Word count, start of day -- 7,052
I knew I was staring at her. I knew it and I could not do anything about it. I only hoped Gwen didn't notice.
We had arrived at Villa Nova a few minutes early and had taken a table of four. I sat so I had a full view of the room. Gwen sat to my left.
Annie was wearing similar clothes to work, just a pullover top instead of a button-down blouse. More form fitting. And a very nice form. With her was - I had not really fixed on him before, but as they approached the table I gave him a once over. He was, well, old. Older than me, I would guess he was pushing forty. And Annie was ten years younger than me, or looked absolutely great for her age. I was curious about all that, but was darn sure not going to ask.
We made small talk for a few minutes, looking through the menus. Annie's husband, I think it was Dennis, grabbed the wine menu. When Gwen and I said we had no preference, he then spent the next little while scrutinizing the options. Annie and Gwen spoke about work, Annie about her first few months at Canterbury and Gwen about her sales job at a little printing company in town. Gwen spent two or three days on the road, criss-crossing the state on a regular basis. She spent a handful of nights each month out of town, up by the industrial centers well north of us.
Dennis gave his wine order to the waiter, an expensive sounding bottle I'd never heard of. We drank little. Well, I drank little. I used to be able to say the same about Gwen, but the last few years have seen more and more wine bottles show up in the recycling bin, as well as a few empties of gin. I was worried, but she seemed a responsible drunk. I worried about those nights out of town, but I had to trust her to be a big girl.
The wine arrived, and turned out to be a sweet red with a nice bouquet. "Only half a glass," I said, "I'm driving tonight."
Gwen grabbed at the neck of the bottle and said, "More for the rest of us." It was meant to be a joke, but it was said too ferociously to be funny. Dennis filled up her glass, and kept refilling it every time it got down to half a glass. I lost track of how often this happened.
Some people are quiet drunks, some are angry drunks, some are obnoxious drunks, and some are happy drunks. Gwen was more often the latter, and fortunately this time she lived up to that pattern. She did not knock over her glass, did not drop her food, and did not get obnoxiously loud. I was thankful.
Dennis seemed like a nice enough guy, and I tried subtly to probe for his age. I tried the political angle. A dangerous topic, but I was feeling reckless.
"I remember my first vote. Bush in 88. I went whole hog, buttons, stuffed envelopes, everything." I turned to Gwen. "You could have voted in 84, right? Reagan, Mondale. Do you remember if you did or not.?"
She could not, and the Bainbridges did not express interest in the topic.
I moved on to sports, and three of us found common ground. Gwen hated every sport, so she polished off her wine while the other three of us talked football. They had moved from Kansas City, and were both huge Chiefs fans.
"So what brought you here?"
"Dennis' job." Annie volunteered
"Where is that?" I asked.
"I'm an environmental engineer."
"Work for the state?" I asked. A lot of chemical engineers did.
"No," he said. "I'm over at Weibell Chemical. I work on emissions, runoffs, issues of that nature."
"Policy stuff or chemicals?" I asked.
"I'm a scientist. Chemistry degree at U of M. Missouri."
"How long have you been at Weibell?" Here was a way to get at what I wanted to know.
"Just since we've been here." Damn. Another dead end.
"So how did you two meet?" This was Gwen.
Annie volunteered the story. "At the Grand Union."
"That's a grocery store," Gwen slurred.
Annie chuckled. "It was a part-time job."
I laughed. "You're kidding."
Dennis shook his head. "No, she's not. She was a cashier."
I pointed at Dennis. "And you?"
"Regular customer." He snuggled his wife's arm. "More regular once I found my way into Annie's line."
I chuckled. "That's funny."
Dennis went on. "We chatted a few times. She's certainly attractive. Why not take a shot, I figured."
"In the middle of the store?"
Dennis leaned in dramatically. "I waited until I was the only person in the line. And she said yes."
"We married a few months later," Annie put in.
"Kids?" Gwen asked.
"Just the one," Annie said, reaching into her purse. Probably digging around for a picture of, um, what was it? Kelly? It was something Irish sounding. Erin. That was it. Erin.
Gwen gestured toward Dennis with her wine glass and asked another question. "Do you have any other kids? You know, with anybody else?"
I choked on my sip of wine, nearly spitting it out. "Gwen!" I exclaimed.
"What?" she said, shrugging in all innocence. "I mean, look at him." Her voice was starting to rise. "He's so much older than she is. He's probably even older than I am, come on. What's the big deal? It's a fair question."
Dennis said, "It's okay, it's okay. I was married once before Annie. No kids."
I nodded. "Lucky break."
"Very," he agreed.
I cut my eyes quickly over to Annie. She was clearly uncomfortable with this thread of conversation. Dennis changed the subject to me and Gwen.
Gwen was starting to fade fast, so I told the short version of the story. We met in college, she was four years older than me, but had taken two years off after high school to travel Europe.
"Vive La Francais!" Gwen put in at this point. We were trying hard to ignore her.
"So she was only two years ahead of me."
"An older woman," Annie said with a smile. "You like experience." The wine was starting to affect her, too, so I ignored the comment and went on with the story. We actually had a similar story. Not a grocery store, but for us it was the library. Gwen was working at the research desk when I sophomore and she was a senior. I found myself spending more and more time there, struggling to come up question after question to ask, so I would have excuse after excuse to keep going back.
"Eventually I asked her a question she couldn't just look up for me," I said with a chuckle.
"Which was," Annie asked, letting me lead the tale.
"I asked her if she'd go out with me for dinner. She thought about it, didn't have to consult a single almanac, and said she would."
"When were you guys married?" Annie asked, resting her face in her upturned palms.
"After graduation. Four years."
"Off and on?"
"Four years," I confirmed with a shrug. I'm not a casual dating guy. I'm a relationship guy. I guess now I'm a marriage guy."
"How long now?"
"Eight years," I said, holding up the requisite number of fingers. "One daughter. Natalie. She's five, almost six." I reached for my wallet. Passing over the most recent photo, I asked, "And is it Erin? Erin, right? She's how old?"
"Turns four in a few days."
"Big plans for the event?" I asked.
"No," Annie said, her eyes down. "Maybe something at the day care, cupcakes or something. We don't have a lot of friends here."
I nodded. "That's too bad."
"This is fun," she said, circling her hand around the table. "We need friends."
"Don't we all," I answered, "Don't we all."