As usual Peachtree Road is more stop than go, even on a Tuesday night. I seldom come this way. Buckhead is generally not my part of town unless there’s a work meeting at one of the many hotels, or I have a very specific shopping objective that cannot be fulfilled via the Internet or someplace closer to my side of town. But here I am smack dab in the middle of it. It’s nearly seven according to the dashboard clock of my Toyota Corolla. I’m on my way to Michelle’s, where I will meet Eli Abbot for dinner.
Which is kind of a work meeting I guess. Unofficially of course. When we talked Monday morning—or rather he talked because I was kind of too speechless—he said that he wanted to learn about the homeless situation in the Dayton area. I managed to admit that I didn’t know a whole lot about it off the top of my head, and he suggested we could meet for dinner Tuesday and discuss it further. To which I replied yes with all the finesse of a smitten sycophant. And he said he would text me the time and place. And he did.
I took off a half-day from work to get ready, which meant making sure my Anne Klein black suit was without a flaw or a wrinkle and my black pumps were polished to perfection. The shoes are kitten-heels, but heels they are. I own exactly two power suits, both are Anne Klein, one black, one navy. I really don’t have much of a need for suits at work. They are more private sector than public sector. If I showed up at the office wearing a suit, people would think I had a job interview. Alonso, my brother-like best friend and most trusted advisor, advised me not to dress too casually and not too fancy either. “You must look like you’re coming straight from work,” he said, “even though you’re not. These kind of people get government appointments,” he went on to say. “This could be your ticket to D.C. You might end up some kind of special assistant. A staffer maybe. That would be fantástico!”
I also used the time off to type up impeccable notes on housing and homeless conditions in Ohio in general and Dayton specifically. I am aiming to impress. It’s been all I can do not to confess to Alonso that what I really want from Eli Abbot has very little to do with a brilliant career. I’m too embarrassed to admit to my friend that I’m cuckoo for cocoa puffs over this guy. All Alonso knows is that Eli is a political consultant who works on campaigns all around the country, and that he has asked me to be his unofficial SME on homelessness.
When I googled Eli I actually found a clip of him being interviewed by a local TV reporter in Houston, Texas. It was filmed about four years ago, when Eli was clean-shaven, and standing up. The reporter, a woman, appears absolutely enchanted as Eli holds forth on the importance of voter turn-out. I watched the clip a couple of times and saved the website to my Favorites. I also shared the link with Alonso.
“I fly to D.C. all the time,” my friend grumbled, “and you’re the one who discovers Captain America? Eso no es justo. No fair.”
“He’s straight, Alonso,” I said to discourage the turn the conversation was about to take.
“And how do you know?”
“I just do.”
Although maybe I don’t. I don’t know much about Eli at all. His social media presence is all professional, I suppose as it should be. As I should be. It’s best to make it all sound so boringly above board to Alonso, and not at all below the waist. I have had a few too many misfires lately, calling into question my man-judgment. So as I turn into the restaurant’s drive, I ground myself with the reminder that maybe all this really is, and really should be, is a job interview. At least I’m dressed for it.
No surprise Michelle’s has valet parking, and the valet has to patiently hold the car door open while he waits for me to fumble with taking my car key off my key ring. When I finally get it done and hand it to him, the valet hands me a claim check. Then gathering my “date purse”, a black leather envelope clutch, and the manila file folder of facts I have dutifully researched, I step out of the car wondering should I tip the valet now or later. I do go to nice places with friends and even dates, but obviously I’m not very used to this level of fine dining.
Michelle’s is a French restaurant, and when Alonso googled it he was impressed both with the number of stars and the number of dollar signs.
“Classy guy,” he said. “You sure this isn’t a date?”
“He just wants to pick my brain for the campaign,” I said. “Really it’s only work.”
“Well one thing’s for sure he’s not cheap,” said Alonso.
I’m nervous, but by the time I enter the restaurant I appear to be every bit the cosmopolitan professional I’m entitled to be. One might even think I do this kind of thing all the time, I look so confident. I do have a Twitter account now. I tried to name myself PlaneGirl but it’s already taken, plus it sounds corny given why I have opened an account in the first place. And it’s not very honest since I really don’t like to travel. My username ends up being Dooney in a goofy nod to my first name, which is in fact how I came about it. Mother loves Lorna Doone cookies and Daddy says that she craved them the whole time she was pregnant with me. Naturally Cookie is already taken too. But it’s okay, I’m not the star, I’m the stalker. My Twitter profile picture is a photograph of a bunch of yellow tulips. Eli will never know I’m following him.
And I do feel pretty dooney as it turns out in contrast to the hostess who greets me, and by her mere presence checks my false bravado. She is tall, wearing high heels, and wearing her hair up in a monument of glossy braids, creating one long, lovely line. Sparkly silver earrings cascade from her ears. A radiant smile fills her pretty café au lait face. My black suit is nice but her black dress is fabulous. Undoubtedly she is genetically designed for it. No amount of dieting and exercise would ever pour me into such a dress. I guess her to be an aspiring actress or model or singer, since no one ever aspires to be a restaurant hostess even in a restaurant like this one. I inform her that I’m with the Abbot party, which sounds pretentious and overstated, especially if there is only the two of us, but it gets the job done. “Oh yes,” the hostess says. “Mr. Abbot’s here. I’ll show you to his table.”
Trailing behind her, I spot Eli from across the room. He’s seated at a table towards the back, next to a window. I see him before he sees me. And oh yes, in case I had any doubts, he’s still as gorgeous as he was Thursday morning in the gate area. He is occupied typing something into his mobile phone. For a second I wonder how he even has the time to meet with me. It’s not until my hostess-escort and I get closer to him that Eli looks up, and then he smiles at me in such a way that I forget all about my shortcomings in comparison to the aspiring beauty contestant I’m standing next to. He is, after all, waiting for me not her.
Her mission accomplished, the hostess leaves us alone, although I can’t swear to that because by now my hand is in Eli’s, and he’s gently squeezing it which turns me into warm jelly. “Hi,” I say, still not quite believing that I am here with him. I was shocked to find his message waiting for me yesterday, shocked even more that he had called me on Thursday night. It’s like he really wants to see me, like he really likes me. I barely slept last night, and since we talked Monday afternoon I’ve been too excited to eat.
“So we meet again,” Eli says.
At his request, and by my prayers. I have to tell myself to let go of his hand so that I can sit down. Managing to do that, I place my bag and folder on the empty chair next to me.
“Sorry I’m late,” I apologize even though it’s only by minutes. “The traffic--”
“You’re not late,” Eli says, removing his glasses.
He’s so matter-of-fact some people might consider him abrupt, but I like that about him. He’s an alpha male, who apparently likes French food. Since I’m only nearsighted I can take off my glasses too but I don’t. This is business.
“This is a lovely place,” I declare, looking around, hoping that my voice sounds steadier out loud than it does in my head. The restaurant tables are covered in white cloths. Candles glow in cut-glass holders. A man is playing a baby-grand piano quietly. Mixed in with the music is the hum of conversations, the tinkling of cutlery against the dishes. There are only three chairs at our table that seats four because Eli comes with his own. I watch him put his glasses and his phone away in a small black pouch attached to his chair.
“Have you been here before?” he asks.
“No. But you have though, right? It suits you.”
Oh God—why did I say that? And Eli wonders the same thing judging by his expression. I take a drink of water from the glass at my place.
“How so?” he asks.
He knows how so, I think to myself. Based on his Twitter following, his T.V. appearances, his published commentaries, in his circles he’s probably like a celebrity or something. This is the kind of place where he would hang out. He’s not really your Applebee’s type.
“It’s very elegant,” I say.
Eli smiles. Good answer, I think to myself.
“In keeping with my company,” he replies. “I hope you like French food. The head chef is the owner, and an old family friend.”
“Butter and cream,” I say lightly. “What’s not to like? It’s very fancy.”
I must never tell him about my McDonald’s breakfasts and Wendy’s salads.
“Not when you grow up eating it all the time,” Eli replies.
At this point a waiter arrives. I haven’t even looked at the menu that was left at my place on the table. Fortunately, the waiter only wants to know what I’d like to drink. Eli already has a glass of red wine. It would be weird for me just to have water, but I haven’t eaten and I am driving. Asking for the first thing that comes to mind, I order a glass of chardonnay. But now the waiter wants to know which chardonnay, and when I look at him dumb-founded, he points to the wine list also on the table. I pick it up. The wine list is extensive and includes several varieties of chardonnay.
Perhaps I take a minute too long, because Eli suggests, “Try the Marcassin.”
“Okay,” I agree, whatever that is, and put down the list.
The waiter is satisfied and leaves us. Made to feel a bit like a country-bumpkin I resort to my file folder of facts and figures for consolation. I may not know wine but I do know about affordable housing.
“So I put some information together for you,” I say offering Eli the folder.
He takes it and looks through the pages, a quirky smile toying with his lips.
“I thought seeing the trends over the past decade might be more helpful than just a snapshot of now,” I explain. “That way you can see the progress in some ways, and the persistent problems too.”
Eli nods. “Nice work,” he says, closing the folder and setting it aside.
The waiter returns with my wine.
“Much of the best work is being done by nonprofits,” I continue, somewhat disappointed that he’s not still reviewing the material. I put a lot of effort into this summary. It was like responding to a congressional inquiry at 3 o’clock on a Friday afternoon with a due date that’s close of business; only it was worse because I couldn’t ask for any help.
“They’re able to move more quickly than government institutions,” I proceed. “And grassroots--”
“Lorna,” Eli cuts me off. “I have to make a confession.”
“Okay,” I say, taking a breath and another sip of the chardonnay.
The wine is good. It tastes of vanilla and caramel. But I’m more interested in the confession, and more anxious about it too. Maybe the summary report is too much. Maybe I’m coming off like a bureaucratic braniac. Mother’s always scolding me about scaring men off. “The man wears the pants, Lorna,” she tells me. I suppose it’s no accident that both of my power suits come with skirts. I do want to please her.
“I wanted to see you again,” Eli shrugs, almost awkwardly, as if he were somewhere in the vicinity of contrition. “And I needed an excuse.”
The delicious vibrations buzz in again, and I wriggle a little in my seat, somewhere in the vicinity of elation. I knew there had been something between us! The table hides me clasping my hands together tightly to keep them from clapping.
“Why didn’t you just ask me out?” I say unable to mask the thrill in my voice.
Eli eyes me skeptically. Slow your roll, Lorna, I say to myself.
“On a flight?” he asks.
“It’s classier than in a club,” I smile at him. “Plus you didn’t have to buy me a drink,” I gleefully tease.
“’Course in the club, if I get shot down, I just walk away so to speak.”
“You never get shot down,” is my instant reply.
Eli’s expression flattens suddenly, going blank. He grips the rims of his chair briefly, and I’m sorry I said it. Walking away is not an option. But it’s just an expression, right? A figure of speech. Okay, maybe a lot of women wouldn’t be smitten with him. The wheelchair is different. Adjustments have to be made. I have thought about it, about his disability, but I can’t seem to make it matter more than his ebony eyes, his big, strong hands, the way he talks. Maybe the chair even makes him sexier, the way he’s overcome it. I don’t know if I could do the same. I was impressed with Tammy too, the way she just always seemed to handle it. Eli handles it from coast to coast. So the vibrations keep coming, trembling through my entire self, like right now as I gaze at him. I just want to touch him, stroke his beard that looks alluring even on his guarded face. Maybe it feels like velvet, like black velvet.
After a moment Eli says, “You seem rather sure about that.”
Clearly he’s not. If some women have rejected him because of the wheelchair, that’s unfortunate, but I can’t help thinking of their loss as my gain.
“I am sure,” I tell him.
Anybody who would turn him down doesn’t deserve him, because they’re too dumb to realize what they’re missing. Eli’s expression remains dubious, and he’s studying me closely. The wheels turning in his head are almost as obvious to me as his Adam’s apple moving in his neck. He’s trying to figure me out. Maybe himself too. The invitation was his. I just accepted it. Send me on a wild goose chase, will you? Well, kind sir, looks like you got caught. Yes there was something between us. Chemistry. Kismet. Call it what you will. I, for one, love a mystery. Please let it play out.
Eli calmly drinks his wine, while my heart beats in my ears, drowning out the piano music, the other voices from the other tables.
“So this is a date then?” I finally have to ask unable to endure his silence any longer.
I need him to confirm it for me. I want to be happy, even if it’s only for a little while but I need the confirmation. He owes it to me, even if he is second-guessing it.
“Yeah,” he says. “Is that okay?”
I guess he needs the confirmation too.
“It’s more than that,” I tell him, at last granting my smile full permission to fill up my face. “Much more than that.”
She makes dinner more than okay too. By the time we’re half way through our entrees, hers the almond-crusted trout with green beans, and mine the grilled lamb chops with spinach, I’m feeling like this was a good decision after all. My first dates are not what they used to be, and liking the girl makes it harder, because when there’s so much at stake, my piss-poor odds are tough to deal with. It’s much easier when the attractions are little more than curiosity and opportunity. I’ve never been much of a saint when it comes to the romance department. I used to just slip on a condom and have a good time. And now even when the condom is attached to a catheter most times I’m still pretty opportunistic. As in the case of Cindy, the difference being that she’s pretty opportunistic too. But this time, it’s different. I keep asking myself why. And I don’t know that I want it to be. It just is. I want something good, meaningful, to happen with this little Susie Social Worker. I can’t get over the feeling that it’s important with her.
And at the same time, although she hasn’t said a word to make me think she’s not interested in the same thing, instead of simply going with that, I also keep telling myself that she’s either very naïve or very kind, neither of which bodes that well for me. There’s so much to show her about myself, to warn her about, to prepare her for. If this does take off, she won’t be naïve for long. I guess I just hope she’ll be kind.
Well whatever happens, she is luminous tonight. I like looking at her. Her brown eyes are bright. Her cheeks are rosy with every blush, and she blushes often, at every compliment I give her, at every bold thing she says. I’m guessing she’s wearing makeup tonight, but if she is it’s a light application. Behind her frameless glasses there’s no shadow, no mascara. Her eyes are lovely all by themselves, as is her mouth. She’s done something to fluff-up her short haircut, and it’s pretty, softer. Her black suit is a little severe, but she’s paired it with a white blouse, I think women call it a shell, and it looks like silk. Against her Hershey brown skin, the silky white shimmers.
Lorna’s a chatty gal, and she talks with her hands. Her dinner fork at times is like a conductor’s baton, and I think to myself how adorable. She’s on her second glass of the Marcassin and probably a little buzzed. I recommended the Marcassin because I like it, and because in my mind from now on all things vanilla will be associated with Lorna. I’m not close enough to tell if she’s wearing the same fragrance from Thursday, but it’s likely. Something tells me that Lorna’s a creature of habit. She’s stable, consistent, and simple. Though not without fireworks all together. She’s also passionate, at least about her work. It remains to be seen where her other passions lie.
During the meal, Jean Paul, the head chef and owner, comes out from the kitchen to say hello. Mother has known him for years. Dad sponsored him when he emigrated to the States. When I introduce him to Lorna, he kisses her hand with one of those old school continental bows. She’s enchanted, and I feel a twinge of jealousy. Damn—I’m already possessive when it comes to her. Jean Paul is old enough to be her father, and he’s like an uncle to me.
While the two of converse in French about our families, etc., Lorna’s looks on smiling. When Jean Paul leaves us, she asks, “So is your mom a French chef too?”
“No more than any mother is, I guess,” I say. “She’s just happens to be French.”
“Oh you’re French,” she says. “No wonder.”
“No wonder what?” I ask.
“You sound like Gérard Depardieu.”
Of course I don’t look like him, so I’m a bit surprised that she’s not surprised. People usually are. Then they want to know if I’m Haitian.
“Really?” I say.
“Yes, I took French in high school and in college. I know a proper accent when I hear it.”
“So you speak French?”
“Un peu,” she says.
In French I counter that it seems to me it would have to be more than a little, and she replies in English, the color rising in her cheeks, “Haven’t you made me work hard enough for my supper, Mr. Abbot? Must I be bilingual too?”
“Touché,” I have to say, and then we both enjoy a good laugh that leaves smiles on both our faces.
“My mother is French Moroccan,” I tell her. “To be exact.”
“As in Casablanca?” Lorna asks as if she takes pleasure in that fact.
I’m impressed that she so readily made the connection. I bet she likes old movies too, and in an instant I imagine us together on a sofa with Humphrey Bogart on the T.V. screen, and Sam playing it again.
“Precisely,” I say.
“Oh wow,” she says.
“That surprises you.”
“Yeah…I mean no…I mean I don’t know.”
“My father’s Black, from Mississippi,” I add. “Bolivar County. It’s in the Delta.”
Now she stares at me. I can see she’s trying to put it all together, although she’s missing a number of facts: like my ancestors are slaves and slave owners. The Abbots are an American melting pot.
“I know,” I finally say. “We could be a Benetton ad.”
“My family’s from Louisiana,” she says.
“Oh?” I reply, thinking we might have something in common.
“Not the New Orleans part,” she quickly disavows me of any French connection. “Western Louisiana. Really more East Texas. We’re just plain folk.”
“I see,” I say. “I’ve worked down there. Tough crowd.”
Even the liberals are conservative.
“That’s the truth,” Lorna agrees. “Which is probably why once I got out of there for college, I basically never went back to Red River Parish. Except for holidays, and family reunions of course.”
“Your parents are still there?” I ask, wondering what they would make of me for a variety of reasons.
“Oh yes,” she says. “So is all of your family here in Atlanta?”
“I thought you said you only spoke a little French?”
The blush returns for an instant.
“I listen better than I speak,” she replies with a sparkle in her eyes.
When our entrees are finished, the waiter returns and asks if we will be having dessert. I say Lorna should have the chocolate mousse.
“It’s the best in the world,” I tell her.
“Have you had it in Paris?” she asks.
“I have,” I say.
“Me too. But tonight I’ll just have the coffee.”
“With a whole lot of extra cream,” I tell the waiter.
Lorna smiles, “And one Splenda.”
While we’re having our coffee, the waiter brings the check. It’s getting late. Around us the dinner crowd is thinning out. It’s a work night. Plus I need to go to the bathroom. I’m wearing a leg bag and a diaper brief to be on the safe side, but it’s time to check things out. Lorna’s already excused herself once. I’m not a bottomless pit either. Such is my life now. For the last three hours mostly I could just be a man on a date with a nice girl, but now I have to come from behind the table and be a cyborg again. I leave my credit card with the check and push back from the table.
“Excuse me,” I say casually, nodding my head in the direction of Michelle’s facilities, “Need to make a visit.”
“Oh sure,” Lorna says.
“It takes me a little longer,” I feel compelled to explain.
What is this Lesson One, I ask myself.
“Okay,” she says.
On the way to the bathroom I imagine her staring at me, and asking herself if she’s really up for this kind of thing. After it happened and they had sent me home, at first I would fantasize about mistaken diagnosis and miracle cures. I was physically fit, strong, all I had to do was try, work. I knew how to work. I’d wake up from a dream in which I was normal and be shocked all over again that I couldn’t just jump out of bed, and go for a run. But I began to make my peace with it. Eventually all I wanted to do was be able to stand up so that I could stop being afraid that everything I would ever want was now simply out of my reach. She’s thinking about that now, about what it’s like for me, and what it would be like with me.
I roll pass the urinals and do my business in the handicap stall. The leg bag is full but the diaper is dry. I smell okay. I haven’t soiled myself. I wash my hands again and put on my gloves to leave. Bathroom floors even in classy places like Michelle’s are not very clean. On my way back to our table I’m almost surprised to see that Lorna’s still there. Of course she would be. She’s a classy lady. She greets me with a smile that I don’t deserve having doubted her. I hide myself behind the table again and attend to the check.
“I guess we should get going,” I say, setting the folio to the side.
“Okay,” Lorna says though she keeps her seat. “Thank you, Eli. I had a wonderful time.”
“Me too,” I say.
“Even if you did trick me,” she teases.
“I did do that.”
“I hope it was worth it.”
“It was.” I pick up the file folder she brought. “And I’m going to use this, promise.” I tuck the file folder beside me in the chair.
“Does this mean I don’t get to be your unofficial SME on background?”
“Maybe you can just be my friend up front.”
Her cheeks are rosy again. Her eyes shine.
“I’d like that a lot,” she says.
Reaching into her purse she brings out another business card and gives it to me. I’m perplexed. I still have the first one.
“I still have the other one,” I say, which is true and a confession of sorts.
“Turn it over,” she tells me.
I do, and I find her mobile and home numbers written on the back.
“You know,” she says lightly. “In case you want to call me outside of work hours, or on the weekends.”
“You bet,” I reply and slip the card into my breast pocket.
I’m pretty sure I’m sporting a big, goofy grin. Once again, Lorna’s literally one step ahead of me and moving exactly in the direction I want to go. We leave the restaurant together. She walks alongside me evenly, easily, and when we reach the door she lets me open it for her and passes through first. For a second I wonder if she’s done this before. When we’re outside I ask for her valet ticket, and I give it to the valet who goes for her car.
Now that we are alone again, I’m suddenly at a loss for words. I think maybe it’s because I don’t want to say goodnight.
“So big day tomorrow?” I ask to fill the silence.
“Regular,” she says. “No meetings thank God. What about you? Are you jetting off somewhere?”
“No, nothing scheduled this week. Lots of meetings though. It’s what I do.”
“Should I look for you on T.V. this week?”
“We have a few things scheduled,” I admit, “But I’ll be behind the camera.”
“Oh,” she says.
“You’re not one of those types, are you?” I ask.
“One of what types?”
“You know, a groupie.”
She laughs, “A pundit groupie? Seriously?”
“Hey, some people might find Chris Matthews hot. Or maybe you’re an O’Reilly girl. Tavist Smiley?”
“I like you,” she says.
My face burns. I wasn’t fishing for that, but I won’t throw it back either. I remove one of my gloves and take her hand in mine. Turning it over I softly kiss the inside of her wrist, breathing in the sweet scent of vanilla. When I look up at her again, she’s glowing. I feel something in the bottom of my belly, a weird sensation like heat, and the last muscles I can feel begin to contract. Oh God, I pray in my head, don’t let me spasm right now. And yet I don’t let go of her hand until the valet returns with her car.
I walk her, so to speak, over to the open car door, and before she can retrieve money from her purse to tip him, I hand the valet a five-dollar bill. He thanks me and jogs off. Lorna gets in the car. I roll in close. With her seated we are at eye level again. Say goodnight, Abbot, I command myself, and then proceed to disobey.
“Thank you, Lorna,” I say instead. “I really had a great time.”
“Me too,” she says. “Please tell Jean Paul that his food is très magnifique.”
Her French pronunciation is flawless. What else is she hiding behind her plain girl façade?
“We should come here again,” I say, “and you can tell him.”
“C’est bon,” she replies. “It’s a deal.”
I’ll see her again. I know this now, but I still want the goodnight kiss. I’m entitled to it. So is she. I’ll probably never be able to escort her to her door. This is now about as good as it gets, until she comes home with me. And she’s not the kind of woman who does that on a first date. Maybe she doesn’t even kiss.
But I lean in anyway. The reward is worth the risk. She comes forward to meet me, breathing a sigh of relief I press my lips to hers. Her mouth opens just a little, enough to permit the tip of my tongue to explore the rim of her mouth. I taste coffee and sweetness. I feel the hard smoothness of her white teeth. The weird warm sensation at the bottom of my belly begins again. As the kiss lingers, force of habit, driven by instinct, inspired by desire I place my hand on her thigh and slip my fingers just a little beyond the hem of her skirt. Her firm flesh, covered by sheer black hosiery, is warm to my touch. In this moment, in this parking lot, I am inches away from her pussy. But she doesn’t withdraw. She doesn’t even flinch. I dare to imagine she might be wet for me.
Then my right knee starts to bounce violently. Jerking away from Lorna I grab onto it with both hands in a useless attempt to hold it still. Dammit! I swear under my breath, as I stare down at the leg that moves only at its will, never mine. And then I see Lorna’s hands reach over and cover mine. Gently but firmly she removes them from my rebellious knee and simply holds onto them in both of hers. When I look up at her she’s smiling as if I were the man I was. Only she doesn’t know him. She only knows me now.
“Thank you for a wonderful evening, Eli,” she says and kisses me again on the lips, briefly this time, just a peck. “Call me, okay.”
“I will,” I say.
She reaches over and squeezes my right knee. I can’t feel it, but I can see it, and I’m grateful for her touch.
I push back and close her car door while she buckles her seatbelt.
“Goodnight, Lorna,” I say.
I watch her drive away before returning to curb to give the valet the ticket for my car, a black BMW. She drives a Corolla. It figures.