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Fiction Friendship Romance

“Want to come up?”, Renee asked as David parked his Toyota Prius in front of her apartment building. It had been their third date. Dinner and the ballet. They had a great time.

David gripped the steering wheel and stared straight ahead. After a moment, he answered. “Maybe next time. I’ll call you next week”.

“Okay”, she said. “Good night.”

She walked out of the car, through the building’s double glass door, and looked back, feeling confused as David drove away. What had gone wrong?

David met Renee playing co-ed volleyball in a Pittsburgh bar league. She was a tall redhead and she could spike the ball back into the mouths of the trash-talking young guys on David’s team. He got a kick out of that. He bought her a beer after her team beat his in a mid-week match. They chatted for a while. She agreed to go to a movie.

David’s work friends talked him into joining the bar volleyball league. Most of them were single, in their mid and late 20s. They played to have fun and to meet other people. David was in his early 30s. He called himself “recently single”.  

“Try volleyball”, they told him. “You’ll like it. You might meet someone. And it’s cheaper than therapy.”

He had been divorced for less than six months. He didn’t feel like a single person, didn’t know what that meant. He got married young, right out of college. After ten hectic years together, his wife returned from a business trip and told him she wanted out. She wanted to move to California. She wanted to marry someone else.

“This is all my fault”, she had said, trying to soften the blow. “I was away too much. We didn’t have the time to sort things out.” It didn’t help.

David and his wife had both been unhappy during the previous two years. But the break-up hit him hard. He had never had that experience. The hurt was real, and the pain was deep. During the three months after she gave him the news, David really struggled. 

People kept telling him to keep busy. David overdosed on sports. He took up running and bike riding. He played basketball in the park. He played soccer in an over-30 league. He decided to learn to ski, and he joined the volleyball league. He met friendly people, and received lots of friendly advice. An older guy who was on his second marriage said something that David took seriously:

“You’re just another guy, even if you feel like you’re damaged goods right now. You will meet women you like, and who will like you. Some guys want to get the sex part out of the way early. I think you should go slow. Be friends first.”

David wasn’t sure if going to that late afternoon movie with Renee counted as a date. Maybe it did. They met at the theatre, then went to a coffee shop to talk.

She told him about her family. He told her about his. She was an only child. He was the oldest of three. She told him about working in the business office of the sports medicine division of the local hospital system. She told him about the difficulties getting enough staff for all of their locations. Renee didn’t talk about all the things she did to coordinate the schedules of medical personnel. She didn’t think he’d be interested.

He explained his job doing quality assurance for robotics software. He skipped the nitty-gritty details that took up much of his time, like wrestling with applications that analyzed code or tracked defects. He didn’t want to bore her with that geeky stuff. 

He told her about all of the sports things he was doing. “The physical therapists we have are excellent”, she told him, “In case you get injured doing all that stuff.” 

He couldn’t avoid telling her about being divorced. The conversation got awkward when Renee asked him, “Why did you and your ex-wife split up?”

David closed his eyes and answered, “The answer is either very simple or very complicated. I don’t know what to tell you. I haven’t figured it out myself. You might have to talk to my ex-wife to get part of the answer.”

“I’m sorry”, Renee said, after a long pause.  “I shouldn’t have asked that question”, she finally said as she got up to leave the coffee shop. “See you next Wednesday at volleyball? My team plays right after yours”. 

“Sure”, said David, looking up, “I’ll be there.”

They avoided sensitive topics when they saw each other that Wednesday. They talked about things like beer and the local sports teams. David liked IPAs and went to see the local pro soccer team play. Renee liked porters and other dark beers, and she liked the hockey team.

For their second date, Renee and David went to dinner and to a hockey game with a group of his friends. The group chose a family restaurant in what had been a blue-collar neighborhood before the nearby steel mills were torn down. The steel mills had been replaced by buildings housing a variety of tech businesses, including the robotics company where David worked.

“The food isn’t fancy here, but it tastes great and the portions are big enough”, David explained as he handed Renee a menu. She got through the appetizers and salads sections before the questions started. David’s friends wanted to know lots of things: if she liked hockey, if she was a local, where she worked and what she did there, where she went to school and what she studied, and what brand of workout clothes was her favorite. The few women in the group seemed particularly interested in that.

David intervened after Renee answered the first half-dozen questions, “HEY, enough of the interrogation, guys! Can we please let Renee pick out something from the menu before we start asking her about her favorite color and what toothpaste she buys?”

Chuckling, they stopped to let Renee order. She chose the homemade lasagna, the house specialty, and a side salad. To drink, she ordered a Jack Daniels, neat. “I think I am going to need this”, she whispered to David. 

Renee made it through half of her lasagna and another Jack Daniels before they left for the game. The gauntlet of questions had resumed after her salad was served. It ended after she revealed that her favorite color was green.

They had group tickets for the less expensive seats, near the top of the arena. The crowd was quiet when they arrived, about halfway through the first period. The home team was already down by 3 goals. But they came back to win 6-3, scoring all of their goals in the last period. David and his friends joined the crowd as it got louder and rowdier with each goal. So did Renee. She was jumping up and down and screaming wildly after the last goal was scored. 

“You probably think I am weird because I went crazy in there”, Renee told him as he drove her home after the game. David, starting to laugh, told her, “Nope, I like that about you. And we all went nuts. I couldn’t follow the puck very well, but I had a blast tonight.”

“Are you free a week from Friday?”, David asked just before dropping her off. “I have tickets to the ballet.”

“Just the two of us, no board of inquisitors?”, she asked.

“Just the two of us”, he said as he parked his car, “And please forgive my friends. They like to learn everything they can about new people.”

“That would be nice. I would love to go”, she said as she leaned over to give him a soft kiss. As she closed his car door, she smiled. “And tell your friends that I brush with Colgate.”

The next day in her apartment, Renee sat on her couch and thought about David. His friends were a bit too much, but she liked him. He was nice, maybe a little too serious. He was a little nerdy, despite all the sports he was doing.  What about the fact that he was divorced?

He didn’t blame everything on his ex and he didn’t bitch about her, like some of the other divorced guys she had met. There had to be something good about his marriage, about being married for ten years, like, maybe, not being afraid of commitment and not being afraid of intimacy. What about his inability to understand or to say why his marriage failed? Was it a sign of immaturity?

As she pondered this question, Renee looked at her bookshelves. There, half a dozen self-help relationship books, including Getting the Love You Want, stared back at her. She bought the first of those books when her only long-term relationship started falling apart after three years. 

Renee thought it would have been hard to explain why things didn’t work out with her ex. Maybe David’s answer to the “Why did you split up?” question made some sense after all, she decided. Renee started looking forward to their ballet date.  She already knew what she wanted to wear.

When David picked her up, Renee was wearing a pale pink dress with a large bow in the back. The heels she wore made her taller. She had to be careful not to hit her head getting into his small car.

They ate at a fancy Italian restaurant across the street from the performing arts center. The place was full. They were surrounded by lively conversation. They had a bottle of Nebbiolo with her Osso Buco and his linguine with clam sauce. They rushed to finish the bottle to avoid missing the start of the ballet.

They went to see Romeo and Juliet. Renee was attentive, and perked up when male dancers came on for their solos. 

“Enjoying the performance?”, David asked during the second intermission.

She put her right hand on his forearm, looked into his eyes, smiled, gave him a little squeeze, and whispered, “Sure. And I really like seeing men in tights.”

Her touch and the tone of her voice got David thinking. He thought about undoing the large bow on the back of Renee’s dress. He thought about feeling Renee’s long legs wrapped around him. He wondered if Renee wanted to leave the slow road they had been traveling.

On the ride home, Renee had been talkative. She teased David about his car. “You’re going to need something with more headroom if we keep dating.” She flirted a little. She poked his right thigh when he stopped for a traffic light. “Nice legs”, she told him.

“Must be all that soccer”, David answered, laughing. His heart rate increased the closer they got to her place. When they got there, his heart was racing. Anticipation, with a little bit of nerves, he thought. His hands began to tremble when he started to park. He gripped the steering wheel tightly with both hands so Renee wouldn’t notice. Before she asked him up to her place, he realized what the problem was.

It was fear.

Three days later, David called Renee, asking if she wanted to go out again. 

“David, what do you want?”, she said. “You don’t seem to want to get close, to get into a relationship”, she answered, sounding upset.

“I am just scared”, he tried to explain. 

 “I’ve heard some of my friends talk like that”, she told him. “I think I understand. But, no, I don’t want to go out with you right now. Maybe later. You’re not ready.”

David didn’t know what to say, so he apologized. “I am sorry, Renee. Hope I see you at volleyball.” Then he said goodbye and hung up.

Renee saw David playing volleyball a few times. They even talked a little. He stopped showing up after two months. 

She went out with different guys. Most of them were nice, but things never got serious. Six months after her last date with David, Renee came up with an excuse to call him.

“Hi David, it’s Renee, how have you been?”

“Hi Renee, been a while. Things are good. What’s up?”

“I want to switch volleyball teams. Do you know who organizes the team you were on?”

“I haven’t played in the volleyball league for months, but his name is Greg. I’ll get his contact info and send it to you. But I need to tell you something first.”

“What is it?”

“Renee, you were right. I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready to trust a woman again.”

“And now?”

“I am getting married in six months.”

October 01, 2022 02:22

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3 comments

Richard E. Gower
23:15 Feb 17, 2023

I enjoyed this story on several different levels. You've captured the confusion and pain following a breakup/divorce perfectly. I don't read romance/relationship stories very often, but when I do, if the story is good (a subjective call, I know) meaning does it track with what most people would consider a realistic scenario, I usually can't help seeing myself in the role of one of the characters. In this case, slipping into David's clothes was easy. And you pulled it off so well, I found myself taking sides. I thought: He was completely...

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VJ Hamilton
00:41 Oct 08, 2022

Hi Conrad, I loved this story. A very realistic portrayal of "two ships passing in the night" who, ultimately, don't end up together. What I loved most was the thread of humor about the "interrogations," for example: "Can we please let Renee pick out something from the menu before we start asking her about her favorite color and what toothpaste she buys?” You had nice callbacks to this habit. Thanks for a great read!

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Conrado Maher
22:33 Oct 14, 2022

Thanks for the feedback. I hadn't thought of the "two ships passing in the night" analogy when I wrote the story. The analogy works, but I think maybe I was going for two ships (or at least one) having trouble navigating unknown seas.

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