Authors: Robin Alexander
At ten till seven, Shawn pulled up to the keypad behind Jill’s building and punched in the code. The solid gate slid open to reveal a long alley that held a few Dumpsters and a little red Mazda Miata parked directly behind the jewelry store. “Sporty, I like it,” she said as she parked her Camaro beside it. Their mutual admiration of sports cars was noted on Shawn’s mental “things in common” list.
She ate a breath mint and kept an eye on her clock. The second it showed seven o’ clock, Shawn climbed out of her car, grabbed the two towels she’d been loaned, and rang the doorbell. Jill appeared a minute or two later with a smile.
Shawn held out the towels. “I’m sorry I haven’t returned these sooner.”
“I only remember you taking one,” Jill said as she opened the door wider and gazed at them.
“I came by one day when you weren’t here, and I was…a mess. It’s kind of a long story,” Shawn said, averting her gaze. “I had some stuff stuck in my hair.”
“Ah, that would explain why my shampoo was in the downstairs bathroom. Rene raids my apartment often. Come on up, would you like a drink?” Jill asked as she climbed the stairs.
“Sure.” Shawn’s knees were knocking, and she hoped that maybe a glass of wine would keep her from blurting out something stupid.
At the top of the stairs, they went through another door and stepped into Jill’s living room. It was spacious but also had a cozy feel to it with soft lighting and French doors that led out to the balcony. One wall was brick and painted white like the ones downstairs in the store. The opposing wall was sheetrock and was painted deep lavender. The dark color offset the bamboo flooring.
“This is very nice,” Shawn said as she admired the L-shaped couch that seemed to close off the seating area around the TV.
“Thank you. It’s been renovated a half-dozen times. My great-grandfather bought part of this building, he was in real estate. His oldest daughter married a jeweler, who taught my grandfather the trade. It became the family business when my dad and his brother got into it. Dad left me his part of the business, and Rene’s did the same, that’s how we became partners. How’d you get into botany?”
“It was easier than becoming a chemist,” Shawn said as she followed Jill into the kitchen.
“Would you like wine? I have vodka, too, and I think maybe some bourbon.” Jill dug into the refrigerator, giving Shawn a nice view of her rear end.
“Um…wine sounds great.”
“I have cabernet and white.”
“I’ll go with the cabernet.” Shawn swallowed hard and whispered, “I am a confident woman.”
Jill stood up straight and turned suddenly. “I missed what you just said.”
“I…I was just musing that you like that cleaner, too.” Shawn pointed at the bottle on the counter by the sink. “I’m always
that everything is clean when I use it.”
Jill picked up the corkscrew and froze for a second. “I haven’t dated anyone in a long time, I feel kind of clumsy. I’m tense, but please don’t interpret my behavior as disinterest.”
“Thank you for that,” Shawn said with a sigh. “I feel like that most of the time. It’s really nice to know I’m not alone right now.”
Jill’s gaze rose from the bottle in front of her. “You feel goofy and out of sorts?”
Shawn shrugged. “Everyone seems so surprised when I say that, but it’s the truth. I’ve always been painfully shy. People I work with think I’m arrogant or aloof until they take the time to get to know me. Some never do. I’m not very good at small talk. I can’t walk up to a group of people and join in on their conversations. It’s like a handicap.”
Jill worked the opener into the cork and pulled it out. “That explains a lot. The first few times you came into the store, the only thing you said was, ‘Hello, I broke this.’”
“And I applauded myself for getting that much out. You thought I was snooty, didn’t you?”
Jill returned her gaze to the wine and poured it into two glasses.
“You did,” Shawn said with a soft laugh.
“I did.” Jill handed Shawn a glass. “But just at first.”
“What did you…think of me?” Jill asked before she took a drink.
“You were very businesslike, but polite. Rene kind of put me at ease because she talks a lot.”
Jill smiled. “That’s why she handles sales and we work so well together. She’ll talk to anyone about anything. One time, she broke a toe, and everyone that came into the store had to hear the whole saga about her tripping on the steps and how bad it hurt. Then she would whip it out and show how it was taped to another toe. Customers either ran out or bought something just to shut her up.” Jill blinked. “I just realized that we’re standing here when we could be sitting on the couch.”
She walked into the living room, and Shawn followed. “The balcony is nice,” Shawn said as she took a seat on the opposite end of the sofa from Jill.
“I leave the doors open in the spring and fall. It’s noisy, but the breeze is nice. During Mardi Gras, I close the blinds and hang a heavy blanket over the windows to muffle the noise. This isn’t Bourbon Street, but it sees its share of traffic.” Jill took a sip of her wine. “I’m guessing that you’re not originally from here. You don’t exactly talk like you’re from
“A small town outside of Cincinnati. I came here for school, and I liked it, so I stayed.” Shawn stared at the floor for a moment. “That’s not the truth, but it’s what I tell everyone. My mom tried to murder my dad when she caught him in a hotel with a hooker. Fortunately, homicide wasn’t her specialty, or throwing for that matter. She tried to toss a Molotov cocktail through the hotel room window and somehow hit the ancient courthouse next door. The building was being restored at the time, and it was the only landmark left in the town. It went up like a tinderbox soaked in kerosene. Firebug Fran went back to drinking after she was released from prison, so we don’t have much of a relationship. Of course, she and Reckless Peter are divorced now. That’s what everybody in town calls them. I thought it was probably best not to go back there after I graduated.”
Jill pursed her lips. “Are you serious?”
“You can laugh. I laugh about it…now. Back then, it was just mortifying. Needless to say, I’ve never gone to any of my high school reunions. Are you close to your family?”
“Just Rene. I love my mother, but she’s from a galaxy far, far away. Sometimes, it seems that we don’t even speak the same language. I’m a lot like my dad was, and my siblings are just like my mother. Dad passed away a few years ago, which makes the holidays particularly sucky. He was my buffer at family functions and would keep Mom off my back. She likes to nag a lot, especially if she knows she hit a nerve. Tomorrow night, I’ll make an appearance, then sneak out.”
Both of them were quiet for a moment, then Shawn said, “This is the awkward silence I’m famous for. I’m trying to think of something intelligent and thought-provoking to say, but there are just tumbleweeds blowing through my head.”
“I can help. Where do you live?”
“I have an apartment in the business district not far from here.”
Jill smiled. “Pets?”
“A cactus, his name is Sticker. He’s really low maintenance.”
“How do you know it’s male?”
“He’s twelve inches tall with a six-inch penis. My best friend, Vera, bought it for me for my birthday because she thought it was hysterical.” Shawn smiled. “It kinda is.” She held up her arms like a referee does when someone scores a touchdown. “His arms are like this, and his…appendage is sticking out there for all to see.”
“I take it Vera’s straight since she was so drawn to…Sticker.”
“Yes, she was my dorm mate in college, and we ended up getting a ratty apartment together. Vera’s a speech pathologist, she works with children who have impediments. She says her greatest desire is to marry the right man, but she only dates the ones she knows she can’t keep.”
“Sounds like a fear of commitment,” Jill said as she swirled the wine in her glass.
“I don’t think I’d describe it as a fear, more like an absolute hatred for being tied to anything. Vera won’t subscribe to any cable or phone service that requires a contract because ‘it’s too confining.’”
Jill smiled. “How do you feel about
“I have no fear or dislike of commitment, as long as it’s with the right woman. How about you?”
“I feel exactly the same way.”
Shawn scrubbed her hands together. “Okay, so that’s out of the way. Are you ready to take a ride and admire lights?” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “I didn’t mention Christmas because I know you don’t like it.”
“Thank you so much,” Jill said with a laugh.
They walked to Jackson Square and sought out one of the smaller carriages. A female driver stood beside it bouncing from foot to foot to stay warm and greeted them with a smile. “Are you looking for a tour of the Quarter?”
“No, we’re locals, we’d like to see the lights,” Jill said.
The woman gazed at them for a moment with a grin. “Anniversary, right?”
Jill shook her head. “First date.”
“Cool. I’m Kay, and this is Harley, and we’d be happy to show you some lights.”
Shawn climbed into the carriage first, then held out her hand to Jill. “Oh, wow, that was chivalrous,” Kay said as she watched. “Most guys let the woman go first so they can look at her butt.”
“I’m on my best behavior.” Shawn held on to Jill’s hand as she sat, then covered her with a blanket.
“That should make up for the fact that you didn’t bring hot cocoa.” Kay shot Shawn an impish grin and climbed into her seat.
Jill held up the blanket as Shawn settled in beside her and laughed when Shawn hissed as her body met with the cold vinyl of the seat. “The cold goes right through your spine, doesn’t it?”
“I thought this was such a good idea until my butt hit the seat,” Shawn said with a tight smile. “You took it like a woman. I’m so impressed.”
“I muffled my scream with the blanket.”
“Oh, yeah, y’all are locals. People from up north find our winters balmy.” Kay waited until they were wrapped tight like a burrito and said, “Harley, let’s give the ladies a nice romantic ride.”
As the carriage began to move, Jill realized that Rene was right. The closeness caused her entire body to tingle as she wrapped her arms around one of Shawn’s. “This is cozy, I’m glad you invited me, even if my butt is an ice cube.”
“I promise a great dinner in a warm restaurant after the ride if you’re interested.”
“I’d love to have dinner with you,” Jill said as she began to warm up inside and out.
A street performer sang in front of the crowd huddled inside Café Du Monde. The smell of beignets filled the air as they slowly passed. Lights, garland, and decorations hung from the balconies and stores. Jill had passed that place a million times, but on this night, it was magical.
“I kinda feel like we’re on parade. I have the strangest compulsion to wave,” Shawn said giddily.
“It’s gotta be queenly.” Jill pulled her hand out of the blanket and mimicked the Queen of England. “It’s a subtle wave of the wrist, fingers together.”
Shawn bit her lip and laughed as she watched Jill, but people on the street waved back the same way. “I love this crazy town, especially the food.”
“Aside from the noise, that’s the only bad thing about living in this area. We used to—what’s your favorite restaurant?”
Shawn gazed at Jill for a moment. “What were you going to say?”
“It’s never good to bring up your ex on a first date.”
“Were you together for a long time?”
Jill looked away and nodded. “Let me throw out a disclaimer here. I’m not still hung up on her. We broke up two years ago, and I’ve had plenty of time to resolve my feelings.”
“How long were you together?”
Jill turned her gaze to Shawn. “You’re going to make me break the first date rule.”
“There are no rules with me, at least not on the first date.”
“Ah, what kind of rules will be imposed on the second?”
Shawn smiled. “If you don’t like the first, please don’t accept the offer of the second.”
“That falls into the first date category because I assume if you enjoy my company you’ll ask me out again tonight.”
“So technical!” Shawn said with a laugh. “I’m gonna have to watch myself with you.”
Kay steered Harley onto one of the side streets, and the sounds of the crowds and music died away. Only the steady clip-clop of horseshoes echoed off the walls of the buildings. “Eleven years,” Jill said quietly. “And I was going to say that we used to eat out all the time because she didn’t like my cooking, and good restaurants were so close. Now you have to tell me how long you’ve been single.”
“Just over a year. We finally had to come to terms with the fact that we really didn’t have anything in common, and we were headed in separate directions.”
Jill nodded. “My ex just got tired of me, at least that’s what I gathered from the letter she left on the coffee table after she packed up her clothes and personal effects. She left one evening when I was helping Rene and her partner unload their new couch. I’m not sure if she planned her departure or if it was a knee-jerk thing. She refused my calls, wouldn’t see me when I went by her office. Eleven years just gone.”