Familiar Pain

“If you can’t keep that in your mouth, I know where you can stick it,” the raven-haired woman in her mid-twenties said to the bright-eyed young man in an apron across the counter. He had just stuck his tongue out at the woman. He stopped where he stood, his mouth half-opened, and stared at the woman. He stood at five feet, nine inches, and he had bright blue-green eyes. Underneath his ball cap, he had short, light-brown hair. His name was Josef, but he preferred to be called Joe. After a few moments, he shook his head and smiled at the woman before walking back into the kitchen of the sandwich shop. She laughed to herself and proceeded in line to place her order.

The woman, a few inches shorter than Joe, waited in line and made her purchase before returning to work. Her black hair contrasted her light complexion sharply, accentuating her clear skin and soft facial features. She was thin, but with a supple figure, and she always dressed to highlight what she thought her most appealing attributes—her figure and her shapely hips. Her name, and what she preferred to be called, was Susan. She was a secretary for a local lawyer, and she usually went to the sandwich shop at least twice a week to get lunch. Joe was often working when she visited, and she’d flirt with him whenever she could. He would occasionally be sitting on his lunch break when she came, and she would sit with him for a while and eat her lunch there, as long as she didn’t have to bring lunch back to anyone in the office. She hadn’t wanted to be too presumptuous, though, so she never sat unless he invited her. He always did.

Through these frequent trips to the sandwich shop, Susan had developed a playful relationship with Joe. He was a twenty-two year-old senior studying mathematics, and he wanted to teach high school after graduating, which Susan thought was cute. She often thought from their conversations that he seemed like a Boy Scout, which was one of the main things that attracted her to him. She’d dated so many guys who seemed like the type who beat the Boy Scouts up as kids, and she usually ended up feeling beat up herself when they were through with each other.

Susan had jumped into a number of relationships in which she became quickly emotionally attached to her boyfriends, and she would structure her life socially and emotionally around them, only to find that her life seemed incredibly empty when she was single. Worse, she thought, was the fact that she invariably felt, after a break-up, that she hardly knew a thing at all about her boyfriend. She found that it was much easier to just spend all of her time with her boyfriends and substitute that time and physical affection for the communication required in getting to know them. She put her feelings on the line for men, but wouldn’t talk about her feelings with them, and knew nothing of what they felt.

Joe seemed like the type of guy, though, who wouldn’t jump right into things, the type of guy who’d insist on getting to know her before he spent much time with her outside of actual “dating.” They had never been on a date, but Susan sometimes suspected that he was on the verge of asking her.

“What are you doing this weekend?” he would ask her if she was in on Friday.

“I’m probably just gonna go out with some of my friends,” she might reply, unless she had some specific plans. When he asked her such a question, she’d look into his eyes as she answered and pay close attention to his facial gestures. He’d be looking down at what he was doing or looking around the lobby of the place if he was doing nothing, as though looking for what needed to be done. She would try to reassure him with a smile without outright grinning at his sheepishness. He would look momentarily into her eyes as she smiled and then tell her to have a good weekend. “You too,” she’d say, “I’ll get to see you next week, I guess?”

“Of course,” he’d respond, able to look her in the eyes and pay attention again.

She finished out the Monday answering phones and typing memos as usual, all while daydreaming about Joe. Some days, and especially those days when it had seemed as though he might ask her out, she would be frustrated and upset with how slowly things were progressing. She would spend other days wondering if things were actually progressing at all. Her daydreams that day were easy and romantic. She imagined the time that he would ask her out, and she pictured his face as he blushed. She imagined him standing by the counter at the sandwich shop, his hands in his pockets as he looked down at the ground, asking her if maybe sometime she would want to do something, if she wasn’t busy, that is.

Susan couldn’t help but wonder what more there could really be to getting to know a person than to sit and talk as she had with him. How could she have spent so much time with her other boyfriends and still walk away feeling as though she hadn’t known them? The most conversation she seemed to have had with any of them was usually on their first dates. She couldn’t remember ever really talking much about what she felt or what she wanted except for on those first or second dates. She imagined that it might be nice to go out more frequently for those awkward, nervous dates with the same guy before actually deciding to “get together.” She grinned as she imagined Joe finally asking her to come to his apartment after five or six dates together.

“What are you smiling at?” boomed the voice of the young man approaching Susan’s desk. He was a tall man with black hair wearing a navy-blue three-piece suit and shoes that looked as though they might’ve cost as much as Susan earned in a week. He grinned back at her and she gave a chuckle at his timing. She’d spent the whole weekend alone, and today she saw Joe at lunch and Vince in the afternoon.

“Hey there, Vince,” she said quickly, “I was just thinking about something funny. What brings you by this afternoon?”

“Just stoppin’ in to see if Dad can look over a few papers for me. Is he in his office?” Vince asked, as he took a seat next to Susan’s desk. He was a very self-possessed and moderately successful businessman, and he made no effort to hide his rather indulgent glance at the cleavage betrayed by Susan’s low-cut blouse. She leaned forward ever-so-slightly, resting her elbow on her desk and her chin on her fist. She smiled thinly and watched his eyes slowly make their way up to meet hers.

“So how’s life?”

“Oh, you know…okay. Another day at work.” She looked into his deep brown eyes and admired how they were complemented by his dark skin. She always tried to decide whether or not he actually went to a tanning salon to stay that way, but she’d never been able to stick with a decision either way. He had a jaw cut from marble…but dark marble, and he had a smile full of beautifully perfect white teeth. Every time he stopped into the office, she thought that he was every other guy she’d dated, and she usually felt like she wouldn’t even really need a first date with him. She imagined that they would be through with each other in less time than it takes many people to endure the first date. “Anything exciting going on with you?” she drawled slowly after letting the silence go for slightly longer than was decent.

“Just stopping by here,” he replied with a grin as he stood slowly. He stood for a moment and didn’t look away. “I’ll go see what the ol’ man’s up to,” he said. Susan leaned back in her chair and folded her hands behind her head as he walked back to his father’s office.

She and Vince had assumed an immediate rapport when they met, and every time he came in they shared their moments of sexual tension and sometimes incredibly racy innuendo. Susan hadn’t been surprised to learn from an intern that the last secretary had quit because she couldn’t take Vince’s visits to the office after they had a one-night stand. She wasn’t worried about the idea of quitting her job, because she’d handled being around guys with whom she’d had one-night stands. None of the guys she’d had one-night stands with had ever been so appealing once she’d slept with them, and she’d probably soon find Vince’s narcissism incredibly boring if they “hooked up.”

Susan had this feeling that hooking up with Vince would just add another link to what was beginning to seem like an unbreakable chain of meaningless flings. She’d really perfected her skills with that sort of thing, but she was dying to find something one of her friends had once described to her. Her friend from high school, Jamie, was a devout Christian and spent nearly two years in “courtship” with the man who became her husband. She told Susan once, not long before becoming engaged, that the only way to describe the way her relationship felt was that it was like cuddling with her boyfriend all day long, even when they weren’t together. She could feel his embrace, she said, by simply thinking about him.

There was only one man with whom Susan had ever cuddled without first having sex, and that had been so long ago that she hardly remembered it. She had been a freshman in high school at the time, and the boy, Adam, was her first real boyfriend. They’d been friends for three or four years before she tried to be his girlfriend. He was the first she’d kissed, and she even stayed the night at his house once. They both wore pajamas, and she fell asleep in his arms. Less than a month later, she’d begun going to parties with one of her girlfriends pretty regularly, and because he wouldn’t ever go with her, she told him that she felt like the relationship wasn’t going anywhere. She lost her virginity at a party her sophomore year to a senior she wasn’t dating. Since then, cuddling after sex never seemed all that comforting to her. She could never seem to sleep well with some strange body rubbing against hers. Adam ended up dating some girl from the volleyball team all through senior year, and the last Susan had heard, they were married. When she’d heard that, the first thought that came to mind was that night that she’d spent in bed with him, and how comfortable she’d been.

When she finished work for the day, Vince was still in the office with his father. She’d hurried to finish up the few things she had to do before leaving so she could go right at closing time and perhaps leave before he came out, but she found herself trying to think of more things to do when the time actually came. She could find an excuse, if she tried hard enough, to still be sitting at the front desk when Vince came out. But why? She’d tried so hard to be able to walk out when he was still with his father.

“Whatever,” she mumbled, rolling her eyes. “Do you need anything before I go?” she buzzed through on the intercom.

“No, Susan, thank you. Have a good night.” Vince’s father was always such a gentleman. She wondered, sometimes, if he hadn’t adopted Vince or something.

That night and the following couple of days were fairly uneventful. Susan had been single for nearly five months, which was a quickly becoming a personal record. She’d never been with any particular boyfriend for more than a few months, anyway, but usually between boyfriends she’d hook up with at least one or two guys just to pass the time. She’d grown incredibly bored with the social scene, though, as it usually seemed to be the same people doing the same things no matter where she went, and they were all staying so young. So many of the people she’d gone through high school and community college with had gotten married and had at least one kid, if not two already. She spent most of her evenings at home anymore, usually drinking beer and watching television or drinking wine and reading. She drank more regularly now than she ever had in the past, but hadn’t drank enough to be drunk in a long time. She talked a couple of times a week on the phone with her cliché mother, who’d ask if she was seeing anyone yet and warn her of becoming an old maid. The first time her mother had mentioned that, Susan was shocked. She was barely over twenty-five. And being an old maid would sure as hell beat chasing rugrats around and sharing a bed with some guy she hardly knew.

Thursday night, though, the image suddenly sprang to mind of waking up next to Joe. She could picture how sweet he’d be with kids, how loving and nurturing and what a Father he’d be. She hadn’t seen him or Vince since Monday, and she’d even managed to pass the week without calling her mother. She picked up her remote and made the English subtitles and French actors go away, and she realized the obvious. She’d go to the sandwich shop, and she’d just ask Joe out. She wouldn’t have hesitated to initiate something with a guy in a bar or at a party. Why should she be so afraid of Joe? Somehow she’d felt as though “real” dating had to be initiated by the man. She was tired of waiting, though, and she knew that he’d say yes. She finished her glass of wine and waltzed into the kitchen, pouring and downing another half-glass before heading to bed. She lay in bed for a while before she was finally able to fall asleep.

She looked up at the clock the next morning, sometimes every fifteen minutes, all while considering how she’d go about asking Joe to have dinner with her. She’d usually leave the office at 11:45 or so on those days that she went out to pick up lunch. She tried to imagine how he’d react, what he’d say. She wondered where he would take her and how he’d dress. When she looked at the clock at about 11:15, she began to worry about what she’d do if he wasn’t working that day. He was almost always working when she went for lunch. Had there been a day when he wasn’t in? What if he was particularly busy with school this week or had a dentist’s appointment? What if he had a girlfriend? Was he even straight? Maybe he was worried that she was too old for him…

She looked at the clock again at 11:35, just as someone came walking through the front door. She looked over and suddenly felt like someone had given her a quick jab in the kidney. Vince smiled at her and strutted his way over to the chair by her desk. He sat down without saying a word, folding his hands in his lap. She looked at him disinterestedly at first, but after a few moments she could no longer hold back a half smile.

“Hey, Vince, how you doin’ today?” She looked back to the file sitting in front of her and began thumbing through the pages. “Your dad’s in his office…”

“Awfully chilly in here, Susan,” he laughed. “Maybe I came to see you.”

“Sorry, Vince, I’m just trying to get stuff organized before I go pick up lunch,” she said, looking up from the paperwork. “Why, you wanna propose?”

“As a matter of fact, yes I do,” he grinned, “I propose that you come out to that new bar on Main Street tomorrow night. The owner is a friend of mine, and he’s having a private party there for investors and select guests. I wanted to let you know that I could have them put you on the list,” he looked up at her, “if you wanted to come, that is.”

“Is that right,” Susan said. She stared at him for a minute as she imagined how that night would play out. “I’m really supposed to be doing stuff with my family tomorrow,” she lied, “but maybe I’ll stop in depending on how the night goes. I appreciate the offer!”

“Suit yourself,” Vince responded, his joviality fading. “I’ll have them put your name down in case you do stop in. It’d be nice to see you there. We never see each other outside of this office,” he paused for a moment, getting up from his seat, “But I should go see what kinda trouble Dad’s causing.”

“Alright, tell him I’ll be back with lunch in a bit,” she said. She watched him walk through the door to his father’s office and shook her head before closing the folder on her desk and getting her car keys out of the drawer.

Susan drove the speed limit to the sandwich shop and stopped for every yellow light. She hadn’t turned the radio on but it seemed noisy in the car as she thought about Vince and Joe and old maids. She finally pulled into the parking lot and found a spot not too far from the door.

Walking in, she scanned the faces behind the counter. She didn’t see Joe, but sometimes he was working in the back when she came in. He was a shift manager, meaning he got to do food prep and that sort of thing sometimes. He’d told her once about how relaxing it was to slice turkey.

“Hi, Susan,” she heard a voice call from off to the right. She looked over and saw Joe sitting at one of the tables. She smiled and waved at him, but she walked up to the counter to place her order. She made her slow procession from the “order here” to the “pick up here,” occasionally looking over at Joe, who was eating chips slowly and reading a newspaper. She picked up her order and some napkins and made her way back to Joe’s table.

“Hey there, mind if I sit for a minute?”

“No, that’d be great! I’ve only got a few minutes, though,” Joe said after wiping his mouth with his napkin. “How are you doing?”

“I’m doing okay, you know…it’s Friday,” she smiled. “Have any exciting plans this weekend?”

“Not much, really, probably just be studying a bit, and I think I’m working Sunday afternoon. How about you?”

“Well, I’m hoping to have dinner with this really sweet guy tomorrow night,” she said, nearly stammering. Joe looked at her without saying a word, looking almost like he’d just heard that his dog had cancer.

“That sounds nice,” he said after a minute. He looked up towards the counter and took a sip from his nearly empty drink, making a gurgly noise with his straw. “Where’d you meet him?”

“Right here,” she replied, hoping he’d pick up on it soon. She smiled at him and said, “it’s you, Joe. I’m hoping that you will have dinner with me tomorrow.”

“Really?” he laughed. “That’d be nice! I would like that a lot!” He smiled at her for a minute, saying nothing more. She smiled too.

“I could give you my phone number. You could call me to make plans.” She had never had to walk a guy through this part before.

“Yeah, yeah. Let me go grab a pen,” he said. He hopped up out of his seat and half-walked, half-ran behind the counter. He returned with a pen and a little piece of paper. He handed them to Susan, who wrote down her number. She smiled at him again.

“So call me this evening or tomorrow in the afternoon and tell me what you want to do,” she said. “I’ve got to get back to work.”

“Yeah,” Joe said, grinning widely, “I’ll call you! This evening or tomorrow!”

“I’ll see you, Joe.” Susan walked back to her car and sat for a moment before starting it. She started the car and then laughed. She turned on the radio and drove back to work, speeding up for yellow lights and driving at least five miles over the speed limit.

Vince was gone when she returned, so she took sandwiches to his dad and his partner before returning to her desk. The rest of the day at work was nice and calm. She went home after work to drink wine and read. Around six-thirty or seven, her phone rang.

“Hello?”

“Um…Hi…Susan?” a familiar voice asked. “It’s Joe.”

“Hi, Joe.”

“So, uh, what do you like to eat?”

“Whatever you like is fine, Joe. Where do you want to go?”

“Well, uh, I guess we could go to that Italian place downtown?”

“That sounds great. Do you know where I live?”

“No…”

“I live in the Vista View apartments on 7th Avenue. Do you know where they are?”

“Yeah,” he replied.

“So pick me up here at like 7 o’clock. You drive that blue car, right?”

“Yeah, that’s mine.”

“I’ll be looking for you…have a good night, Joe.”

“Great, yeah, I’ll be there at 7! You have a good night, too, Susan!”

She shook her head as she hung up the phone. She finished her book and most of a bottle of wine before going to bed. She spent the following morning tidying up her apartment, doing dishes and laundry, and she took a nap in the afternoon. Around five o’clock, she showered and began getting ready for the date. She wore a tight-fitting red turtleneck and black slacks that were a bit tighter. She wore her hair up, and as she put it up she tried to recall the last time she’d worn it that way. It must’ve been a wedding. When seven o’clock finally rolled around, she locked her door and walked down to the street. Joe was parked on the street at the end of the sidewalk and walked towards her in a long-sleeved black button-down shirt and a pair of white dress pants. He held his hand behind his back, and when he met Susan on the sidewalk, he presented a single white rose to her. He walked her to the car and opened the passenger door for her. He held the door for her at the restaurant and pulled out her chair for her when they were shown to their table.

They talked a lot at dinner. She asked him about where he’d gone to high school and what that was like, and he told her about his experiences playing football and baseball. He asked her about her job and her family, and she told him about how she liked to consider herself an “office manager,” not a secretary, and that she was pretty close to her mother and visited at least once a month. Her father played golf and watched a lot of television. She had no brothers and sisters. He, too, had none. At a slow point in the conversation, she decided to breach a difficult area of conversation.

“So have you been in many relationships?” she asked, not looking up from her plate as she tried to organize a prudent bite of her lasagna.

“Huh. Well…no, not really,” he started. “I was dating a girl when I came to college, and we broke up my sophomore year. We’d been dating since my junior year in high school, and I just really never got around to dating after we broke up.” He spoke slowly, looking around the room and playing nervously with his napkin. “I’ve just been so busy with school most of the time, you know?”

“Yeah…I can understand that. She was your first serious girlfriend?” Susan asked gently.

“Yes. We just couldn’t make it through the long distance stuff. She wasn’t going to school and really wanted to settle down and that sort of thing,” he said, beginning to speak casually, again. “I think she felt like I abandoned her when I came to school, and when I stayed here over the summer after my freshman year, our communication really started to fall apart. It didn’t take long at all before we were through.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Susan said soothingly. “Then again, if you were still with her we wouldn’t be having dinner right now.” He smiled and sat back in his chair.

“How about you? I wouldn’t have figured you for the type of girl who had to ask a guy out in order to get a date,” he chuckled, taking a drink of his water.

“Ha! Was I too pushy?!” she asked, a bit surprised that he would bring up the way they’d made their date.

“No, it’s fine. I just felt kinda silly. I just haven’t really ever asked anyone out. And I could never tell if you were just being nice to me or if you liked me.”

“I never said I liked you,” she laughed. “Maybe I just wanted a free dinner!”

“Oh, so you think I’m going to pay for this?!” They laughed for a minute and Joe wadded up his napkin and tossed it onto the table. “So really, though, have you been in any serious relationships?” He looked, for a moment, just like her high-school boyfriend Adam.

“Well…none that seem very serious when I look back on them. I guess I really wasn’t ever looking for something very serious before…”

“You are now, though?” he interrogated.

“Um…I guess so. Maybe. More serious than just going out to the bars together and that sort of thing. What about you?”

“Well…I don’t really know anymore. I don’t think I’ve been looking, so I wouldn’t know what it was I was looking for. I don’t go out to the bars, though, so that’s one thing that we could both not do, together,” he laughed. “And I’m sure we’ll both keep eating…so that’s something we can do together…if you want to again, anyway.”

They didn’t finish their meals, and they ordered coffee when the waiter asked if they wanted dessert. They talked for another hour after finishing dinner, and Joe really seemed to get comfortable, and the conversation was humorous and light-hearted now that they’d gotten the serious stuff out of the way. They covered movies, music, books, and those sorts of topics. Susan was pleasantly surprised to learn that they had very similar tastes. He drove her home and walked her to her door, and he told her he’d had a really nice evening.

“I had a wonderful time, too. Thanks for everything, Joe.” She stood looking at him, the key to her apartment in her hand. She slid her right foot an inch closer to him.

“So I can call you again?” he asked cautiously.

“Of course, yes! Please do,” she responded.

“Great…so…have a good night,” he said, nearly leaning forward but stopping short, like an invisible clothes-line held him at his distance.

“You too,” she said, still facing him. She now slid her left foot closer by an inch. He smiled, then looked at her feet, and slowly turned to walk to his car. Susan didn’t move as she watched him drive away. When his car was out of sight, she let herself fall back against the building door, where she remained for a few minutes. She breathed in the refreshing summer air and admired the clear sky surrounding the trees in her yard.

Soon she walked to her car, got in, and drove downtown. She parked on Main Street. She sat in her car for a minute, thinking about her evening with Joe. She looked down the street, at the new bar Vince told her about. The car was still running. She could put it in Drive and go home. She could even call Joe and thank him for a nice evening. She could take a bath. She shut the car off and took the keys out of the ignition. She should go home and read a book. She got out of the car and walked down the street.

“Susan? Yeah, you’re on the list. Come on in,” the bouncer said. She made eye contact with Vince, who stood talking to a group of people in the back of the room, and after getting a drink from the bar she began to make her way towards him through the crowd.

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