Based on the short story:
Lost Days Make for Memories and Souvenirs
My name is Marci. I work as a project manager for a small manufacturing firm. I travel as part of my job, though thankfully that requirement is not a large part of my job. Mostly I travel alone, though sometimes I do it in the company of my boss Marty, or one of my coworkers. Like most females, I don't like to travel alone, and for obvious reasons. There is the loneliness factor, of course, and the fact that I'm a single woman, unescorted, and therefore "fair game" for just about anyone. And of course it's not like I can walk into a bar and not become the instant (if sometimes fleeting), center of attraction. Restaurants are almost as bad. Shopping even has its issues. I don't know why men always peg you as out of state and hit on you like an unexpected but tantalizing species of fish found in their pond. It is so aggravating. Therefore, I make a point of not shopping, not going to bars, staying away from TGI Fridays and Red Lobster, (Applebee's is OK), and picking up any alcohol I want to drink at a 7-11 to take back to my room. And I never, ever stay at a cheap motel. Not even if I have to pick up the difference in price myself. And I stay out of hotel bars.
My latest adventure took me to Charleston, West Virginia. Charleston is the capital city of West Virginia, population 51,400, and home to one of my most difficult customers; hence, the visit. I booked my own room at the Holiday Inn, Charleston House, downtown. It was snowing when I flew out, and snowing, much harder, when I flew in. The drive from the airport to the motel took over an hour and left me wondering, quite irritably, why I was there. It was mid-January and mid-January is twice as miserable in Charleston as it is at home. I didn't know that, but I would soon find out.
"Thank you," I said, struggling out of the cab. The driveway was 2" thick in slush, and the wind made getting to my feet as dangerous as stepping unto a tightrope. Already growing dark because of the hour, the sky looked no more than 20' above the canopy. I was reminded of Biblical predictions. The cold was bitter, damp and biting. I huddled in my coat as the cabbie pulled my luggage from the trunk. He'd been surly the entire trip in because of the drive, and my tip did nothing to cheer him up.
"Enjoy your visit," he grumped at me. I stuck my tongue out at him as soon as he turned away, and then laughed when another guest caught me at it. I smiled at her and she grinned widely, nodding. The wind tried to separate both of us from our hats.
Because of the slush and wind, I let a bellhop bring my bags inside. The desk clerk offered the expected apologies for the local weather, made a show of confirming my reservation, and smiled at me more than he should have. He was cute, and I let myself flirt with him in return.
I am 30 years old, with chestnut-colored hair that I keep down to my shoulder blades. I like it this length because I can alternately sweep it forward onto my chest to hide my lack of boobs. I'm a 34B ... on a good day. I'm pretty enough, I guess; an ex-cheerleader who's managed to keep most of the attributes I had in high school. I've even grown a little bit up top. I've been told I have a nice ass and I do catch guys shooting looks at me after they walk by. My big complaint is that I still look like a high school girl, and constantly have to prove my age, even to clerks who've asked to see my ID before. They only shrug when I complain, or laugh. If I go out later to buy beer or a bottle of wine, I'll be carded. I never leave home without it.
"We have a nice bar," he said by way of invitation.
"You do?" I replied coyly.
He leaned forwarded, whispering conspiratorially. "The band sucks, but the bartender is a friend of mine and can be depended on to mix a good drink."
"I'm too young to drink," I teased. "I'm still in high school."
He eyed me critically. "Even if I hadn't seen your license, I wouldn't believe that. You look at least..."
"Fourteen?" I suggested, giggling.
He shook his head reprovingly. "At least 25."
I leaned forward and whispered: "My license is fake. I bought it at a yard sale last year."
"Maybe I should confiscate it then," he said. It was sitting on his keyboard, along with my company Visa card. He knew where I worked, and where I lived. He knew my telephone number too, and my true age. He knew a lot about me, I realized. I wondered if he knew I was becoming seriously attracted to him. Better put a stop to this, I thought. I held out my hand, and he looked disappointed.
"I'll think about you when I crack a beer later in my room."
He looked seriously disappointed now. Then he brightened. "You might want to reconsider that."
I knew what he meant. It meant that I would have to go back outside to the closest 7-11 or deli or whatever if I wanted beer or wine. The company frowned on raiding the mini-bar in the room, if there was one, so I'd have to pay that bill myself. I didn't enjoy paying the same for a 10 oz. beer as I'd pay for a 7-11 six-pack.
"It's pretty treacherous out there," he went on. "I think you should stick to the hotel bar or the restaurant. Play it safe."
Play right into your hands, you mean, I thought wryly. I wonder what time you get off? Doesn't the hotel look down their nose at fraternizing with the guests, though? That meant he'd have to take me somewhere other than the hotel bar or restaurant to wine and dine me. How convenient. No thanks.
"You know what? I think I'll go upstairs and call my boyfriend and ask him what he thinks I should do."
He grinned at me, half-chagrined, and half-amused. "Good idea. If you change your mind..."
I returned my license and credit card to my wallet, put my wallet in my purse, and slung my purse over my shoulder. "If I change my mind, I'll let you know, Chad." Grinning, I left the counter and followed the not-so-amused bellhop to the elevator and up to the 9th floor and down the corridor to my room. I was right on the end, as far from the elevator as possible. I wondered, casually, if that had been planned. I wondered again, what time Chad got off. Like I would. I laughed at myself, just thinking about it.
In the room, after tipping the bellhop, I went to the window and looked outside. The overcast looked no more than one foot above my head now and looked like a pregnant blanket. It was moments away from being dark. Lights came and went in the swirling snow; I could just make out the building across the street, another motel, and another down the road. Street lights illuminated millions of snowflakes. Chad was right; it was dangerous out tonight.
I closed the drapes and removed my coat and draped it over a chair back to dry. Then I called Nick.
"So, how's West Virginia?" he asked cheerily.
"Depressing," I answered in a grumble. "I wanna come home."
"Think you'll have a meeting in the morning?"
"I don't know how," I admitted, imagining the snow through the closed drapes. I undid the buttons on my shirt and let the front fall open. I scratched idly at the rim of my right cup where it lay against my skin. The bra was new, washed only once, and not yet broken in. I imagined Chad's fingertips sliding the shirt back over my shoulders, and sliding it down and off my arms. The idea gave me goose bumps.
"Marty should have called this off," Nick observed.
"No way to reach the customer," I pointed out. "Not on a Sunday."
"It's January. Marty should have thought of that."
"He didn't know," I said defensively. Nick was right though: Marty should have known this might happen.
I'd hoped he would change his mind this morning when I called, but he hadn't. He thought it better I be there, no matter what the case. Just in case. We didn't want to piss this customer off. Any more than he already was, anyway.
"You should just come home," Nick said.
"I can't. The airport's closed." That was a lie, which I suspected might just be true, or would be true shortly, with snow coming down in buckets. "We're still good for Wednesday night, though, right?"
"Of course. Unless you get snowed in."
I cringed at the thought. Snowed in for three days? In Charleston? Please!
"Problem is," he said doubtfully. "The forecast has deteriorated here too. They're saying we could get upward of a foot of snow tomorrow. And more on Tuesday." I grimaced. "Even if you can get out of there, you might not be able to get into here."
Oh, terrific, I thought.
"I could rent a car," I offered hopefully.
"You could do that. And drive across the mountains in the snow."
"Godammit," I groaned. "You're not helping matters any, Nick."
"Just trying to be realistic, sweetheart."
"I wanna come home!" I complained again. "Tuesday! Not some time next week!"
Nick laughed. "I want you to come home too. I miss that sweet little body of yours. I'm having Marcia-withdrawals."
"I'm having Nick-withdrawals, too," I admitted miserably. I remembered Friday night in bed, the way he-
Stop it, I thought. That's not helping matters any.
We talked a few minutes more, mostly about the chances of the Redskins making it to the Superbowl this year (fat chance!) and then hung up. I was so depressed. I lay down on my side and tucked my knees against my chest. I felt sorry for myself. I even cried a little. When it was done, I forced myself off the bed and unpacked my suitcase and garment bag, hung my two outfits in the small closet area, put my undergarments and jeans and shirts and pajamas into the dresser, and sat down with my laptop at the desk to check my email. That kept me busy until 7 o'clock.
I wanted to take a shower but I put that off. The more I looked out the window, the more convinced I was that tomorrow would be a total washout. The snow was coming down faster and heavier than the snowplows could clean it away. Already, I could no longer see the curbs and the snow was halfway up the concrete base of the two visible street lamps. I could no longer spot the motel down the street, and the one across from me came and went in the intervening snow. I hadn't seen snow like this since the twin blizzards of 2010. It was awful. Marty never should have let me come here.
Resigned, I re-buttoned my shirt and tucked the shirttails into my jeans. I had left it open since talking to Nick. I don't know why. Wishful thinking I guess. Though what I was wishing for was not entirely clear.
There was also the problem of Chad. I regretted flirting with him now, wished I had kept my troublemaking mouth shut. I always get myself in jams. I can't always extricate myself, either, and have ended up in bed with more than one guy because I had compromised myself. I hoped Chad would not be the latest case. I liked Nick an awful lot and didn't want to cheat on him. Problem is, I'm impetuous and impulsive, devilish and self-destructive, a bad combination in anyone, especially a girl. I've been known to cut off my nose to spite my face, even when my face was totally innocent.
I eyed the mini-bar speculatively. I went over and opened the door.
"I hate drinking alone," I muttered to myself. Especially five-dollar beers. They'd be almost as much in the bar, but at least I wouldn't be alone. I closed the door again and sighed "Let's get this over with." Grabbing my purse and the keycard to the door-I checked it first, before locking myself out-I headed downstairs to my confrontation with Chad.
Tell him no, I told myself. Like you would to bad drugs. I smiled, thinking about the joint in my purse. The joint I had brought with me on the plane from BWI. What a ninny, going through security with a fucking joint in my purse. I laughed aloud, imagining my face if the fat woman inspector had spotted the outline on the security monitor. Worse, I had picked just that moment to remember the joint was there and I almost melted down where I stood. They should have hauled me off to a secure room and stripped me for a cavity search. They should have turned me over to Homeland Security as a drug-smuggling terrorist. They should have dissected my shoes, bra and panties in search of explosives. What an idiot, taking a joint through security.
Still laughing, I poked the Down button for the elevator and waited with my right wrist clasped in my left hand as the lift came up from the lobby.
Chad was not at the desk. I felt both relief, and an unexpected letdown. I had been fantasizing how the encounter would go, imagining all my excuses and his countering reasons. I had seen myself giving in finally, waiting for him to get off work in the bar, and then accompanying him out to a nightclub or to his place for a night of illicit and incredible sex. And what I would say to myself in the morning. Now I didn't have to. Maybe.
Fitful, I crossed slowly to the desk and asked the pretty young Asian woman if Chad was still on duty. She looked at me knowingly.
"He got off at seven," she said in perfect, unaccented English. "Would you like to leave a message?"
I felt my face growing hot. "No, that's okay. Does he work tomorrow?"
She checked a list beneath the counter. "Um, no. Not until Tuesday, I'm afraid. He comes in at seven o'clock, for the night shift. Sure you don't want to leave a message for him?"
If I could, I would have chopped a hole in the floor and dropped right through.
The hotel had three bars. The big one had a band scheduled but no band was in evidence when I peaked in through the doors. The bar was humming regardless, with people lined up at the bar, and two-thirds of the tables full of couples and groups of friends. I was surprised that many people made it out on such a night. Then I remembered a seminar was scheduled in the morning. I'd almost not gotten a room because of the seminar. Only a last minute cancellation had squeezed me in. From the state of the bar, it appeared the seminar would proceed in the morning anyway, uninterrupted by the snow. No way I was going in there. Even half hidden behind the door, I was attracting a number of curious looks.
The sports bar was also packed. I took one look inside and shied away, making my way across the lobby and down the hallway where signs pointed me toward the piano bar. A Holiday Inn with a piano bar. Go figure.
With diminishing hope, I peeked inside and was relieved to find the room mostly empty. At least by the standards of the previous two bars, anyway. Only four people sat at the bar: a middle-aged couple, a man about my father's age three stools down, and to the right of him, a solidly built young man in his mid to late twenties. He was oblivious to everything but his cell phone. I entered, bee-lining for the stool midway between the married couple and the older man.
"A Heineken, please?" I told the bartender, a pretty brunette. She nodded and pulled a bottle from the cooler while the men either side of me glanced left and right, respectively. Neither glance was any more than mildly curious. I ignored the pressure of eyes staring at my back. A dozen or so other patrons populated the bar, couples mostly, but a few unattached males. It was their eyes I felt.
Propping my purse on my right thigh, I extracted my driver's license. To my surprise, the bartender hadn't requested it yet.
"Put it away," she said.
I blinked in further surprise. "Really? I look 21 to you?"
She laughed, tipping the bottle and half filling my frosted glass. "You look 21 to me," she confirmed. "You look old enough to be my younger sister. Or my girlfriend, maybe," she said, winking slyly. The man beside me reacted with a slight start and a grin. I blushed. Of course, she was teasing me.
"What time do you get off work?" I teased back.
"You couldn't afford me, honey."
"I'd have to pay?" I gasped, blinking and effectively wide-eyed. The man beside me snickered and the couple to my left began to show interest in the conversation, which killed the conversation. The pretty brunette and I both laughed.
The truth was, I had enjoyed the veiled invitation. I like girls too, but she walked away to fill a drink order from the only waitress. I took the opportunity to top off my beer.
"I wouldn't have carded you, either," the man to my right said quietly.
"I mean, you don't look 30, but you're obviously over 21. Besides, there's a nasty storm brewing outside, you're in the bar with no coat on, you didn't walk in off the street, so you're obviously registered here. That makes you of legal age. Right?"
"I couldn't rent a room at 18?" I queried.
"Are you 18?"
"Well, no," I admitted. "I'm not 18."
"Exactly my point," he said. Confirming this, he clinked the rim of his glass against mine. I didn't exactly get the point, but I wasn't arguing it, either.
"I'm Marci," I said.
"I'm Richard. Glad to meet you, Marci. How old are you, really?"
"Don't ask, don't tell," I said coyly, sipping my beer.
"I didn't ask if you were gay. You're not, are you?"
"Don't ask, don't tell," I repeated, grinning now. He grinned in return.
"Is every conversation with you like this?"
"Define 'this'," I countered, grinning even wider. He sighed, making me laugh. I held out my hand. "Marci. Over 21. Maybe not gay. Maybe not as smart as I think I am."
"Richard," he repeated, taking my hand. His palm was rough, his grip powerful behind the restrained handshake. "Can I buy you a drink?"
"I have one," I pointed out.
"Hurry up and drink it then, so I can buy you another."
I obediently gulped the drink down, wiping the foam off my upper lip with the back of my hand. "Are you hitting on me?" I demanded.
"I'm old enough to be your father," he rejoined.
I only stared at him, straight-faced. Somehow.
"I'm not old enough to be your grandfather, damn it, so stop looking at me like that, kiddo."
I burst into laughter, which degenerated into stupid, childish giggling. He patiently sipped beer from his glass, eying me over the rim, like my father would.
"You could be my father," I said. "You look like him."
"I have a fatherly look?"
"I wouldn't say fatherly, no," I said.
This was getting out of hand. I needed to put a stop to it. I was flirting with someone my father's age. That's when a hand descended on my left shoulder and made me start.
"Would you like to dance?"
I turned my head around, surprised. It was the young man with the cell phone. Somehow he had slipped off his stool and moved behind me without my noticing. "Uh..." I managed to get out.
His smile was nice, but with a hint of patronization and manipulation I didn't like. I also didn't like the way his hand took possession of my shoulder, the way he eased me around on my stool to face him, away from my new friend. I felt, rather than saw Richard stiffen on his stool.
"I would," I admitted, "if I wasn't talking to my friend here."
"Did your friend ask you to dance?"
"Well, no," I confessed.
"Think he'd have any objections if we did?"
I had met his kind before, this too-good looking young man: possessive, demanding, arrogant, cock-sure of himself. He was the kind I too often found myself in bed with on a Saturday night/Sunday morning. Richard, of course, was too old and too new a friend to rescue me from this creep. I'd have to do it myself-if I could. And then, inanely, disgustingly, I chickened out.
"You'd have to ask him that question, I think."
The young man grinned condescendingly. If Richard objected, that grin told me, which I simultaneously did and did not want, the young man would ask him outside to discuss the situation further. Richard, forced to defend his manhood, would blusteringly agree, only to get his butt kicked in the falling snow. Or so I thought.
Richard said softly: "I have no objection to anyone dancing. I do have objections to anyone laying hands on a woman uninvited and unannounced. Assuming that woman wouldn't deign to say no to you." Richard slid off the chair and suddenly he was no longer a kindly old man, but a definable, threatening presence, like a shadow appearing suddenly on the wall of an alley. It not only took the young man by surprise, but myself. The young man stiffened slightly.
"I only asked her to dance," he pointed out.
Richard disagreed. "I think you have something else in mind than just dancing."
The young man cocked his head. "What if I do? You have objections to that too?"
"I do if the young lady does," Richard agreed. Without moving, he appeared to crouch like a stalking lion, or a bear. The young man's grip tightened on my shoulder in response, becoming uncomfortably tight. I felt like a lioness between two feuding lions. I looked silently from one to the other.
"Let's let the young lady decide," the young man suggested. I didn't point out that I was three or four years older than he, though it bothered me, knowing he was unconcerned by that issue. I felt more than a little insulted; his assuming it didn't matter.
Richard looked at me, and I nodded. One dance wouldn't hurt anything and I wanted this situation defused, not escalated. "I'd be happy to," I said, slipping off my stool.
To my chagrin, the song playing in the background ended and taking its place was an old Motown tune, a velvety love song. I placed my purse on the bar and asked Richard to watch over it. "Be happy to," he answered, anything but happy. But he slid back onto his stool and linked his fingers together, one elbow on the edge of the bar, the other propped on the back of his stool. He looked like a pit-bull, sizing up a victim.
The young man led me out to the small area considered the dance floor. I obediently moved into his arms and we started to dance. He laid claim to me like he would a prized winning.
"I'm Eric," he said confidently, his competition momentarily forgotten.
"Marci. And you are very rude, Eric. You know that, right?"
"Ouch. That was direct." He laughed. "Someone had to rescue you from grandpa."
"I didn't need rescuing," I grumbled at him. I was uncomfortable with the way he kept brushing his hips against mine, and bringing my right breast into contact with his chest. He liked scraping me sideways, trying, I assumed, to harden my nipples. Regrettably, it was working.
"You here for the seminar?" he asked.
"No," I said, trying to steer him back toward the bar. He was purposely keeping me turned, my back to the bar, and to Richard.
"That's too bad," he said with a smirk. "We could have shared something other than a dance tonight."
I glared up at him. "You are seriously presumptuous, my friend." He swung me round in a circle, lifting me off my feet almost, making a point to run his right hand across my rear end. I didn't like that and I told him so.
"Don't be so uptight, Marci."
"Don't be such a jerk," I retorted.
Where did this bravado come from? Richard behind me? Usually, I'm as docile as a lamb. I tried to look back, to make sure Richard and my purse were where I left them, but Eric countered my movement with one of his own.
"Jesus," I muttered. "You are really something, Eric." Then I said: "Who was that on the phone with you? When I came in? You were awfully engrossed in your conversation. It wasn't your girlfriend by any chance, was it? Your wife?" I tried to get a look at his ring finger but he hid it behind my back.
"I'm something?" he countered, his face darkening at my accusations. "You're one to talk."
"I'm not the one who got off the phone and hit on the closest available female," I shot back. "Did you wish her good night? Tuck her in verbally?" I looked pointedly at my watch. "Plenty of time for her to jump into her party dress and go clubbing too. Maybe she'll get lucky tonight, instead of you. What do you think about that?"
For a moment, I thought he might actually hit me. His face contorted in momentary rage, his lips drew back from his canines, he made a strangled sound deep in his throat; he crushed me against him, almost painfully tight. Then he relaxed again.
"Okay. You made your point," he said begrudgingly. "I'm an asshole. I did hope to get you up to my room tonight, but obviously I was overconfident. I apologize: I'm an asshole, like I said."
His grip on me eased and I moved an acceptable distance away. I felt bruised, almost. I also felt strangely awkward, guilty, as though I'd done something wrong. Before I could respond, he steered me back to the bar and released me into Richard's proximity, if not his waiting hands. Richard was expressionless.
"Thank you for the dance," Eric said. "Unfortunately, I have to head up to my room to make a phone call. I ran my cell phone dry earlier, and I need to recharge it. Maybe I'll see you all later." He nodded to Richard, who nodded impassively back. "Dance with her, okay? She's good."
Unexpectedly, he bent down and planted a kiss on my hair. There was sadness in his eyes, frustration, almost a look of hurt. It sent a pang of guilt through me. Had I been wrong? Had I mistaken bravado for confidence, daring for conceit? I hoped not. I had enough nagging me already.
"Good night," I said in embarrassment as he walked away.
Richard handed me back my purse. I thanked him and sat down. I needed to pee, but I didn't want to follow behind the retreating Richard so soon. I was still flush with frustration.
"Thank you for that," I said quietly.
He tipped his head, questioningly.
"For not making a scene. I hate scenes."
He laughed and turned back to the bar. "You handled it better than I ever could have," he said, sipping his beer. I took a sip of mine; it was warm. I motioned for the pretty bartender, who, though she was with another customer, nodded and smiled at me. "I got it," Richard said.
"Your tab," he said.
"Oh, no," I objected. "You can't do that."
"It's the least I can do, letting you get assaulted that way."
I laughed depreciatively. "That's nonsense, Richard. He just wanted to dance."
"That's not all he wanted to do," Richard muttered in response. I felt myself redden. "Anyway, your tab is mine and there's nothing you can do about it."
This made me laugh again. I liked Richard. I liked him a lot. For the first time, I really looked at him.
He was not fat, like my father. He had steel gray hair, which he wore cropped very close to the head, militarily close. I knew (suspected, anyway) from his bearing that he was ex-military, a retired Marine or maybe Army. He didn't look like an officer, though. My father was a retired colonel. His hands, huge and calloused and powerful looking reinforced that idea.
"You were a Marine," I guessed.
"Am a Marine," he corrected. "Retired."
I grinned at him. "A lifer?"
"42 years," he confirmed. "Joined when I was 18. Walked into the recruiter's office the day after my 18th birthday. Told 'em I wanted to kill gooks. The first thing the sergeant did was rip me a new asshole for using that awful epithet. 'Young man!' he yelled. 'Disrespect is not permitted in the Marines! We respect all living creatures; black, yellow, white and red. You can blow them to smithereens, but you better not ever let me, or any other Marine hear you disrespect them.' Then he broke out in sidesplitting laughter, along with all the other recruiters in the place. Having their fun with me, they were." He pushed back his left sleeve and showed me a progression of tattoos, starting just above the wrist. I recognized the name Camp Lejeune, dated July 12th, 1970. He lowered his sleeve again. "Killed so many gooks in those first three years you coulda court-martialed me for genocide, sweetie." He smiled, to show he was joking. His words still sent a shiver up my spine.
"When did you get out?"
"A year ago last July."
"Do you miss it?"
"I miss the discipline, the camaraderie. I don't miss the political bullshit going on nowadays. Worse than back in Vietnam. Besides, most of my contemporaries were dead, or long since retired. I decided it was time to go myself when I started losing bar fights."
I laughed, uncomfortably. "What do you do now?"
"Consult on what?" I asked, taking no offense at his abrupt answers. Attribute it to a lifetime of giving abrupt answers. And orders.
"Military hardware. Electronic systems and defensive weapons," he said. "It's what I specialized in, in the Corps."
It sounded a lot more interesting than what I did for a living. I told him what I did, and why I was there.
"I don't think you'll be keeping your appointment tomorrow morning," he pointed out.
"We'll see." He set down his empty glass and glanced up the bar at our waitress. "My customer considers weather like this a blessing, not a challenge." He nodded again at the pretty brunette, whose customer was being difficult, haranguing her about his drink. Richard shook his head disgustedly. "Civilians."
"I'm a civilian," I reminded him.
"You're a female. And a pretty one, too. You're excluded."
"I bet you say that to all your bar buddies," I teased. My beer glass was empty now too. The bartender extricated herself form the man's verbal clutches-with a promise to return immediately, for more haranguing, no doubt-and strode down the bar, eying us gratefully.
"And some peanuts too, please, if you don't mind. And I'm buying the drinks from here on out. For both of us."
The waitress nodded and corrected him politely. "Goldfish OK?"
"Goldfish are fine. As long as they're salty." He turned to me. "Can't get enough salt drinking beer, can you?"
"Or Margaritas," I pointed out.
"Would you like one of those?" he offered. The bartender paused, bent over the ice chest. I shook my head no.
"Better stick to beer."
"Beer it is, then."
A moment later, the girl whose name I still didn't know professionally filled two chilled glasses with beer: Mine, with another Heineken; Richard's an O'Doul's. We both thanked her and smiling, she turned around and entered our order into her computer. We both picked up our glasses and sipped. I didn't question the non-alcoholic beer.
"Are you married?" I asked. He showed me his empty ring finger.
"Not yet. Hoping for it, though." I told him a little about Nick.
"What's he think of you getting snowed in here?"
"None too keen on it, is he?"
"He wants me to drive home," I lied.
"Not over these mountains. That's a good way to get yourself killed. Wait it out," he advised. "The airport should be open on Tuesday."
"You know that from traveling a lot?"
He snorted. "That's all I do, is travel a lot."
"You don't sound like you like it."
"About as much as pulling teeth. If it wasn't for ESPN..." He shrugged. "Better than sitting home in a recliner, I guess. Besides, the beers always better on the road. And I don't meet interesting people like you sitting in my living room." He clinked his glass against mine. "Not that I'm a babe-magnet, mind you. Not that I think you're anything but a proper young woman. I figure the only reason you're in this bar is because you couldn't get out to buy yourself any beer in this storm. Or go out to eat. Or even smoke a cigarette if you wanted to. Do you smoke?"
"Not cigarettes," I said slyly.
He started a bit. Then he grinned. "To each his own."
"To each his own," I repeated. We clinked glass rims together again. "Speaking of eating..."
He raised his eyebrows.
"I would consider it a privilege if you'd allow me to buy an ex-Marine-"
"Retired Marine," he corrected.
"A retired Marine," I agreed, "some dinner."
He looked amused. "Why?"
"Do I have to have a reason why? I enjoy your company."
"I'm a male chauvinist pig. I don't allow women to buy me dinner."
I grinned. "Dine with me then? Dutch treat?"
"Dining with you would be my pleasure. Dutch treat is no different than letting you foot the bill. That won't happen with me. Consider dinner an extension of my bar tab."
I shook my head, bemused. "You are really something, Richard. A Neanderthal. Didn't your kind die out with the dinosaurs?"
"I am a dinosaur," he clarified. "And proud of it. Now, let's go eat."
Before I could object, he slid off his stool and held out his hand. Totally bemused now, I picked up my glass with the other hand, indicated with a toss of my head that Richard planned to escort me to the restaurant, and received a farewell smile from my favorite bartender. I gave her a wink; she winked back at me. Then Richard led me up the hallway to the lobby and diagonally across to the restaurant doors. Despite the hour, the restaurant was completely filled. We had to wait ten minutes for a table. We spent the time productively, Richard wrenching one secret out of me, after another. I was beginning to feel like a torture victim strapped to a dentist's chair. He had no mercy at all.
"Stop!" I begged, laughing. He had just extracted my sacred bra-size, a truth I never divulged to anyone.
"You're bigger than that," he observed, though clinically, like a doctor. I don't know how we had gotten on this subject.
"The miracle of modern engineering," I assured him. For the first time, I touched him, laying my hand over his wrist. He didn't flinch away. Neither did he react unwontedly. He only smiled. Thankfully, I was rescued by the hostess.
I chose a salad and Richard had the brisket of beef with Hollandaise sauce. I ate as daintily as possible; Richard sliced and diced his entire meal as though inspecting it for mines, chewing every bite with a timed methodicalness. I saw my father in him and began to understand better the military mind, and what being married to a Marine would be like. It made me grin, which he caught me doing.
"Something's funny?" he asked. It was the first words we'd exchanged since beginning the meal. Marines weren't big on conversation over dinner, I guessed. It wasn't unpleasant, only different.
"I'm just thinking how methodical you are. You chew like a squad of men marching in lock-step."
He peaked his eyebrows.
"My father," I admitted. "He was an Air Force colonel."
He snorted and shook his head.
"Jar head," I teased him.
He began to laugh, wiping his mouth with the linen napkin. I wiped my own mouth in response.
"I supposed you moved around a lot," he said.
"No more than you did," I countered.
He nodded, thoughtfully. "Ever out of country?"
"No, I was spared that horror. Mom and I stayed on the base."
"You re an only child?"
"Air Force only allows one," I quipped. He laughed.
We small-talked through a dessert of coffee and small bowls of vanilla ice cream with caramel topping. Then I excused myself for a long overdue pit stop. When I got back, Richard had already settled the bill.
"At least let me leave the tip," I said, opening my purse.
"Not on you life. Put that away. I mean it, Marci. Tonight's on me."
I shrugged, though happily. This was not the terrible night I had expected, not at all. Then, to my surprise, and chagrin, Richard stood up and stretched mightily. I immediately felt crestfallen: he was deserting me, going to bed.
"Well, I thank you for the great evening," I said bravely, "and the great company. I want you to know that I thoroughly enjoyed myself."
He nodded, smiling crookedly. "I'm going for a walk. I always go for a walk after dinner. Would you care to join me?"
I looked at the restaurant doors, dubiously. "You're going outside?"
He laughed. "I'm a Marine, retired, remember? I ignore inclement weather. You should wear your coat though."
Not awaiting an answer, he gently took my elbow and steered me toward the restaurant doors and into the lobby. I felt my eyes go big as saucers, not only from being commandeered, but also by the idea of braving such an ungodly mess outside.
"I smoke cigars. I hope you don't mind."
I just stared at him dumbly.
"Do you mind?" he asked, amused.
"Well, no. I guess not," I mumbled. Thoroughly flustered, I tried to get a grip on myself. He was taking me upstairs, purportedly to get our coats. Would he insist on accompanying me to my room? Should I go to his? I felt a little panicked.
"Please relax," he said in a soft voice, releasing my elbow. "I am always a gentleman." To prove this, he bowed from the waist, deferentially, the way one would to royalty. Now I really was flustered. To my intense embarrassment, I answered with a curtsy. I have no idea why, I just did. He laughed as I blushed bright red.
The elevator arrived and we stepped on, Richard pushing the button for the fifth floor; I didn't push mine. The elevator doors closed and paralyzed, I asked him to push the button for the 9th floor. At the 5th floor, the elevator stopped and the doors opened.
"I'll meet you in the lobby?" he said.
"How long should I wait?" he asked as he stepped off.
Despite my embarrassment, I grinned. "In case I don't come down again, you mean?"
"I'm a big girl now. I can take care of myself. I'll see you in ten minutes." Reaching out, I pushed the button to close the doors.
It was brutal outside. The instant we emerged, wind tried to launch me into orbit. I skidded on a patch of ice, and Richard had to catch me by the arm to keep me from sprawling. I still did a very embarrassing half-split.
"Oh, my God!" I gasped. The wind ripped the words away and hurled them down the driveway. Snowflakes buffeted my hands and face, blinding me. I double-wrapped myself in the scarf and jammed my bare hands into my pockets. My gloves remained safely upstairs, on the bed where I'd left them. I told myself to return upstairs and retrieve them, but Richard's seeming imperiousness to the wind and cold and snow intimidated me. "Let's go," I said through clenched teeth.
We strode quickly alongside the driveway down to the sidewalk. Away from the makeshift wind tunnel of the canopy, the velocity dropped off, and the cold became bearable. I realized with something of a shock that the snow had let up, no longer creating a whiteout. I could make out the Ramada Inn across the street; even see in some of the windows. I noticed a man in one of the mid-level rooms shaking his head at us. I had to agree with him.
"I noticed you drink O'Doul's," I said, just making conversation. "Is that significant?"