Despite our 5K race that morning fate decreed that my assurance to Stephanie that sitting in the stadium watching the Rays take on the Jays wouldn’t bother my legs turned out to be true. Mostly. My knees were stiff but I barely heard their protestations as we walked from Tropicana Field back to our rental. The problem was that the reason I barely noticed my aching legs was because the sciatic nerve in my lower left back was pulsing to a heavy techno beat where the pain rose and subsided in time to a Prestissimo rhythm that had me hurting with every footfall. Stepping down from the curb to cross a street the jolt that traveled through me made me visibly wince as I tensed my upper body in response to the pain.
“Are your knees bothering you?” she asked.
“No, my knees are doing pretty well, thanks for getting me the ice earlier, it’s my back that’s acting up.”
“Oh, jeez, Gene. I’m sorry. Maybe we should have parked closer to the stadium. Do you want me to go get the car?”
I stopped even though that left us standing in the street and looked at her. “No. But thanks. I can make it to the car, I just need to go slow. Sorry if I’m not up to your speed,” I added, the pain making me feel petulant.
Stephanie’s head retracted as her eyes narrowed and her lips became a thin line. “Nobody’s asking you to keep up,” she answered, emphasizing the last two words of the sentence. “I didn’t consult you on any of this except to ask if you wanted to come down to Florida with me and then I made a bunch of assumptions figuring I’d give you a frolicsome, fun filled weekend. Now I’m thinking that I probably made a mistake,” she added.
The last sentence had me shaking my head in distress. “Can we go, please? I’m sorry if I’m turning out to be a mistake,” I replied, looking both ways before starting to cross the street.
Stephanie stood at the corner for a second before she followed me. “Gene? Gene?” she asked, taking my arm as we stepped up on the sidewalk. “Stop. Please. I didn’t mean it that way. Really. I meant that I should have consulted you rather than acting like a teenage boy taking out a girl for their first date together. I planned things based around what little I know of you; trying to come up with things that we could do together that would be fun. All I meant was that not asking had been a mistake; okay?” she asked plaintively.
Gene looked at her and smiled before bending over to kiss her cheek. “No, no. You’ve done great. I just feel my years catching up to me and trying to keep up with someone a decade younger than I am is probably a stupid thing to do. I guess I was trying to impress you. I mean, after all, like you said we really don’t know one another very well. I mean, what is this, date number six? You’re the most exciting thing that’s happened for me in a long time and I wanted to put my best self forward; that’s all.”
“Six? I thought this was five?”
“Five? Oh, I guess I’m counting the basketball game when we met. Either way, five, six, we’re just getting to know each other and you’re so, well, gorgeous and everything that I guess I’m over compensating. And my ex always said I act like a two-year-old whenever I’m sick or injured. This is a big step forward in our dating and I guess I just didn’t want to disappoint you. Sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry. And thank you. I don’t get told I’m gorgeous very often. I like you because you’re fun and funny and you treat people well. Not just me either. Like how you reassured those kids at the ballgame. You’re a good mensch, Gene Reese and I like having you around.”
“Great. I feel the same way about you. Like I said, you’re the most uplifting experience of the last decade for me. And mensch? I thought your last name was Bryne; isn’t that Scottish?”
“Aye, laddie, it tis,” she answered, assuming a Scottish brogue. “I’m a Scott on both sides of me family.” Dropping the accent, she added, “We’ve had a good time together. I’m hoping to see more of you once we get back to DC.”
“Me too,” I answered, reaching my hand out to hers. “But for now we should head back to the car. Do you mind driving?”
“I don’t mind but we didn’t list me as a driver, remember?”
“Chance we’ll have to take, Stephanie Bryn. Nothing a highlander descendant of Robert the Bruce can’t handle, now is it?”
Stephanie had directed me to take the interstate to get to Tropicana Field but she utilized US 92 to get back to our hotel. From the little time we’d spent together it had become clear that her tastes trended more toward the expensive than do mine, as witnessed by her choice of hotel. The Tampa Marriot Waterside Hotel and Marina was a lovely high rise that provided ready access to expansive walkways that meandered along the boat slips. Heading northeast from Saint Pete to Tampa the early Sunday evening traffic gave us time to talk, something that had remained fairly superficial until my earlier adolescent tantrum.
“So tell me, Stephanie Bryn, have you always been a Bryn?”
She glanced my way with squinting eyes and asked, “Are you asking me if that’s my maiden name? Kind of late to find out about my husband, isn’t it?”
I looked over at her, mouth agape. “You’re married?” I asked.
She laughed. “No, but what if I was? Too late to close the barn door after the cow’s out, isn’t it?”
Nodding in agreement I answered, “Yes, that it is. So you didn’t answer my question, or at least my implied question. Ever been married?”
“No. Never have. No husbands, no kids. Engaged twice. Once to a boy in college and then again in my late twenties. I lived with Jack for three years but neither one of us was very good at compromise and my job was, is, very demanding. I travel a lot, gone a lot and I guess Jack got lonely. He said something about us needing to spend some time apart, moved out of our Bethesda condo and was married to a girl fresh out of college less than three months later. Surprise, surprise she had a nine-pound premature baby- that’s what they told everybody, I swear! -that the kid was conceived on their wedding night. Last I heard they were still married and had moved to Texas. Good luck to them. So, no. No Mr. Stephanie Bryn out there and no little Bryns. You have kids, right?”
“Yep. Two. A twenty-five-year-old son and a daughter who turns 23 this month. John and Nicole. They moved up to New Jersey with their mother after we split up. Nicole is finishing her degree at Rutgers in Piscataway. This should be her last semester.”
“And that was, when? Did you say ten years ago?”
“Yep. Ten years. So what’s your demanding job? I thought you were an engineer?”
“I am. ME from Virginia Tech. Class of ’83. And no Quincy jokes, okay? I work for Black and Veatch.”
Gene looked at her for a second before a grin spread over his face. “Got it. ME. Mechanical engineering, medical examiner. I had a buddy back in school who said he was EE, elementary education.”
“And that was College Park, right? You told me that.”
“University of Maryland, College Park. Graduated from Sherwood High up in Ashton. You said you grew up the DC area. Maryland or Virginia?”
“You’re kidding me!” she exclaimed. “You went to Sherwood? I went to Paint Branch!”
“Paint Branch!? Wow. Small world. My folks lived five miles from Sherwood, five miles from Paint Branch and four from Springbrook but we went to Sherwood. Where did you live?”
“On Friendly Wood Road, right off Fairdale. This is too funny!” Stephanie exclaimed. “How is that we never knew this?”
“I think we’ve been too busy trying to look like the kind of person we thought the other one wanted to see to open up much. So you grew up in my back yard, huh? I took driver’s ed. at Paint Branch the summer after tenth grade. Rode my bike up New Hampshire to Briggs Chaney.”
“So, this is kinda’ cool,” she said, pulling up to the valet parking in front of the hotel. “Do you feel like dinner or do you need to lie down?” she asked, handing the keys to the valet.
“No. I could eat. Panera was hours ago, but I don’t think I’ll be up for much of a moonlit stroll after.”
“That is okay, Gene Reese. Maybe we can find a bench and talk some more? I’m kind of craving a bit of intimacy of the vertical kind, if you know what I mean?”
“Yeah,” Gene answered, “I’m pretty sure I do. As tantalizing as your outer form is I really haven’t had much chance to get to know you very well. That would be perfect.”
“Great. I figured we’d eat here at the hotel or walk someplace close. Guess I should have asked before giving the valet our key.”
“No problem, here is great. But maybe a little more asking and telling rather than just assuming would be good all the way around; for both of us.”
“Touché, monsieur, excellent idea. Would you mind getting us a table while I use the restroom? I’ll be right out.”
I didn’t mind. Not one bit. Maybe this could actually go somewhere.