“Hey, hey, hey!” he joked. “Dinner guests are not allowed to clean up!”
It was true, he loved making dinner for people. It was his parents’ way of socializing, and he had carried that custom with him to America. With the passing years, the impetus to “go out” gave way to the easy comforts of seconds, intimate conversations, bawdy jokes, more bottles of wine, and laughter that sustained him through the inevitable sense of loneliness awaiting for him when he was finally alone, leftovers and dirty dishes for company.
Throughout the years, most of them with him single, he never let anyone help with the cleanup. It was only partially out of politeness and being a good host. No, that felt too intimate for him to share with just anyone. In his rom-com warped mind, it was that someone special who got to enter the kitchen to wash or dry dishes, as the evening’s highlights were played for the appropriate sentiment of mirth, concern, or joy.
But she didn’t listen, mockingly protesting “Oh, I can’t leave this for you to do. You did the cooking!” as she glanced at him over her shoulder, melting with her eyes whatever resolve or objection he might have had. With everyone else gone, he welcomed even a small distraction, but she was much more than that.
They had met through mutual friends years earlier, and while he always loved the way he looked in her eyes, their respective marriages to others was a sufficient reason to forget it.
Time had been a lot kinder to her, a failed marriage and parenthood seemingly leaving little trace on her, whereas he was graying and only regular trips to the gym kept the softness of middle age from creeping up on him.
As Elton John’s “I Want Love” gently filled the brief silence, he sidled next to her along the small counter, bumped her gently, and said, “Fine, you dry” as he took the sponge from her hand. He was shocked to find how much that minor, innocent touch thrilled him.
A quick look exchanged, and his brain searched for something neutral, something other than what he felt, to say to her.
All through dinner, he had marveled at the number of violent head nods they caused the other while telling their respective stories to the intimate gathering. He tried to tell himself that the end of long-term relationships is similar, but there was more. The stories of how they knew that it was over; of telling their children; the separate beds; the same desire to be loved by someone who spoke the same language of love that they did and how similar hers sounded to his; the celibacy.
Relief came in the form of a dropped glass, the victim of an absent-minded pass between washer and dryer.
“Oh, God. I am so sorry!” she apologized, managing to cut herself slightly before he gently guided her hand away from the larger piece of the glass that had meant something, somewhere else, a long time ago.
“It’s OK. Don’t worry about it. Let me get you a Band-Aid.” He turned off the water and walked to the bathroom to get the bandage. Portishead’s “Glory Box” was playing as he walked back into the kitchen, and he kept his eyes towards the floor, certain that one glance from her would be the end of him. He couldn’t breathe, weighed by by what he considered possibly misplaced desire.
“OK, lets see that finger” he instructed as her took her hand and dried the finger, noticing for the first time their matching tan lines from the recently removed rings. He was remarkably steady-handed as he removed the packaging, and gently placed the bandage over her cut.
“Is that OK?” he asked, looking up at her, and maybe for the first time ever allowing the full effect of her devastatingly beautiful eyes pierce him.
She held his gaze, answering, “Yes, that’s great. Thank you.”
“Well, I think you’ve done enough for tonight, and honestly, this is more than I ever usually do that same night. Thanks. Let’s go sit for a minute,” offering his hand to her, all the while maintaining eye contact.
That was it. Their hands, greased by the remnants of the suds moved almost instinctively to an interlaced jumble of fingers full of comfort and promise. He stopped, looked down at their hands and back up at her. No, it wasn’t mere looking. He opened his eyes fully while looking into hers, so that the beauty that can be found only in souls that have experienced pain could see itself reflected.
He led her to one of the dining table chairs, and she eased herself down, neither of them letting go of either hand or gaze.
“Now what?!” he thought. This might have been the last moment to stop himself from letting down his life-battered armor, the one made from a composite of humor, nonchalance and daring to let her know exactly what he found himself thinking months ago when he heard about her divorce (“Hmmm!”), weeks ago when she accepted the dinner invitation that had, not accidentally, been scheduled for a weekend when her ex had the kids (“Gulp!”), to dinner (“Everybody but her needs to go home!”), to right now.
It was just a short period of time ago when he had to steel himself to survive the breakup of his marriage, and to start again, spending days doing things like looking for furniture to fill his small apartment. He had bought a dining room set before a bed, having found one that could alternate between a small table for two in a corner of the room, then expanding to fit as many people as were willing to share the small dining room for a chance to share with dear old friends, and new ones. He begged himself, God, the universe to give him enough to be vulnerable once again.
He thought he heard an actual clank as he opened his mouth.
“I want to kiss you. Have wanted to for a long time, but never dared to even consider it before.”
The smile spread from her lips to her eyes as she leaned forward, silently granting him his long-forbidden wish.
He wished he had shaved, but she gently patted his beard, whispering “This is sexy,” in a voice that did to his sense of hearing what her looks did for his eyes.
As the kissing became more intense, he found himself breathless. It wasn’t anaerobic exercise that was causing it. It was his heart gasping for breath after being revived. It still beat! It still skipped beats at the right time! Only then did he notice that she, too, seemed to be gulping breaths of air. In the faint light provided by the two candles minutes away from burning themselves out, he saw her smile, look down and say, “I have to go. I have to get the boys for soccer early tomorrow morning.”
The next few minutes were spent in a fury of thought, trying to balance his respect for her situation, and not wanting to let her go anywhere, ever.
“I can’t have a one-night stand with you, and I know that you’re not ready for much more than that right now,” was all she said as she alternated between sweet kisses on his lips and gathering her belongings.
A solitary word, “Stay!”, passed his lips as he fumbled for the oddly placed outside light switch. She silenced him with a hug that was the only answer he would get to his ill-fated query.
The silence that now enveloped his apartment as he helped her with her coat was at once sweeter and sadder than the one he was used to before she interloped into his kitchen, and under his skin. The undertone of frustrated desire colored the dimly lit room with a shade of blue that he had forgotten about years ago when he had sublimated things like passion for the sake of staying together.
He felt his armor returning.
Walking to her car, he found enough of his humorous side to ask one more question. “Can I get you something for the road? Coffee? Regrets?” It was the laugh they needed. With the kind of kiss that women use to say goodbye forever, she left him to watch her taillight fade into the foggy early morning.
He stayed outside to have a cigarette, a light dusting of snow mixing with the smoke in the glow of the sodium light. His head hurt a little from the wine, post-dinner digestifs, and swirling thoughts. But his heart was still beating as he blew out the candles, pressed Play on the stereo, and returned to the kitchen to finish cleaning up.