Word count, start of day -- 23,600
I took a deep breath. She was dead serious, her eyes a mixture of purpose and attractive vulnerability. In that moment, in that look, I knew that this moment mattered. This was big. This was important.
I pulled Annie over into me slowly and kissed the top of her head. "That's okay, Annie," I whispered to her. A moment passed, then I did it. "Me, too," I whispered.
She sat straight again, her eyes cast out somewhere before the trees at the edge of the property. "Did you mean," she said, still looking straight ahead, "that you have feelings for me, too?" Then she turned to me.
Her eyes were hauntingly expressive. This was the greatest act of courage I had ever witnessed. This whole scene just blew me away. I nodded. How could I not be attracted to her. Any good would be attracted to her. Every guy probably was. She was pretty, no matter how plainly she dressed at work. She was smart and pleasant and funny. "Yeah," I confirmed.
I looked at her and halfway smiled. "You know, we probably ought to go back to work," I suggested.
She dropped her head. "I know, I'm so sorry, I had no right to-"
"Stop," I said, touching the bottom of her chin with an index finger. She raised her face and turned to me. "Don't apologize," I said firmly. "I just mean that really, right now, we probably have to get back to work."
Annie nodded and maybe even chuckled. "I guess so. But look, I didn't mean to, you know, I just don't know-"
I placed my index finger on her lips. "Shush. I need to think. I'd like to talk to you about this some time." I considered. "I can probably come up with a reason to come back next week some time, maybe Tuesday. Tuesday for lunch?"
She nodded. "Out here again?"
I considered. The weather would certainly turn by then. "Or we can go out somewhere," I put in, and then winced. Would she think I was asking her out on a date. "Or we can eat here at the cafeteria, either one. Whatever. It's up to you." It would not be a lot of privacy, but maybe that was a good thing.
"The pizza place down a couple of streets? At the intersection of Grove and Dunfee, do you know it?"
"I'll find it." As a matter of place, I would find it today on my way back to the office, so I would not miss it on Tuesday. And that way, I would not need to struggle to come up with a reason to stop by the Home. "Tuesday at lunch?" I reiterated.
She nodded. It was set. We stood and I pulled her into a brief hug as we started our walk back towards the building. We walked in silence, then went our own ways with shaded looks and a little wave.
The more I thought about it, the more surreal it seemed. While it was happening, it made a bit of odd inevitable sense. We were friends, we had known each other for a year, our kids had met. I had an odd feeling that this had to play out how it did. Otherwise, I would not have put myself in a position to be near her so often. But now, hours later, it seemed like the strangest moment of my life.
First there was the scene itself. An attractive woman expresses her feeling for me. For me! A regular Joe, an average schlub. I was an accountant, for crying out loud! I had thick glasses and barely knew how to dress. Now Annie knew how to dress. Everything she wore to work fit just so. How she could dress so conservatively but look so good was beyond me. And her make-up. She must wear make-up, her skin looked so good, so smooth. But I had never noticed that she wore make-up. It was over my head, and Annie Bainbridge was definitely over my head. What was I thinking?
I already had a relationship. A troubled relationship, but a relationship nonetheless. I had a wife. A troubled wife, but a wife nonetheless. Gwen was drinking still, drinking more from what I could tell. Odd bottles in the recycling bin, a shot glass stashed above the washing machine, these were items I found every now and then. But her behavior was largely unchanged. Her relationship with Natalie was still good. There were never any episodes at home or with our daughter. The older Nat got the more worried I was about her noticing Gwen's behavior or commenting about it, but it had not happened yet. I never badmouthed her mother to Natalie, and I committed to myself that I never would. Gwen drank, she occasionally exploded in anger towards me, and then she got over it quickly. I had never seen my wife with a hangover.
For a change, my wife's issues were far from my mind. I was consumed for the weekend with Annie. It was strange to able to think about her without feeling bad about it. She had set this ball rolling, the had started this. I was not being a horrible husband to think about this. I was just responding to what Annie began.
Neither of our marriages was perfect. She was at least doing something about it, and I gave that a measure of respect. She got married young, realized it was a bad move, and now was trying to make a better life her and Erin. She was moving on. Annie was what? Twenty-eight? Thirty? Definitely younger than me. Why not try to make a new start while you can? I had never quite established Dennis' age, but he must be over forty. Twelve, maybe fifteen years difference. That's a lot of years, a lot of experiences. I wondered what she was thinking about going for a guy that much older. Lots of women did it, of course. Whatever, maybe she wouldn't make the same mistake the next time.
I sighed. Did I want to be her next time? What was she thinking for us? An affair? A relationship? It made a difference what she had in mind, but should it?
I had never had an affair before. But this was no indication of my greatness as a man. I had never had the opportunity. This was a new experience for me. Not that I would have an affair just because I had the opportunity, it was just, it was just . . . aw, man, this was just too confusing. This was way too confusing.
Part of me wanted just to go for it, screw the consequences. I was a man and an attractive woman had feelings for me. This was the jackpot. I'd had very few girlfriends in my life, and none looked half as good as Annie Bainbridge. She was a solid nine, and that was at work in business clothes. All of the other women in my life were barely a nine combined! I was considering the opportunities for a fling, letting the "go for it" part of me argue his case.
But of course the world is not the Stern Show, and not all decisions made by men were based on getting laid. Certainly not this man. And that is not even what she offered. I do not know what she offered. She didn't seem like a fatal attraction, but you always had to consider the worst case scenario. I was intrigued by the best case scenario, that is for sure. All she had said was that she had feelings for me. She hadn't kissed me, jumped me, or ripped off my clothes. All she had done was spoken to me. And of course she hugged me that one time.
I was at my core a faithful guy. Gwen's drinking had never driven me to someone else's arms. I had never been tempted to stray, even when out of town on business. My wife had nothing to worry about. Maybe that's why she was so comfortable getting drunk.
I always considered myself a good guy, a decent guy. Was that it, really? Or maybe I was just a conservative guy, a straight-laced guy, a goody two shoes. Maybe I was just not a risk-taker. I had never had an adventure in my life, never taken a chance. Maybe it was time.
I barely ate for the next three days. My stomach was a mess of tension, nerves, and anticipation. I was barely sleeping, instead lying in bed staring at the ceiling. I was replaying Friday, examining a multitude of alternative endings to those events. It was like one of those "choose your own adventure" books, where every choice you made had an impact on where the rest of story went. Any different way that I had handed it would have led to different results.
I practiced what I would say to her on Tuesday, going over and over a script in my mind, changing and rewriting it every time I did so. I considered making some notes for the meeting, but dismissed the idea as silly. I would only get one chance to do this, and I wanted to make sure I did it right. There were certain things I wanted to say, and I wanted to get them out the correct way. I was no wordsmith, but there were certain expressions and events and things I wanted to share with Annie. I decided not talk about the two of us so much, but instead to speak about me.
Annie knew herself and she knew how she felt. I wanted her to get a chance to know me and know how I felt. Then I would leave everything else up to her. This was going to be delicate, and situations like this had to be in the hands of the woman. Any other way could get real ugly, real fast.
I tried to not let this affect my relationship with Gwen, but she hardly noticed. She had been off in her world for a long time now, and she hardly noticed that I had fallen into one of my own. The only time I did not obsess on Annie and our upcoming lunch was time I spent with Natalie.