Operation First Date Chapter 2
HE’S BROKEN, BUT SO IS SHE. TIME TO BRING THEM TOGETHER.
This short story featuring Bitsy and Jim sequence is actually a novella based off of Hear Me Roar in the Health and Happiness Society.
If you haven't read chapter 1, check it out right here!
Click here to read the other chapters!
Hey, baby. I'm divorced too. Would love to talk about it over drinks.
The grimace on my face couldn't be contained. "Gross," I muttered. "I'm not your baby." Delete. My thumb shuffled to the next message.
Just saw your profile and like what I see. I'm a forty-two-year-old accountant with a five-year-old son. Never married. Amicable with my son's mother. Just looking to get out there a little bit more if you'd like to message back and forth.
Potential. At least he hadn't assigned me a gross term of endearment. I grabbed another bite of my sandwich and kept scrolling. On principle, I never replied to the messages during the day. Didn't want to appear too eager. But scrolling through the other 'heart-sized matches' assigned to me didn't give me any excitement to try.
The men in my inbox weren't bad, but they all seemed perfectly . . . compliant.
Not that I could know that from an image, but I blamed Jim. The most noncompliant of men.
Three days had passed since our weird confrontation outside, where I'd come on too strong and he'd butted into business that wasn't his. He seemed to be avoiding me as well—I didn't even see him puttering around his backyard.
With a sigh, I set my sandwich down and leaned back in my chair. This was ridiculous. I needed to just . . . apologize to him. Besides, the more I spent time on Hearts On Fire the less I felt motivation to do the sugar fast. It just wasn't worth it.
A niggling suspicion that Rachelle knew I’d start to lose motivation when I saw the prospects kept me going. She couldn't win. Not this time.
Still . . . this wasn't fair. Kind of like asking the owner and main baker of a local bakery to not eat sugar wasn't exactly . . . fair.
I shoved away from the table, stalked to my door, and threw it open. In twenty seconds, I was over at Jim's and knocking on his door. The shuffle of feet came shortly after, then paused. I stared right at his peephole when I suspected he was looking through it.
"Open up, Jim. We need to talk."
Five eternal seconds later, the deadbolt snicked and the door opened. He stood there in a pair of ratty jeans smeared with paint, protective knee covers, and an old t-shirt torn at the neckline.
He glowered at me without a word.
"Stop it," I snapped. "You can't scare me just because you're irritable and frightened of me. Step back and let me inside."
To my shock, he widened the door and stepped back. The distant sound of a news program rolled in the background when I stepped into his house.
He closed the door behind me, then shuffled down a hallway without a word. I followed him into the kitchen to find a half-tiled kitchen floor. An old, faded orange tile had been torn up in several places. Wide, smoky tile would replace the old ones.
"Can we talk about what happened the other night?" I asked.
"I overstepped." He met my gaze. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't butt in where it's not my business."
I hadn't expected a quick apology but realized that it was in his nature to do that. Whether it was the brusqueness of the military, or just Jim, he didn't seem like the type to hold onto things that he couldn't change.
Maybe I could take a lesson in that.
My grumpy edge immediately softened. "I was wrong too. I shouldn't have snapped. You were just being kind."
"That's not what I was being."
He turned away then, back to a sledgehammer. The pile of broken tiles sitting on the ground caught my attention. I reached to the table and grabbed an empty cardboard box. "Are you going to use this?"
He shook his head.
While he tapped the sledgehammer along the old tiles to break them up, I picked up broken pieces of the old tile and set them in the box. Why did I feel like I owed him something? An explanation? We had absolutely no ties beyond the fence that divided the back of our properties.
And his continuous supply of monster spray to Lana.
"How is online dating going?" he asked.
He grunted. "Work?"
"Good. Steady, thankfully. I may hire another worker to do some jobs and get me more money. We could desperately use a new couch. You looking for a job?"
He grunted again. The thought of Jim scrubbing houses had me giggling. He shot me a wry look, and my amusement doubled. Soon I was doubled over, wiping tears out of my eyes, while he muttered to himself and broke up the tile with gentle whacks on the edges from the sledgehammer.
"Sorry." I straightened, blowing out a controlled breath. "I just . . . can't picture you scrubbing out someone else's house."
He said nothing to that, but the corner of his mouth twitched.
"Lana seems to be doing better with her monsters," he said. "She’s over whatever gave her nightmares?"
"I think she's forgotten them for now."
"How's Cora?" I asked.
His daughter Cora was the famous romantic comedy actress Stephanie James. She’d visited a few months ago and invited us over for a barbecue.
My girls had instantly fallen in love with her. She hadn't visited again yet, but I'd enjoyed her company so much I hoped she would soon.
"Busy," he said. "On location in Germany right now but will probably come home soon."
A span of silence, probably ten minutes long, continued while I finished picking up the broken pieces of tile. When that box filled, I went in search of another one in his garage. By the time I returned, he'd moved the full one and tapped away at the old tile again.
I plucked at the pieces on the floor and let my thoughts spin. Once I mostly caught up to the damaged pieces, I grabbed a broom and swept up the completed area where his table used to be.
After almost fifteen minutes of companionable quiet, he broke it. "I was jealous. It's been a while since I felt that way, so I had to sort through it. That's why I left."
My arms paused, but he kept working, so I did too.
"Oh. Do you always avoid problems when they come up?"
"Problems need solutions. But when those problems revolve around emotions . . ."
"Oh," I said, more deeply this time.
"I'm trying to be better. The divorce rocked me. She may have cheated, but I had my part to play too." His voice turned slightly more gruff. "I have a lot of crap to figure out, Bitsy."
He said it like a warning.
"Me too," I said.
The quiet continued for a few more minutes before he asked, "Is this an obligatory date you're looking for? Something you just want to do and then be done?"
"Well . . ."
Sort of, but not when he put it that way.
He straightened. "Because if that's what it is, I'm not too interested. You can do that with someone else. But if you're interested in a date where we could actually have fun and do it again later, I am interested in that."
"Interested enough to ask?"
His lips moved down slightly. "Yeah."
I paused, then leaned on the broom. "The only reason I didn't ask you on a date myself is because I didn't know if you were ready yet. I can't tell now if you are. I didn't want to force you into anything."
He hesitated. "It's nothing to do with you, you know? It's . . . me. I'm not the same man I used to be. Not just because of everything in the past." He waved a hand, as if that could encompass his previous life with his wife. "It's like there's a great let-down now that I'm out of the military. Things rush back that I tried to keep away. Now I can't. There's nothing to distract me."
He tapped on his head. "It's all . . . all up here."
Although I thought I knew what he meant, I couldn't be sure. Before I could open my mouth to ask, he kept going.
"Look, Bitsy, I want to ask you on a date, but I want to make sure you want it too."
His gaze tapered. "Not just because you don't want things to be awkward because we're neighbors?"
"No." I recoiled. "Did you really think that?"
"I hadn't once thought of that."
His hard exterior cracked slightly, like tapping a hardboiled egg. "Okay then. You busy this weekend?"
"I'm available after seven on Thursday night, but I have curfew at nine for the girls. I'm open Saturday all day. The girls will be with Daniel."
"Saturday is fine." He turned back to the tile. "I'll pick you up at seven-thirty. And I'm normally asleep by nine, so we won't be out past nine-fifteen."
Thanks to him being turned away from me at first, I couldn't tell whether he was joking or not. After months of seeing his dark house in the evening, I didn't doubt it. Then I caught a hint of a grin on his face. A wrinkle of the crow’s feet around his eyes. He didn't smile nearly enough, the grumpy curmudgeon.
I turned back to the broom. "Nine sounds perfect. Please tell me we aren't going mini-golfing."
"I happen to be an expert."
"Then we'll take Lana and Lizzy."
"We're not in high school. I'm not going to put together a scavenger hunt."
"How about delicious food that I don't have to cook, in a place where I don't have to clean it up, all while wearing comfortable clothes."
The wrinkles evened out on his forehead. "Are you going to force me to talk about my feelings?"
"Do you want to?"
His shoulders actually relaxed a little. "Great. I'll find somewhere delicious."
After I finished sweeping and finding nothing else in his house that needed attention, I set the broom aside.
"I'll see you Saturday?" I asked as I brushed off my hands.
"Saturday." He tossed a wave. "Thanks for the help."
Just like that, I left his house, in the decidedly most unromantic, absolutely perfect date request I'd ever had.