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by JJ Wallingford
Betrayed by her girlfriend and abruptly unemployed, art teacher and historian Devan Scott decides there’s no place like home. Washington State’s refreshing blue rivers and peaceful green forests are just what she needs.The people are friendly too. Especially Kelly Carpenter—so intense and playful that Devan might be frightened if she weren’t so breathless. Gym owner Alex Bouldin is sweet, kind, funny and smart, but Devan isn’t going to believe those pretty flowers and white picket fence feelings. Not this time.
Can a woman rediscover what really makes her happy?
“What can I get you, ma’am?” The bartender asked with a small smile on her face.
Ouch. Ma’am? I was only thirty-six, when did I become a ma’am? “A vodka tonic please. Double.” I never knew what to order. I wasn’t much of a drinker. I drank Jack Daniels and Diet Coke on the rare occasion I drank at home, but the first time I ordered a Jack and Diet the bartender gave me such a look of disdain I hadn’t done so since. A vodka tonic sounded cool and refreshing, just the kind of drink I needed after an unseasonably hot early spring day in Fort Worth.
“Here you go. Anything else I can do for you?” the bartender asked.
“No, I don’t believe so.”
“If you need anything, anything at all, my name is Kendall.”
“Thank you, Kendall.” I took a sip, and Kendall smiled and moved to the end of the bar where two women and a man were drinking. I thought they may have been there for the same teachers’ conference I was attending. There were so many people at the conference and I was having a hard time keeping all the faces and names together.
When I volunteered to attend this year it had seemed like such a good idea at the time. Getting away for a few days and exploring Fort Worth, a city I had never visited. But the conference was more than I had bargained for, leaving me with very little time to explore. The meetings started at eight a.m. and continued until six p.m. Lunch was provided, but I’d eaten dinner at Subway and Chipotle, right around the corner, and had a drink or two in the bar next to the hotel.
“Can I get you anything to eat, ma’am?” It was pretty crowded. The Thursday night crowd was apparently getting a jump on the weekend, but Kendall managed to stay close.
“Please, call me Devan. Do not call me ma’am.”
“Okay, Devan, can I get you anything?”
“No, I’m fine, thanks.”
“Well, if you change your mind, the burgers here are pretty good and the French dip, surprisingly, is excellent.”
“I’ll let you know.” A French dip was tempting, but back in the room I did have leftovers I hated to throw out. I’d finish my drink and see how I felt. I looked around to see that all the seats at the bar were filled, except the two on either side of me. I’ve always thought I must give off a strong “don’t mess with me” vibe when I go to bars, because this was not the first time I’d noticed the phenomenon. Not that I spend a lot of time in bars.
“Hi, I’m Tom. Can I buy you a drink?” The man at the end of the bar had sat down next to me when I was lost in my vodka tonic.
“That’s very thoughtful of you, Tom, but this will probably be my only drink tonight. I still have a full day of meetings scheduled for tomorrow and then I fly back home.”
“Can I buy you dinner, then?” He seemed pleasant enough. He wore an expensive older suit, and a tie, which he had pulled down so he could unbutton the top button on his shirt. Salt-and-pepper hair, gentle eyes and a warm smile.
“Thanks, but I’ve already eaten.” He was definitely one of the retreat attendees. I remembered seeing him around, always smiling and friendly looking. “I just came over to have a quick drink before I head back to my room.”
He checked his watch and frowned. “It’s only eight thirty. Do you want to go see a movie?”
I always disliked these awkward situations. How do you say “no, I’m not interested,” and be friendly and casual at the same time? I guess I could just tell him I was gay, but sometimes that wasn’t a deterrent. A couple of times, when I told a man I was gay, “gay” to him was code for “let’s have a threesome.” I didn’t think we worked in the same school district, so telling him I was gay probably wouldn’t be too revealing. I wasn’t ready to be revealing, though. “No, thanks, I think I’ll just finish this drink and go read a little.” I smiled to show him no hard feelings. I just wasn’t available.
“Okay. Could I get your phone number so I can call when you’re not too tired and busy?”
“You’re very persistent. I’ll have to decline, though.” He didn’t seem to be taking my hints.
“Is there something about me you don’t like?” He was changing from kind and interesting to a bit desperate and lonely. Alcohol can do that to some people.
“Look, I’m trying to be friendly here, Tom, but you’re making this very hard. I’m in a relationship and I can’t go out with you.”
“Oh, well, why didn’t you just say that?” He seemed a little annoyed, like I could have handled this situation better.
“I didn’t think I had to. I was trying to be subtle. I’m not interested.”
“Here’s my number in case your situation changes.” He left me sitting there holding his business card, the card I would never use, the card he hoped would miraculously change my mind. I shook my head and looked up into Kendall’s smiling eyes.
“Would you like me to throw that away for you?”
“Is he gone?”
She looked around and nodded. I handed it to her and she discreetly threw it into the trash located out of sight under the bar.
Laughing, I just had to ask. “Why do some men do that?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know, honestly. I think maybe they’ve seen too many movies and read too many books about the guy who chases after the unwilling girl, is so persistent the girl caves, and they live happily ever after.”
“You must get that a lot, Kendall.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Well, you work in a bar, you’re beautiful and you’re not wearing a ring.”
“In that case, you must have that happen to you all the time. You’re one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen.” Kendall leaned against the bar and whispered to me, “I get off at ten, if you want to talk later.” She pushed herself back from the bar and walked away.
Oh my. I had to get out of that bar. I drank the last of my vodka tonic and walked the few steps to my hotel. I must say, the night did wonders for my self-esteem. I was thinking Steph and I had been in a rut for a while, and the thought of someone, actually two someones, a man and a woman, finding me attractive made my already big head grow just a little bit more.
I laughed at my egotistical self as I unlocked the door to my hotel room, threw my purse on the bed and kicked off my shoes. Wanting to look deep into my eyes I searched out the mirror. Kendall’s offer to talk was intriguing and very tempting. I would never cheat on Steph but talking wasn’t against the rules, now was it? Was Kendall serious about talking or did she want something more? My head felt a little fuzzy. Was this the vodka or something else?
“Stop thinking about Kendall,” I said to the mirror. “You are with Steph.” I am with Steph but we had been drifting apart the last year or so. No reason to think about cheating. I jumped a little at the thought and walked away from the mirror. I sat down on the bed and looked around the room. The clock on the nightstand said it was almost nine o’clock. Not very long until ten.
I jumped up from the bed, deciding I needed a little food to soak up the strong alcohol coursing through my system. I ate my leftovers and settled into the armchair to watch whatever happened to be on HBO at that moment. I swore to myself I would not, under any circumstance go back to the bar at ten.
At nine fifty-nine, I found myself walking into the Dusty Saloon and taking a seat at the far end of the bar. Kendall noticed me after a couple of moments and a slow smile spread across her face. She walked slowly toward me, placed a bottle opener on the counter in front of me and said a quiet hi.
“I have a girlfriend,” was apparently the appropriate thing for me to say at the moment.
“Okay. I’m a Libra. Your turn, Devan.”
“I’m not sure why I came back.” I really did have a serious pact with myself to stay in the room. I don’t even listen to me.
“Let’s see. How about you’re lonely and just want to talk to a friendly person? Someone who isn’t going to try to get you into bed and take advantage of you?” Kendall took a couple steps back, her eyes never leaving mine, and grabbed her bag from behind a giant can of olives.
“Oh. You’re not?” I wondered out loud.
“Do you want me to?” Kendall’s smile just got a little wider revealing a slight gap in her front teeth I hadn’t noticed before. Adorable.
“No! Of course not! I have a girlfriend back in Austin.”
“Does this girlfriend have a name, Devan?”
“Um…” Why can’t I remember her name? What is wrong with me? “Steph…her name is Steph. What did you put in that drink you gave me?”
“It’s a secret family recipe but I think I can let you in the know.” Kendall came around the bar and sat in the stool next to mine. “Come closer, Devan.”
I leaned over and placed my ear next to her mouth. She said, “It’s a mixture of vodka…and tonic.”
I pulled back into an upright position and said, “That’s not funny.”
“Yes it was. Come on, Devan, let’s go.”
“Where are we going?” I’m not sure what I’m doing but I’m pretty sure I should be doing it surrounded by witnesses.
“Let’s go for a drink,” she said as she swiveled around and stood up. She’s a couple inches taller than me and in much better shape with long brown hair, dark eyes and dark skin. “I can’t drink in the same bar where I work. It’s generally not a good idea to mix the two.”
We ended up in a bar a few blocks away.
“I like coming here after work sometimes. It’s very quiet here,” Kendall said as we sat at a booth in the far corner of the bar. A waitress came over and greeted Kendall warmly, took our orders and left us alone. “What do you do for fun, Devan?”
“Well, right now I’m an art teacher at Zilker Middle School, my third year, but I used to be a therapist.”
“That doesn’t sound like fun.” Kendall had a way of flipping her hair back when she laughed I found intriguing.
“Oh right. Fun. I love to paint landscapes and draw a wide variety of subjects with charcoal. I enjoy music and going to see movies and plays. I love being near the water, not in it but near it. What about you, Kendall?” I couldn’t think of anything else I liked. I don’t think anyone has ever asked me what fun things I liked to do.
“I enjoy sleeping in, hiking, rollerblading, movies, eating and talking with beautiful women.”
“Really? Rollerblading? That seems like a lot of work.” I thought I’d skip the beautiful women comment. I didn’t want to give Kendall the wrong impression of our interlude. I think I gave her the wrong impression when I showed up at ten.
“It is but I enjoy it.” The waitress brought our drinks and Kendall took a sip of her vodka tonic. “Tell me about Steph.”
“Steph and I have been together for about five years now. She’s an intelligent, thoughtful, energetic woman. We live on the east side of Austin and she’s a real estate broker. She’s ten years older but we really don’t notice the difference. What about you? Are you seeing anyone?” I had to look away from Kendall. The vodka tonic in front of me was the next best option.
“Not really. I think I’m due for a change of scenery. I like Fort Worth but the heat is starting to get to me. Maybe New Mexico would be a better fit. Does Steph treat you well?”
“Yes, she does. It’s not like it used to be, our relationship. It was very intense in the beginning. She’s the only woman I’ve ever been with, after dating men throughout school. The last year or so has been different.” I looked up at her then and found her dark eyes. “I can’t believe I’m telling you all this.”
“Don’t worry, I get that all the time. It’s the bartender in me. People want to tell me their deep dark secrets. Keep going, I’m hoping your secrets will be dark and sordid.”
“I don’t have any deep dark secrets, Kendall.”
“We all have deep dark secrets, Devan.”
“That’s definitely not something I can tell you after only one drink. Can I order you another?” Kendall leaned back to look for our waitress but stopped when I grabbed her wrist.
“I really shouldn’t drink anymore. I have an early morning meeting. I need to go back to the hotel and sleep.” I let go and immediately missed her warmth. “That’s what I miss the most about Steph.”
“What? Your early morning meetings?” Kendall said.
“No. I miss her warmth. She’s gotten colder lately.”
“Well, Devan. If you find yourself needing some warmth please give me a call.” Kendall slid a piece of paper over to me filled with her name, phone numbers and email.
“When did you write all this down?” I asked because I didn’t notice her taking notes.
“After you left.” She laid a twenty on the table and stood up.
“How did you know I’d come back?” I stood up and we walked outside into the still-hot Texas evening.
“I didn’t. I had high hopes, though. I still do.” Kendall walked me to the hotel, said a gentle goodbye and walked away leaving me with conflicting feelings. The vodka wasn’t helping. I have never cheated on anyone I was dating, ever, but at this moment I thought about it. Kendall was everything Steph wasn’t: warm, gentle and very exciting. I could have called her back, I could still see her from here, but I didn’t. Sharing information was one thing, but sharing my body was something entirely different.
The hallway to my room floated by, the bathroom accepted me into its depths and the bed lent me a level of comfort I desperately needed. I spent a long time searching for answers in the ceiling. How could I even think these things? I know the difference between right and wrong and these thoughts were very wrong. When Mr. Sandman finally took over, when I dropped off into a fitful sleep, I dreamt chaos and anarchy.