The date sat on Mary’s mind all day like a cat riding an automatic vacuum. The Mary™ was in full effect while she shook hands and collected donations. The question from last night plagued her still. What was she afraid of? Though she hadn’t considered being in a relationship again before reconnecting with Reed, being single for the rest of her life wasn’t something she wanted either. Wanting it too bad and being afraid of messing up again were valid concerns but not real answers to the question. The true answer, while simple, was a tough pill to swallow. It came to her during lunch. She was afraid of Reed. More like afraid of accepting what she had done to him.
Why, after all these years, did Reed still affect her like he did? Each time she had the courage to tell her story, she downplayed his part in her sordid tale. As far as anyone knew, he was simply the guy her father intended for her to marry. She portrayed herself as an innocent butterfly that got caught in a spider’s web and dismissed her behavior as some silly, childish thing she did. Reed’s heart knew it was more than that. Deep down, she did too. She was no better than John. Realizing this hurt the most. His behavior could never be condoned, patronizing her and turning their daughter against her, but maybe she deserved to feel the pain of betrayal because she inflicted it on someone else first.
Mary and Reed grew up together. They were neighbors, and their parents hit it off immediately when the Kellers moved in. Eventually, they did business together and made plans to forge an empire in the future. Mary and Reed became fast friends, and the parents thought it would be amazing if they got married to secure their legacies. But, they were only children at the time. As teens, even though they were different, the similarities they shared were important. Neither would ever dream of going against their parents, but they wanted their own lives. They commiserated together and comforted each other when life was too much; they were best friends. In time, the deeper feelings came naturally, and it didn’t hurt that their relationship made their parents happy.
Reed had always been a good person. He stayed focused on his studies, was well-mannered, respectable, and kind. He was a model son, always obedient and honoring his parents. Reed did everything right. Everything. He loved and respected her and Mr. Jones too much to jeopardize their future in any way, barely touching her and refusing to kiss. Mary did everything she could to get him to lighten up, but he maintained his position. “If I kiss you, I’m not going to stop.” That made her want him even more. She was desperate for affection. Arnold Jones was not a lovable or loving man anymore. Not since his wife died. Quick hugs were rare, and she spent her life performing to get them. Reed did not help her cause, and she grew impatient. John had already made himself known to her by then. Eventually, she stopped ignoring him. In the beginning, it was not her intention to cheat on her boyfriend/unofficial fiancé. But, John was free with his words; his hands were free too. The affection he gave her was like water on her parched soul. She had to have more and decided to continue the fling with John until she married Reed. John was cool with the arrangement because he didn’t want anything serious.
She cheated. Plain and simple. She tried not to think of it that way and made every excuse for why it wasn’t, but she couldn’t run from it anymore. Getting back together with Reed meant facing the music and owning her actions. It seemed the facade she lived behind with John had also shielded her from the demons living inside.
The slower long days didn’t usually suit her well but hoped that day would drag on into infinity. Upon arriving home, she showered away her thoughts and hopefully the fear. He had forgiven her, obviously. Why couldn’t she forgive herself?
The dress Leah picked out struck more fear in her heart. It made a statement she wasn’t quite sure she wanted to make. Honestly, it made a statement the old Mary wouldn’t want to make. She was a new person who was supposed to be open to new experiences. Besides, if she were serious about not wanting Reed to be in her life, she would have put a stop to his shenanigans weeks ago. He would never have the chance to ask her out for a third time. She had been open to him the entire time, and he knew it. So, she put on the dress. It flattered the figure she hid behind business suits and upper-middle-class mom clothes. She eyed herself in the mirror, smoothing out the pleats and running her hands down her child-bearing hips; she never showed so much of herself before.
After admiring herself for too long, she snapped out of it and got back on her program. Phoenix was home and would be expecting dinner soon. Mary needed to eat as well since it was not a dinner date.
“Holy freezer bunnies! Where are you going?”
She cleared her throat. “I’m going out…on a date.”
There. She said it. There was no use trying to make it something it wasn’t. They weren’t meeting for drinks or “hanging out” as the kids say. It was a date. She and Reed were dating. Sure, they hadn’t discussed it, but she didn’t have to study rocket science to know it’s what he wanted.
When Phoenix had picked up her jaw off the floor, her shoulders dropped along with her countenance. “Hmph. Everyone has a date except me. Even my mom has a date!”
“Oh, Phoenix.” She grabbed her by the shoulders. “Don’t rush it. You can date as much as you want after your birthday. Right now, you should stay focused on school. Learn new things so when you do date you have something to offer.” Unlike me.
“Whatever. You have to tell me that.”
“I’m saying it because I know it’s true. I want you to have a better life than me.”
Mary prepared the salad and knew she successfully killed the conversation even though she didn’t intend to. It was good though. That was not the night to get deep with her daughter.
“Soooooo, what’s his name? Is he cute?”
Last night Mary successfully dodged the gushing from Asia and Leah and knew she couldn’t do it a third time. “His name is Reed Keller. And, yes. He is very handsome.”
“Ooooooh, Reed Keller. Reed Keller.” She repeated his name as if she were trying it on. “He sounds like an actor or something. Like, an actor from long time ago. How do you know him?”
She cleared her throat. “We, uhhh…” Admitting her sins to herself was one thing, but to her daughter? No. At least not yet. “We grew up together and reconnected a few weeks ago.”
Phoenix gasped. “A few weeks? You’ve been dating behind my back?”
Mary laughed. “No, darling. We ran into each other a few times. He…he asked me out…this week.”
“Ohhh, I see. Are you going to kiss him?”
She almost sliced open her finger. “Don’t you have homework to go and do?”
“Mmm hmm. I see what’s happening here. You’re going to get laid!”
Mary’s head spun around quicker than the wind blowing the leaves all over the yard again. “Phoenix Jones! I will not tolerate such talk!”
The girl chuckled and put her hands up as if she were conceding. “Ok, ok…I’m sorry… Buuuuuuuuuuuut, it’s ok if you want to sleep with him, mom. I’ll be at dad’s so you’ll have the whooooooole place to yourselves.”
Mary’s face froze into a horrified expression, but then she laughed and went back to her salad. “What on earth am I to do with you?”
Once the salad was ready, they sat down to eat, and Phoenix hopped back on the questions train. “Are you nervous?”
“Because…” How could she tell the truth without telling the whole truth? “Because…I suppose because we knew each other before.”
“Oh. Yeah, I guess that could be weird. Especially if one of you had feelings.”
Mary was relieved she didn’t dive deeper into that statement. “Yes. That’s true.”
The sound of metal forks scraping against porcelain echoed in the air as they finished their dinner.
“Can I meet Reed?”
“Not this time,” Mary said as she collected the plates.
“Leave the dishes, mom. You’ll get your dress wet!”
“Oh, aren’t you a dear! I appreciate the offer, but I need to keep busy or I’ll loose my nerve.”
Shortly after dinner, Phoenix left for San Myshuno, and Mary was all alone with her frayed nerves. She nearly jumped out of her skin when she heard the knock.
His deep blue eyes widened when she appeared. She hoped he wouldn’t make a big deal out of her dress.
“You are a vision for sure, Mary Jones.”
She didn’t want to blush, but it happened anyway. Why was she still concerned about the signals she sent? She already came to the conclusion they were dating. The “Perfect Mary” persona had not died yet, and it was hard to keep her away.
“I know it’s probably been a while for you, but I’m sure you haven’t forgotten how to dance.”
She grabbed her coat and handed it to him. “Never.”
He grinned. “Silly question, huh?”
They went to a newer lounge in Newcrest in her family’s neighborhood. Though she didn’t have any qualms about being seen in Newcrest anymore, she wasn’t ready for her children to spot her on a man’s arm; she didn’t care what her father would think. The lounge was beautiful. More beautiful than anything she had seen in a very long time. Reconnecting with Reed would mean getting reacquainted with the old life she left behind, she just realized. It meant fancy restaurants, swanky venues with coat check, and beautiful people who don’t seem to exist anywhere else. She told Susie she didn’t need that life, but being around such elegance again was refreshing in a way.
Reed picked a quieter corner in the back to sit and talk. As they weaved through the dancing couples, one pair caught Mary’s eye. The man looked completely out of place. His clothes were much too casual, and the coat he wore looked like it was too big for him. His posture for the dance was horrible, and he was so stiff. To make matters worse, he had an awful 5 o’clock shadow. He looked like a hobo who had been made over, and it was painfully obvious the woman was the one with the money and he was someone who didn’t grow up in that lifestyle. Why didn’t she make him shave? The moment that thought popped into Mary’s mind, she realized why it bothered her so much. They reminded her of John and herself. John was her painted pig. But, the way the woman looked at him, even through the awkwardness, Mary saw she loved him deeply. And, though he looked out of place, he looked comfortable being with her. He was himself, and she allowed it. Mary never let John be himself. Not even at home. That’s where she went wrong with him.
“You ok, Mary?”
She snapped out of the daze. “Yes, of course.”
“How are your children?”
“Oh. They are fine, I suppose.”
He chuckled. “You suppose?”
“The further they get out of my reach, the less I know.”
“I see. Well, tell me what you know.”
“Phoenix…” she took a deep breath, “she wants to be a comedian, and I don’t know what possessed her to go in that direction.” She shook her head at the thought. “But, I’ve learned from the mistakes I made with Susie, and I’m being a more supportive mother even if I don’t like it…”
Reed’s head bobbed along with every statement she made. She forgot he was an attentive listener and talking to him was so easy.
“…and she was so obsessed with the boy next door and wants to date, and…” She peered into his beautiful eyes that had not left hers the entire time. “And…I feel like I am dominating this conversation.”
“Not at all. It’s nice to hear about your life. I want to know everything.”
Her breath quickened, and a warmth began to spread throughout her body. “Well…in non-children related news, I’ve recently been promoted again, and I’m so excited and relieved to have a better schedule.”
“Oh? Well, congrats! What does Davis have you doing now?”
“I’m a fundraising specialist. I work three days a week and no weekends!”
“Is that so? We have more time to spend together then.” He winked and set her heart aflame.
He watched the other couples dance for a few minutes before hopping up and gesturing for her to follow him. “I think it’s time we get out there, don’t you think?”
It had been so long since she danced. She wasn’t concerned about remembering the steps. It was being so close to Reed that made her nervous. Back when they were together, all she wanted was to be close to him. He had changed so much and was so bold and demanding. Did she do that to him?
He took her hand and gently pulled her into his arms almost too close. It was a statement and took her by surprise though she shouldn’t have been. He was never one for games and did everything intentionally. There would be no defining the relationship conversation. She belonged to him now.
Her breaths were so quick he could probably feel her chest heaving against his. Was she ready for this? “Nothing.”
He smirked and put his cheek on hers, whispering into her ear. “Relax, Mary. You feel like a Freezer Bunny Popsicle.”
The laughter did help her to relax, and so did the occasional gentle massage in the small of her back. He was always her favorite partner in the dance classes their parents made them take. She always felt like he would use dancing as an excuse to touch her a bit more intimately and blame it on being “so into the dance” when she would ask him about it or try to get more out of him.
He chuckled. “Yes, Mary?”
“I’m sorry. For what I did to you.”
“Shhhh.” His cheek was still on hers, and his breath tickled her ear. “We’ll talk about it later,” he whispered. “We’re dancing now.”
She understood and enjoyed the closeness as they swayed back and forth to the jazzy vibes emitting from the piano. Her form stiffened again at the surprise of finding his luscious lips on her cheek.
It was just a sweet, gentle peck, but it was such a bold statement. If she wasn’t ready for the relationship, she wouldn’t be there with him. So, instead of questioning herself and being concerned about what she did or didn’t do, she resolved to simply relax and enjoy wherever the night went.
He pecked her cheek again a little closer to her mouth, testing the water to see how far he’d get. She smiled in anticipation of what would come next and even met him halfway.
It was sweet and soft and just enough. He still respected her, and knowing that part of him hadn’t changed set her at ease. Maybe that was another fear she had deep down. She had hurt him so badly, and in the past he overstepped many boundaries in attempts to get her back. Despite how she behaved as a teenager, she didn’t want to be anyone’s good time girl.
As she lay her head on his shoulder, and his arms embraced her, she couldn’t believe her luck. How was it that she rejected this sweetness so long ago only to find it still waiting for her? Life was funny like that. She could have had the sweetness all along, but her life wasn’t over yet. Maybe she had the rest of her life to enjoy it, but that was a thought for another night. For the moment, she wanted to enjoy the sweetness for as long as it lasted.