Gwendolyn was the lone figure at the bus stop on Main Street, looking beautiful in the afternoon sun, stylish as always in a pair of flattering jeans and a light white jacket over a gray t-shirt, accented tastefully with a few bracelets. Those ubiquitous large sunglasses seemed to cover half of her face. All of a sudden Joe, in his jeans and t-shirt, felt underdressed. It wasn’t as if his current wardrobe was filled with fine attire, but he hadn’t remembered being such a slob at eighteen.
It was past noon and Joe, still full from breakfast, was glad when Gwendolyn suggested that they take a bus to the mall in Portsmouth instead of getting lunch. A dollar and your student ID was all it took to go nearly anywhere on the New Hampshire seacoast back then.
“Hey,” said Gwendolyn as Joe came near. She gave him a warm hug. “How’s your aunt?”
“She’s great,” said Joe. He was smiling. It felt good and it made his heart sting. Memories of Jason flashed into his mind: At Fenway Park with an oversized Red Sox cap on his little head . . . struggling with his snowsuit on a winter morning . . . laughing in delight as he barreled down a slide, Joe and Sandra waiting at the bottom with their arms around each other’s waists . . . he had traded his son’s life for his aunt’s. And it didn’t feel like a fair exchange.
“Are you sure everything’s alright? If this is a bad time, you can let me know.”
“I’m fine, really,” said Joe. “I’m sorry I flaked out on you, Gwen. Things have just been–”
Gwendolyn raised a finger and put it on Joe’s lips. The urge to kiss it was difficult to resist. “Family is the important thing. I can wait.” Her finger moved to his cheek, lightly touching the angry bruises like two red, round eyes. “Now how did this happen?”
“Like I said, things are crazy. I’ll tell you on the bus. Speaking of which . . . .”
“It’ll come soon enough.”
* * *
Joe let Gwendolyn drag him to Victoria’s Secret. It wasn’t that he disliked the store. But there was a sense of infidelity that he could not shake.
Meanwhile, somewhere Sandra is getting God-knows-what attention from God-knows how many boys, and she doesn’t even know that I exist . . .
“How about these?” said Gwendolyn, holding up a pair of small black booty-shorts that were ostensibly being marketed as pajamas. “I need some new ones, you know.”
Words caught in Joe’s throat as he imagined Gwendolyn in them. His expression must have been comically skeptical, because she started to laugh. “I know, right? Who sleeps in stuff like this? Please.” She dropped the shorts and shook her head, moving on to the shelves where more conventional pajama sets lived. “This is more my style.”
“Right,” said Joe.
“Oh, come on,” said Gwendolyn with a mischievous smirk. “You know I’d look good in that.”
Joe shrugged. “Maybe.”
“Maybe?!” said Gwendolyn. “Maybe? Are you saying there’s a chance that I wouldn’t?”
“All I’m saying is that it’s tough to judge what you haven’t seen.”
Joe worried he had gone too far–where had his unnatural confidence come from? But if Gwendolyn was offended, she hid it behind a self-satisfied smile.
They walked out of the store, Joe narrowly dodging a group of preteens careening towards the food court. “Gwendolyn,” said Joe as he caught his balance.
“Gwen,” she replied. “Hey, why don’t we do something tonight? Me and the girls were just going to hang out, maybe go see a movie or something. Are you interested? Something low-key, you know? I’m sorry. I’m not trying to make you nervous.”
“You’re not,” said Joe. He started scratching the back of his head although it didn’t itch. Sandra, who was a shockingly good poker player, called that his “tell.” “You always scratch your head when you’re uncomfortable, or you’re lying.” And then she would invariably add, “So what are you lying about now?”
“I already made plans with the guys,” he said, hating how it sounded.
Joe couldn’t stop himself; the excuses came unbidden. “Yeah. We’re not doing anything, really. Nothing fun. We just have some stuff to talk over.”
“So is this, like, a school project or something?”
“No,” said Joe. “Well, it’s a project, just not for school.”
“That’s fine,” said Gwendolyn, forcing a smile. “Guy time. I got you. If you don’t want to hang out tonight, you can just say so. I won’t be offended.”
“It’s not that, Gwen.”
“I suppose it’s with your friend Nick?” she said as they continued their walk. “I’m thirsty.”
“Let’s get a drink,” said Joe. “Yeah, it’s with Nick, and . . .” He stopped short, unable to believe whose head he now saw towering above the throngs of diners in the food court.
Gwendolyn elbowed him playfully in the ribs. “Speak of the devil. Maybe now I can find out what your secret meeting is all about! You’re a really mysterious guy, you know.” Continue reading “Reset: Chapter 30: Saturday, September 8, 2001 (3)”