyalty to her friend, but her warning also made me wonder yet again what the creep in question – I didn’t even know his name, which was good for him – had done.
minutes later, as Heather was helping me affix the ends of the wire to a nice
“Feeling any better?”
“Some.” She rubbed a tired hand over her face. “I think maybe I’m coming down with something. Could I take a rain check on that Illegally Chocolate you promised?”
I was disappointed that our date, if that’s what it was, seemed to be coming to
an abrupt end, and I felt terrible that
“Sure,” I said, trying to be smooth and cool. “Let me pay for this,” I held up the necklace, “and then I’ll walk you out to your car.”
sounds good to me.”
“You call me, okay? My phone thinks you’ve been stranded on a desert island for ages! It misses you.”
miss it, and you.”
Heather took a small strip of paper with a series of numbers on it up to the register, then started inputting the numbers. “Mmm, looks like twenty-four eighteen with the tax.”
“That’s a bargain for me,” I said, digging a twenty and a five out of my wallet. Heather took the bills from me, opened the cash register, and put them in their respective slots, handing me back change.
“It was nice meeting you, Cory. If you need anything for Mother’s Day, or you want to bring a cute friend around for me, you just stop by. I’ll be here all summer.”
“I’ll do that,” I laughed, thinking that Tom would find Heather almost more than he could handle, and he’d like it that way.
“You two take care, now.” She ushered us out of the store, then waved before going back in.
a great person,” I commented, escorting
“She really is.”
“Say, what lot did you park in? I promised to walk you to your car.”
over in the purple lot.” We headed out in that direction, and in a few minutes,
we were standing next to the dark red
“Yeah, I guess it is.” I swallowed hard, then acted on impulse. “I know I said I wouldn’t touch you unless you said it was okay, but could I give you a hug? You kind of look like you could use one.”
Seizing the opportunity, I collected her into
my arms, careful to keep my embrace light and friendly, casual. Her head came
up to my chin, and I tipped my head down so that I could enjoy the fresh green
apple scent of her hair. The curls were soft and fluffy, and again, I wondered
how all that hair would look streaming past
Before I could think too much
more about that, I felt
“Oh, god, I’m so sorry about
“No need to be sorry. You just get yourself home, drink lots of juice, and call your friendly neighborhood doctor-in-training if you need anything.”
She sank down into the driver’s seat of her car and closed the door, rolling down the window. “Tell your mother happy birthday for me.”
“I’ll do that.” I watched as