You Can’t Win If You Don’t Play
By Karin Kallmaker
“Excuse me? What did you say?”
The world had stopped. I know that sounds really strange, but it had. Drew’s lips were slightly parted, not quite forming the one word that was going to change everything. She’d already said it once, but had been drowned out by a shout from the bar. Someone had scored a goal or something, and so my future was hanging suspended in time.
The world had indeed stopped. It was the only way to explain how I could be beyond breathing, surrounded by stars, yet in front of me there was an ordinary café table, set for two. I wasn’t breathing but I could smell the roasted garlic, the parmesan chips, even the sharp prickle of citrus from the oranges, cut in the shape of hearts. The noise from the bar had subsided, and I seemed to have an eternity to look around me, and take in every detail.
My gaze flicked from Drew’s mouth to the salad that had been delivered a scant thirty seconds ago. We had both declined additional pepper, and once the waiter was out of earshot, I’d blurted out the question that had been hammering inside me for the last six months.
See, I knew when we met I’d ask, because I knew when we met that I’d won the lottery, the Irish sweepstakes, a ticket to paradise. I’d already been down the Internet friendship, flirting, maybe-we-should-finally-meet road twice before. Both times, when I’d finally met the other women, I’d looked at them and seen mere strangers. When Drew had suggested we finally meet, there had been no way to refuse though, honestly, I had wanted to put it off for as long as possible. Being face-to-face would take things to a new level, and if it didn’t work out, I would lose someone I really enjoyed having as a friend, as a confidant, someone who listened as much as she talked.
Does anyone have so many friends they can risk one on the unlikely chance of winning something more? I didn’t. But how could I say, “No, I don’t want to meet you, because you might not be the person I think you are, and the person I think you are is too dear to me to lose”? Or, “I care too much to risk caring more”? I’d agreed to meet, trying to console myself with a platitude from my mother: You can’t win if you don’t play.
We met in the parking lot of what Drew called “Restaurant Generica.” The asphalt was lumpy and the stench of diesel mixed with sautéed onions. She was wearing neatly tailored black slacks and a deep green blouse, the same one she was wearing now. Her eyes were blue, like a deep lake when the sun comes out and the wind lightly ripples the surface.
I took one look and I knew her. I knew it was Drew, my friend, who had listened when I bellyached about my job, about the ex, about anything that was bothering me. I hoped I listened half so well as she did. I did know that she didn’t like mushrooms and cried over dog-rescues-toddler stories. I knew she used to be blond, and every six weeks nature got a little help, and sometimes the results were vexing. I knew there was a tattoo only five people had ever seen—and that included the tattoo artist. I knew what that little diamond on her inner thigh meant, knew the hard knocks she’d not just survived, but trumped by being happy, and whole.
I knew she LOL’d easily, but as I walked toward her I heard her laugh for the first time. I could say it sounded like angels’ bells or nightingales singing, but who would believe me?
Then she said, “Maureen.”
I wanted to hear her say it again, over and over, with that touch of wonder and recognition.
So, I did what anyone would do, walking across a smelly parking lot in no place special, realizing that they’d been in love for quite some time with a possibility and had just fallen in love all over again with the real thing.
I kissed her.
The best part was she kissed me back. Then we sort of moved apart, and stood there, goofy and tongue-tied, until she cleared her throat and gestured at the restaurant. “Time for a bite?”
With an opening like that, there were a dozen flirty things I could have said, but I realized in one of those flashes like a sunbeam in a mirror, that I didn’t want to flirt with this woman. I wanted to court her.
I tried to channel Cary Grant. Made sure she wasn’t in a draft before I pulled out her chair for her. I quickly helped pick up the contents of her purse, and scrubbed it free of my shoe print. Ordered wine, topped off her glass, mopped up the spill before it ran into her lap. But let’s face facts. I’m not the Cary Grant type; if I’d had an Adam’s apple it would have been bobbing nonstop. It felt as if my eyes bugged out every time I swallowed and my voice warbled like the first contestant to bite the dust on American Idol.
Something about her makes my throat tight, as if all the energy in me coils inward to an impossible tension, and I hold it in because it is so shouting huge that releasing it would frighten or damage her.
On our third date, I let it out. And it didn’t scare her at all. She seemed, actually, to like it.
The world was still stopped. Her lips were still barely parted. We were at the very same Restaurant Generica—our place. She wore the same blouse, but the necklace I’d given her for her birthday now gleamed at the notch in her collarbone. In my bag was a box with matching earrings as a Valentine’s gift—and another box, too. It depended on what she’d said, the word I’d missed, if I pulled out the other box as well.
Our waiter, Lance, was poised with two martinis for the next table. One glass had two olives, the other just one. To my left a guy was gesturing with his fork as he continued his sonorous monologue about his work day, and his girlfriend’s eyes were steadfastly on her plate, leaving me to send her subliminal “Leave him now, he won’t change” messages. Her hair was a soft brunette, and both hands were free of rings. She didn’t seem to care for her spinach salad. Beyond her, three teenagers were wide-eyed at the arrival of their burgers.
Clear like a digital photograph, every detail of the moment was burning into my brain where I would always remember it. Yet the truth was, I knew, that I would forget it all, because the next moment would erase this one.
If I had the will, I could make time move again, but I didn’t want it to. I was scared, and cold, and I had no strength to breathe, yet my heart was pounding. It had been a long time, since Kuwait, that I’d felt so naked and vulnerable that I feared dying in the next two seconds. Drew was so lovely, so wanted, that a harsh word would leave me an empty shell with no heart or soul left that mattered. I would not be able to bear it if she said anything like, “It’s not you, it’s me.” Or, “But we can still be friends.”
In the vacuum that seemed to be surrounding my head I was trying to roll back the previous few seconds, screen out the distracting noises and find out what she’d said. Then, if it was bad, I could stop her from saying it again, and we could pretend I’d asked no question, and so she’d never given an answer.
My brain wouldn’t back up. I had a choice of staying frozen, not knowing, or relaxing my grip on time.
Maybe I would stay right here, then. Maybe it was better not knowing, better if I just didn’t take the chance. Besides, I seemed able to call up all the memories of our dating, all of which were good, even when she had forgotten I was allergic to cilantro and I had arrived twenty-four hours early for a concert date. Recalling the ways we’d found to pass the time until the show started still gave me the shivers.
And then there was the first time I’d woken up with her body next to mine. It had been a moment like no other in my life, and the scent of her hair and the sheets had gone veins-deep into me. I had feared that if she opened her eyes she would see all those mushy, fanciful thoughts in mine, and find me foolish, hopelessly romantic, a five-stanza poem in a Twitter world.
She’d opened her eyes, looked at me and said nothing, but I watched tears build. Eyes red and full, she’d gently tousled my hair, which had formed its nightly Mohawk. Brave, with her make-up smudged from the pillows and lovemaking, she’d said, “I love you.”
The thought of how brave she had been that morning unstuck time. Plates clattered, the fork guy coughed, and my lungs finally filled with air.
Her parted lips formed her crooked, teasing smile. “What do you think I said?”
The overhead lights made her eyes shimmer, and she showed no signs of horror or dismay. She wasn’t bolting for the door. Her cheeks, actually, were flushed with a blooming red I recognized as deep pleasure.
Maybe I’m not Cary Grant, and maybe I stumbled a little getting out of my chair, and even though I was breathing again I was on the verge of fainting. Maybe I did have to go back to my bag for the box—not the earrings, the little red velvet box, and maybe getting down on one knee was more difficult than I’d anticipated.
I still did it. My hammering heart made my voice break. “I think you said yes.”
“I’m sorry.” The way she gazed down at me made me feel like a brand new bike on Christmas morning. “What was the question?”
I opened the box, was dazzled again by the gold band and chips of emerald. “Will you marry me?”
She said it. That word. I heard it with my heart before my ears really took it in. I had no need of winning numbers, not now, because there was nothing more to win than a life with her.
Yes, she said yes.
Karin Kallmaker’s many novels include Wild Things and The Kiss that Counted. This month, Bella Books is re-releasing her romantic science-fiction story The Dawning, which was originally released under the name Laura Adams. Her next romance novel is Warming Trend, due from Bella in April. Excerpts and more information are available at her website: www.kallmaker.com