Sweeter- Part VII

THIS IS A WORK OF ORIGINAL FICTION

It will be serialized over the next several days…the ending will be marked in the classic styling…
THE END

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Jim Duval drove to Leanne’s apartment, nervous that his Valentine’s Day gifts were too modest for his feelings for her. For more than a decade, he’d tried to find real love online. He never took anyone out he was necessarily ‘disappointed’ with, but even the two women he’d tried long term relationships with didn’t form real connections with him. Leanne was different. He immediately felt a fairly deep attachment to her and her austere goodness. It was clear she really cared for him. And her friends, and her job, and the world at large. She deserved to have a big deal made out of her, and he wanted to make a big deal out of her, but all of his reference for ‘big deal’ didn’t seem to fit correctly, so instead, he did a bunch of little things. He bought up every ‘little thing’ he came across in the first two weeks of February that made him think of her. He’d spent less than fifty dollars in total. They were going out to a nice-ish dinner together, but they’d both be wearing jeans, and now, on his way to pick her up, what he’d planned didn’t seem like enough. At each red light, he looked to the items in the passenger seat, second guessing himself. ‘Maybe I should’ve just gotten her jewelry…taken her out somewhere more impressive than where we’re going…but we’ve only known each other six weeks, and she doesn’t wear much jewelry, and she doesn’t really seem into places with a dress code or…ugh. She’s gonna like this stuff, right?’

He pulled into a visitor’s parking spot and exited the car, pulled the cheesy, red heart-adorned gift bag from his back seat and shook it open. He loaded his group of trinkets into it, signed the simple card he took way too long to pick out at the drug store, and took a deep breath as he ascended the outer stairs to her apartment. Approaching the door, he heard the dogs panting and turning in hyper circles, and he became more confident about his purchases. He knocked, and he could hear Homer and Marge’s tails pounding on the wall adjacent to the door before Leanne opened up for him. “Damn, I love coming over here. I get three ‘happy-to-see-me’ greetings whenever you open the door,” he earnestly stated.

“They like everybody. Don’t feel special,” Leanne teased him.

“You like me too, though. Right?”

“So far,” she further kidded. She loved the subtle southern twang of his voice, especially when he said a long ‘I’ sound. ‘Like’ sounded like ‘l-ah-ke’ and ‘Right?’ sounded like ‘R-ah-ght?’ He sounded like an outlaw country singer. But he was a math geek.

“Well…um…Happy Valentine’s Day,” he stammered as he handed over his collection of loot.

“Love this awful bag!” she giggled.

“I thought you might.”

“I just got you a card because I didn’t know if we should…if you’d think…I dunno. It’s just a card. You got me a whole bag fulla stuff and now I feel like I messed up.”

“Not at all. Wait til you open it. You might be sorry you got me a card,” he laughed. “I wanna open mine right now, but I can’t because you haven’t opened yours. Ladies first.”

She smirked at his Southern-gentleman chivalry and peeled the envelope of his card open. On the outside were two circles. At the top of the page, they were on completely opposite sides; one close to the fold, and one close to the opening. They got progressively closer down the page, until at the bottom, they were right next to one another. When she opened the card, on the inside, the circles had joined to form a heart, and the short phrase beneath it read, ‘Glad We Met.’ She teared up a bit at the simple sweetness, and blinked them back, not wanting to get emotional in front of him over a silly greeting card. She then dug into the bag to pull out a large heart-shaped box of sugar-free artisan chocolates…’Lioness Truffles,’ the ones her friends made. She knew he’d been to Sarah and Mark’s store, and she smirked a bit, wondering which of her friends waited on him and if they’d said anything to him. The next prize inside was a copy of Joy Adamson’s book, Born Free. “I’ve wanted to read this book for years,” she murmured.

“I know. You told me. And I bought two copies. The other one’s for me. I thought maybe we could read it…together.” He shrugged, adorably nervous. She looked at him with confused wonder for a moment, again thinking that what he clearly considered a small gesture held so much meaning for her. He invested in something she liked and cared about…he was putting forth the time and effort to read a book with her. Jim was an an obviously intelligent man, but he wasn’t really into reading. To Leanne, that was a real statement of commitment.

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She shook her head and reached into the bag for the last items; two three-pack tubes of new tennis balls. She chuckled at those, prompting him to defend himself. “I know. It’s a shameless bribe. I’m not a proud man. I want ’em to like me.” He popped the top of one tube and took out two balls with his right hand, tossing them at the same time into the open space of the living room. They bounced in slightly different directions, and both dogs thundered after them, then danced happily around showing off their new toys. Leanne tried not to compare Jim to Kyle, but she couldn’t help but notice the sharp contrast in his attitude toward her pets.

“Ok. Your turn.” She smiled showing her teeth, something she rarely did, except when she was so happy she couldn’t help herself. He ripped his envelope open and pulled his card out. It was a photo of two elephants forming a heart shape with their trunks. The inside was blank, but she had written, “Jim, these past few weeks have been ‘unforgettable.’ I’m looking forward to many more. -Lee’ He offered her the same prodigious smile she gave him. “You know…elephants,” she demurely explained. “I should’ve gotten you some candy or…I can’t believe you got me this book…” Her voice trailed off and her facial expression dropped.

“What’s wrong?” Jim worried that he’d misread the cues she’d given him that she was happy with his gifts.

“Nothing’s wrong. I’m just…surprised. You seem to know me so well. And you always seem to say the right thing. It’s kinda awesome. But also…I dunno…scary.”

“Scary?! That’s about the last thing I wanna be…”

“I’m not used to having a man be…the way you are.”

“Paying attention to what you like and being interested and…those aren’t things you’re used to? That’s…sad. I can’t be what you’re used to if disinterest and neglect are what you’re used to. Do you not trust my interest or attention or something?”

“It’s not you. It’s just…I’ve had experience before where things are great in the beginning and then eventually the real person reveals himself and by then it’s too late. I’m already attached. But I’m attached to the person from the beginning. Who isn’t the real person. It sucks, because I’m always the person in the beginning, and I guess I’m a slow learner, because I know there are hardly any other people that don’t use ‘date face’ at the beginning of a relationship and then start showing the ugly parts, but it shocks me every time it happens anyway.”

“You’re waiting for my ugly parts to show themselves? Alright. I’ll just show them to you right now. I’m pretty lazy. Like…my house is almost empty. It’s not because I can’t afford more furniture and pictures on the wall. It’s because I don’t want to dust and shit. I’ve been on my own a long time, and I have trouble conforming to what other people want to do. I’m used to just doing what I want. That’s…spoiled. And I know it is. I’m not trying to be self-involved, but I know I am. And I kinda shut down during major emotional conflict. If we ever get in a big fight, my go-to response is to close off and walk away. Not…end thingsbut I just…I can’t stand fighting, especially with people I care about and totally don’t want to fight with. But sometimes you gotta fight, and I stink at it. I can’t think of anything else off the top of my head right now, but I’m sure there’s more. Probably a lot more. And you’re right. I am showing you my best. ‘Cause I want you to like me. ‘Cause I like you. I think I could even love you one day, probably soon. Maybe already.”

“Well, I don’t want the edited version, because I’ve kinda got no choice but to be the unedited version of myself up front. It makes me feel really vulnerable, and I don’t like feeling that way. You know about all the hard edges and potential drama already and…”

“I get that. I do. I don’t like feeling vulnerable either. Most men don’t. I’m trying. I hope my ‘ugly’ doesn’t get too ugly for you. I won’t hide it from you in a…dishonest way. But really, I’m kinda hoping that you liking the ‘best’ me motivates me to stay the ‘best’ me. You know…have fewer ugly parts. And hell, if a blood sugar issue and a couple rowdy puppies are your ‘hard edges,’ I hit the jackpot. Don’t wanna flat out insult somebody I don’t know, but your ex…he’s an idiot. Glad he is one, though. My good luck.” Her eyes welled up again. No tears fell, but he saw she was moved. “Should I apologize now? What are you thinking, Lee?”

“Best Valentine’s Day I’ve ever had.”

“Really?! We haven’t even gone anywhere. I didn’t even get you…”

“You said, ‘My good luck.’ Nobody’s ever given me a better present.”

***

 

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