Operation First Date Chapter 3
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!
Alana tilted her head to one side and squinted at me with one eye on Saturday night, half an hour before Daniel was supposed to pick them up.
“Mommy, what's that?" she asked.
“A curling iron."
"Why are you wrapping it around your hair?"
"So it's curly."
Her head cocked to the side. “You’ve never used one before.”
“I’m aware,” I muttered, already self-conscious enough about my date with Jim. Was I going too far? Should I keep it strictly casual so he didn’t get any ideas? With my hair much shorter now, the curls gave me more of a wave, but it looked far more elegant than my usual hurried mom-hair.
“Why else are you doing that?” she asked.
“Because.” I bit my bottom lip. “I am going out to dinner with a friend.”
“Is it Jim?”
My eyes cut to hers. “It is. How did you know that?”
She shrugged. “He was talking about it on the phone with Stephanie. I overhear-ed him say your name.”
She rolled her eyes. Now my skin itched with curiosity. What had he told his daughter? Did he sound excited? Before I could weasel more out of Lana, her eyes grew as large as saucers.
"It's smoking! MOOOOM! You're on fire!"
"No, I'm not. It’s just the moisture in my hair. It’s perfectly normal.”
She slumped onto the floor. "This is boring."
"Then go play outside."
With a little pop, she shot to her feet, barefoot, with only a pair of shorts and a tank top on. She darted away, calling for her sister, and left me in blessed silence. I dropped the curling iron and stared at myself in the mirror.
A date, I thought. I haven't been on a date in forever. What if I don't know how to do this?
I shook my head. It was just dating. I mean, wasn't that the same everywhere? Dating didn't change just because of age, right? No, it was more based on the person, and I had a feeling that any time with Jim would be far different than it had been with Daniel or any of the others.
My phone buzzed in my pocket. When I pulled it out, a text from Jim filled the screen.
What the heck am I supposed to wear?
How about a loincloth?
Trust me, he replied. You don't want to go there yet. I think the ruck march still sounds like a good time. You ready for twelve miles?
My fingers hovered over the buttons. Was he serious? Before I could work out whether he meant it or not, another text came through.
Just kidding. Go casual.
Relieved, I let out a long breath and shoved the phone back into my pocket.
My eyes dropped to my hair, which swung around my neck, barely brushing my shoulders, in vague strands of a light khaki color. The summer sun had tinted streaks of it into a lovely wheat-colored blonde.
Even though I attempted to curl the end, nothing stuck. My therapist Janine’s word filtered through my mind. Practice living in the moment. Don't think about the future, or the past. Just be in the now.
Right now, I didn't want to curl my hair. It . . . didn't feel like me. I eyed the makeup scattered across the counter. Eyeliner. Bronzer. The eyelash curler trap of death that always grabbed one of my lashes and ripped it out.
Then I'd start to cry and everything would smear anyway.
What do I want? I asked myself.
I wanted to feel good. To feel like . . . me.
After a few moments of thought, I shoved the curling iron back onto the counter, unplugged it, swept the makeup into the drawer, and turned the light off.
That, I thought, feels great.
Besides, it’s not like Jim had consistently seen me at my best. I’d scrubbed his attic out, for Pete’s sake. He'd helped me when Lana got sick. Half the time, we waved good morning from our porches while I still had bedhead.
Which, now that I thought about it, seemed pretty great.
When I stepped back into my room, Lizzy sat on my bed with a pencil and a notebook. She stared at a book, carefully attempting to mimic the pictures and create her own. Her talent, not surprisingly, was stunning.
She glanced up, tongue stuck between her teeth. Her eyes widened.
"Where are you going tonight, Mom?"
"Your father is picking you up in twenty minutes. Remember you have tomorrow off from school? He's taking you for a long weekend. Then I'm going out with a friend."
I stepped out of my closet, my hair swinging around my ears. I narrowed my eyes on her. "How'd you know I was going with Jim?"
She smiled. "He told me."
She shrugged. "Yesterday? We were talking over the fence. He was helping me with some of my geography homework. Did you know he's been to Afghanistan?"
Apparently, Jim spoke to my daughters more than he spoke to me.
I pulled a cardigan off a hanger and slipped one arm into it as I walked back into the bedroom. Although I wore a pair of jeans, a silky black top, and a new white cardigan, I felt overdressed after living in a world of yoga pants and t-shirts. Lizzy pulled a piece of lint off the jacket and flicked it to the side.
"I didn't know that," I said.
"He said it's hot and dry, but that a lot of the people are very nice and just want to take care of their families. Even though there's a war."
I sat next to her on the bed, feeling a pang of worry. Was I somehow hurting Lizzy if I went out with Jim? Would it confuse her if I started going on dates again? Not that I planned on making dating a new priority in my long list of obligations, or anything like that.
I just wanted that stupid sugar fast.
"What do you think about me going out with Jim?" I asked and brushed a lock of hair over her shoulder to tuck behind her ear. She bit her bottom lip until it blanched white. "I don't know. Jim is really nice."
"Are you upset that I'm going out with him?"
She shook her head.
"Are you worried about it?" I asked.
She shook her head again.
"Then what are you thinking?"
"Are you going to wear makeup?"
The question blurted out of her with surprising force. I tilted my head back and laughed. "Do you think I need to?" I asked.
She shook her head again. "No. I think you're perfect."
I gave her a quick kiss on the head and squeezed her close. I over-thought for my kids way too much.
"Thank you, sweetheart. I think you're perfect too. Now go get your bag and put it by the front door. Your father will be here any minute now."
I watched her leap free and obediently head down the hall. In the backyard, I could hear Alana charging from one side to the other, arms raised and swinging wildly. She often acted like a one-man invading army and played all the roles.
I sat up. Good date or not, I’d weathered far scarier things than a first official date with my strange neighbor.
This would be a great evening.
When a knock sounded on my front door at 7:00 sharp, I felt it like a jolt through my entire body. After one last glance in the mirror, I shuffled over and pulled it open.
Jim stood outside, looking handsome—and strangely different—in a button-up shirt and a pair of jeans. A tangy whiff of aftershave drifted to me. It had been a long time since I'd smelled it. A short wave of memories washed over me.
"Hi," I said with a little smile.
He managed half a smile back, but something edgy claimed his eyes.
"You look great. Are you ready?"
"Yeah. Let me grab my purse."
Although I opened the door, he waited on the porch, staring at the ground with a furrowed brow.
Wonderful. This already felt as awkward as high school prom.
When I joined him outside, he stood at the edge of my porch, staring at the street. He'd pulled his truck into my driveway—literally ten feet away from his—and left it running.
I joined him at his side, and we started down the walkway together in
"So," I said as he pulled open my door. "Is this going to be as awkward as a high school date? Because I'm feeling the tension, and I'm definitely not in high school."
His immediate response sent all the zip out of my half-hearted joke, and I missed the repartee we'd had the other night, when he'd asked me out. His strange aloofness would make this a tough foray back into the dating world.
Not that I planned on vaulting myself back into it, anyway.
One date and mission Thirty Day Sugar Fast was a go. At least, that’s what I kept telling myself.
Like so many other things in this world.
He closed the door behind me, giving me a short reprieve to gain my bearings and control the new wave of nerves. An immaculate interior awaited me. I tried to remember what my seats looked like before I had children but couldn't fathom driving around without crumbs and glitter.
"So," I asked as he slid his seatbelt on. "Where are we going?"
"To a nice restaurant. I googled it and it had top reviews."
He put the truck into reverse. "Maggio's."
"I love Italian!"
The first hint of life came to his eyes with a wry expression. "I may not be good at making friends, but I can definitely pick delicious food."
We drove in silence at first, while I racked my brain for something to talk about. What on earth did I have in common with Jim? Was his life in the Army was off limits?
"How are you liking the neighborhood?" I asked.
"It's pretty quiet, except for these two little girls next door that are always begging me to spray them with my hose."
He laughed, and I felt a modicum of relief at the sound.
"It's been fine," he said. "Most people have just left me alone."
"Is that a good thing?"
"So, you're a hermit that likes to make monster spray for the neighbor kids and ask their Mom out on dates?"
"Proud of it. Thinking of manufacturing that monster spray."
We pulled up to Maggio's ten minutes later. Jim shoved the truck into park and stared at the sparkling windows. Cars packed the lot. Inside, bodies bustled around. The faint tinkle of laughter and soft music drifted into the cab.
"Think we'll get a spot?" I asked.
"We have a reservation. Let's go."
He stayed oddly silent as we strolled inside, one hand in his pocket, his eyes surveying the outside. The hostess greeted us with a warm smile when he gave her his name.
"Right this way."
She led us into the thick of the busy restaurant. Low lights cast a dim glow on the tables, which gleamed with crystal goblets, silver utensils, and shiny white plates. The smell of soft, warm vanilla drifted past, and my stomach growled. A light tint of perfume filled the air, and we passed several couples in elegant dinner wear.
I'm going to be in the moment, I thought on repeat. I'm going to enjoy each bite of food and the fact that I didn’t have to make it. But was I living in the moment if I was convincing myself to live in the moment?
And did I want to live in an awkward moment?
The confusing thoughts dispelled when the hostess stopped us in the middle of the room, at a round table with a thin flute of fuchsia flowers in the middle.
"Here's your table."
"Here?" Jim asked.
"Yes. Will this be okay?"
"I requested one in the back," he said.
"Oh, I'm sorry, sir. We can't guarantee the location. There's a wedding party in the backroom tonight that will be there for at least two more hours. As you can see, we're full everywhere else."
He glanced at the windows and the back wall. All the tables were filled.
He shifted. "How long of a wait until we can have one of those tables?"
"At least forty-five minutes."
He made a sound at the back of his throat. After a pause of indecision, he pulled the chair out.
"We'll sit here, then. Thanks."
The hostess faded away. I kept a wary eye on Jim as he settled into the chair, eyes darting to the sides and behind him. Something was definitely up. His gaze lingered on the doors, then returned back to me.
"You all right?" I asked.
"Prefer to be out of sight or something?"
"Or something," he mumbled, and reached for his cloth napkin. The hand of a waiter intercepted him, grabbing it before he could. Jim's hand immediately shot out, snatching the waiter's wrist. I sucked in a breath. The waiter dropped the napkin, and Jim released him.
"Sorry sir," the waiter said, "didn't mean to startle you there." The waiter stepped back, putting some space between them, and looked to me. While I hastily placed my own napkin and ordered sparkling water, Jim draped the cloth across his lap himself. He waved the waiter off when he asked for a drink order.
“Water," I murmured, and the waiter nodded. In the background, a flare of laughter grew. Jim's shoulders twitched back. His brow glistened despite the blast of air conditioning from overhead.
Surely, he couldn't be this nervous.
Time to distract, then. Show him I wasn't that scary, of course. Even though he'd already said I frightened him.
"So," I said, folding my hands on my lap. “What exactly you do when you're not making monster spray for my daughter or beating up your kitchen tiles? Which were, admittedly, hideous. You chose well.”
He swallowed. "Uh, Jeopardy."
"You play Jeopardy?"
"Watch it. I'm really good at yelling out the right answers."
I laughed. “An enviable talent."
“I’ve won Who Wants to Be a Millionaire a countless number of times."
My lips twitched. "Ah, you do seem like the know-it-all type."
His gaze narrowed on me. "What about you? You come and go all the time. Is it your cleaning company that's got you so busy?"
"I'm actually a superhero."
"You definitely wear the clothes for it."
"You know what kind of clothes I wear?"
A hint of color appeared on his cheek, and I wanted to tilt my head back and laugh, but kept it controlled to a blithe smile.
He cleared his throat. "Fashion is my other hobby," he quipped easily. "I figured that would have been pretty obvious by what I wear."
"It's your hairstyle that gives it away."
He met my gaze, fighting off a grin. For the first time all night, he almost seemed settled. The waiter appeared, setting our drinks in front of us, before handing us elegant black menus. Jim's eyes scanned them with a heavy brow. He mumbled something that sounded just like can't even pronounce this.
“This is Italian, right?”
“Very,” I said. “It’s apparently as classic as it gets. You can’t go wrong with caprese.”
After sorting through the menu—and Jim snarking over the appetizers—we settled onto our order. When the waiter returned, he stood next to me. At the table next to us, a waitress popped open a bottle of champagne for a young couple with wide grins and lovely eyes.
Jim jumped and cursed under his breath, knocking his water glass with a hand. It fell to the ground and shattered. He shot to his feet, the chair clattering back into the legs of a passing waiter, who carried a tray of dinner plates. Jolted, the waiter pitched to the side. A bowl of soup clattered off the edge of the tray and fractured into hundreds of pieces on the hardwood floor.
A woman nearby let out a shriek, then silence fell over the restaurant like a blanket.
Jim stepped back, running a hand over his head. “Shit.”
Like a soundtrack, laughter continued in the background, raucous and grating. A hundred eyes stared at us. Jim blinked rapidly, body tense. The passing waiter staring at the spilled soup in shock. Jim opened his mouth to say something, but I stood up.
“C’mon,” I said. “I think this is a good time to go. I'll meet you on the porch.”
Our waiter stooped to pick up the broken glass while Jim slipped away. I pulled my wallet out. "Do I owe you anything?" I asked, but he waved me off, seeming relieved.
"It's fine. You can go."
I shoved my wallet back into my purse and hurried out. By the time I made it outside, Jim waited outside his truck, his eyes glazed. When I approached, he shook his head and held the keys out to me.
The truck roared to life moments later. Jim sat in the passenger seat, elbows on his knees, face in his hands, his chest expanding and contracting with deep, slow breaths.
He didn't say another word.