A silver Jaguar pulled up out front. Through the front window, I observed Paul. He moved with agility despite a slight hitch in his gait. Trim, with a head of thinning gray hair, he was not unattractive in a dark brown leather jacket that was just a little too long. Suddenly, we were face-to-face and embracing. We chatted a few minutes with my friend Gay before walking next door. I had wanted her to meet Paul, and I was eager for her daughter Kerry to meet him too. They had known the significant men in my life, including Nikos, the Greek physician whom I once had almost married.
Kerry and Dick met us at the front door. After quick introductions, Kerry invited us into the dining room for a glass of wine.
Sitting quietly, tasting the wine, I was struck by Paul’s easy affability. What gave me pause was his jacket. What had looked so good through the window was indescribably cheap-looking up close. From across the table, I noted his broad-boned face, well-defined cheekbones, and strong chin. His nose, injured in an accident years ago, was somewhat bulbous with a cleft at the end, but I was not put off by it.
We stayed just long enough to finish the one glass of wine. Back outside, Paul opened the door of the Jag and I stepped in, sinking comfortably into the leather seat. The sun was setting.
“I know this neighborhood,” he said as he maneuvered through Raleigh’s rush-hour traffic toward Chapel Hill. “I used to date someone who lived on Glenwood Avenue . . . a lot of years ago.”
Trying to picture Paul “a lot of years ago” was a stretch, although I’d seen photos of him in younger years on the walls of his office.
It was to be an at-home dinner. Paul had told me that after Sharon died, his children hired a chef to prepare gourmet meals for him, which he was enjoying. The problem was quantity, he’d explained, saying there was so much delicious food that he was throwing weekly dinner parties. When he’d suggested we share one of his gourmet meals, it sounded tempting.
As we neared Chapel Hill, I recognized the area. My husband Joe and I had driven down from Virginia a number of times for special events – birthday parties, book signings, weddings. Usually, we’d stayed with friends in Durham, but Joe delighted in showing me Chapel Hill, where he’d lived in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.
As Paul pulled into his driveway, I was hopeful that we might be a match. I wanted to know him better. Joe had liked Paul, although he’d described him as consumed with work and neglectful of Sharon at times. But that was years ago. Paul had spoken movingly of Sharon at her memorial service, and I suspected a softer side. I was hoping for Joe’s sensitivity and charm, someone who loved animals, someone who enjoyed music and theater.
He led the way up a wooden stairway to the wide front door. Like the rest of the house, it was made of dark wood. As I remembered from the times Joe and I had visited, even on the brightest day, the interior of the house was dark except for the atrium.
Paul switched on a light, revealing a small kitchen table set with two placemats hugging one corner. The overhead lighting was aimed toward the table, the rest of the kitchen in semi-darkness. “Have a seat.” Paul pointed to one of two straight-backed chairs. I sat down, noting the old flooring and dark cabinets, unchanged since I’d first set foot in the house, while Paul went to the fridge and came back with a decanter of chilled white wine. He offered me some (though he was not drinking alcohol for health reasons), which I accepted. Then he got two small glass bowls filled with several large peeled shrimp and wedges of lemon from the fridge, placed one on each mat, and sat down.
“The cook couldn’t come yesterday because of the holiday, so we’re eating what she made last week.”
Vision of a delicious gourmet dinner suddenly gave way to images of stale, dried out food, tasteless and worse. Was it my imagination or were the shrimp ultra-chilled, the lemon wedges flabby? Why hadn’t he suggested going out for dinner? As soon as we’d gotten through the shrimp, Paul stood up, and cleared the empty bowls from the table. A buzzer sounded, and he reappeared with Tupperware containers filled with steaming side dishes that he placed on the table. A buzzer went off again as he made another trip to the microwave, returning with a plate that had a single thick fillet of beef in the center which he placed in front of me. After he returned with a steak for himself, I
easily cut into the tender fillet and closed my mouth on a piece that was absolutely chilled.
“I’m sorry, Paul, but my fillet is cold.”
“Oh, I can fix that.” He jumped up from the table. “I’ll just put it back in the microwave.”
He did not offer red wine to accompany the steak, so I continued to drink the white. Except for the on-again, off-again buzzing of the microwave, it was quiet. Paul, a presumed music lover, did not have any music playing in the background.
“I’d like to hear more about your new real estate project.”
“I’ll tell you about it as soon as I reheat these fillets.”
This real estate venture was in addition to his consulting. For as long as I’d known Paul, he’d done consulting, and had continued since retiring from the university.
“Say,” he said, cutting into his reheated fillet, “whatever happened to that fellow named Richard, the one I met at Joes birthday party? I sort of figured you’d be seeing a lot of him.”
I swallowed hard. Richard, a few years younger than Joe, had been Joe’s best friend and a good friend to me too. When his wife was alive, the four of us had seen a lot of each other, taking weekend or longer trips together, and after her death, Richard had been like a member of our small family.
“Richard moved back to Ohio.”
I had not been happy with his decision to return to Ohio, where many of his relatives still lived. But I thought I understood in part why he had moved. “You know I love you,” he’d said to me shortly before he left, about a year after Joe’s death. I had suspected he might, but at the time, I was incapable of reciprocating his feelings, and I think he knew that.
“Tell me,” Paul said, as though mentally ticking off a list of must-ask question, “why haven’t you retired?”
“Well, I’m a bit dubious about my financial situation.”
“Tell me what it is.”
Without hesitating, I proceeded to give him a general picture.
“You could easily arrange for a fixed annuity that would pay you a certain amount each month, and you’d be fine.”
I assumed that Paul, with his various business interests, was an effective money manager, and made a mental note to ask my financial adviser about this type of annuity. (When I did, I found it was actually not in my best interest.)
Paul started talking about there being no good reason for me not to retire.
“There’s another reason I want to work, at least through the summer,” I said, interrupting what was becoming a rant on the subject. “I’ve arranged for a recently discovered young relative in Prague to fill a summer internship at the
Airports Authority where I work.”
“Does he need protection?” asked Paul, somewhat derisively.
“He’s never been to the United States. He’ll be staying with me, and I want to help him as much as I can.”
“I’m planning to take a cruise this spring,” Paul said, abruptly changing the subject, and, without outright inviting me, started in again about the desirability of my retiring right away. As he talked, I looked at him intently. Ever aware of eyes, I found Paul’s bright gold-brown eyes a bit small for his face, and his wide smile marred by nearly non-existent lips.
“I’ve met a lot of women in the last few months, but none of them appeal to me.” Appeals, I thought, almost saying it aloud. “None of them appeals to me.” I couldn’t help it. I was a demon for correct use of the English language, much as Joe had been.
While I was mentally correcting Paul’s grammar, he moved his chair closer and turned, pushing his face inches from mine.
“Well, Shirley, why did you want to have dinner with me?” Taken aback by the question, I sat back in my chair and thought for a second.
“The possibility of a romantic relationship had crossed my mind.”
Paul grinned, his thin lips stretching wide. “I’d like to fly up to see you again on Valentine’s Day.”
“Oh, that might be nice.” On the other hand, I thought, it might not be. Paul’s manner coupled with his apparent assumption that a micro-waved week-old dinner in the kitchen was an appropriate dinner date wasn’t computing as Valentine-worthy. Suddenly, he kissed me hard on the mouth, his lips closed. Surprised, I blanched and stood up, excusing myself to use the bathroom. This wasn’t even close to a match, I
thought, as I looked in the bathroom mirror to repair my lipstick. Why had I thought it might be? Joe was right. Paul had the charm and sensitivity of cardboard. I should have insisted on going out to dinner, then he could have just taken me back to Raleigh. Now what was I going to do?
When I walked into the dimly lit living room, I heard sounds coming from the kitchen. I supposed he was cleaning up. He had that ‘everything in its place’ way. It would be so easy to just walk out the front doo, but then what would I do? Feeling trapped in a situation of my own making, I sat down on the long upholstered sofa. Within seconds, Paul walked in and sat beside me. Without reaching for my hand, or pausing to talk, he kissed me again. I tensed, inwardly recoiling.
“Paul, would you play the piano for me?” I asked, hoping to put some distance between us.
“Sure,” he said. “Whaddya wanna hear?”
“How about show tunes and jazz?”
An accomplished jazz pianist, he had played at Joe’s birthday party not that many years ago. As he started, I could feel the tension in my body start to ease. What a talent, I thought, wishing there were other aspects of Paul I could appreciate as much. He must have played for thirty minutes, maybe longer, when I stood up, purse in hand.
“I’m sorry but I need to be getting back.”
“Okay,” he said, getting up from the piano bench and putting on the leather jacket.
“I enjoyed your playing,” I said, following him out to the car. Paul said nothing as he opened the door for me. It was pitch black, a moonless, starless night. He had just driven onto the highway heading to Raleigh when he announced, “I can’t get an erection because of the prostate surgery I had,” then went on to describe it in some detail. Joe had told me about the cancer. It was serious, and we’d been concerned about Paul’s survival. His erectile function, or lack thereof, had never crossed my mind, at least not until now. His voice rose: “It’s been seventeen years since I’ve been inside a woman!” I said nothing, not knowing where this clinical confession was going. “But I’m taking treatments to correct the condition, and . . . I’m doing this just for you!” I could feel my jaw drop. For me? Why not for himself, or for Sharon who’d had a vested interest in the relationship? As if nearing the finish line of a race, he went on: “Rest assured, I have no trouble finding the G-spot!” I really didn’t want to hear this, any of it, not on a first date, maybe never! Nonetheless, my curiosity was piqued.
“What are the treatments?” I asked, thankful for the cover of darkness. He explained that he was getting injections directly into his penis. In fact, he said with notable enthusiasm, he had recently experienced an erection improvement, describing the angle as a mathematical percentage. Suddenly, I found myself feeling sorry for Sharon for so many reasons, Paul’s physical complaint perhaps the least of them. I couldn’t wait to get out of the car, away from this man.
“Can I give you a ride to the airport in the morning?” Paul asked, pulling up outside the house in Raleigh.
“Thank you but the family’s planning to take me,” I said, opening the car door. I gave Paul a perfunctory hug and then got out. Fighting the urge to run, I closed the car door and turned toward the garden gate. Opening the front door of the house, I let out an audible sigh.
It was 10:30. Gay was in the living room, sitting in an easy chair, ostensibly reading the Times.
“My date with Paul was less than stellar,” I said, taking off my shoes and falling back onto the sofa near her chair.
“Did you notice his leather jacket?”
“Yes,” she said knowingly.
“Well, my evening with Paul was a lot like his jacket – cheap and a little too long. But to his credit, he plays wonderful piano.”
I'm Shirley Melis. You may know me as Shirley M. Nagelschmidt, Shirley M. Bessey and now, Shirley M. Hirsch. Each reflects a particular phase of my life. Banged-Up Heart is a slice of my life's journey and in telling my story, I'm giving voice to my long silent "M" by reclaiming my maiden name, Shirley Melis.