When Daniel walks into the restaurant, he almost doesn’t recognize Bess, sitting alone in a back booth. She’s done something extreme to her hair, very recently, he gathers, from the way she keeps touching it. What last week was brown and salted with gray, friendly and comfortable, is now copper like a new penny. Instead of the severe bun, her hair sits in a pre-Raphaelite cloud around her head, emphasizing a pretty, pointed chin and a low-cut blouse.
Something in Daniel’s gut tells him to turn around and run.
He’s done it all wrong, as usual. The community center’s rules are more casual than other educational institutions, but they still prefer instructors don’t date students. Innocent fraternization, say, meeting for a cup of coffee here and there, seems to pose no problem. However, after meeting for a cup of coffee here and there, Daniel’s motives are no longer innocent. It’s been a while since a woman has shown interest beyond his skill with a paintbrush, but he’s having reservations about taking it up a notch with Bess.
The wedding ring, for one. He hasn’t slept with enough married women to call it a pattern, but the last two had belonged to other men and that troubles him. Beyond the broken commandments, he worries about the precedent and his future prospects. Is his new default mode for romance based on preselecting unavailable women?
This can’t happen again.
Bess hasn’t seen him yet; it’s not too late to leave. The next time she comes to the community center, he’ll apologize. Car trouble. Just couldn’t start it until a few minutes ago. The old rust bucket fails him about every other day anyway. Might as well use it to save everyone a lot of trouble.
She turns. Too late—she sees him coming her way and nibbles on the edge of a smile.
He swallows hard and slides into the booth. Quickly, he conjugates what he’s supposed to say. “Don’t tell me. You’ve lost weight, right?” He meant it to be funny, an icebreaker to calm his own nerves, but he realizes she might have taken it as an insult. “Not that you needed to, of course...”
She gives him a patient-looking smile. “Try again.”
“It looks nice,” he says. No. It doesn’t look “nice.” The new color electrifies the flecks of green in her cat-like eyes and gives her the wildness of an exotic animal. Hair like that should not be allowed out in public without a leash. Hair like that should be grasped in handfuls as it trolls down a man’s bare chest. Yet you can’t say that to a married woman in the middle of a restaurant.
“I was shooting for glamorous,” she says, lower lip jutting into a pout. “You know. Rita Hayworth...Nicole Kidman...”
“Oh. Well.” He tells himself it’s preposterous, the height of arrogance, to think she might have changed her color and style for him. Women get bored with their appearance all the time; the women in his life are always doing things to their hair. With Caitlin, it’s a sort of evolutionary imperative that she experiments with her looks. A sixteen-year-old’s right. Denise does it to feel better about herself and, if anything, hoping to get a rise out of Pete, not other men. Plus, Bess is wearing her wedding ring. Would she wear it or ask to meet him at a restaurant in the mall if her intentions were more ambitious than picking the teacher’s brains outside of class? Perhaps she’s merely indulging herself in conversation with another adult who doesn’t think the point of good art is to match the sofa.
He forces a smile. “Glamorous it is. I’m sure your husband will love it.”
Her smile falls a notch and then recovers with the arrival of their menus. “Well. We should order. We don’t want to make the teacher late.”
Now that he’s no longer driving Caitlin to the community center, he’s been free to meet Bess before class. “Sorry. My lesson ran over.”
“The girl downstairs?”
“Is she improving?”
He thinks about the portrait she’d sketched of Maureen. It shows great promise. Would he have gotten that out of her in a group class? “Hard to say after one lesson. But I think just the idea of private instruction as an alternative is making a difference in her attitude about drawing. Still, I’d like to boost her confidence a little.”
“Poor thing,” Bess says. “She seems so sensitive. It must have been difficult for her to be in our class with all those adults.”
She shakes out her napkin and spreads it across her lap. A drift of perfume reaches his nose. He doesn’t remember perfume on her before. His chest tightens, setting off the coughing fit he’s been dreading.
“That doesn't sound good.” Bess touches his forearm. The muscles flinch and she withdraws. If he has insulted her, she doesn’t let it show.
“It’s nothing.” He excuses himself to the men’s room so he won’t have to explain his inhaler and the five different pills he needs to take with dinner. As he stands up, the woman at the next table turns from spoon-feeding her toddler and glares, as if he’s come out in public with tuberculosis or the plague. And Denise wonders why I don’t date more often.
When he returns, Bess purses her lips and says, “Daniel, you’ve had that cough for weeks. Perhaps it’s time to see a doctor.”
“I said it’s nothing.”
“That’s not ‘nothing.’ I raised two children. I’m sorry to say that sounds like a definite ‘something.’”
He avoids her eyes. He isn’t ready to tell her about his disease. It’s not something easily shoehorned into the conversation. By the way, I have cystic fibrosis, and the way my lung capacity is dropping, I might not make it through next year. “I’ll be fine. I had bronchitis a while back and the cough is just...lingering. You know how that goes.”
Her gaze drops to her place setting. Daniel watches the flutter of Bess’s soft, manicured fingers as she straightens her silverware.
“Anyway,” he says.
“Anyway.” She clears her throat. “Yes. We were talking about your neighbor. I’m glad I’m not a teenager anymore. Every new situation was so...so nerve-wracking.”
“I don’t think she was nervous, exactly.” Grateful for a different topic, Daniel speaks with more confidence. “Maybe a little intimidated, because she doesn’t have the drawing experience of some of the other students...”
She smiles as if a decision has been made and closes her menu. “Well. I’m sure she’ll do fine. I, personally, enjoy the group experience. Getting out, learning from everyone else. I’ve been feeling so...so closed up these days. It’s such a pleasure to come to your class and remember that I have a brain. That I’m not just some mousy drudge who does carpool and puts up dinner.”
“You are definitely not some mousy drudge,” he says, and then regrets it, or at least the enthusiasm in it.
The wattage from her eyes intensifies. The skin on the back of Daniel’s neck prickles. “Really? Oh, you have no idea how much that means coming from a man who isn’t my husband.”
Me. She’s talking about me. A man who isn’t her husband. Christ. This is a really bad idea.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish