Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Hearts of Steel - Chapter Ten

"Take me home, Jack."

She might as well have said, "Take me to the moon," for all of the effort that it cost me to walk out of there. I couldn't leave for several reasons, only one of which was the desire to knock in the mouth the knucklehead who'd thrown that drink at us.

Just as Priye had not wanted to end our date at the emergency room, I didn't want it to end on that note, either. The look on her face when the drink had splattered against her got to me. She was angry, disgusted, and a little frightened. Not of the knuckleheads at the other table, but of me. Of my reaction. She'd taken one look at my expression and bolted for the door. I'd run her off.

She'd put up with a lot this evening. The constant interruptions. The overt flirting. Not from me. From my behavior, you'd never know that there were other women in the room. Where Priye was concerned, I had tunnel vision. But that didn't stop other trains from trying to jump onto my tracks.

I don't know how she handled it and still managed to maintain her composure. Perhaps I'm jaded. I'd started taking all of that attention in stride. After all, football was the profession that I'd chosen. I'd known what I was getting into.

When I'd signed that contract, I knew that my performing for the crowd didn't always end at the last whistle. Sometimes when the game was over, especially after a win, we had to put on our best performance. Each and every one of us Steeldogs was a public-relations representative. We'd joined an exclusive job. We were charter members of the entertainment industry. It had its perks and its downsides.

Even with all of the talking Priye and I had done, I hadn't had the opportunity to warn her about that particular hazard of the job.

Since we were at the beginning of the season, the press stayed all over us - keeping our images in the public eye. Good money was dished out to keep the excitement high, even to the point of creating rivalries and scandals. If a fan became a little too enthusiastic, so much the better for the team's reputation.

A man could talk all night long. He could reinvent himself with words, paint any picture that he wanted. But let a raw emotion like anger, or fear, or even love unexpectedly surface - that's when the true worth of a man came out.

Some people say that a woman can look at a man's shoes and judge his worth. Priye had looked into my eyes. Whatever she saw there frightened her. It made her want to leave me standing there - all by myself.

As she'd left me, I'd taken a moment to collect my thoughts. I couldn't believe that just that quickly I'd lost her. But I had. Realization of her loss had swept over me and left me feeling conflicted, confused. I wanted to show those knuckleheads that Steeldogs don't play. I wanted to show them that Jack Deneen was not a man to be trifled with. Jack Deneen was a man. Period.

Maybe that's what had changed my mind. The farther Priye had walked away from me, the quicker the cloud of confusion had lifted. Jack Deneen was a man, all right. And nothing more. In a room filled with people, Jack Deneen was all alone.

More than I wanted to beat them down, I wanted my woman by my side. That's right. Mine. That's how I'd come to think of Priye. I'm not sure when, or how, or even exactly, why. I had no right to. During our conversation, there had been no grand declarations of love. Neither one of us had gotten on our knees or made other such sweeping gestures of devotion. I couldn't think of one good reason why I should make a claim to her. But I did.

So I'd left it all behind me. All of the anger, and the trash talk, and the macho bull posturing. I'd opened my wallet and carefully placed a few bills on the table. On my way out, I'd made a quick detour by their table. Hadn't said a word. Just walked by. It had taken every ounce of my self-discipline not to react, even as they continued to harrass me.

"You mean never-was."
"You got that right."

On the playing field, we talked a lot of trash. It's all a mind game, trying to get the opponent so rattled that they make a mistake. Everybody did it.

But the ones who really had the best mind games were the ones who didn't have to utter a sound. Just stood there. Just glared. If you could get your opponent to screw up with just a look, then you knew that you were at the top of your game.

The trouble was, we weren't on the playing field. Priye wasn't my wife and she wasn't my mother. She didn't deserve having a drink thrown at her. So when I'd passed the table of knuckleheads without speaking, pinning them with a long, hard stare, I think it got my point across. I'd let them live - tonight.

I'd caught up to Priye at the door. Her hesitation had been barely noticeable as she'd pushed on the handle to make her way outside. As I'd come behind her, she hadn't seemed to acknowledge me. Yet our eyes had met in the dark glass. I'd watched as the tensiond drained from her face. Slowly, she'd closed her eyes as she let out a long, cathartic breath.

That had brought a fresh surge of anger in me. She'd been so worried that I'd start a fight. Did she see me as nothing more than a big, dumb dude whose only answer to being challenged was to start pounding? Maybe that had been my first reaction. She hadn't given me a chance to show her that I could be otherwise.

I'd opened the car door, helped her to settle into her seat. She'd said nothing, and neither had I. What could I have said? Sorry for standing up for myself? Sorry for trying to protect you? It hadn't seemed right. If I'd tried, my tongue would have stuck to the roof of my mouth. Apologizing for having a normal, typical male reaction would be like apologizing for breathing.

Still, as I'd watched her out of the corner of my eye, I'd had to say something. Anything was better than the smoldering, uncomfortable silence.

"Where are we going, Priye?"

It wasn't a simple question. It was as close to asking "what about us?" As I could get without coming right out and saying it. Perhaps I was too subtle. I don't think she picked up on the hidden question within a question. Instead, she started going on and on about the different routes we could take to get to her parents' house, and the merits of taking one freeway over another.

I didn't want to hear that from her. If I really wanted to know how to get to her parents' house, I would have simply activated the Global Positioning System on the panel in front of me. The GPS could have gotten me wherever I wanted to go - without the slight tremor in its voice or the nervous wringing of hands.

We rode the remainder of the way to her parents' place in virtual silence. Except for an occasional clarification of direction - turn right there, turn left there - there was no noise. I didn't even turn on the radio or put in a CD. What is that old adage about misery loving company? I kept it quiet. I wanted her to experience every moment of agonizing silence along with me. Not because I wanted to hurt her. Heaven forbid! I would never intentionally hurt her.

What I wanted was for her to hurt for me, with me. I wanted to know if she was as broken by the untimely death of our budding romance as I was. If only I knew that she was feeling as desperate as I was feeling, then I would know that there was still a chance for us.

More than jealousy, or infidelity, or even the death of a partner, I believe that apathy is the greatest killer of love between a man and a woman. If she could bear the silence that had fallen between us, then perhaps she wasn't the woman for me. If the silence did not affect her as deeply as it did me, then there was no meeting of the minds. Without a meeting of the minds, there was no joining of our hearts. Chalk up this evening to just another wild time and call it quits.

As we drove, I divided my attention between the road and Priye. The overhead streetlights alternated between illuminating her face and casting it in shadow. She stared straight ahead, with her hands clasped primly in her lap. As we approached her parents' house, she turned her face toward the passenger window.

That's when I saw it. She'd done it so quickly, it might have been a gesture to move aside a stray strand of hair. But I had been watching, hoping, for any sign. Any glimmer of hope on which I could focus.

The glimmer slid down her cheek. What I'd thought was a reflection of residual spring raindrops left on the windshield were tears. She'd been crying! I didn't know whether to laugh or cry myself.

If she felt this way, after barely a first date, then her feelings had to run as deeply as mine. I didn't have to guess whether I was alone in this feeling. Her silent suffering said it all.

Priye cleared her throat and said softly. "We're coming up on my house now."

Priye's parents lived in an older, well-established section of Victoria Island - before planned communities had become all the rage and individuality had taken a backseat to community. It was a curious mixture of old-fashioned charm and modern-day conveniences.

The house itself was two stories tall, and painted the palest yellow with white trim along the windows. A large wraparound screened porch practically invited relaxation with porch swings on both sides of the deck. A single porch light cast a pale yellow glow that accented the front door, but didn't quite reach the farthest corners of the porch.

On the right side of the house, set back even farther from the main road, was a gazebo covered with purple flowers around the trellised wall and up the column supports.

I'd parked. The gates opened. As she walked up the path, her pace was considerably slower than when she had walked away from me at the restaurant. It could have been due to fatigue. It had been a long night. Wishful thinking made me hope that her pace was directly related to her reluctance to leave. She ambled wiith her hands clasped behind her, swinging that little purse by its strap.

I followed alongside her with my hands shived deep into my pockets. As we walked, my elbow brushed hers once, maybe twice. To the casual observer, the contact might have been incidental. It wasn't. At least not on my part. I meant to touch her. I wanted a lot more than just to rub elbows with this woman. But she'd shrouded herself in an air of impenetrable, personal space that I couldn't charge my way through.

She climbed the first step of the front porch, then the second. As she turned to face me, I could almost hear the mental gears grinding, turning. She was searching for a polite, socially acceptable method of telling me good night and good-bye. Raising her eyes to the stars for inspiration, Priye took a deep breath, shrugged, and said, "Well, at least it isn't raining anymore."

"No," I agreed amiably. "Looks like it's going to clear out quite nicely."

I suppose it was as safe as any conversation opener.

It didn't take long for her play-it-safe mood to change rapidly. I could see another emotion transform her face as irritation with herself set in. In our conversation, we'd gone well past the play-it-safe mode. Without preamble, Priye stuck out her hand.

"Thank you for a lovely evening, Jack."

"A lovely evening?" I echoed without trying to hide the sarcasm in my tone.

She folded her arms and her expression changed again. Defensive this time. Good-byes didn't come easily to Priye, and I wasn't cutting her any slack. If she was going to write me off, I didn't want mealy-mouthed platitudes. Give it to me straight. If she never wanted to see me again, then she was going to have to tell me. Right then, right there.

I wasn't going to leave until she told me where I stood. Or, if it came to that, where I could go.

"I had a good time," she confessed.

"But?" I pressed. "I definitely hear a 'but' tacked on somewhere at the end of that sentence."

"Are you pulling words out of my mouth?"

"No, ma'am. I'm not. I'm trying to draw them out."

"As much as I like you, Jack - and I do like you - I just don't think. . .that is. . .we can't. . .uh. . .we could never. . .the differences between you and I. . .you understand, don't you, Jack?"

Perfectly. But for the sake of one last shot at us, I pretended that I didn't.

"No, I don't. Why don't you break it down for me?"

She had a hard time bringing herself to tell me good-bye. Fine. I didn't want her to say it anyway. Though no one could argue that I hadn't given her every opportunity to say it. At the airport. At the restaurant. The hospital. During the long, silent drive to her house. She could have dismissed me at any time and avoided altogether the awkwardness of the after-the-disastrous-date-is-over drop at the front door.

Instead of a good-night kiss, she could have told me to kiss off, to go away. She could have urged me to forget that we'd ever met. Or, to temper that cruelty with kindness, she could have promised to stay in touch or asked that we always remain friends. She could have made her point any number of ways. But she hadn't. She'd stammered and faltered. And in that faltering, Priye had given me the opening that I needed to try to change her mind.

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