By Michael Pellegrin i
By Michael Pellegrin
The headlights of on-coming traffic reflected off glistening pools of rainwater on the road in front of us. The puddles emptied in an instant with a splash, and the brilliant lights of a passing car flashed through the windows, briefly showing Paula's face.
Her profile was etched in my mind.
She was quite beautiful. She had an oval-shaped face with high cheekbones, framed by cascading locks of tightly curled brown hair that fell down over her shoulders. Full lips and perfect teeth, her almond-shaped, dark-brown eyes had an exotic, almost oriental look sometimes. She could easily have been a model on the cover of Vogue.
The slap-slap of the windshield wipers rode over the sound of the stereo playing down low, as I desperately tried to think of something to say.
I'd been strongly attracted to Paula for as long as I could remember. There’d even been a few times when I wondered if maybe I was falling in love.
Sadly, I had never been able to summons the courage to actually ask her out, much less anything else. She was just too perfect. Too smart, too pretty, too competent, too talented – too everything. When it came right down to it, I guess I was a little scared of her. I just couldn't quite bring myself to say the words.
Adding insult to injury, the things I did manage to do and say served only to widen the gap between us. It was almost like a tragic comedy, with my foot in mouth. So, seemingly unable to do anything about it, we had drifted apart, and nothing had ever developed between us.
I'd gotten over my infatuation, more or less, although just talking with her for a few minutes would often easily revive it. Unwilling to continue reliving the past, I'd eventually developed the strategy of avoiding her.
Before that phase, I'd often thought of what I would say to her if the time was right, to try to set things straight – and get us back on that blissful road to togetherness. I'd actually rehearsed the speech to myself, over and over and over – but somehow, the time never came.
And now when I actually thought about it, mostly I felt angry at myself for being such a wimp, and not having found the courage to even just ask her out. But adding to my dissatisfaction was also the fact that our budding friendship had ended on a rather sour note because of my inept, bungling stupidity. And about that, I felt quite badly.
The bottom line was that I'd screwed everything up royally, and there was no way to rationalize a different conclusion. No way.
Lights flashed through the windows again and I could see she was frowning.
As I began to clear my throat, she spoke.
"Uh, are you sure I can't give you some gas money or something, Rich?" she asked awkwardly, her voice tentative. She looked uncomfortable, sitting ramrod straight in the seat, her hands clutched in front of her, in her lap.
Relieved that she'd opened the conversation, I turned my eyes back on the road and answered, "Naw, don't worry about it, man." Shaking my head, I went on in a low voice, "It ain't no big deal, Paula."
She stared at me, eyes wide. "You're sure?"
Dying a thousand deaths but outwardly calm, I nodded. "Yeah. I'm sure." I stared out at the road in front of us for a moment collecting my thoughts, and then smiled and said, "Ya know, you're just lucky I was hungry for Mexican tonight. I mean that's the first time I been to El Toro in months. And what's the likelihood we'd both be at the same restaurant, and then go to leave at more or less the same time? It's nuts!"
Looking nervous, she gave a fleeting smile and nodded her head.
We passed through the lights at Sixth Avenue and I signaled to turn left onto Highway Sixteen. The next light turned red and we stopped just before the freeway on-ramp.
Ending the unbearable silence, I played my conversational trump card, and asked casually, "Uh, so how long's your clutch been slipping?"
Shaking her head, frowning, she said, "Oh, I dunno. A couple weeks, I guess."
"Really? You shoulda parked it before it broke."
"I couldn't. I don't have any other car."
"Yeah. Anyway, it wasn't very bad until the last day or two. Then tonight when I tried to leave the restaurant, the truck wouldn't go at all. It's never done that before."
I nodded. "Huh. Well, it's probably just the pressure plate. If something's gotta break, that's not too bad." The light changed and I accelerated up the ramp onto the freeway. Grasping at straws to keep the flow of conversation going, I asked lamely, "Uh, so what on earth were you doing up in the North End?"
Staring out at the sea of red tail-lights on the freeway in front of us, she hesitated a couple seconds, then shrugged and said, "Nothing. I just had a couple drinks with Janet and Deb."
"Huh. Must've missed 'em. Where were you guys, anyway? In the lounge?"
"Yeah. They left maybe fifteen minutes before I met you. They had to meet someone downtown. I stayed to finish my drink."
Over the initial shock of meeting her, I finally felt more or less calm. Forgetting my inhibitions, I smiled warmly and said, "Well, you really are lucky, ya know. I damn near didn't stop when I was leaving. I mean, it did look like your truck, but I didn't figure there'd be any way you'd be at El Toro."
Her eyes widened slightly, and she nodded her head. "Yeah, I was pretty surprised to see you show up, too." Seeming a little more relaxed herself, she smiled and went on, "Thanks for stopping, Rich. I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't."
I concentrated on driving as I weaved around a semi-truck, and then said cautiously, "Musta been two three months since I saw you last. Don't see you much at work anymore, since you got promoted." I cast about trying to think of ways to keep the conversation going, and finally asked, "So, how's your dad?"
A neutral expression on her face, she stared at me for a second, and then answered, "Good. His leg still bothers him a bit, but the doctors say it'll be okay."
"That's good. I'm sure he'll be all right. Did he ever find an attorney to represent him?"
A look of annoyance flashed over her face. "No. The only ones we found wanted cash up-front, and that didn't seem right. So, eventually, we gave up."
"Hmm. That's too bad. I really think he did have a good case. Huh. Uh, so what about your girls?"
"They're fine. We just got over a cold, but you know how that is. Traci'll get it first, from someone at school, and then just as she's about over it, Keegan'll come down with it, then finally I end up getting it and it goes into my sinuses. God, it makes me crazy." She drew a deep breath and stretched, and then asked, "So what about your guys?"
"Great. They're doing really good in school – B averages, both of 'em. Still helping out around the house. They really are good kids. I'm very proud of them."
Another pregnant pause followed. I took my truck off on the exit for southbound Interstate Five. Paula continued to stare out the window.
The ensuing silence allowed my insecurities to resurface with a vengeance, and at once I was cursing my bad luck at running into her.
Why reopen old wounds? I thought bitterly, staring out at the road.
I should have taken the coward's way out and pretended not to see her. Just driven by and looked the other way. She probably never would have even noticed. Right?
But ... But I did stop, and now here she is. Just one look at her beautiful face, and I can’t get my mind off her.
And I’m trapped. Oh, sweet Jesus, trapped like a goddamn drowning rat! So, what am I gonna do about it? Just sit here with my mouth shut? God I feel so fucking stupid! Say something, you moron! Say something now, you coward, while you’ve got the chance!
I thought furiously, the thoughts going round and round in a circular fashion, but finally after what seemed like an eternity, a small ray of light broke through and began to glimmer at the end of the long, dark tunnel.
Couldn't this possibly be a defining moment in my life? I wondered. Wasn't it possible that this was the precise exact opportunity I had waited for? Was this the chance I’d been looking for?
The ideas and arguments bounced back and forth painfully as I tried to build my courage.
Finally, as we were passing the Tacoma Mall, I decided to say to hell with it, and threw caution to the wind.
"Hey, Paula? Look, there's something I've wanted to say to you for a long time." I could feel her tense up. Before I lost my nerve, I quickly went on, "I wanna apologize for teasing you, making fun of you and whatnot last summer. I know I hurt you, and hurt your feelings, but ya gotta understand, that wasn't what I wanted."
I could see her staring at me in the dim light of the dashboard lamps. Her eyes were narrowed and there was a frown on her face.
"Yeah, right," she said at last, the words dripping with sarcasm. Then finally, after a few more moments, she shrugged and shook her head, and with an off-hand manner, said, "Look, it doesn't matter. It's no big deal."
I drew a deep breath, then exhaling, plunged on with my speech.
"To me, it's a big deal. Honest to God, I wasn't doing it to be mean. I want you to know that. I guess I'm kinda perverse, because I only tease the people I like. And I do like you – a helluva lot."
"That's a strange way of showing it," she said frostily.
"Yeah, I know. Like I said, I guess I'm kinda perverse."
Passing a big truck, our windshield was drenched, so I turned the wipers on high as I peered out at the road. Paula was silent, so I continued, "Look, I really am sorry, man. I just kinda got caught up in it, with all the other guys. It's like you're an easy mark 'cause you're so gawdawful straight – but don't get me wrong – the fact that you're really straight is one of the things I most admire about you. Anyway...” I let out a breath slowly, and then went on, "Anyway, I guess it got to be kinda a competition with the others to see how badly I could embarrass you or gross you out or whatever. Yeah, really stupid, I know. But ... but I never realized you weren't playing along until you stopped hanging out with me. And by then, it was too late to do anything about it." I sneaked a look at her.
Her eyes narrowed and she stared back at me for a few seconds. Looking away, she said stiffly, "I thought you were mad at me because of my promotion."
This was almost more than I had hoped for. Relieved at her reaction, I shook my head. "Naw, no way, man. You been there longer than me. And you're a helluva good worker. You deserved it." She tilted her head, still staring out at the road, and I continued softly, "Man, if I'd had any idea at all that what I was doing was hurting you, I'd a stopped in a heartbeat. The last thing I ever wanted to do was to hurt you." I paused for a second, turning the wipers back to low, and then went on, "I've always liked mindgames. It's a mental exercise. The proper response for something like that is to escalate, come back with something even grosser." I paused for a second again, then went on, "I'm not gonna promise I won't ever tease you again, but please – please – if I start to get out of hand, slap me up-side the head or something before I hurt your feelings. You let me know I'm on dangerous ground and I'll stop right away, okay? Promise me? Please?" I glanced over at her.
She stared blankly at me for several seconds, and then finally, she shrugged and slowly nodded. "Okay." She paused for another moment, and then with a slight smile, said, "Thanks, Rich. Thanks for telling me."
I could have melted into my seat from that smile. Treading carefully, I said, "I had to. I felt really bad about it, having you thinking I was an asshole when I'm not."
"I never thought you were an asshole," she said primly.
"Huh. Well I can see how it woulda looked that way."
"No. It didn't, really."
"Yeah." She nodded, and then shifted in her seat crossing her legs. She sat there silent.
Briefly reflecting on my good fortune and what she had said, I gazed out at the mass of red tail-lights trailing out down the freeway in front of us.
After a few moments, she looked back at me and shrugged, and then said in a conciliatory tone, "I dunno, Rich. Basically you're a nice guy. I guess mostly, I was just really confused by what you did. It seemed like you were a major schizo or something. One minute you were nice, and the next minute you were making fun of me. I didn't understand. Maybe I'm a little dense."
"No, I'm the one who's dense. I should have figured out you weren't into it, and then stopped." I paused for a moment thinking, wondering how far I dared to go. I decided on an oblique approach. Cautiously, I asked, "Hey, uh ... uh, you think maybe we can start over?"
She tilted her head again, as if appraising me, then after a second asked quietly, "If we never started anything in the first place, how can we start over, now?
I shook my head. "No. No, what I mean, is I wonder if we could start with a clean slate. Pretend none of this happened."
Eyes narrowed, she asked, "Why?"
I thought furiously for a couple seconds, and then carefully choosing my words, I answered, "Well, there was quite a bit of chemistry between us at first. I think maybe you might have noticed that?"
She shook her head, and said tonelessly, "Chemistry? What do you mean?"
I was dying again. I glanced over at her. In the dim light I could see she was frowning. Focusing back on the traffic in front of us, and vanquishing my negative thoughts, I said boldly, "I think you know exactly what I mean. We were in tune, we clicked. I mean, Jesus, you even laughed at all my jokes."
She shrugged, and then said coyly, "Okay, so there was some chemistry. I agree there was. But what's that got to do with starting over? Like I said, if we never had anything going in the first place, how could we start over?"
She seemed to be enjoying this. I figured I owed her, but even so I was mildly annoyed that she was deliberately being so obtuse. Putting that aside, I thought about how to phrase what I wanted to say.
Finally after a few seconds, I decided on the bare truth and said shyly, "I dunno. I guess the bottom line is that I like you a helluva lot, and I wanna see where that could go."
In my peripheral vision, I could see her slowly shaking her head in the dim light. She was playing with a lock of her hair, the strands wound around one of her fingers. Looking off at the side of the freeway, she said softly, "I don't see why anyone would be interested in me."
I decided to go for the gusto. "Oh hell no, Paula. Why on earth would I be interested in a woman who's smart, beautiful, talented, and not to mention nice? Naw, that's a combination that'd turn anyone off."
As if in disbelief, she laughed curtly, then said in a low voice, "Yeah, right." The lock of hair slipped from her fingers.
"Look, one of your other qualities I most admire is that you’re not egotistical, but I gotta tell ya, sometimes you take it a little too far. Really. Ya gotta give yourself the credit you deserve. I mean you've got more on the ball than any other six women I know. Really and truly."
Another curt laugh. "Right." Slowly, she began twisting another lock of hair around her finger.
"No, for real. Look, let's take it from the top." Before she could get a word out, I rushed on, "Okay, you're smart as all get out. No denying it. I mean, I've been around you long enough to be able to judge this. You've got, what? Five years of college? Professional student, you called yourself once. Changed your major how many times? Five, wasn't it? That makes you out as a little unfocused, I guess. But it doesn't matter. Whatever ... You're very analytical, you're exceptionally curious and introspective. You've got a helluva vocabulary when you want to." I paused for a second, shaking my head and chuckling softly, and then continued, "I'm telling ya, some of the weird, intellectual conversations we had last year were real mind-blowers – the ground we covered. I mean, Jesus, over the course of just a couple conversations, I got to know you better than I know some people I've hung out with for years." Smiling, I paused, and then went on, "Yeah, you're smart as hell. Really and truly, the depth of your intellect blows me away. Although you do seem to mask it usually – I s'pose you do that's so the people around you don't feel uncomfortable – you bring yourself down to their level. But what the hell. Anyway, let's see, what else?" I signaled and moved into the right lane, ready to exit onto Highway 512.
She was silent, so I shook my head and went on, "You are quite beautiful. And I mean that in the classical sense. You could be a model, easy."
Sitting beside me, she stuck her finger down her throat and made gagging sounds.
Laughing to myself, I took the truck off on the exit. Shaking my head, I said, "Right. Honest to God, Paula, you are beautiful. And if you don't believe me, we'll ask the people at work. Make a survey if you like."
"You do wanna die, don't you?" She said softly. I thought I could hear the trace of a smile in her voice.
I merged into traffic going eastbound onto Highway 512, then went on, "Uh huh. Right. Whatever. Look, you are beautiful, by all normal standards and conceptions. You have all the right attributes, whether you like it or accept it. But beyond that, it's as much your attitude as anything – the way you carry yourself, the way you interact with others."
"Obviously, you're out of your mind." Eyes downcast, she twirled the strands of hair around her fingers.
"For sure, for sure. Everyone says so, so it must be true." I took another breath, then said, "Plus, you're talented. How many instruments do you play? Eight?" I could see her nodding in my peripheral vision and went on, "I haven't heard you play piano but I'm willing to bet you're pretty damn good. Probably write music too, huh?"
"Yes," she answered softly.
"I wanna hear some of it soon. Either you give me a tape or you can invite me over so I can listen to you play, okay?" I looked over at her.
She released the strands of hair. A ghost of a smile on her full lips, she stared into my eyes and nodded. "Okay."
"And I'll bet you probably paint or draw. Do you?"
She looked surprised. "Yes, I do. How did you know?"
I shrugged. "Just a guess. You are quite talented. The fact you play so many different instruments shows that. It's not unusual for artistic people to have lots of different interests, in different disciplines."
She smiled warmly. "Thank you."
I nodded my head towards her, approximating a bow, and went on, "And hey, I've got a bone to pick with you."
"You remember you told me you'd decided you weren't creative, but that your purpose was to fix existing things?" She nodded and I continued, "Well that's just another example of you selling yourself short. And I'm willing to put money on it. I mean if nothing else, the fact that you write music and paint shows you're creative. You really do sell yourself short."
She just smiled and shook her head.
I was on a roll, so I pressed on. "Anyway, lessee. Smart, beautiful, talented." I paused for a second, then went on, "Oh, yeah, courageous. I forgot that one at first." She looked puzzled and I explained, "That pay grievance thing. I come around that day saying I wanted to file a grievance – ninety-nine percent of the people split right away, like they were scared to even talk about filing, even though they all got screwed. Now you, it was like you didn't even have to think about it. 'A grievance? Sure. Where do I sign?' Now that is really cool. Really and truly. It shows you have the balls to stand up for your convictions. I admire that."
"Thanks Rich," she said in a serious tone.
I glanced at her and smiled, then went on, "And plus, like I said at the beginning, you're nice. Honest to God, old-fashioned nice. Polite, courteous, respectful of others feelings. Your dad brought you up right. I really think being nice is an under-rated virtue. I believe it's very important."
Shaking her head slowly, she asked, "Rich, if you felt like this, why didn't you ask me out?" She stared at me with a level gaze.
Embarrassed, I shrugged and looked away, staring back out at the road. I could feel her still watching me. After a few moments, I shrugged again, and said, "Oh, I dunno. I guess I never felt the time was right. Not a lot of privacy at work – I don't like working in front of an audience.” I looked back at her and continued, “And also, I remember this lady who once said,” I went on in falsetto, "'Oh, I could never ask a guy out. What if he said no? I'd die!'" Then in a normal voice, "You wouldn't recall ever hearing that would you, huh? Huh? So what makes you think I feel any different?"
Smiling, she nodded. "Yeah, I suppose I understand." She lowered her head. A few moments later, after clearing her throat, she said in a small voice, "I uh ... I ... probably wouldn't have turned you down."
She shrugged and gave a fleeting smile, then looking a little embarrassed, stared down at her hands.
Reaching across the seat, I gently touched her arm. "You probably wouldn't have turned me down?"
She raised her eyes and looking at me, said softly, "I always have liked you, Rich. I respect what you're doing with your kids, raising them by yourself. Most men wouldn't even consider trying something like that. It takes a lot of guts."
"You're welcome." She fidgeted for a moment, twirling another strand of hair around her fingers. Then she said, "You really are a strange guy, Rich. You have so many different facets. You're very complex. You never let anything get to you. You're smart, you're hardworking, you're really persistent and well centered. You're very adaptable." She laughed curtly, and then went on, "You're just as at home dealing with low-life scum, as you are working with management and the suits."
I laughed. "Most management types I've met are low-life scum."
She smiled. "Right. What I mean is that you are able to adapt to your surroundings and get by in pretty much any environment. I admire that."
She hesitated for a few moments, and then lowering her brown eyes, said softly, "I really was pretty crushed by what happened, what you did."
"What do you mean?" I asked, eyes on the dark road.
She shrugged and started to speak, but stopped before she got a word out. The Canyon Road exit was coming up, so I signaled and went off on the exit. Looking over at her as the truck slowed down, she shrugged again and said shyly, "I gave you all sorts of opportunities to ask me out, but you never did. That was really discouraging. But then when all you guys started teasing me, I couldn't handle it."
"God, I really am sorry, Paula," I said quickly, as the truck came to a stop. I turned left onto Canyon and accelerated.
"I know," she said. "And thank you. But at the time, what with my promotion coming right then, I was sure you were mad at me because of it."
"Not even close. Ya know, it's a trip, 'cause for a while, it's like I thought you figured you were too good to hang around with me after you got promoted. God, I was really stupid."
We passed through the light at 104th Street. I asked, "Oh, hey? Where are we going, anyway? Like I know you live somewhere around here, but that's all. Where do we turn?"
"Take a right on 98th."
She turned towards the side window and stared out at the black night as she leaned against the door, her chin resting on her fist.
I glanced at her and asked, "Something the matter?"
She shook her head and was silent.
Focusing back at the road, I signaled, and then turned right onto 98th Street. I accelerated slowly, swerving around a couple large potholes.
She was still staring silently at the dark road when I looked back at her. I touched her arm gently, and asked, "Paula?"
She shivered, then put her fingers over mine, saying nothing.
"C’mon, talk to me. What’s up?"
I saw a wide spot in the road ahead, so slowing down, I pulled off on the shoulder and stopped just short of a double-row of mailboxes. I put the truck in park, and turned on the dome light so I could see her. Turning back towards her, I ran my knuckles lightly over the back of her hand. “C’mon. Something’s on your mind. Is everything okay?”
She smiled, shaking her head. "Oh, it’s nothing. It’s just… No, I've just been thinking how silly all this is. I mean ... I mean the way men and women seem to dance around the truth with each other." Shaking her head, she gripped my hand tightly and went on, "I’ve been thinking how absurd it is that two people can feel strongly about each other and still not be able to say anything. All because they're afraid of getting their feelings hurt. Afraid of taking a chance."
I nodded. "Yeah, you're right. It is a trip." Feeling a warm, rosy inner glow, I paused for a second thinking over what she'd said, then asked, "You say you feel strongly about me?"
Blushing deeply, she smiled and squeezed my hand. "Yes. I really do like you a lot, Rich. I just wish I could have told you a long time ago."
Trying to hide my elation, I shrugged. "What the hell. Better late than never, huh?” I continued to stare for a few moments, and then asked, “You're willing to take a chance, now?”
She nodded slowly. "Yes, I am." A wide smile on her face, she stared into my eyes.
Returning her gaze, I took a deep breath, and then let it out slowly. "Good. Because if that's the case, then maybe we do have a future together."
Grasping my hand firmly between hers, she leaned a little closer, and asked coyly, "Together?"
I nodded my head, smiling back at her. "Yeah, together.” I returned the pressure on her hands. Transfixed, gazing into her beautiful, dark brown eyes, I went on, “Hey, uh …” I let out another big breath, and then plunged on, “Hey I was just, uh … thinking maybe we could go out for dinner tomorrow night after work? Have a couple drinks, maybe dance a little. Talk a little more, too."
She beamed back at me. "I’d like that. I’d like that a lot."
I nodded, squeezing her hands. "Me too.” I paused for a moment, drinking in the sight of her beautiful face, and then continued softly, “It’s like I said at the get-go, I wanna see where this takes us."
A wide smile on her face, she stared at me for several seconds, and then nodded. "Me three," she said, almost in a whisper. She paused for a moment, wiping what might have been a tear from the corner of her eye, and then laughed, shaking her head, looking embarrassed.
Still smiling, she squeezed my hand and said, "Uh, say, uh ... uh, we passed my driveway about a quarter mile back. Wanna turn around?"
"Okay." I clicked off the dome light, put the truck in gear and made a U-turn.
As we pulled back on the road, she cleared her throat, and then said, "You oughta come inside and say hi to my dad. I think he should be back by now."
I glanced over at her and smiled. "I'd like that."
She rubbed my hand with hers, and said, "You know, my dad likes you. He told me you were a polite young man."
"Yup. Okay, see the mailbox on the left, the white one? Turn there, right in-between the two blue reflectors."
Feeling giddy, intoxicated with the touch of her hand on mine, I turned the truck off the road onto the long, narrow driveway. Glancing side-long at her, I said softly, "You know Paula, I think we're both gonna like this. I think this may be the beginning of something good."
Smiling, she nodded and gripped my hand tightly.
The truck shuddered and bounced, wobbling side-to-side as we slowly drove down the long, rutted driveway. A large, dark-colored dog ran out to greet us, jumping up, dancing on its hind legs and barking loudly as we drove by. The wispy, bare branches of a young alder tree bending gently with the cold winter wind, scraped against the cab of the truck as we passed. And I smiled, returning the pressure on Paula's hand.