As I mentioned earlier (in Thoughts on Thinking), I like a little writing exercise that involves sitting in a bar or restaurant with a notebook and just writing something at random that starts with a word I see nearby. No plan, just writing.
I haven’t done much of this recently–too much “planned” writing–but here is one I did a while ago.
“Wine?” Henry asked as he nervously fumbled with his keys.
Jeanine had only been in town for three hours and already she was beginning to regret her decision.
“Why did I come here?” she admonished herself quietly. “He’s not interested in me. He was just being polite.”
Jeanine had only worked at the peanut plant for three weeks, but since day one she had felt like an outsider; like nuts just weren’t her thing. Henry, however; he had nuts written all over him. In fact, he had the biggest nuts contract in the company. That’s why Jeanine had agreed to come to dinner. She knew he could teach her a lot about nuts.
Suddenly, she realized that he hadn’t continued talking.
“I’m sorry, Henry,” she said in a barely audible, embarrassed whisper. “I must have faded out on you.”
He smiled at her, but there was a sadness behind his eyes. “That’s okay,” he said. “I just wondered if you’d like a glass of wine before we headed off to dinner.”
As he spoke, she watched his lips move, but somehow it was all disconnected; as though the sounds were coming out of a television playing in another room. “Sure,” she mustered. “That would be nice.”
For an almost imperceptible moment, Henry’s gaze hung on her and then his shoulders drooped as he took a shallow breath and rose from the edge of the couch. “White okay, or do you prefer red?”
“White’s fine,” she said. White’s always fine, she thought. She’d stopped drinking red some time ago. The tannic acid left a sour taste in her mouth these days. The oaky smell brought up too many painful memories.
Henry had moved to the kitchen and Jeanine could hear the fridge door open momentarily before sliding shut with a dull pfft. “It’s like you knew my preference,” Jeanine called from the couch, trying to sound lighter than her mood dictated. “But I don’t remember that question being on the job application.”
“I always like to keep a white wine in the fridge. Just in case,” Henry replied. Jeanine couldn’t be sure if he’d missed her little joke or was just ignoring it. Either way, she was glad he hadn’t tried to reply in kind.
Henry re-entered the living room with two large tumblers of wine. A Riesling if Jeanine’s nose still held. “Sorry about the glasses,” he smiled. “I guess you can give the boy a corner office, but you can’t make him shop.”
Jeanine just smiled, as Henry gave her a glass and raised his own. “Here’s to new beginnings,” he toasted. Jeanine hadn’t even realized that she had inhaled, however slightly, but Henry’s demeanor changed instantly.
“Look, Jeanine,” he started, putting his glass on a coaster without even taking a sip, “if this makes you feel awkward or uncertain, please just say so. No hard feelings.” He tried to smile, but his hands instinctively reached for his keys, giving away his unease.
“Shit, I’m blowing it,” Jeanine thought to herself. “No, Henry, please,” she said aloud. “I’m sorry. You asked me over for a drink and for some dinner to discuss work and here I am off in a fog. It’s my fault.”
Unsure what to do or how to approach her, Henry rose and walked across to the stereo to adjust the music level. It gave him a half-second to think. For the company’s biggest sales guy, Henry berated himself for his inability to function one-on-one with people.
Sales was easy. It was getting outside of yourself and being the professional. An actor as much as a sales person. But people? Individuals? Women? They made Henry nervous, for some reason.
It wasn’t Jeanine, but she didn’t know that.
“I’m really glad you asked. I really want to learn more,” she said rapidly to fill the void. Suddenly adding, “About the company.”
“Oh Christ,” she thought. “You sound like a ruddy schoolgirl. Calm down.”
Henry turned back and smiled. “Of course,” he replied, at a loss for what to say next. “I just wanted to make sure you were comfortable. You’ve only been with the company a few weeks and I ask you if you want to see my portfolio. A girl might get the wrong idea, but I want to assure you that this salesman is an honourable one.”
She smiled despite herself. “An honourable salesman?” she laughed. “A bit of an oxymoron, isn’t it?”
It was Henry’s turn to laugh. “Oxymoron,” he repeated. “I’m impressed.”
“Hey, they may not teach us much at York University,” she said mock defensively, “but I came away with a good vocabulary.”
Henry held up his hands in submission. “I surrender. I’m just a poor Ryerson grad. I don’t even think we were taught the word ‘vocabulary’.”
That seemed to have broken the ice a little and they both sat there, quietly, noses into their wine glasses, surreptitiously surveying their companion.
Jeanine was 35. A blonde by birth, a brunette by practice, she had long ago given up any hope of ever getting control of those odd silver hairs that forced their way through into the sunlight every few weeks. And given her fair complexion, sunlight was one thing she avoided religiously.
She was of middling height and had once heard herself described by her art history professor as a cross between Rubens and Botticelli. Unfortunately, she sucked at art history, so she was never sure if she should be flattered, embarrassed, or angry. In any event, she was happy with her figure, even if it was a little over-exuberant in a bathing suit.
And it never seemed to get in her way when it came to sex. By no means easy, she flattered herself, she was playful and for that very reason, had to be careful about her drinking. Everybody, it seems, loves a happy drunk.
Henry was 43 and to ask him, he’d earned every one of those years. In fact, in his eyes, he should have gotten double credit for ten of them; the ones he’d spent married. He’d married shortly after leaving college to begin a career as a traveling salesman. And cliché as it might seem, that’s exactly what led to his first divorce. And ironically his second marriage. Well, that and a ruptured condom.
Henry and Sarah, his second wife, had left on relatively amicable terms about four years ago. Together, the happy couple had produced a beautiful son, a mortgage, two ulcers, two very wealthy lawyers and for Henry, an entirely new appreciation for how much shit you can pile into a Mazda Miata. They’re roomier than you might think.
If you asked him, Henry would be just as likely to blame his salt-and-pepper mane on a decade of liquid lunches as much as his history with women. Oh, it’s not that he didn’t have definite opinions on his ex-wives, but he was too much of a realist to believe that all of life’s problems were their fault. The wine belly—if one can have a wine belly—was the other clue.