I walk into the restaurant, wearing a dress that reveals no cleavage and low heels as befits a widow of my age, fifty-five. Waving at the hostess, I continue on. His husky voice comes from the bar, my stomach flutters but I keep my feet moving, per protocol. He laughs, raspy and deep. I do not look toward him but scan the tables for my three girlfriends. “Anita, over here,” Deirdre’s soprano voice calls out to me. When I reach the table, they each hug me tight, understanding the value of physical contact to someone who lives alone. Deirdre and Jody are married; Gwen is divorced, actively pursuing one-night stands. She and I are nothing alike — I am the loyal widow.
We chat about the weather — unseasonably warm, how long it has been since we have all gotten together — three months, what to drink — wine, of course. It is what we always drink. Knowing he is here, my mouth wants the bite of tequila, the bitter chill of beer, but I agree with wine as expected.
The waiter brings two bottles of chardonnay. My wedding ring clinks against the glass. We toast to girlfriends, and as I raise the glass to my lips, I have a view of the bar, and him. He laughs again, apparently at something the man next to him has said. I take another sip, and see him notice me, his beer bottle’s trajectory arrested for a moment before reaching his lips.
I look away, hoping my girlfriends don’t notice the heat I feel on my face. The talk at the table whirls around kids off to college and the bittersweet reality of empty nests. They don’t remark on how truly empty my nest is, daughters at college, husband deceased — they are used to me being alone. Five years alone.
As a courtesy, Deirdre and Jody refrain from mentioning their husbands but I ask about them anyway, and smilingly listen to their short replies. Gwen gushes about her latest conquest and high-fives the other two but knows better than to turn to me. Deirdre asks about my car — it has been having occasional problems, but seems fine now. I don’t tell them about the flat tire on the freeway three months ago, the kind man, Brad, who put on the spare.
There is movement at the bar. My eyes flick in that direction. His friend is standing up, shaking hands, leaving while he remains, motioning the bartender for another beer, his eyes almost catching mine before I look down at my grilled salmon and asparagus.
Later, when I glance up, he is no longer at the bar. I feel relief — I won’t have to ignore him on the way out — and give my girlfriends my full attention over a second glass of wine.
In the parking lot of the restaurant, Jody and Gwen depart, their cars close by, while Deirdre and I walk to the back of the lot, each to our own car. I am almost to mine when a hand clamps down on my upper arm and a gaunt face framed by scraggly hair yells at me, “Give me your money!” I try to pull my arm free but he grips tighter, his fingers digging into my flesh. I know I should scream. I open my mouth, but no sound comes out. “Your money,” he spits. The throbbing in my arm increases as I struggle to reach into my purse.
A husky voice roars “Hey!” and my attacker is ripped off me. Rubbing my arm, I watch the yelling man break away from him and run through the parking lot.
Deirdre is by my side, asking if I’m all right. Yes, I say, though I can’t stop trembling.
My savior returns to me. “Are you okay,” he hesitates then finishes with, “ma’am?”
I gaze at him, and feel the distance that “ma’am” makes and I don’t like it. His eyes are full of concern, and something more. I take a step toward him and question that motion. I’m still shaking. I can feel the distress that must be visible on my face, and I should turn to Deirdre, so my girlfriend can comfort me, but then he breaks protocol, leans forward, and with those gentle hands pulls me toward him. I feel the strength of his arms, the solidness of his chest, the beat of his heart. I want to let him hold me up, but what will Deirdre think? My daughters? My family?
“Anita,” he whispers in my ear.
His deep voice claims me, and a part of me wants to do the same. But I’m the widow. I pull away, shrug it off and turn to Deirdre. “I’m in shock,” I say, and she puts her soft arm around me and murmurs high-pitched consoling noises as she leads me away. It’s all right, I think, nobody knows, nobody needs to know. I am as expected. But the emptiness I feel inside is scarier than being attacked by that man. I look over my shoulder and Brad is still standing there.
My feet pause. How do I remain the loyal widow and take his hand? I glance at Deirdre and try to find the words to make her understand. There are none. I move away from her supporting arm and stand between my girlfriend and my lover, not knowing who I am, uncertain of which way to turn.
Laura Rink writes most days — dreaming up stories keeps her grounded in everyday life. She is currently working on a collection of linked short stories, writing with authentic curiosity to find out who the characters are and what they want. She lives in Bellingham, Washington with her husband. Her website LauraRink.com features an occasional blog and a picture of her calico cat.