The bell rang and I wished for her sake, I was anyone but me. Social ease with women or people in general, has never been my strong suit, though it is easier to be me with Alex. She knows the stick of rock I am and seems to be satisfied knowing the stick of rock is me, through and through. No pretense between us to muddy the waters.
She was ringing my flat because I invited her, at her urging, on another date. Why she would see sense in suggesting another was beyond me. The first had been a blur of ineptitude and apologies on my part for not having realized she had asked me to dinner. It was a date, in a public place, where it was obvious to everyone in the world, except me, that she was done up for a night out.
She was hurt and I had been the one to cause it. Yet she offered another chance to put things right, and I snatched the opportunity like a lifeline thrown to a drowning man. Because that’s what it was. And I’ll be damned if I’ll let myself drown when she is willing to save me.
I left the kitchen to answer the door and found her standing on the other side holding up a bottle of pinot noir and a single red rose.
“A bit confused. Wasn’t sure of the etiquette involved in meeting a man at his flat for a stay-in date.” She released the smile that held me helpless each time it washed over me.
Alex stared from the other side of the door, no doubt hoping I would regain my manners and let her inside.
“I may not know all the etiquette involved in this particular form of date night, but I’m fairly certain tradition allows for the guest to enter the flat.”
I stepped aside and waved her in. “Yes, of course, come through. Sorry…let me take your coat.” She walked past, leaving a faint trail of the perfume I had always meant to ask about.
She placed the gifts on my desk in the corner of the room and began unbuttoning her coat. “You’ve tidied up.”
Tidied was a nice way of saying I had finally cleaned up a flat in the throes of chaos. It wasn't an unsanitary chaos, but a chaotic mess none the less. "Yes, couldn’t have you to dinner with it looking like a bomb site could I. Should have done it months ago. I suppose I didn’t have a reason to until now.” The mountainous stacks of books and files which usually littered my desk, the floor beside it, as well as the floor and table in front of the sofa, were sorted and placed in drawers and on shelves where space was available. Never was one for sorting or throwing out.
“And the scented candles and music, also for my benefit?” She asked.
"Yes again." I stood there searching for something more to say when I remembered yesterday's fiasco at the local Tesco. “Are you aware there are hundreds of different candle scents available? Fifteen variations on vanilla alone.”
“Really Tony, hundreds?” She shot me a look of sarcastic disbelief.
I acquiesced and said, “Well, maybe not hundreds, but even twenty is more than enough to send a grown man running from the shop screaming.”
She laughed at the sentiment and looked around again. “It is lovely. Thank you for going to the trouble to make things so nice.” She slipped off the coat and handed it to me. “Something smells wonderful. Is it Italian?”
“I made lasagna.” I called back to her on my way to lay the coat on the bed. “I’ve set it on the counter to rest while the garlic bread bakes and I toss the salad." I was eager to impress Alex with my recently acquired cooking skills. I say recently acquired because it was only as of late that I arrived at the conclusion I needed to learn to cook for myself, or face perishing in the arctic expanse of the frozen food aisles.
“Italian's my favorite.” I heard her answer back. "Has been since I toured Italy on holiday when I was a youth."
I knew that. I smiled to myself, thankful I paid attention when she mentioned the trip abroad. Mentally I made a note to tot one up for the socially challenged; one of their own finally got something right.
I came back down the hall and began to offer her a glass of wine. It was then I noticed for the first time how beautiful she looked in the glow of the candlelit room.
“Tony, you’re staring.” She self consciously adjusted the neckline of the dress and then awkwardly clasp her hands in front of and then behind her.
I was staring, but I couldn’t help it. The dress she wore was absolutely striking. A midnight blue, it was just barely looser than form fitting. The shoulders of the three quarter length lace sleeves rode just at the tips of her shoulders, as if attached at the impossible angle by something unseen, enhancing the low, open scoop of the neckline. “You look stunning.” The words breathlessly fell from my mouth. I felt like a school boy, fawning over the pretty new teacher.
“Thank you. It’s a little more revealing than I’m used to, but I really love the color and the way it hangs.” She ran her hands down the sides of the dress, and nodded toward me. “You look very handsome. Is the dress shirt new? I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you wear green before.”
The shirt was new. I bought it specifically because I didn’t have anything green and I knew she would recognize it as being new to my wardrobe. I was desperately trying to impress her.
“Green suits you; it brings out the blue of your eyes.” She stepped closer and took hold of my forearm. “It was very sweet of you to make a fuss over the dress, thank you.”
“Thank you for wearing it.” I cringed when I realized what I'd said. "Sorry, I didn't mean… I'm not saying…I don't know what I'm saying." I stopped and took a deep breath. "I can imagine how that must have sounded to you."
She laughed again. "It's alright. I chose to wear something I hoped you would find attractive. It would be silly to take offense because you did." She took the bottle of wine from the corner of the desk, and placed it in my hands. "So…what can I do to help?"
Regaining my composure, I followed her to the kitchen. "Things are well in hand, but if you'd like, you could set the table while I prepare the salad."
I took the New Zealand pinot to the kitchen counter and opened it. "I heard somewhere that the Palliser Estate is carving quite a name for themselves with their sauvignons as well."
"I wouldn't know. I asked the clerk for something good which would fit within a police officer's budget and he recommended it."Alex did a half spin in the middle of the kitchen floor and asked, "Where do you keep your plates? Oh, and the flatware?"
"You'll find what you need there." I pointed to the cabinet above the cooker and the drawer beside it. "But don't go asking for cloth napkins, because I don't have any. Paper napkins will have to do."
She took salad and dinner plates from the upper cabinet shelf and opened the drawer to remove two sets of eating utensils. "I can't believe that in the three years we've known each other I've only been to your flat a hand full of times and only then for a few minutes while you searched for some book or file you couldn't live without."
"You were here longer than a few minutes when Jonathan visited. You even agreed to stay for dinner, but you left rather abruptly. Why was that?"
I could hear her hesitate.
"Because the last thing I wanted to do that night was cause a row between the two of you." She carried the plates to the table and began laying out the table settings so they would face each other. She arranged the flatware so the forks were to the left of the plate and the butter knives to the right. "You don't really want to talk about this now, do you?" She reached for the stack of napkins at the center of the table, removed two, folded them into something resembling a triangle and placed them under the forks.
"He must have said something quite obnoxious to cause you to leave like that. Are you going to tell me what was said?" I handed Alex a glass of wine, and watched her intently, trying to make sense of the words she wasn't saying.
She took the drink, touched the rim of the glass to mine, took a healthy sip and said, "Jonathan said somethings that bristled me the wrong way, that's all. I was probably being overly sensitive. Let's not make more of it than it was." Her eyes drifted, settling on something at the other side of the kitchen.
"You forget, I can tell when you're holding something back from me. There's no need to protect me, I'm a big boy. I don't bruise as easily as you seem to think."
"Tony, please. Nothing good can come from this conversation. I'd rather not have it."
She obviously didn't want to relive the encounter, but my curiosity had gotten the best of me and I had to know. "Would it make it easier if I told you what I suspect happened?" She didn't answer, so I took it as a veiled yes. "Alright then, I suspect he said something insufferable. Possibly something disparaging about who we are together, and rather than call him on it, you walked away. I also suspect he went to your office at some point, uninvited, saying I was delusional or something equally alarming. That I read more into our relationship than is actually there, or that I have an unhealthy attachment to you, or to our work, or some such thing. And I'm sure somewhere in there he gave you his professional opinion about the level of danger I present to you. This got you thinking there might be something to what he was saying. After all, he is an acclaimed psychologist, which is the reason you began making excuses for why we couldn't work at your house any longer. Am I close?"
"Uncannily." She set down the glass and started fidgeting with the table settings. "How did you…"
"…know that he'd do and say those sorts of things? It was an educated guess. Unfortunately, the education is firsthand. He does those types of things to people when he finds life is better for them than it is for him, or when he thinks someone is receiving more attention than he believes they deserve. In this case, he was jealous of our relationship because his was crumbling round his ears." I checked on the bread and settled into making the salad. When I glanced back to Alex, she was standing beside the table looking as if she didn't know what to say next. "No worries, Alex. No harm done. I'm a bit of a wild card to you, I know, but I do have a relatively good grasp on reality, as well as our relationship, and I would never do anything to harm you or Ben."
"I know you wouldn't. And I'm not offering this as an excuse for my behavior, but the prospect of a promotion, Ben and the possible move, had me reeling and I let the man get under my skin. I'm sorry if I hurt you by stepping back the way I did." She took the lasagna from the counter and brought it to the table.
"I meant it. No harm done." The timer for the bread went off right about the time I finished with the salad. I took the two to the table and sat down across from her.
"Thank you." She shook out the paper napkin before placing it on her lap.
"Thank you for what?" I collected the small plates and began serving up the salad.
"For being the forgiving type. And I hated it, you know."
"Hated what?" I'd lost the thread.
"Separating myself from you."
I handed back her plate and smiled. "I'm glad, I hated it too."