I dropped Natalie off at a school friend's house. Over the summer she had gotten to know a few more kids in the neighborhood. She was in various summer programs, through churches, the county, and the school system. Work was light in the summer for accountants, so shuttling her off to these was not the unmanageable burden I had expected. Natalie was an easy maker of friends, and Gwen's situation had become well enough known in the local area that plenty of neighbors and friends offered support and help.
Today she was at a family a few streets over that Nat had met through a soccer camp. The girls had gotten together four or five times before, but this the first all-day affair. I think they had a visit to the Disney animated feature on the plan, but the rest of the day was a total unknown to me.
I swung by Annie's apartment and picked her up at ten. This was her version of a compromise of our public/private dating thoughts. I thought she was being overly concerned about the consequences of being saw with me and I told her so. "Dennis would be crazy to fight you about custody or a settlement. You're already being generous to him."
"I know," she said, "but I have to keep Erin at all costs. I'd give up anything and everything to make sure I keep her, and I don't want to have to fight with Dennis." She then quoted something that some psychologist had told her. I did not catch it all; I was still chewing on the fact that she had a psychologist. How long had that been going on for? Anyway, what she said was something to the effect that it is not a divorce per se that hurts children, but rather it is the fighting that divorcing parents often engage in that hurts children. It is the bitterness and arguing and fighting she was trying to avoid. "I am sure that I want a divorce so now I have to make sure that we have a good one."
It sounded a bit too modern to my ears, a bit too academic, but there was no need to argue with Annie about that now.
We got on the highway and seventy-five minutes later we found ourselves at the outlet mall. It was far enough away that Annie felt safe being in public with me. We agreed that this was our "first date." It was somewhat odd to be going on a first date with someone you have already seen naked and received a variety of pleasures from. Maybe that a was a bit too modern, too.
It was a revelation being with her. I put my arm around Annie's waist as we walked throughout the mall. It was so awesome, she was so stunning and I was with her. She was with me. With me. People saw her and they saw me with her. Men looked at her, hell, men leered at her. I always thought I'd be the jealous type with a hot chick, but evidently I am not. Men ogled her, then when they got around to looking at me I just nodded and smiled. I was with her. For all that they knew, I was getting her. I was getting enough from her, no complaints about that.
We spent some quality time in the children's clothing store. We dug through stacks of shorts and jeans, piles of sweaters and socks, and racks of dresses and blouses. I had never spent so long in one store to purchase so little. We each ended up with one bag, maybe sixty bucks spent between us. But it was fun. Annie was in her element being the good mother. She did not have a list, like a would, but she found three items on three separate racks that together made a great little outfit for Natalie. I pleaded my own fashion ignorance and was able to convince Annie to pick out a dress and matching shoes for my daughter.
"Matching shoes?" I asked in fashion shock. "I knew that shoes were supposed to match one another," I deadpanned, "but now they have to match her clothes, too?"
Annie laughed and kissed me on the cheek. "I'll help you pick out clothes, honey. I like Natalie too much to leave her fashion future in your hands."
We browsed a music store and a men's clothing store next. I did not buy anything at either, but it was a chance to get to know Annie's tastes in men's clothing. Again, I saw her in fashion action. She proposed a number of shirt and tie combinations to me, all of which were unfortunately beyond my sense of what I ever wore. Nonetheless, they were all very nice looking combos and tried to make mental notes. Even though I passed on buying anything myself, I did remind her that Christmas was around the corner. "If you're willing to dress me, I am willing to be dressed."
"It's been a great day," I said over a glass of water at lunch.
"To our first date," she answered me and we toasted.
"I like doing this, dating you." I smiled at her and winked. "This wasn't so bad, was it?"
She said no, it was not.
"But do we have to go out this far from home to do it?"
A wave of sadness darkened her face as it passed over, a wistful look coming and going. "I 'm afraid so."
"I understand." I didn't like it, but I understood. We were quiet over the rest of lunch, just a little chatting here and there, small talk this and small talk that. We were at a nice joint, big sandwiches and quality salads. We split an order of fries. As we hung out in this place, having a low-key day together, a realization sprung up in my mind, complete and fully formed. I rolled it around my head as we finished up and I paid the bill. Then I resolved to do it.
Taking Annie's hand in mine and smiling softly, I said, "I really try not to say things I don't mean. I try to be careful and precise in what I was." I smiled softly, just to ease the tension that had suddenly appeared. "I want you to know two things, Annie. Things I've not said to many people. Things that I mean precisely and exactly."
I took a deep breath. "One, you are a beautiful woman."
"And two, I love you."