What a night....a slightly awkward gourmet dinner, a highly-rated movie he could scarcely remember. Small wonder his head was spinning.
With the address he had copied from the phone book, and Sandy’s navigational assistance, Rick drove straight through downtown Tanner to the riverside restaurant he had selected for their dinner date.
True, his six o’clock reservation was earlier than most diners. But with an eleven o’clock curfew hanging over their heads there was no time for stylish lateness. Inside the restaurant the darkened lounge to their left was hosting a loud and laughing happy-hour, while only three other couples occupied the main dining room. Rick stepped to the counter to confirm the reservation he had called in earlier that afternoon.
A formally attired, noticeably-dour man emerged from a side door to find Rick stretched over the counter, trying to read the reservation sheet. Without a word the boy pointed to his name and stepped back. The unsmiling waiter paused for a pointed glance at the youngster’s long hair and unpressed jeans. Then, nodding ever so slightly in Sandy’s direction, he gathered a pair of menus and motioned for them to follow him.
“We’d like something by the window, please,” Rick said, veering from the attendant’s apparent route toward a table in a dimly-lit back corner of the room. “Over here, I think.” He nudged Sandy toward one of several vacant window tables.
For a moment the fellow’s stern glare suggested he might take issue with the boy’s impertinent request. It may have been the young Indian’s unfriendly grin, or perhaps simply good manners, that finally prompted him to set their menus on the corner of the window-side table Rick had selected and retreat.
“He’s certainly not very friendly,” Sandy observed as Rick pulled the chair out for her.
“That’s okay. He has a problem, that’s all. It doesn’t have to be our problem. If you hang around me for a while you’ll get used to it.”
His offhand observation was not well received. “I don’t suppose I’ll be ‘hanging around’ you much longer," she said, turning to the window, looking out at shafts of bright sunlight slanting through massive trees bordering the river.
“Swell, it sounds like you’ll be hanging around me for at least one more day.”
“What do you mean?”
“Dad’s business with the attorney is going to take another day. Maybe more.”
That may have been enough to gain Sandy's attention, though her expression reflected only sullen sadness.
“He’s already told me there won’t be another date,” Rick continued. “Not something like this. But I’ll be able to come by and see you tomorrow. That’s better than leaving the first thing in the morning.”
“Except I have to work tomorrow. All day," she answered. Perhaps he was hoping for the return of her smile. If so, he was about to be disappointed.
“I already tried to put that off until Wednesday, so Gail and I could get a last picking of cherries tomorrow. Mom wouldn’t even talk about it. I’m helping Uncle Bob and that’s that. At the time it didn’t matter all that much. You were leaving anyway. Now you’re not. You’ll be here another day and I won’t even be able to see you.”
“Come on, girl. We’ll find a way to have some time together. Maybe after dinner. Anyway, let’s not get hung up on all that. This is our big night on the town. Can’t we just have a good time? I’m exactly where I want to be and I won’t let myself be sad about that.” Nodding to the thick multipage menu, he added, “Check it out. See what looks good to you.”
Rick had selected the restaurant from the yellow pages, certain that they could expect a nice meal. After all, the advertisement promised "Gourmet Dining." The same ad, however, had not included a price list, leaving him with no idea of how far would his dining dollars would stretch. They were about to face that startling bit of reality head-on.
“Look at these prices,” Sandy gasped, slamming the menu shut. “This is too much. Let’s go somewhere else.”
Turning the pages, Rick was searching for the least expensive entrees he could find, doing the mental math as he went. Factoring in the lower-priced menu items, along with a movie and some popcorn, he concluded that his dad’s cash infusion, along with what money he already had, would be enough.
“Not a chance,” he announced confidently. “This is our night out. And we’re going first-class.”
They had endured another round of surly glares from their waiter and finished their salads before Sandy was ready to revisit her earlier concerns. Her voice wavered a bit, but the question was straight to the point. “Are you ever coming back?”
“What’s that about?” Rick planted his elbows on the table and leaned toward her. “Do you think this is a game or something? Of course I’m coming back.”
By then his spirits were sinking fast. Their last night together had scarcely begun and already she was bogged down in dreary premonitions of what lay beyond.
Only a week earlier, before Sandy had entered his life, the boy’s future had been a given....bland, but certain....spelled out in terms of college classes and part-time work in his dad’s store. It had been about him and only him, with no need to consider what it might mean to anyone else.
Now it seemed the possibilities were changing by the day, complicated by events he could never have imagined. Looking across the table into Sandy’s sad eyes, her question of when he would return blended seamlessly into one of his own. How could he make such a return happen?
Finally he was forced to admit, “I don’t know when. I never thought there’d be a reason to worry about that.”
“And now there is. I have a reason to come back. I don’t know how I’ll do it. But I know I will.” He was squirming, ready to move on. “Now, please, can’t we talk about something else. Tell me about the movie we’re going to see.”
Sandy’s first impulse was to resist, to force him to face her questions. Instead she accepted his prompting. “I looked them up in the paper,” she said. “The movies that are playing now. They all sounded dumb.”
“You pick one then,” he insisted, wanting her to understand the truth of it. “It doesn’t matter to me. I’m going to spend a couple hours in a nice soft chair, in a dark room, right beside you. What makes you think I’ll even care about what we’re watching?”
The twelve-screen cineplex was a fifteen minute drive from the restaurant. Rick drove through the already crowded parking lot until he found an empty space. There, in the still-bright evening sunlight, he turned off the engine and unbuckled his seat belt.
“We’re a little early,” he said. “Let’s wait out here.” He took her hand and coaxed her across the Audi’s wide bench-seat to his side. “Nice dinner, eh?”
“It was great,” she agreed. “I’ve never been in a place that fancy.”
“Don’t get too used to it. Our next night out may be at McDonald’s.” A second later he realized he had pushed that same old button again.
“You don’t even know if there’ll be a next time,” she whimpered.
“Sandy.” He was determined to nip her maudlin complaint in the bud. “Don’t go there, please. This is tonight. We’ve had a nice dinner. In fact, it was great. Everything about it was good, except maybe the dessert. That was 'just okay.' I’d like to improve on that.” He tilted her chin toward him and they kissed.
There in broad daylight, surrounded by a parade of passing moviegoers, one kiss led to another. His arm was around her waist. As she turned, her blouse pulled higher and his palm was suddenly in the middle of her bare back, spread across smooth, warm skin. There was no denying the truth of it. He liked the way she felt beneath his fingers.
For minutes they were lost in their own world, an intoxicating blend of long kisses and warm touches. Then suddenly Rick straightened up. His smile was a bit embarrassed as he reached out to gently touch the end of her nose.
“I think we’d better go in,” he said. “We’ll miss the movie.”
Sandy pushed herself forward, straightening her blouse. “I suppose you’re right.”
Later Rick would remember having read somewhere that the film they watched that evening was a highly-rated, “two-thumbs-up” event. “A good story, well acted," the article had said. Truth be told, he had a hard time getting involved in either the story or the acting. By the time it was over he could scarcely remember the beginning.
Back in the car they sat quietly as the parking lot emptied....forcing awkward small talk about the film, while wondering what came next.
“Eleven o’clock,” Rick finally said, pointing to the dashboard clock. “That’s the deadline. We barely have an hour.”
“I suppose I’ll turn into a pumpkin if we’re late,” she whispered. A moment later he realized she was crying. “And tomorrow you’ll just drive away.”
“Not tomorrow. The day after.”
“What does one day matter?”
Rick started to explain, but she slipped her hand over his mouth. “Not now,” she said. “We have an hour. I’ll tell you how to get to where we’re going. You just drive.”
“You have a place for us to go?”
“You just drive.” Sandy's smile had returned.
Scarcely fifteen minutes from the cineplex, following Sandy’s confident directions, Rick drove along a twisting, badly-paved side road through the hills that lined the east side of the valley. Just past a narrow concrete bridge, he slowed as she pointed to the gravel track that led up a long hill toward a shadowy-stand of tall firs. At the crest of the hill the road forked. Ahead, Rick’s headlights bounced off another car parked on the far side of the grove.
“Let’s go over there.” Sandy pointed to the left. “Away from the other car.”
Seconds later he pulled to a stop and turned off the headlights. In an instant the deep darkness engulfed them, softened only by the dull glow of city lights reflecting off the cloudy western sky.
“Man, we are out in the boonies for sure,” Rick teased, before asking his obvious question. “It’s not marked. I didn’t see any signs. But you knew exactly how to find it. I’m guessing you’ve been here before. Right?”
Sandy heard the grin she could not see. “Yeah. I’ve been here. Though this is the first time it was my idea. Each of the other two times turned out to be a real hassle.”
“Are Tanner boys really like that?” he joked. “I find that hard to believe.”
“They’re boys, aren’t they? Which means they’re all the same.”
Their eyes were growing accustomed to the dim light. He saw her face turn toward him as she pushed herself up to kiss him. A moment later she pulled back. “This time feels different.”
“You’re leaving. I don’t know when I’ll.....” He heard the tears in her voice. Wiping at her eyes, she added, “What if I never see you again?”
Her face was cradled in his hands as they kissed again. “You will. I promise. There may be a time when you’re sick of seeing me.”
“Not likely,” Sandy laughed through her tears.
She pulled him closer, running her fingers through his long hair. Their kisses grew longer and conversation had lost its appeal. His touch, and hers, were no longer accidental, but bold and aggressive. As they pulled each other forward, restraint faded and compelling emotions threatened to take control.
Then came a lull, framed by the sound of heavy breathing. She snuggled against his shoulder, soaking up feelings she did not want to end. “Do you remember?” she whispered. “The first day we talked. when you bragged about Highland City girls, how they say what they mean.”
“Yeah. I remember that. But I was talking about ....”
“I know what you were talking about,” Sandy interrupted. A moment later she was charging ahead, afraid that her nerve would fail her if she stopped. “I’m thinking it’s time for more than talk. Isn't it?”
By then Rick was struggling with questions of his own. The girl on his shoulder was not one of the ‘cheap and easy’ ones, the kind the guys bragged about on Monday morning. For the first time in his life he was with what his friends would call a ‘keeper.’ And she was saying "Now." No wonder every fiber of his being was pulling him to where those urges led.
He pulled her closer, knowing exactly where he wanted the moment to take them. An instant later that certainty was deflected by an unexpected replay of Sue Ann’s stern warning. He chased her words away, but they returned....coupled now with Tom Fedder’s pointed caution.
It was beginning to register. What he wanted to do was not what he ought to do. Still, he could not bring himself to deny Sandy’s apparent invitation. Instead he settled for a quiet, unexpected, “Why?”
“Why do you suppose? Because I’ve never felt like this before, about anyone.” She squinted to read his face. “I don’t want you to forget me.”
“Wow.” Then, one deep breath later, “Do you think for a minute I’d forget you?”
It was not as though he had never been swept along on that emotional tide....the uncontrolled rush toward what he could not resist. He had been there before and known that urgency, but never with a need to understand why it was happening.
This was different. Sandy was offering her wanting as a conscious choice, made for reasons beyond their momentary emotions. She was sending a message, in the most empathic way she knew how.
As the truth of her gesture hit home Rick realized that he welcomed her message more than the offer. Nudging her off his shoulder, he could make out her face in the near darkness. “No,” he whispered. “It’s not that time.” He thought he heard her breathing stop for a moment.
“Don’t you like me that much?”
“Don’t be crazy. I like you a lot more than that.” He paused, knowing how close he had come to using the ‘love’ word. He had never been tempted to do that before. “I’m just doing my best to get this right. I don’t want to mess up.”
“Would that be messing up?”
He leaned back against the headrest to catch his breath. “Look, I’m a pretty realistic guy. At least I try to be. It’s amazing to think that someone like you could like me that much. You told me once that you’re nobody’s trophy. Well, I’m not a trophy hunter. What I’m thinking about is tomorrow and the next day. I want this to be for more than tonight.”
Peering through the darkness Rick was looking for a reaction, a nod or something....anything to let him know that she understood. Sandy was offering few hints, so he stumbled ahead.
“I don’t want to do something stupid. I can’t take that chance. How would you feel afterwards? How would we feel? That’s what I’m wondering. Besides, there’s your mom and my dad. You know they’d be disappointed.”
“They wouldn’t have to know.”
“Don’t you kid me,” he scolded. “Your mom can read you like a book. And I want her to read only good things about this Indian guy.” He pulled her back to his shoulder. “The thing is, you don’t have to prove anything. You’ve already told me everything I want to know.”
“And you’re still going away.”
His reluctant reluctance had drained the moment’s energy. For another few minutes they sat silently, each of them processing their desire to please and be pleased. Each wondering where that was leading them.
“I think we’d better go,” Rick said at last. “It’s nearly ten-thirty.”
It was a short twenty-minute drive to the North End. For that long Sandy sat in silence.... uninterested in Rick’s modest conversational efforts and unresponsive to his attempts to coax her across the seat to his side. Instead she wondered what she had done wrong and what to do next.
The feelings were unfamiliar and uncomfortable ....the ones that had settled over her. She had relied on a wisdom so conventional that all her friends were certain it was true. As a last resort, when all else failed, offer the boy what he wants. Yet even that had not been enough. If anything, it seemed that her boldness had frightened him away or at least made her look easy?
They pulled up in front of the Asylum at ten forty-five. By then Sandy was sure that Rick had lost all interest in salvaging the last few minutes of their allotted time. Apparently he was ready to capitulate, to give up on them. Or so it seemed.
Switching off the headlights they watched together as the living room curtains parted, framing Gail's face as she peered out toward the car.
“Looks like we have an audience,” he chuckled.
“That’s okay. I don’t think she can see us.”
“I don’t care if she can.” This time he would not give up her hand. Sliding across the seat to her side, Rick reached out and turned her face to him. “I want to thank you for a really great night. It was kind of short, but good....very good.”
“Yeah, it was.” It was hard to hear any enthusiasm in Sandy's voice. “I think I’m going to miss you.”
“Don’t forget, I’m not gone yet. I’m going to see you tomorrow. I’ll call you after dinner. You’ll be home by then, won’t you?”
“I suppose so. But all that does is put off your going for another day.” It was hard to accept an extra day as a victory in the face of what seemed so final. Instead she turned to a different possibility. “If you write to me,” she said. “I promise I’ll answer.”
“I could write. But it’s not the same as being here.” Rick glanced back at the dashboard clock. Ten-fifty. There was no time for preliminaries. “I’ve been wondering about that. What would you think if I stayed here in Tanner? Would that be a problem for you?”
“In Tanner? Why would you do that?”
“Why do you suppose?” He leaned over and kissed her cheek. “To be with you. To see you every day. I could get a job. I’m eighteen. Remember? I have a diploma. Lots of guys do that.”
“But I thought you weren’t that interested. It seemed like you didn’t care.” He could make out her frown. “I wanted to, and you didn’t.”
His laugh was loud enough to startle her. “Look, I have about five minutes to make you understand the difference between wanting to, which I certainly did, and being smart, which is what I want us to be.”
“You did want to?”
“My God, girl. Do I look brain dead? Of course I wanted to.”
He pulled her to his shoulder. “The thing is, I’m trying to look ahead, beyond right now. I want to know this Sandy Harden person better....a lot better.
"I’ll admit, it’s the first time I’ve ever thought about a girl and the future at the same time. But that’s where I am right now. I want to be looking ahead. I’d like both of us to be looking ahead. That’s why I’d like to stay here. So I can know you better.”
“So, how far ahead are you looking?”
“That’s hard to know.” He had hoped, but not dared to believe, she might pick up on his bold idea. Could she possibly imagine a future that included him? “It might be a long time.”
“You mean that?”
“Of course I do. Look, I know it sounds impossible, me being with someone like you. But that’s what I’d like us to think about.”
Her smile was a long time coming, but worth the wait. “It doesn’t sound impossible at all. I think it sounds kind of nice.” Suddenly his logic made sense. Why had she not seen that before? “And you’re right. “
“That we should be smart. That we should be 'looking ahead,' like you said.” She jabbed a finger at his shoulder. “And for you that means being in college. That’s where you belong.”
“But, that means .....”
“That means Highland City, at the community college. Not some cheesy job in Tanner that will never let you get ahead. You’re too smart for that.”
There was a new conviction in her words. “Having you here in Tanner would be really nice. But it makes no sense at all. Not if you’re looking ahead, like you said. Not if we’re both looking ahead.”
It was a new experience for both of them....a timed good-night kiss. Or more precisely, three timed kisses, that ended exactly at ten fifty-nine according to Rick’s watch. Seconds later they were running from the car to the front porch, laughing all the way.
Sandy pushed the door open to find Sue Ann, Linda, and Gail lined up across the sofa, with Bonnie’s wheelchair just to the side. With only a nod to the assembled gallery, Rick parked himself in front of Sue Ann and pointed to the small clock next to the television.
“Right on time, Ma’am.” His silly grin nearly had her laughing. “Cinderella is home before the witching hour.”
He turned and started for the door, then stopped to look back at her. “By the way, it turns out that my dad....actually our dad....has to spend another day in Tanner. So I’m hoping it’s okay if I come by to see everyone some time tomorrow evening.”
“Everyone?” Sue Ann was not buying that. “You mean Sandy.”
Rick was grinning at Gail’s undisguised laughter. “Don’t worry, Ma’am. I’ll be on foot and I'll be looking forward to seeing whoever’s here.”
“I’ll tell you what, young man. Sandy is going to be a very busy girl tomorrow.” Sue Ann’s stern glare tried to make contact with Sandy, but the girl had turned away. “She’s volunteered to help her Uncle Bob all day.”
“She told me about that. I was hoping she’d be up to a walk after dinner. Something like that. She said she’d be home by then.”
“Chances are she’ll be too tired for that.”
“We’ll walk real slow,” he laughed. Without waiting for a response he grabbed Sandy’s arm and tugged her toward the door, pausing to address Sue Ann one last time. “Thanks again for our night out. That was a nice thing you and Dad did for us.”
On the porch, away from their curious audience, Rick pulled her close. “Please keep 'looking ahead.' Okay?" He was grinning again. “I really like the sound of that.” He pulled her close for a last kiss, this one untimed. A minute later he hurried to the car.