From True Romance Magazine
Aaron meant everything to me, and I thought we were inseparable. As I viewed things, we were destined to walk down the aisle together and raise several children in a loving household. Somewhere down the road in our happy marriage, we’d both to turn gray and retire. That would allow us time to baby-sit our perfect grandchildren.
Of all places, Aaron and I met in line at our neighborhood deli. When I reached for my money, I realized my wallet was on the kitchen counter at home. Without hesitation, Aaron came to my rescue and paid for my package of roast beef. My knight in shining armor—with piercing eyes that seemed to change from green to blue, depending on the light.
Flustered, I thanked the sandy-haired man. “Of course, I’ll repay you,” I said. That was the right thing to do. Why should a complete stranger pay for my sliced sandwich meat? On the other hand, how could I manage to hand the four dollars owed to this man when I knew he’d walk out the glass door and disappear forever?
Aaron smiled, and I saw he had perfect teeth. Why shouldn’t he? He was my dream man, probably an actor from the movie set filming down the block. He looked the part of a romantic lead. I judged him to be about thirty, give or take a year. He wore no wedding ring, and that made my heart flutter more than it should. It wasn’t my style to pick up men at the deli.
Was he drop-dead gorgeous?
Was he interested in me?
Of course not.
Would I ever see him again?
Was I acting like a total idiot?
No man had turned my head for ages, light years maybe. I couldn’t even remember the last time I thought I could possibly fall in love with somebody. While it wasn’t my plan to remain single forever, I’d found nobody suitable.
At the insistence of well-meaning friends at work, I endured endless blind dates, the kind with unhappy endings everybody always jokes about. Every supposed Mr. Right turned out to be a boring Mr. Wrong. Or a jerk. Or a Mr. Boring Jerk.
I was the only single woman in the entire department, and everyone took pity on my unhitched state and went on the prowl to help me get to the altar.
I sat through a Chinese dinner during which an overweight stockbroker droned on and on about which oil companies were headed up, up, up. As I sat there silently, I envisioned using my chopsticks to toss a few grains of rice his way to see if they’d stick to his glasses. The mere thought of it made me smile, which he mistook for keen interest in the subject. I was treated to another half-hour lecture.
Then a history teacher tried to explain the Russian Revolution to me over a pizza lunch. He bored me to tears and blew cigarette smoke in my face as he talked. I pleaded a sudden headache and headed home in a taxi.
My boss had the nerve to tell me I’d set my standards too high. I couldn’t disagree with her more. How could a woman ever set her standards for a partner too high? That wasn’t the problem at all. These were all the wrong guys; that’s the reason nothing worked out as it should.
Not all these fix-ups were dreadful disasters from start to finish. There were a few enjoyable moments now and then, a few laughs, but nobody made my heart go pitter-patter. I gave out my phone number sparingly, and goodnight kisses even more so. If my heart wasn’t in it, I wanted my lips to adhere to common sense.
Besides turning me into a skilled listener who could sit for hours with barely a yawn, what my frequent dating did do for my life was create the need for an evening wardrobe. My closet contained a number of fancy dinner dresses, heels that would never be right for the office, and an assortment of glittery faux necklaces and earrings. I could dress up for the opera as effortlessly as for an informal Saturday matinee movie.
Sometimes I felt that buying glittery outfits was a waste of money, them being nothing more than costumes so I could play the role of the single gal waiting to be swept off her feet. No doubt about it, I’d be dressed to the nines should somebody masquerading as a prince come along offering to steal my heart. I’d give him the green light to start sweeping me off my feet, but only if he was the right one.
Aaron-in-the-deli was such a soul mate for me; I could sense it. Wanting to repay his impromptu loan, I wondered if it would be safe to give this prince my home number.
As if reading my mind, he handed me his business card. “I’m Aaron McCallister,” he said. “I work just down the block. Feel free to call me. About the money, of course,” he said, his face turning a delightful shade of dark pink.
Had this man actually blushed on my behalf? I wondered. Charming. Prince Charming.
Was Aaron McCallister hitting on me?
Of course not.
Did my fingers feel electricity as I accepted the card from him?
Did he experience the same jolt from me?
Was I reacting like an inexperienced high school girl?
No doubt about it.
I thanked Aaron, smiled up at him as I latched onto his card, and then raced toward the exit in need of fresh air. Never in my life had I fainted, and I wasn’t about to experience it in my favorite deli. Almost to the doorway, I realized I hadn’t mentioned my name. Over my shoulder, barely turning my head, I called out, “My name is Ginny and I’ll be calling you!”
Back at my desk, I examined Aaron’s card, my fingertips caressing the raised type. The minutes and hours of the afternoon seemed to creep by and I longed to dial his number and hear his baritone voice. I decided there were too many romance snoops around the office for me to risk calling him from my desk, because everyone in the building would hear about it within an hour. Anyway, my inbox was piled high with reports and invoices. Aaron would have to wait. As it turned out, I never took a lunch break to enjoy the sliced meat paid for by the gallant stranger who came to my rescue.
The next morning, I dressed in my most expensive suit to head for the office. I felt on top of the world in my navy blue pantsuit and silk blouse that required intricate ironing. I even wore a strand of pearls. Wouldn’t that just wow everybody? Friday was designated as our dress-down day, so everybody else would show up in comfy jeans and faded sweatshirts proclaiming names of sports teams or universities.
“Oh, Ginny, are you going to a funeral today?” the receptionist asked me as I walked in.
I burst out laughing. Thanks to one Aaron McCallister, my emotions were raging out of control.
Concentrating on quarterly reports was not easy and the hours dragged by, but somehow I got to lunchtime. I thought about the business card in my purse and figured I would call Aaron once everyone headed downstairs to the cafeteria, but my boss’ desk was within earshot and she was conducting a meeting with higher-ups. I didn’t want anyone in on my romantic secret. Instead, I buried my nose in paperwork and tried to forget about those piercing blue-green eyes.
I moved to my plan B. I knocked off an hour earlier than usual so I could call Aaron as soon as I got home. He had not trusted me with his home or cell number, so I had to call him at his office during standard business hours. My hands trembled as I dialed his advertising agency.
He answered after the second ring and my heart about melted. “Ginny here, Ginny Krugar,” I announced. That sounded too formal, so I added, “I’m the woman with the roast beef.”
“Yes, Ginny-with-the-roast-beef. And what’s your rating of your deli purchase? Was it fresh and thinly sliced? Did you make yourself a gigantic roast beef sandwich yesterday?” he asked. “I hope you found the fat was properly trimmed.”
I thought he was kidding with me, but I wasn’t sure. Then he laughed and I knew he was teasing.
Roast beef? Where was my little package with the rubber band around it anyway? I couldn’t remember taking it out of my purse to stick it in the fridge. Aaron had made too much of a first impression on me for me to think straight “Uh, to tell the truth, most of us couldn’t break free from financial reports to eat a normal lunch, so I never got around to opening it at the office,” I said. “I guess I can enjoy it for a cold supper tonight.”
“Oh, really?” Aaron asked me.
“I just walked in the door,” I answered. “I haven’t had a chance to plan my dinner menu yet.” Why was I discussing roast beef with this dreamy guy?
“Ginny, I have something to tell you,” Aaron said.
Did my heart stop? Was this a marriage proposal to sweep me off my feet?
“You there, Ginny?” the masculine voice asked, this time a little louder.
“Sorry, Aaron, I’m still here. It’s been a stressful week for me, I’m afraid,” I said. “Today was even more taxing than yesterday, and yesterday was a killer.”
“I figured that much,” he responded. “First, you forgot your wallet, and whether you realize it or not, you ran off and forgot your packet of roast beef.”
I let out a gasp and that turned to a hearty laugh. I never felt shy about laughing at myself, and this was a whopper. Recovering smoothly, I asked, “Have you raised the price in the last twenty-four hours, or do I still owe you four dollars?” Excellent save, Ginny.
“How about four dollars and we meet for coffee tomorrow? Or do you work Saturdays?” he asked.
I assured him I had weekends free. After I agreed to meet him at the food court at the Castleville Mall, I soaked in a bubble bath to ease the tension of the workweek from my body and soul. I really can’t remember much about my relaxing bath. For the first time in my twenty-six years, I fell asleep in the bathtub.
We sat in a corner booth and ordered our drinks. Aaron was as intelligent as I’d figured. He was quite a talker. He told me how he’d founded the advertising agency fresh out of college and that he and his small group produce print ads. He told me he’d be on the West Coast the following week to meet with his pet-food clients.
My heart skipped a beat to think of him flying away from me. A whole week without Aaron? Common sense told me I was being ridiculous.
We ordered second lattes and chatted easily about family and friends. I wasn’t the least bit aware of time moving. He asked about my job at the water company, and I filled him in with the basics.
I slipped up and told him I was the only single woman in my department. How I wished I hadn’t spoken those words.
Aaron laughed. “I bet everyone takes you under their wing to get you married off. Everyone I know always has the perfect partner in mind for me, but I’m bored to death by blind dates. They never turn out and they waste my time. I’d rather be working out at the gym or swimming. For that matter, I could be sitting on the couch watching television reruns and that would be time better spent.”
I had to agree with him, and I told him about some of my recent experiences—like the one man who had an allergic reaction to something in our dinner and had to be rushed to the hospital two hours after we’d met and the accountant who tried to sneak his arm around me at the movies and who ended up dropping his eyeglasses into my buttered popcorn.
“Ginny, do you think there is a perfect partner out there for everyone?” Aaron asked.
I couldn’t look him in the eyes. “I’m not sure,” I whispered.
“Well, my brother insists that’s how the world works, and my parents are sure eager for some more grandchildren. I must have attended a dozen weddings this past year. It’s mystifying. How did all those people get to that point, I wonder. Where did they go to get matched up with their soul mates? You know, every day I work on designer cologne ads that claim to work wonders on attracting the opposite sex. I don’t believe it really works. Here, smell my wrist. Does it do anything to you?”
I was so surprised by his request, I actually leaned forward and sniffed. “It smells a little like my dog’s shampoo,” I admitted. Might as well be honest with the man. After all, he had solicited my opinion.
Aaron laughed until he had tears in his eyes. “Then this isn’t the way to win your heart, is it, Ginny? You just might be right about that scent, but this product costs about eighty dollars more than poodle shampoo.”
“Maybe it’s the same stuff, only in a fancier bottle and a different label,” I suggested.
Aaron pretended to shake his finger at me as if to scold me. “Shame, shame. Are you trying to bring down corporate America with so much truth?” he asked.
“How can there possibly be too much truth in the world?” I asked.
“Touché,” he said. “How long would my agency be alive if we told the naked truth about what’s in these products?”
I considered his question for a moment before coming up with the perfect response. “And how long would my water company be able to operate if we told the public what was really in the water we drink?”
We laughed together, then jousted with a few more witty comments. It felt good to be on an even plane with a member of the opposite sex. I hated playing games, pretending to be shy and coy, struggling for the right words, or afraid to show my wit.
I told Aaron how I’d concentrated on marketing in a business college and had taken a few courses related to advertising. I dropped out after two semesters when money got tight. Mom was widowed and couldn’t help out much, and I couldn’t earn enough from working on a part time basis to finance my education. I was only an average student anyway, so I quit my studies and grabbed the chance to work at the water company when a girlfriend hinted they might be hiring.
“When did your father pass on?” Aaron asked, his voice almost a whisper, as if he didn’t want the people at the next table to hear.
“When I was eleven. Mom somehow managed to keep working at a furniture store all day and still did everything for us,” I said. “Dad had emphysema and was unable to get around much his last few years. That was hard on all of us, but Mom never let us down. When I think now of all she had to shoulder, it’s amazing.”
“She must be quite an accomplished woman,” Aaron said. “I’m sorry to hear about your dad.” He seemed to sense how painful it was for me to talk about my loss.
“Mom’s been through a lot, but she’s about ready to retire now,” I said. “I guess she owes it to herself to indulge on a cruise and let somebody else wait on her hand-and-foot for a change.”
He didn’t ask more about my father. We’d just touched upon a highly charged, emotional subject for me, so neither of us spoke for a few seconds. It wasn’t an uncomfortable silence, just a natural pause, giving both of us time to regather our thoughts.
Opening up that waterfall of tears about my dad’s death was not something I was willing to do. I tucked that sadness as far back in my memory as I could. Every male who had mattered most to me in life had been taken away. Biff, my high school sweetheart, my first love, had died in a car crash the year before we graduated. He was a popular guy, on the football team, a member of our yearbook staff, on the debate team. He had no faults, or at least I could only remember him as being perfect in every way. We were a rock steady couple. I had always envisioned us getting married after we finished college. Almost a decade later, nobody had measured up to him.
Maybe the pain showed in my eyes. Aaron was watching me with a concerned look on his face. To indicate to me he wanted to change the subject, he slid the packet from the deli across the table. “Do you think this is still safe to eat?” he asked.
I answered I’d decide that when I opened it at home, but I still owed him four dollars. It felt good to get that little debt paid.
Aaron mentioned he was due as his parents’ house for a dinner in less than two hours and he added that I was welcome to join him. . .if I liked baked fish.
I didn’t expect Aaron to spring that sort of major invitation on me after sharing two cups of coffee together. I was just getting to know Aaron, was I ready to sit down to a dinner table discussion with his mother and father present? Was it even normal for a man to invite someone he barely knew to eat a meal with his family? Just two days earlier, I reminded myself, Aaron McCallister had opted not to give me his cell and home telephone numbers.
“Is it some sort of special occasion, a birthday or anything?” I asked.
“Actually, yes. My big brother, his name is Rich, turns thirty-five. He’ll be there with his wife, Evelyn, and their daughters,” he said. With a twinkle in his eyes, he added, “My parents would be thrilled if I showed up with a living, breathing woman!”
How could I turn down such a heartfelt invitation? Wondering if I’d lost my mind, I told Aaron I’d be glad to have dinner with him. “Do I need to change clothes? What about a present for Rich?”
He tapped his jacket pocket. “Not to worry. I’ve got the gift right here. I don’t think you’d be responsible to give a birthday gift to someone you’ve never met before, Ginny.”
“Is it going to be a formal celebration?” I asked.
Aaron laughed. “Formal? Hardly! Your clothes are probably too clean. Bob and Evelyn’s twins are two and we’re likely to encounter some spills, possibly a few tears, and maybe, if we’re lucky, bits of fish thrown around and landing in our hair. We have about a twenty-minute drive to their house inNew Castle. So tell me, do you expect me to keep babysitting this roast beef of yours or do you want to stop by your place first and put it in the fridge?”
The idea of being alone in my apartment with Aaron thrilled and scared me at the same time. Besides not making a habit of picking up men at the deli, I also didn’t invite new men to my place until we knew one another a while. It all boiled down to a matter of trust, and some days I worried I trusted nobody but myself.
Did I trust Aaron McCallister?
Was I throwing caution to the wind by getting into a car with him?
A voice disrupted my daydreaming. It was Aaron.
“Hellooo. Anybody home?” he asked. “So what about this roast beef?” He waved the little packet in front of my nose.
“Let’s take it along.”
He looked disappointed, but didn’t comment further.
I insisted on paying for our coffees, and Aaron thanked me graciously. Obviously he wasn’t a newcomer to the dating world. If only I could read his mind to find out some highlights of his intimate dating history. Before I could think much about the competition, we headed out of the mall toward Aaron’s car. As if to signal he was a safe bet, he dialed his cell phone and told his mother he was bringing somebody along for dinner.
Soon I discovered this was a man who knew the words to every song. No matter if the radio was tuned to stations presenting rock classics from the ’60s, current hip-hop chartbusters, or Broadway show tunes, Aaron sang along. He wasn’t the least bit shy about singing his private concert to me. I thought back to Dad, who loved jazz and often told me how everyone has some sort of hidden, untapped musical talent.
That was another reason to like him. Not that I needed any more reasons.
During a radio commercial, I tried to move our conversation along a little and asked him about his car.
His brother, Rich, it turns out, was the car freak in the McCallister family. He sold cars, repaired cars, and collected cars. He loved anything on four wheels. Rich had picked out the very car we were in, assuring Aaron it had a great engine, a smooth ride, and that it would be a safe vehicle. Aaron went on to say that Rich had even proposed to his wife in a car.
“Did they get married in a car, too?” I asked.
Aaron laughed. “I guess they would have if the priest had allowed it, but he was happy to see everybody in church that day,” he said. “I was best man and flew back from college for the weekend.”
“What was your major?” I asked.
Aaron slowed down for a yellow traffic light and came to a smooth stop as soon as it turned red. He turned to me, “When I was a kid, what I wanted to be when I grew up was the elephant trainer in a circus. Later, I thought I wanted to be an artist of some sort, maybe a painter, but then in early high school I decided I should teach. I ended up taking a mixture of art and computer graphics courses when I got to college, and well, the rest is history.”
We pulled up in front of an ordinary house on an ordinary, tree-lined street. It was the sort of two-story house any middle-class family might live in. It wasn’t tiny, yet it wasn’t pretentious either. Aaron’s father opened the door and hugged his son. I was welcomed warmly by all, even the boisterous twins, who were eager to climb all over Uncle Aaron.
The family put me at ease, and as we sat around the living room and chatted, I felt myself relaxing more and more.
Their television was off. I liked that. There were books on tables and in bookshelves. I liked that, too. Wonderful smells came from the kitchen, and Aaron’s parents told us it was time to eat.
We filed into the dining room. The table had plastic place mats rather than a fancy tablecloth. I liked that; it felt practical and homey. Maybe Aaron’s mother hated ironing as much as I did. I was rather taken aback that everyone in the family bowed their heads and said grace before digging in. Who had time for that these days?
They certainly had plenty of food. At first I was worried an extra guest might create a problem, but we passed around bowls of potatoes and mixed vegetables. Everyone had tossed salad, and most of us took seconds on fish. The meal was delicious, and I complimented Aaron’s mother, who admitted Evelyn had prepared everything. The twins were on their best behavior and hadn’t bothered to send any food flying our way across the table.
Rich asked Aaron how his work was going in the usually slow summer months, and Aaron mentioned his upcoming business trips. Several of his clients lived aroundSan Francisco, so that was a city he visited frequently. Also, after less than a week back in his office, he’d be flying toNew Orleansfor a three-day conference.
Rich suggested it would be cool if Aaron could visit some jazz hotspots there. Besides being into cars, Rich was a jazz fanatic.
“I’ve never been toNew Orleans, but I’m ready for some Cajun eats,” exclaimed Aaron. “Shrimp gumbo, here I come.”
It sounded scrumptious, but I’d just cleaned my plate for the last time. I was hoping we’d have a little break before cutting the birthday cake.
Aaron handed his slim, bow-topped box to his brother, and that was the cue for Aaron’s mother to excuse herself and get a gift from another room. Evelyn clapped with glee as Rich opened a brown leather wallet. “Aaron, can you read minds or what? This is exactly what Rich told me to buy him when I asked what he wanted.”
“And did you buy me one?” Rich’s eyes met his wife’s.
She leaned over, kissed his cheek and answered, “Of course not, silly. I ignored your wish list, as always.”
We all laughed. My first impression was that Aaron’s family was fun-loving and everybody seemed to genuinely get along. It was rare to experience such a strong family unit. I was impressed. Everyone paid attention to me and had been more than hospitable, so I no longer felt a complete stranger in their midst.
Aaron’s mother reappeared with a big box, which she set in front of Rich. She announced it was from the whole family.
Rich raised his eyebrows then playfully shook the box, which appeared to be filled with nothing but air. He untied the pieces of green ribbon, which he gave to the twins.
All eyes were on Rich. In one swoop, he removed the lid of the gift box. It contained day passes for two adults to a fancy local spa that had just opened.
Both Rich and Evelyn thanked everybody. Next, Rich opened his box from his wife—several jazz CDs. He smiled and kissed her on the nose.
After I helped Evelyn serve the bakery-style cake, I noticed Aaron was yawning. He glanced at his watch as if to signal me it was time to go. I nodded. For not knowing each other long, we were communicating at many levels. Not long later, we said our thanks and farewells, and Aaron guided me toward the door. He was close; I could smell his masculine cologne. Poodle shampoo.
A warm summer evening, it was still not dark as Aaron and I got into his car. “Your family is very warm,” I said. I meant it. “I admit I had my doubts that this was the best idea, but it turned out great. I enjoyed myself.”
“You fit right in, Ginny, didn’t you? Any regrets?” Aaron asked.
What would I possibly regret about it? I’d dined on a home cooked meal and a fancy yellow cake at the request of a handsome advertising executive. I shot him a puzzled look.
“If you weren’t bored to tears this evening, does this mean you’ll consent to see me again, Ginny?” he said. “I’d very much like to go out with you—and keep going out with you, I might add. I’ve only got two more evenings before I leave forSan Francisco, but if you’d like to see a movie or go for a pizza or anything else, I’m your guy. I can even do mini-golfing if necessary.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Yes to what? The movie, the pizza—”
“Yes to everything. I’ll go out with you.”
“More than once?” he asked.
“More than once.” I responded.
Aaron put his arms on my shoulders and gently pulled me toward him. Our kiss was brief but tender. It was a kiss with a promise.
Our second kiss was at my front door, and it lasted a little longer than the earlier kiss. Then I turned the key in my door. I didn’t invite Aaron in, and I didn’t worry what he thought about my decision one way or the other. He’d have to understand I take things at my own pace and I still had a few fears about loves lost to conquer.
The following day, we met early, walked around the park, and fed the ducks. We ate ice cream cones and watched kids play volleyball. As usual for a Sunday, the park was packed. After a round of miniature golf, we strolled around and talked about everything under the sun. Afterwards, we shared a pizza in a cozy Italian restaurant.
On Monday, I found it hard to break out of my spell and concentrate on work. What kept me going was the knowledge that Aaron and I were going out for dinner and a movie. I tried not to think that he had a flight out of town the following morning. I clung to his neck when he kissed me goodnight. I made sure I got another kiss.
Aaron and I kept in touch daily by email, and I tried to stay cheerful. I wasn’t trying to scare the guy off by telling him that I missed him. He called me from the airport after landing. “Ginny, I’ve thought about you so often. We have almost a week now. Can I come over?”
I wasn’t ready for that, but I told him I wanted to treat him to dinner. He could stop by my house and we’d walk around the corner to a little Chinese place. He agreed, not even taking his suitcase home first.
We sipped jasmine tea and ordered the roast duck special. And why not? We had something special to celebrate. . .us!
Then, before I knew it, Aaron was headed down to New Orleans. Our plan was to keep in contact by email, so the time zone difference wouldn’t matter. His conference was only a few days.
I heard the news about Hurricane Katrina on the day Aaron’s conference was scheduled to kick off. I was in the cafeteria at work and someone had a radio on. It was too dreadful to be real. I panicked, not just for Aaron, but for the whole city, the entire region, which was being bashed by the raw power of wind and waves and covered with sheets of rain.
Like the rest of the nation, I perched on my couch, glued to the TV, but soon the reports became nothing but a blur of desperate families standing on rooftops, of elderly people being rescued in boats, of billboards down, and cars submerged underwater. When cameras panned the emergency shelters, I looked for Aaron’s face among the crowds, but I didn’t spot him anywhere. I saw mud, I saw tears. I saw helplessness.
Aaron didn’t email. He didn’t call. I knew lines were down, that New Orleans was a city in suffering. I had no choice but to wait. I couldn’t call Aaron’s parents, not knowing his father’s first name, and I thought Aaron had said their number was unlisted anyway.
I called in sick to work. I ached to know something about Aaron, but the entire New Orleans area was cut off from the rest of the world. Without warning, that secret part of me opened up and I poured buckets of tears for my dad and for Biff. And for Aaron. Every man I’d ever loved had been lost. My heart felt ripped out.
I opted to dry my eyes and return to work the following day. All of us in the department stayed glued to the TV. We’d been allowed to bring in a portable television to keep updated on the disaster. Despite happy news of rescues now and then, the reports about New Orleans only got worse. A few times, I closed my eyes and prayed in silence. It couldn’t hurt. A dark cloud had settled over us all.
It was close to a week later that I got a phone call from Aaron. In a crackling connection, he told me he had volunteered in rescue operations for long stretches at a time. His hotel had been badly battered, so he’d been staying miles away at the home of a police officer and his family. He told me when his return flight would be and asked if I wanted to meet him at the airport. His entire family would be there. There was no question in my mind that I’d go.
Was Aaron the best thing that had ever happened to me?
Was he worth waiting for?
Was he my knight in shining armor?