I love exploring different types of relationships. They don't always have to follow the Hollywood script where a man or woman runs to meet up the person s/he loves who is about to leave forever and of course the person arrives in time and they live happily ever after.
Fidgeting in his chair, Shawn notices his untied shoelace. As he bends to tie it, he bumps his head on the table. Andrea is late, unusual for her. Checking his agenda, he confirms the time, day and place. He's alone. Even the bartender has wandered off.
The door opens as Andrea bursts in. In the 15 years he has known her, she always oozes excess energy. Yet she is one of the most feminine women he knows.
She kisses his cheek when he stands to greet her. It's a definite kiss, not one that smacks air. "I'm so sorry. Been waiting long?"
He shakes his head. "I'm not even sure this bar is open." Although this bar is named The Perfect Place, the rug is a bit tattered and the tables scratched. Yeasty odors of alcohol float in the air. Usually they meet at The Watering Hole, but it's closed for renovation. They call that bar “our place”.
It's the fifth "our place" they've had. The first was The Year of the Tiger across from the building where they'd both worked for different companies.
They'd met when Shawn had popped his head into Andrea's office. "I've heard a rumour you've got a coffee pot," he'd said.
"With fresh ground beans. Want some?" He accepted, starting a pattern of three o'clock afternoon visits. Their conversations tasted better than the coffee. He found himself cutting articles from newspapers in case they ran out of topics. They never had.
Then he'd invited her to lunch at The Year of the Tiger to thank her for all the coffee. They discovered they liked the same dishes -- except for rice. He wanted steamed. She preferred fried.
They both loved fortune cookies. Andrea had taken out her glasses to read hers. Then she laughed. Her laugh was never far from the surface, escaping at what he felt were strange moments. When he fantasized about sleeping with her, which he had often over fifteen years, the fantasy would get out of control, and she would laugh at the wrong moment.
"What does it say?" he'd asked. His had said, "You'll lose a friend temporarily."
"Stop hanging around married men," she'd said.
"I don't believe you."
She'd handed him the strip of white paper. It read, "Look for the truth."
"You lied," he'd said.
"Are you married?" she'd asked
He'd paused before nodding.
"I thought so." Her head bobbed up and down. "Even with no wedding ring."
At first he'd chalked it up as another example of what he'd feared was clairvoyance. "What makes me seem married?"
"You never ask me out. You never make a pass, but act like you want to." She'd looked directly at him. "And the give-away of give-aways is you never talk about your personal life."
"Does it make a difference?" he'd asked.
"In a friendship?--nah! If you wanted to be my lover, it would. I'm too feminist to do that to a sister."
"I get the message," he'd said. He refiled his fantasy from possible to improbable. Part of him had been relieved. Part felt he'd lost an opportunity.
Nothing changed until Andrea had been fired. She'd made a list of suggestions on improving business at the insurance agency. She and Shawn had discussed them, adding several, toning down others.
"Good job," Shawn had said reading the final version. They'd shaken hands in congratulations of what they hoped would be a bonus for her. As a divorcee raising a little girl she often ran out of money before running out of bills.
"You're fired," her boss, who hated "uppity women," had said.
Although she'd called Shawn, he was out. She'd left a message that she'd been fired and her home phone number. The temporary receptionist had lost it.
Shawn had been shocked to find another person in Andrea's place when he'd gone for his regular mid-afternoon coffee and conversation the next Monday. This new person, built like a Wagnerian opera star, hated coffee and Shawn almost equally.
He'd figured it was for the best.
Toying with the idea of an affair was fun, but he'd been raised in a strict religion with clear prohibitions against adultery. Like Jimmy Carter, lust would have to stay in his heart.
Occasionally he'd thought of her. During those moments, he would search his memory to try and remember where she'd said she lived. He hadn't asked, afraid to know. From time to time he'd look in a phone book under different towns, but her name wasn't listed. He felt annoyed and relieved but accepted the dichotomy.
When he'd tired of his job, he'd found a better one in Boston. Rather than drive, he commuted by train, then walked from North Station to his harbor office. Sometimes in crowds, he searched for her, but not actively.
During his fifth month at the new job, he'd spied a woman wearing a coat like hers. It was a special coat that she'd bought for its burnt orange color with black fur trim and Dr. Zhivago style. He'd never seen another like it. The coat was a block ahead of him. He broke into a run.
"Andrea! Andrea!" he'd called dodging pedestrians.
The woman in the coat turned. "Shawn. It's you."
"Your hair is a different color," he'd said.
What a typical Andrea answer, he'd thought. They'd met that night for drink and then once or twice a month from then on. They'd never gone to bed, although they joked about it.
In The Perfect Place Shawn helps her slip out of her coat. The burnt orange has been replaced in order by a mustard one buttoning on the side, a blue suede with a curly wool lining and now a rose down coat with a hood from L.L.Bean.
She's slightly heavier than when they first met. Her hair is brown again. She calls him "a poor girl's Kenny Rodgers."
"I'll look for the bartender," he says. He's back in a few minutes. "They don't open until four."
Andrea looks at her watch. It's quarter of.
"The bartender said he'll be down a couple of minutes early."
"That's nice of him."
"I told him this was our anniversary. Did you forget?"
She fingers the netting on the green jar holding an unlit candle. "No. I even bought you a present."
"Really?" They've never exchanged gifts.
"Well, not a big one." She pulls a package wrapped in tissue from her briefcase. Inside is a large pile of dried black mushrooms. When they'd worked in Boston they'd visited Chinatown every couple of months. Shawn had shopped for the same type of mushroom that she'd just given him. He used then in dishes he learned to cook in an adult education course at his old high school.
"I went to Year of the Tiger last Saturday. Guess what?" Before he can, she continues. "Woo Chin still is there and asked about you."
Tenderness sweeps over him. He touches her shoulder before reaching into his pocket. Pulling out a ceramic heart with violets painted on the white surface. "You said you liked violets."
She holds it to the light. There are holes. When she sniffs, the tangy odor of dries flowers tickles her nose. "A potpourri. Lovely." She nuzzles his cheek.
"Careful, it might lead to something."
Her snort echoes in the empty room. "After all these years going to bed would be anti-climatic."
The waiter interrupts. He flicks his lighter at the candle which throws green color onto the ceramic heart.
"Sam Adams for me. She'll have a Kahlua Sombrero," Shawn says without asking. This time he doesn't tease her about coffee milkshakes with kick and she says nothing about patriotic beer.
She tilts her head in the way he has learned something important will follow. "Your son was in today."
She has met his kids both grown. The girl thinks she is a business acquaintance. The son knows she is more, but not too much more. His son asked Shawn once if he'd ever been unfaithful to his mother. Shawn had answered, "almost."
Shawn has met her daughter. One Saturday, curiosity overcame better judgement, and he'd driven to her house. Instead of staging a romantic love scene, he'd put up staging to help them paint Lisa's bedroom a soft blue. Andrea had matched the paint to the sky in the Bambi curtains she'd bought. Now Lisa prefers Cold Play posters.
"So what did my son want?"
"To renew his car insurance." Having grown tired of working for others, Andrea had opened her own agency. It provides well for her needs. "But it was strange. He left and came back. Then he thanked me for being your friend."
The waiter brings their drinks. He goes behind the bar to cut lemons and limes.
"To us," Shawn says The beer looks green in the flickering candle light. "To our anniversary." Foam sticks to his lip. He licks it off. "Look." He pinches the skin of his hand. "See how slowly it goes down."
"That's cause your 55. Mine's slow too." She demonstrates.
"Not as slow as mine," he says. Dislike of aging registers in his scowl.
"I'll catch up in another ten years."
He picks up her hand and kisses the palm. "You know, I worry that you've never remarried. I'm half sacred you will, but I feel guilty that I'm why you haven't."
She squeezes his hand, but he feels she's trying not to laugh. Her eyes crinkle: her mouth twitches. "Don't worry. I'm single because I haven't found anyone I wanted to marry. However, now you brought it up there's someone I'm seeing. We may live together."
He drops her hand and folds his arms across his chest, resisting the urge to say, "I forbid it." He knew there were other men in her life, but he pretended there weren't.
The bartender calls to them. "There'll be meatballs and other munchies in about ten minutes."
"Thank you," she says.
Shawn say nothing. "You're awfully quiet."
"I'm not sure what to say." He avoids her eyes.
She takes his chin forcing him to look at her. "Let's talk about it."
He thinks of their double relationship: nice friendly pals in reality and a second imaginary one where they make mad passionate love.
Instead he says, "I guess I'm selfish. I like all the warm feelings I have for you knowing my wife is waiting dinner. I've never understood it. I love her, but I feel so warm toward you." Has he said too much? Not enough? Unlike other conversations he edits his word. "I tell you things I don't tell anyone. Even my wife."
This time she does laugh. "Of course you do. That's 'cause what you tell me makes no difference at all."
"He looks sceptical then hurt. She never discounted what he'd said before. To the contrary, she always acts as if his ideas were important. He'd hate to think that she'd been pretending.
"Think about it, Shawn. Remember when you wanted to build your addition? Your wife thought it cost too much."
He nods. "You and I discussed it because no matter what you did, it made not a whit of difference to me. I didn't have to juggle your budget. I didn't have to clean up the extra space or worry about workmen."
"What does that..."
"...have to do with it? Everything. Because I have no vested interest you can talk freely. You don't need to sell me on an idea."
He says, "Maybe."
She says, "I care about you so much. I make a great sounding board. I use you the same way. How many ideas for the agency have I bounced off you? Or when I wanted advice on Lisa? Or when I couldn't decide between a sports car and something sensible?"
He remembers chats over lunch or his office phone ringing and Andrea saying, "Listen, what do you think of..."
She put his hand on his knee. "That's what so neat about us. If I do remarry or even live with Fred, I won't give you up. If he doesn't understand, then he's not the man for me. I assume you'll still want to see me."
So Fred is his name, Shawn thinks, but says, "Stupid question. Maybe things will be more equal. You'll have someone to go home too, also."
Andrea signals for another round. Traditionally they have two drinks. "Don't go getting marriage-is-wonderful on me. I always though I was better off being single."
He shakes his head. "After all these years you still amaze me." He wants to ask something else.
She notices him fidgeting. "The answer is yes. If you hadn't been married, we would have had the mad, passionate sex you imagined."
"How do you know what I imagined?"
"You told me, Dummy." She ruffles his grey hair.
"For once your clairvoyance is wrong. I wanted to know if you ever imagined mad, passionate sex with me."
Even in the green light he sees her blush. "Does that mean yes?"
"Probably." She peeks at him from the corner of her eyes.
He has another question about men she has had sex with, but like certain topics about his family that subject is off limits. Their boundaries, formed by unspoken agreement, had fallen in place as silently as snow.
They finish their second round. She glances at her watch. "I've gotta pick Lisa up. Band rehearsal."
The waiter brings the check which Shawn pays. On the way out he stops at the munchie table and spears two meatballs on two toothpicks. He eats one and puts the other in her mouth. She reaches for a napkin to wipe sauce off his cheek where he grazed it with the meatball.
"When do I see you again?" He helps her on with her coat and thinks he liked the burnt orange better.
"Want to go to Rockport when we can block off a day?"
"I'll call you late next week." He opens the door. While they were inside, it had snowed. Big wet sticky flakes lightly coat the ground.
"Look. The forsythia have snow on them. How beautiful." She touches a bough. Turning, she puts her arms around his neck and kisses his nose. "Happy anniversary, Dearheart."
"And many more," he says.
They go in separate directions.