A loud clash of thunder wakes me up on Wednesday morning. I peek out my bedroom window to see rain. Coming down in droves. Rook whines from his spot underneath my bed. No way I'm getting him outside this morning. I glance back out the window at the small stream forming in the street beneath my apartment. There goes my run for today. Also my hair.
In fact, there goes my entire will to do anything other than lounge around today. Days like this make me want to curl up on my screened-in patio with a good book and a cup of coffee and literally do nothing else. My apartment is on the second floor of the building and, even though it faces a back alley (which is currently flooding), I've managed to turn the space into my personal reprieve. The patio is shoved full of old wicker furniture and ugly pillows. Pretty much everything out there was scavenged from yard sales and thrift stores. It's hideous, ragtag, and I love it. Already, I know that that's where I'm going to spend the evening tonight after work.
I glance back at the clock. Still 6:30. What the hell. I’ll spend a little time out there before work too. I grab a well-worn book from my nightstand without even seeing what it is and head for the patio.
Once I’m all settled in--and dangerously balancing a cup of coffee on my knee--I glance at the book’s title. The Complete Stories by Flannery O'Conner. A little giggle escapes from me—Flannery is exactly what I would have chosen for a day like today.
This anthology is one that I know almost by heart. The page numbers and significant quotes are burned into my mind. I take a big sip of coffee and then turn to page fifty-four: my favorite story.
"A Stroke of Good Fortune": the age old story of an unsatisfied woman finding luck and satisfaction in unexpected places and ways. It's not an overly cheery or happy story, per se--most of Flannery's aren't--but it's got this pensive undertone that just resonates with me. For a rainy day, it's perfect.
It's been awhile since I've read this one, so I go at a slower pace than usual. As the story of Ruby Hill and her compatriots unfold before me, I can't help but think about my own luck and fortune lately. Unlike the story, I've got a few loose ends; a few plot holes that I'm not sure are going to be resolved. The foremost of these being my ever increasing and burgeoning interest in one particular reading room patron.
I picture Max in my head, and the thought makes me smile. There's something about him...he seems smart, well-spoken, clever. Most of all, he’s interested in me. I know I'm getting ahead of myself--after all, we've only had the one date--but I just can't stop thinking that perhaps it’s finally my turn to have a stroke of good fortune too. And that maybe, just like Ruby's, I'll find it in the most unexpected place.
By lunchtime the incessant rain has subsided from a relentless downpour to an annoying drizzle. I can literally feel my curly (read: frizzy) hair expanding as the day goes on, and--as much as it pains me--I decide my lunch plans seriously need to be re-evaluated. There is no way in hell I am going outside in this weather. Max is not ready to see my hair when it looks like I’ve just stuck my finger in a socket. Not yet.
But then it occurs to me that even after all of our interactions, I still don’t have Max’s phone number; and it’s hard to postpone a lunch that starts in fifteen minutes via email. How is that even possible in this day and age? Good grief! I’m an awful millennial.
A moment later, just as I’m debating on how to contact him, my phone rings.
“Inez Carter, DeVinn Collection,” I answer, trying to sound pleasant. “Can I help you?”
“You’ve got a visitor down here in the lobby,” our receptionist Elaine tells me. “Says he has a 12:30 appointment with you.”
“What?” I mutter, more to myself than to the receptionist. Quickly I double check my calendar, but it’s blank. I wonder if Barry scheduled a meeting and forgot to tell me. I glare in the direction of his office door. “I’ll be right down.”
I take the stairs, and with each step I grow a little more irritable. This day is going down the drain. It’s raining. My hair is the size of Mars. I can’t get ahold of Max to let him know I need to postpone our lunch (but at least now I do have a better excuse than vanity), I’ve got a surprise meeting (screw you, Barry), and I’m not going to get to eat lunch to boot.
Despite my irritation, I try to plaster a smile on my face as I round the corner of the staircase and enter into the atrium. Whoever this person is, they are either important, a donor, or an important donor. Regardless, I need to make them feel welcome and appreciated. Greeting them with a scowl probably wouldn’t be the best display of donor appreciation—and it’s all about donor appreciation in this place.
So I’m grinning like a phony idiot when I enter into the atrium. Until I see my 12:30 appointment, however—then the smile is genuine and my irritation is quickly replaced by tummy-squishy feelings.
Max is sitting in the middle of the atrium, dressed casually in jeans and a navy blue rain jacket. Even from across the atrium I can see water spots on his glasses and that his pants are slightly damp. He’s smiling broadly, obviously pleased with himself and his surprise, but something about him today makes me do a double take. Today he’s sitting in the wheelchair he was in on the first day I met him, rather than standing and leaning on forearm crutches like I’d become accustomed to lately. I wonder why, but the thought is fleeting and I don’t ask. Instead, I scurry over and point at the grocery sack sitting on his lap. “Is that food?”
“Only if this is a strictly non-professional lunch,” he answers back with a grin. I stick my tongue out at him in response (because I’m eight, not thirty-three) and he laughs. “I figured you’d want to avoid a trek outside today.”
“I grew up with three sisters. I know how women can be about the weather and their hair.”
Without thinking, I reach up to pat down my unruly hair. Damn. I wish I had a hair-tie.
Max winks at me. “And it seems like you’re no exception.”
“It’s curly!” I say defensively. I eyeball his very straight hair, pulled back into a neat man-bun. “You straight-haired types just don’t understand.”
“My sisters always said the same thing,” he laughs. The second mention of his sisters makes me curious: are they close? Older? Younger? Max is intriguing, and I find myself wanting to know every mundane detail about him. Just I’m about to ask though, he nods down at the take-away bag on his lap. Grinning up at me adorably, he asks, “So, can I interest you in some grub?”
Yeah. Actually, mundane details can wait until later.
“Okay. The internet was right. That was a damn good sandwich.”
I smile. We’re eating in the public break area open to both patrons and staff. Max balls up his wrapper—all that remains of a gigantic meatball sub from Zunzi’s—and pushes back from the table to toss it in the trashcan. It lands about two feet from the intended target.
“He shoots annnnnddd he misses,” I announce in a deep voice, being goofy without thinking. “Will he try for a second shot?”
“Depends on what the prize for making it is,” he counters as he slowly wheels over to the trashcan. The public break area is small and cluttered; there are far too many tables and chairs for the space. I watch as he expertly grabs onto the backs of the chairs in his path and propels himself forward, using the obstacles as aids, and I’m a little awed. He meets my gaze, catching me in the act of blatantly staring yet again. “So, what’s the prize?”
I blank. “Uhh...”
“Oh, come on. You can do better than that.” He waits.
I detest being put on the spot. It makes me nervous and then I freeze up. So it’s no surprise that the first thing that pops in my head is lame. “Oh! You could give me your number if you make it?”
“That doesn’t make sense.” He shakes his head at the suggestion. Then he winks. He ACTUALLY winks at me. He reaches into a bag hanging off the back of his chair and rummages around for a second and before he finally pulls out a business card. “There. Now you’ve got my number. Emailing is actually for the old foggies.”
I reach out and take the card from him. “This is your office number in Athens.” I chuckle. “How helpful.”
“Flip it over.”
I do. On the back he’s written his cell. How cheesy. But cute too. I can’t help but smile as I tuck it away and then go back to eating my own sandwich. Max rolls back over to the trashcan—no doubt to finish collecting all of the pieces that flew apart during his shot—and I’m hoping, since we’re no longer on the subject, that maybe he’ll let me off the hook and forget about asking me to come up with a prize.
I take a bit of cheesy, meaty, marinara goodness and try to ignore the guilty thoughts streaming into my mind as I do. Not running this morning combined with a meatball sub is not going to be good for my ever-slowing metabolism. I continue eating until I hear a little “ahem” noise from the other side of the room.
Max is still staring at me from across the room. He’s got an expectant look on his face and, I have a feeling that if he could, he’d be tapping his toe loudly and impatiently, urging me to hurry up and decide what the prize for a winning layup into the trashcan is. But because he can’t (at least, I don’t think he can), he just sighs loudly and gives me a pleading look that says “Come onnnn, play along.”
Clearly, I’m not getting off the hook.
I roll my eyes. “Fine. The prize is a kiss,” I tell him, half-joking and fully expecting him to miss.
His eyebrows shoot up in surprise after I’ve declared the prize—but only for a moment. A nanosecond later he’s grinning cockily. He brushes off his shoulders and wheels forwards just a tad. I almost call him out on cheating, but then I decide against it, because honestly, I have a feeling that a kiss from Max wouldn’t be a bad thing. Like, at all. He smashes the paper wrapper into a tighter ball, lines up for the shot, and tosses. The wrapper arches and sails beautifully through the air. As it glides, I suddenly realize I’m holding my breath in anticipation as we both watch—practically in slow motion—as it starts to fall towards the target...
And lands behind the trashcan.
Max knits his eyebrows together in a frown. With two smooth pumps of his wheels he reaches the wrapper and then shoves it vehemently into the trashcan.
“And he misses again,” I tease, this time in a quiet voice, just a fraction above a whisper. Truth be told, I’m actually a bit disappointed that he missed. Especially because I definitely don’t have the balls to just walk over there and plant one on him.
He gives me a halfhearted smile as he wheels back over to our table, and that’s when I realize, with a jolt, that he’s disappointed too. “I really thought I had that one in the bag.”
“You mean in the bin?” I make a weak attempt at wit. He rewards me a small laugh. At that moment, an alarm on my phone sounds, reminding me that I’ve only got five minutes of my lunch break left. I sigh. “Time for me to go.”
Max doesn’t answer. He seems distracted and detached suddenly, and I can’t help but wonder if it is due to something I did. But then I decide that maybe he’s just a sore loser. Or maybe he really did want to kiss me. That thought makes my stomach flip.
I begin to clean up my area and wrap the last third of my sandwich to eat later. There’s an empty chip bag and a pile of used napkins (meatball subs are messy!) still on the table, and I grab them so I can toss them in the trash on the way out. But as I reach for them, Max stops me saying, “Oh, I’ll clean up.”
“Okay, uh, thanks.” I stand there awkwardly, not knowing how to end this little date. “Thanks for lunch,” I add.
“Anytime.” He balls up the trash and puts in in his lap. He smiles up at me and suddenly; he’s bright and cheerful again. “Let me walk you out of the break room, at least.”
“Thanks,” I laugh. I’m relieved he seems to have gone back to normal, confused at the mood swing. I cross the room in two steps and open the door, holding it for him to go through too.
But he doesn’t.
Max stays right where he is and balls up the trash in his hands. There’s a look of intense concentration on his face. He shoots again...
“Wow,” he says incredulously, but he’s laughing this time, as this second ball of trash actually hits me in the shoulder before it falls to the floor. “I really suck at being suave.”
This time I’m laughing too. You’ve got to give it to the guy—he is really trying. “A for effort.”
Max shakes his head, presumably at his own antics, and wheels towards me. He tosses the wrappers into the trash, and then looks at me. I’m still holding the door, but he doesn’t leave the room. Instead, he grins. There’s a mischievous twinkle in his eye.
“Consolation prize?” he asks me.
The look on his face is so adorable, boyish almost, that I can’t say no. Butterflies fill my stomach as he grabs my free hand and gently tugs me down to his level. He smells like a mixture of spearmint and salt, but that’s the last thing I’m really concentrating on as he leans forward and gently presses his lips against mine. The kiss is short, chaste almost, and it only leaves me wanting more. I let out a small whimper—it’s been a long time since I’ve been kissed—as Max pulls away slightly and huskily whispers in my ear, “Remember, this one is only a consolation prize.”
I can’t imagine what a real prize might be like.