I phoned Jen to apprise her of our situation.
"We've set down in Denver. The pilot says we'll be on the ground about an hour before another plane can be made available," I explained, trying to make the conversation a brief one, not knowing how long I could hide the anguish gnawing at my insides, like heartburn, only more painful...
"Oh, my god, what was wrong with the plane you were on?"
"Someone said they saw flames from engine number three but I doubt if he even knows which one is number three."
I was certain she had heard my voice waver and wondered if she was contemplating when to confront me about it. Or was she saying a silent prayer because I was alive? I broke the silence. "Gil wants to know if you'll call Julie and give her the news."
"Of course, I'll do that," my wife of eight years responded without hesitation. As if she had detected nothing out of the ordinary in my voice. I half expected her to ask, "Why doesn't he call her himself? Is he afraid to talk to her?" But Jen said no such thing for which I was thankful. She knew all about the ups and downs in their marriage. Instead, she told me she would check on our ETA and be waiting at the gate when we landed.
"See you soon," I said, anxious to end the call. "Love ya."
"See you soon, take care," she answered and I heard the clicking sound at her end of the line.
She knows, I thought. She fucking well knows.
It was 10 A.M. mountain time so we settled for coffee instead of slugging down a couple of drinks in one of the airport bars. Gil was unusually quiet and that suited me fine. We didn't discuss the night before although he did make a half-hearted attempt to apologize for the 'do not disturb' sign on the door of the hotel room we had shared. I waived him off; telling him it was not an issue, taking some solace knowing he assumed I had spent the night in the downstairs lobby. I was contented to let him continue to think that I had slept in one of the overstuffed chairs with my feet propped up. I knew he wasn't sorry for any discomfort his indiscretion may have caused me.
Gil and I have been working together ten years and know each other pretty well. I've never liked him. I've tolerated his blustery humor and braggart personality but I've never trusted him or counted him as a friend. We are very competitive; he never lets me forget that he has seniority over me in the company. His payroll number is 50 while I am 51 because he accepted the job about four hours before I did. We entered the company as grade level seven and moved up together to level thirteen. He likes knowing we are the same level because it makes him feel superior, being two years younger than me. I like having my level expressed as a number because that's how I relate to things, numerically.
After the second cup of coffee Gil said he needed to use the men's room and I volunteered to watch our carry-on luggage while he went. I believe he resented my being along on the trip and I couldn't say I blamed him. San Francisco was his territory; I was the intruder. I would have felt the same way if he had been ordered to tag along to a city east of the Mississippi River. But getting the Pan Indio, Inc. deal was important to our company and when Fritz told me to go I didn't argue that it would hurt Gil's feelings; I went. We wowed them and got the order.
It had been my input that sealed the deal and it was me who received the pats on the back when we shook hands at the end of the day, while Gil sulked. The S F office manager invited the Pan Indio people to have dinner with us. Naturally, most of them declined his offer. Gil's mood improved when one young lady from their side accepted the offer. He winked at me like he already knew he had this one in the bag, or the sack as it were.
We boarded the last leg of our flight and although our shoulders were only inches apart, our thoughts were distant. I suspected he was savoring his conquest of the previous night. I wondered how he could fall asleep, guilt free, while I was wide awake, contemplating the questions Jen was sure to present and how to best answer them. She would be hurt; there was no way of avoiding that. My only hope was to minimize the damage if possible.
Jan loves to tell people that we met on a double blind date. A mutual friend set it up. Blind dates had never worked out for me before but Sofia was very persistent. She wanted me to meet Gloria who, like me, was new in town and like me, was a frequent visitor at the coffee house where Sofia entertained.
But there were conditions. Gloria was not a fan of blind dates either and refused to meet me unless it was during daylight hours and in a public location. I never did learn if there was a bad experience in her past, a stalker perhaps that fueled her cautious nature.
Sofia said she knew another girl who was also new in town and charged me with the task of bringing an eligible male to make it a foursome. While this pacified Gloria it presented a problem for me. The only single guy I knew was Gil and I had to beg him to go because he claimed to have all the sure-things he could handle. That was Gil for you. We had been in town the same length of time and the only new friend I had made was Sofia, a fifty-something year old vocalist. According to Gil he had a stable full of fillies.
It was a Saturday afternoon near the end of March 1996. We were to meet at an ice skating rink of all places. As we approached the two girls huddled next to the railing surrounding the ice Gil said he would take the tall one. I didn't argue with him because I could tell by Sofia's description that the vivacious little creature with a dimple in her left cheek was Gloria, my date.
We shook hands and were soon laughing and talking like old friends while cautiously revealing little things about ourselves. The four of us had a few things in common; we were new in town and three of us had met Sofia by accident, or was it destiny? Oh, I guess we all shared a fondness for the relaxed atmosphere that the coffee house offered and the jazz, folk, blues or whatever slots that the songs Sofia wrote and sang fit into.
"What shall we do? Anyone got any ideas?" I was becoming bored with the small talk and wanted to go someplace else. The ice made me feel cold.
Gloria shot a look at me that said, "you idiot." We watched as she unzipped a patent leather case to expose the chrome plated blades on a pair of ice skates.
"I thought we were going to meet here and decide what to do," I said, making me sound even more foolish. Sofia had picked the place for its convenience, saying it was central to where we all lived and met the 'public location' requirement.
It was apparent that Gloria intended to skate that day. Gil suggested that we could rent skates.
"You guys go ahead. I'm not keen on using rented skates," the taller girl named Jennifer said, including me in the 'you guys, ' grouping. This seemed to be agreeable to Gil and Gloria.
"I'll watch too," I offered. Rented skates did not appeal to me either. Especially since I've never even attempted to ice skate was the overriding reason that I was glad to have an excuse not to embarrass myself on the ice.
Jennifer looked indifferent but the others were relieved that she would not be left alone.
Without further coaxing Gil and Gloria headed for the entrance gate while Jennifer and I stood motionless, both confused as to how we would get through the next hour or longer. How long does an ice skating session last? What if she got bored and decided to leave? We watched Gil pay for my date's admission to the rink and I wondered if he would expect me to reimburse him.
"Would you like a hot chocolate?"
Jen leaned towards me, a characteristic I've always adored about her, and nodded. The way she does it is so personal, like she has something confidential for my ears only. It makes be feel special because I've never seen her lean towards anyone else. We can be at a crowded party or alone together in a room. She leans in. I headed for the concession stand and was surprised to see her tagging along. At least she wasn't leaving.
"What's funny?" She must have seen me grin when I thought of something. I answered truthfully; a practice started that day that we've kept throughout our years together. We've always expected and accepted complete honesty between us. I've never made up a story or lied to her and I doubt she is capable of lying to me.
"Gil paid for Gloria's skating and I'm buying you hot chocolate. I was just wondering if that would be a fair tradeoff," I explained.
She laughed and that broke the awkwardness that we both felt about spending the next hour or more with a stranger. We sat on bleacher seats and watched our dates enter the rink, Gloria first with Gil close behind. It was evident they were experienced skaters. They had shed their parkas and were dressed appropriately. Gloria's outfit was a white sweater and a short pleated skirt. Gil was wearing dark slacks and a colorful ski sweater.
"They're good," Jennifer acknowledged when they turned the first corner and Gil took Gloria's hand. And when they passed by us Jennifer shouted, "You're both good!" They waved and smiled at us.
"I can't skate for shit," Jennifer admitted, and then blushed when she realized how she had put it.
"I can't either," I said, trying to reassure her that her language did not shock me.
We sipped our drinks and watched the skaters. Gloria was skating backwards, in front of Gil who was acting as her eyes, giving warnings when she was in danger of colliding with another skater or the railing that surrounded the rink.
.... There is more of this story ...