I had the sinking feeling that my nightmares weren’t caused by my work, they were caused by my attempts to escape my past with Nina.
I never denied that we had been married or that it was painful to have been divorced. But I tried not to look at my life with Nina any more deeply than that. I felt a knot of sadness in my chest as I thought of her, but it was late, and I didn’t want to get lost in the blues. There had been enough lost nights since we had broken up.
Well, since I was awake, I thought about making some coffee and breakfast, but that was just too pathetic. What about warming some milk and attempting to go back to sleep? Too lazy to warm the milk. What about a beer? Beer would make a tasty and paradoxically refreshing soporific. But alcohol at this hour of the night seemed, well, alcoholic.
I walked back over to the window and looked out at quiet, romantic West 75th Street again. My whole problem, I realized, was that I was lonely. I didn’t mean lonely in the cosmic, “I’m divorced and I am all alone” sense. I meant in the moment-to-moment sense: I had too much time to think about my work, too much time to worry about my social life. I needed to go out a bit, meet some people, shake up my routine, and get out of the “poor me’s.” Yeah, so how was I going to do that? It wasn’t as if I didn’t know anybody. It just seemed, at 3:43 in the morning, that I didn’t know one attractive, available woman to ask out. There were women who were good buddies, and women who were relatives, and women who were total strangers, but the world seemed devoid of appropriate single women for me to spend time with.
Maybe it was time to go back to bed after all. Just the thought of dating had worn me out. I hit the sack and went right to sleep.
In the morning, after I got out of the shower, I looked in the mirror. It was a long, hard, assessing look. I have to confess that whenever I was feeling blue, and after every Nina dream, I always gave myself the once over in the mirror, hoping that what I saw would eliminate the blues. The once over revealed the same thing every time: not bad. Not bad at all. A guy still in his prime at 35-years old. Just under six-feet tall, brown hair, solid jaw, straight nose, and the best feature: blue eyes. Yup, not bad . . . at all. Concluding the morning once over, I went into my kitchen, poured a cup of coffee and trudged to my desk. I saluted the General as he waded ashore at the Philippines.
The next couple of hours were spent transferring a few days worth of research at the library into my computer. I often spent days digging through books or interviewing experts and then going home and rewriting my crimped, handwritten notes into the computer. This process not only straightened out the notes' content but helped me sift through the information, deciding what was important and what was merely interesting detail.
Lunch was looming on my horizon when the phone rang. The phone was within easy reach, but I waited for the third ring to answer. I didn’t want the world to form a picture of me as a lonely writer desperately grabbing the phone on its first ring. “Hello,” I said.
“Hi,” a woman’s voice, strong and confident, “is this Peter Galligan?”
“It is. Can I help you?”
“I hope so,” she said, sounding way too strong to need any help from me. “I’m Sharon Kimball, a friend of your sister Jeannie.”
“Oh, hello,” I said with more than enough warmth to be encouraging. I always tried to be nice to my sister’s female friends. Most of them were pretty nice themselves.
“This is out of the blue,” Sharon said, “but Jeannie was telling me about you, and you sound pretty interesting, so I asked to meet you — and here I am calling.”
I was caught off-guard. Less than twelve hours before, I’d been experiencing another dark night of the soul brought on by the divorce blues, and here was a totally unexpected call from an attractive woman asking me out. And why did I assume Sharon was attractive? What was there about her voice that led me to that conclusion?
“Listen, I don’t mean to be denser than a block of granite,” I said, “but are we talking about going on a date?”
“Yes,” she laughed, “assuming you don’t hate the idea. I’m asking you out to dinner. I guess I didn’t do that very well.”
“You probably don’t have much practice. You sound like someone who gets asked a lot more often than she asks.”
“You’d be surprised,” she murmured, her voice low.
I didn’t know where to go with that comment, so I asked, “What did you have in mind for dinner?”
She suggested the next night, Thursday, at a midtown restaurant. The next night at the particular restaurant she mentioned was very agreeable to me, and I said so enthusiastically. We both laughed and agreed on a time to meet.
“Let me give you my phone number,” she said. “It’s unlisted, so if something happens you’ll need it to reach me.”
“Nothing will happen.”
She laughed again and gave me her number. “I’m really looking forward to meeting you.”
“It’s mutual. Just so I know it’s you, what do you look like?”
She waited a moment, then, “Don’t worry, you’ll know.”
I had a feeling I would know the second I laid eyes on her. “Care to hear what I look like?” I asked.
“Jeannie’s already described you to me.”
“Great,” I said. “Not that I mind plunging headlong into the unknown, but shouldn’t we exchange a little personal information before committing to a date?”
“Your sister already told me enough to get me to call.”
“I don’t mean to sound timid, but I don’t know a thing about you.”
“That will give us something to talk about at dinner.”
“Oh.” I felt outmaneuvered and intrigued at the same time. “You’re a mystery woman.”
Sharon laughed again, “Sounds dangerously intriguing, doesn’t it?”
“Now you’re a dangerous mystery woman.”
“You have no idea,” she said, her voice going a little bit hard. Then, in a softer tone, “See you tomorrow.”
“You certainly will,” I said, and we hung up.
Wow, I thought, a dinner date with a mystery lady in a little more than twenty-four hours. I was a light mood as I made my way into my miniscule kitchen for lunch. I was in the middle of spreading mustard on my bread before the thought occurred to me that my sister had some gall giving my number out to a stranger without asking me first. Even a pretty stranger. Even a pretty, sexy and willing stranger. Even . . . enough, I thought. Sharon might be a spectacular and mysterious woman, but my sister still needed to be straightened out regarding the handing out of my number.
“Hey, Pete, what’s up?”
“Well, I know you’re concerned about the solitary state of my life and all, but don’t you think you could have warned me before giving my number to someone?”
“Sharon Kimball just called me.”
“I didn’t give her your number. But Sharon’s not the type to wait on something she wants. Although she sure doesn’t have to rush to get on your social calendar, does she?”
“Nice. Thanks,” I paused, “Anyway, Sharon said you told her about me and that you were going to set up an introduction.”
“I was, but since I hadn’t had a chance to ask you, I didn’t give her your number. I was going to call you today and see if it was okay.”
Maybe I should have been bothered, but what had Sharon done other than look up my phone number? I grunted, “It’s okay. From the sound of the lady, it’s very okay.”
“Really?” My sister managed to pack a large amount of curiosity into that short word.
“Really — what?”
“What’s up with you and Sharon?”
I smiled, “We’re going out for dinner tomorrow night.”
“You’ll like her.”
“What’s she like?” I asked, waiting for the usual answers: nice, attractive, and available. “Nice” translated as recently and unfairly dumped, “attractive” was a standard-issue description (after all, no one ever suggested that you date someone “ugly”), and “available” meant that the woman was still hurting from being dumped but ready to try again. Since the women on these dates were always “nice, attractive and available,” it goes without saying that I had never found blind-dating to be a good way to meet an eligible woman. After an evening of stiff but courteous interaction, there would be a polite goodbye and then no further contact ever again. This was a two-way process — as a blind date, I probably ranked as less entertaining than sitting on the couch, eating a frisée salad and watching the Food Network on TV. So, when I asked my sister what Sharon was like, I didn’t expect much.
“I don’t know her very well . . .” here it comes, I thought, my sister’s about to write this off — Jeannie continued with, “. . . but she’s smart and funny and very good looking. You’ll be . . .” Jeannie’s voice trailed off as she searched for the right word, “enthusiastic. Sharon’s very sexy.”
That sounded considerably better than the “nice” and “attractive” I had expected.
My sister continued, “Sharon’s not the type you could spend the rest of your life with —”
“I’m not looking for that —”
She brushed past my interruption, “You won’t be bored.”
“Well, on that happy note, thanks for thinking of me.”
“How’d you meet her?”
“She moved into my building a few months ago. I met her in the laundry room, and we talked as we folded clothes.”
“Nothing like the smell of freshly washed cotton to get people talking,” I said. “So, what does she do? Does she have a job? Is she divorced? What’s her deal?”
Jeannie laughed, “I have no idea what her deal is. None whatsoever. You’ll have to ask her.”
“How can that be? She’s your neighbor for crying out loud.”
“I told you, I hardly know her. I don’t know where she’s from or what she does for a living or her past romantic status. I do know that she uses fabric softener and folds her laundry very quickly.”
“She could be a black widow, or, worse, she could be a professional bowler.”
Jeannie ignored me, “Look, we’ve talked over our laundry for a few minutes. By the time you finish your dinner date, you’ll have spent a lot more time with her than I have.”
“And with that alarmingly flimsy security check, you’re palming off this woman on me?”
“Here’s what I can tell you: She’s intensely sensuous. And assertive, almost aggressive.”
“You can tell that she’s aggressive by watching her fold laundry? What the hell does she do to her delicate washables?”
“You’re a big boy. If you’re frightened, you can always cancel.”
We both laughed. “Okay,” I said. “Thanks again.”
“I want all the lurid details after your date.”
“Yeah, yeah, sure . . .” I said, and hung up.
My sandwich, fully assembled and ready for consumption, awaited my attention. What to drink? Normally I have water or a soda with my lunch, but I was feeling quite chipper and decided to celebrate with a beer. After all, I’d put in a very good morning’s work on the General and an exciting, sexy woman had asked me out on a dinner date. I grabbed a bottle from the fridge, opened it and poured it into a tall Pilsner glass, something I almost never used. But since this lunch felt special, I might as well make an occasion out of it. Things had improved immeasurably since my lethal nightmare about Nina. I now had a dinner date with a bona fide hottie.
After a few bites of my sandwich and some very satisfying sips of my beer, the phone rang again. For a second, I thought Sharon was calling to inform me that she had changed her mind and was herewith canceling our date. Then I realized that I was being ridiculously paranoid, even by my post-divorce, insecure standards.
I picked up the phone and said, with confidence and conviction, “Hello.”
“Hello, am I speaking with Peter Galligan?” A woman’s voice — smooth if a bit formal in tone.
“Yes, I’m Pete Galligan.”
“I’m Annie Wilder,” she said. “I’m sorry to call this way without warning —”
“No need to apologize unless you’re a bill-collector. Or an IRS auditor.”
“No, I'm neither,” she said, with the slightest shift in her voice, as if she was smiling. “I was . . . I was calling to invite you out for dinner.”
“Really? Wow . . . what a surprise,” I said artlessly then regrouped, “what a really nice surprise.”
“I’m sorry. I’m a friend of Paul Aguirre — we went to Stamford together — and he was telling me about you and what a great guy you are and said I should call and arrange a dinner date. Was that a mistake?”
“No, no, not at all. Paul Aguirre, huh? Now my editor is farming me out on dates?”
“Not exactly. We were talking about history, and I mentioned your book, and Paul said he knew you. One thing led to another, and here I am calling.”
“Wow, this is the first time someone’s wanted to meet me for my book instead of my bod.”
There was an uncomfortable pause on the other end of the phone.
“Just kidding, Annie, a pathetic attempt at humor,” I said, trying to ease the discomfort. “Sorry if I embarrassed you.”
“You didn’t, I . . .”
“Listen, if I promise to keep the stupid humor to an absolute minimum, would you still like to get together for dinner?” I asked quickly. After the misfire on the joke, I was a wee bit desperate to renew negotiations for dinner. “It’d be nice to meet you.”
“It’d be nice to meet you, too. You can even make a joke, if you like. Once I’ve had a drink, that is.”
“I’ll contain myself at least through the martinis.”
I thought I heard the softest chuckle on her end. “When would you like to get together? Would this Friday work for you?”
“That sounds fine,” she said, and we exchanged information on time, place and phone numbers “in case something came up.”
“It might come in handy,” I said as we were wrapping up our plans, “if you described yourself so I don’t wander around the restaurant searching for you. I wouldn’t want to disturb the other dinner patrons.”
“Heavens no,” she said, and I thought I heard a smile in her words. “I’m five-feet-five-inches tall, shoulder-length brown hair, and blue eyes.” She paused for a second then added, “I’ll wear a blue dress. That should make spotting me a little easier.”
“Okay,” I said as if reading a recipe, “Five-feet-five, brown hair, blue eyes, blue dress.”
“Don’t worry,” Annie said softly, “for a lawyer, I’m actually kind of cute.”
For a second I hesitated then laughed gently. She laughed too, and I found her flash of humor infectious. Our dinner date seemed full of potential.
“You’re a lawyer? I guess I should give you the rundown on me —”
“I know what you look like from your picture on the book cover.”
“Maybe it’s not a good likeness.”
“I’ll take my chances,” she said, and we both laughed again.
“Well,” I said, “I guess I’ll see you Friday.”
“See you then.” Annie wasn’t quite finished, “Peter?”
“I’m glad we’re doing this.”
We hung up on that pleasant note. I mulled over calling Paul Aguirre to get the scoop on Annie the way I had called my sister to find out about Sharon but decided the heck with it. Let the mystery of Annie’s character add to the experience. After all, what did I really learn about Sharon from my sister?
I finished off my sandwich and beer, realizing that I had gone from famine to feast in both the literal and metaphorical senses in the space of a half-hour. From no social life to two dates. From a nightmare about my ex-wife to two encounters with mystery women. Okay, they were both blind dates, and blind dates had a way of being high on expectation and low on fulfillment, but the odds favored me — at least one of them would probably be nice.
If only I had known what was coming.
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