What would you say if you were standing at the front door of a nice guy you just met, and it was 6 a.m. and still dark, and you were delivering fresh baked goods he wasn’t expecting, but you hadn’t rung his doorbell yet because you hadn’t figured out what to say, and he opened the door and found you there?
I said, “Here. I made muffins,” and held out a paper bag with two large muffins. They were fresh from the oven.
He took it, smiling faintly. His eyebrows were all the way up to where his hairline might once have been. Now he had no hairline. But he could have looked quite a lot worse. If he’d had an oversized mustache, and little tufts of fur protruding from his ears and nose, he’d have looked like Mr. Nixon, my middle school principal.
That’s what I had thought at the Christmas Eve party, 34 hours earlier. Now I could hardly think at all.
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“Good morning,” he said in his even baritone. “Thank you. You made muffins?”
The winter air was cold, but my face was hot. “Muffins. Morning. Uh, airport? See you. Merry Christmas.”
Except that Christmas was yesterday, I thought too late.
Now only one eyebrow was raised. “Would you like to come in for a minute?”
“No. Uh, time. Airport. Sorry. Thanks.”
“You’re hurrying to the airport?”
I nodded vigorously.
“Then I won’t keep you. May I walk you to your car? We can speak in complete sentences on the way.”
That didn’t help me stop blushing at all. “Okay.”
“So it’s 6:00 a.m., and you’re heading to the airport, and you’ve already made muffins, presumably from scratch?”
“Right. Yes. Still on Eastern Time. Couldn’t sleep.”
“You made them for me?” Again with the eyebrows.
I took a deep breath and told a version of the truth.
“I made a double batch for Annalisa’s family with the last of the raspberries, and I remembered that you liked them. I was going to have them bring you some, but I saw you out here shoveling snow, and I thought I’d deliver them myself, while they’re hot. The family’s still sleeping the sleep of the just. Or very soundly, at least.”
I took another deep breath, then finished my scattered-brained speech. “See? Complete sentences. Well, some of them. Were. Some of them were. Complete.”
He smiled again, not faintly at all. “Thanks for thinking of me. This is a welcome surprise.”
“Yes, I’m welcome. I mean, you’re welcome.” My shoulders slumped. “Sorry.”
This was a disaster.
He was almost laughing. I could hear it in his voice. “No need to be sorry. And you can be welcome too.”
We’d reached my rental car. He pulled a card from his wallet, wrote something on it, and handed it to me. “If you’ll text me, so I have your number, I will text you back and tell you how much I enjoyed them.”
“Oh, you don’t have to do that.”
“Up to you. If you don’t want the feedback, don’t send me a message. But have a safe trip. Thanks again for the muffins. And merry Christmas. Well, Boxing Day.”
The truth was, I wanted him to have my phone number. I’d wanted him to ask for it on Christmas Eve, at the party Annalisa and her husband had thrown for the lonely singles in their congregation – the ones who didn’t have family in town, and weren’t away visiting family, and were able and willing to go out after dark.
“That’s about twenty out of seventy,” she’d said. “Most of them are a lot older than we are. And it’s an anti-loneliness party, not our own non-alcoholic Yuletide singles bar.”
Feeling like an outsider, I had spent most of the evening helping in the kitchen, cleaning up and preparing plates of leftovers for the singles who’d stayed home. When Annalisa brought a relatively young guest back to meet me, because he’d praised my raspberry dark chocolate muffins, my face and neck had done their own raspberry-shaded thing. Then we’d talked some – and more coherently than this morning. He’d asked where I was from, then said he’d never traveled back East, but wanted to. He was a history teacher, mostly US history, and he was writing a book for teenagers about the Civil War.
He was soft-spoken, and he’d helped me wash dishes while we talked. And yes, I had checked. His ring finger was as empty as mine.
“Thanks for the help. And the conversation,” I’d said, when we were finished.
“My pleasure,” he’d said, as loud whoops erupted from some party game. “Good company back here. Quieter too.” He’d smiled wryly. “And younger.”
He was nice, I had thought. And not weird or creepy. And okay to look at.
He was nice at 6:00 a.m. too. And still okay to look at. But maybe I was a little creepy.
I took his card.
Unfamiliar freeways, rental car return, airport security, a gate change, and boarding kept my mind busy for a couple of hours. Finally I was sitting in an aisle seat on my 737, watching the flight attendants jam one more carry-on into an overhead bin, so the door would stay closed and we could push back on time.
A little family sat across from me. Part of a family, at least. Their row was about a foot forward of mine, so I could watch them, and they wouldn’t notice.
A mom was in the middle, youngish, prettyish, and altogether too together for having just dragged her little girls through the airport. I’d spent five days wrestling, cuddling, and trying to reason with Annalisa’s adorable daughters, ages three and five, and loving every minute of it. But there was no way I could have had Millie, my friend’s younger girl, sitting quietly but awake in the window seat, and Lizzie, her five year old, chatting happily on the aisle.
Annalisa and I had been college roommates for our junior and senior years. I had dated as much as she’d studied, and studied very nearly as little as she’d dated. Three years later, she was married and expecting, and I … wasn’t.
I was okay with it at the time, and content with my accelerating career in PR, but now I wanted what she had – now that I thought it would never happen. Dating had gone so abominably after college, and not dating had gone so much better, that I had convinced myself that giving up was for the best. I was resigned to a dotage of confirmed and infamous spinsterhood. At least I could try for infamous.
Hailey, the five year old across the aisle, told her brown-haired mother – whom I also envied – to look at the board book she was reading. Then she told her again, more insistently. Finally winning the attention she demanded, she stabbed at a page with implacable authority.
“This button is for kissing. See? You push this button for kissing.”
“What about this one?” asked her mom.
“That one you never push. Not ever. Not for any reason. It’s not allowed.”
I had no idea what any of it meant – except that, like my best friend, this woman I had never met had two beautiful daughters – and judging by her ring finger, a husband – and I had no one. I blinked back tears.
I decided it was time for a post-mortem on the muffin conversation debacle. I already felt rotten enough that thinking through it couldn’t make me feel much worse. But it was still painful. I’d been a complete dork – which is to say, I’d been myself. Not my vivacious, social self from college; that version of me had been AWOL for at least a year. Not even my reasonably personable, professional self from the office; that part seemed to have gone somewhere without me for the holidays.
He’d been, what? Patient? Mildly amused? Maybe a bit stiff about complete sentences? Which I totally deserved.
He’d been a bit cool but not cold. Was he indifferent to me or merely caught by surprise, unaccustomed to flushed and flustered visitors bearing unsolicited baked goods on weekday mornings, when dawn had not even begun to paint the wintry eastern sky?
Could I have been more awkward? Was I creepy? And why did I have to babble like that?
Next year, if Annalisa invited me again, which she probably would, I should arrange for prior commitments elsewhere. Unless she happened to mention that a certain neighbor had moved away or married, or was on safari in another hemisphere.
Under the circumstances, it seemed pointless to like him, but I liked him anyway. I had liked him when I went to his Sunday School class with my friend, two days before Christmas. He’d been intelligent, witty, insightful, and encouraging, one of the better (and more human) teachers I’d seen at church in a while. I’d liked him on Christmas Eve in the kitchen, when he helped with the dinner dishes without being asked, and without showering me with tired pickup lines or too-slick-by-half advances. He was the one interesting single guy I’d met lately.
So I had made muffins for him and stopped on my way out of town to dork everything up.
Off and on for the next few hours, I watched the little family across the aisle and yearned morosely for a life I’d never have. I wasn’t even functional any more, in a meeting-a-guy sense. The first, simplest step toward a family of my own was now beyond me.
“Mommy, will you read to me?” asked the little girl in the window seat. I could barely see her, but her sweet, tired, earnest voice broke my heart.
“Of course I will, Rachel,” said one of the two luckiest women in the world.
Tears pooled again. I fumbled in my purse for a tissue and found his card instead.
We’d begun our descent, and the flight attendant was passing by, collecting trash. I knew what I had to do, and there was no sense in delaying. I closed my eyes and dropped the card into the trash bag, along with my empty plastic cup and my napkin. Then I leaned back against the headrest, awash in something that felt a lot like relief.
Later, on the ground, as the rows in front of me emptied, I stood up into the aisle. Looking down at my seat, to make sure I wasn’t leaving anything behind, I saw that something had fallen to the floor.
His card. Which I thought I had thrown away.
I reached down to pick it up, then stopped myself. Then I reached down again and stopped again. The woman in the adjacent seat picked it up and handed it to me.
“Thanks,” I said too calmly.
He’d circled his cell number, but he’d also left a note. “Thanks! I owe you one, next time you’re in town.”
I stared at the words, trying to figure out what they meant. He’d given me his phone number and more or less asked for mine. After I’d been a total spaz. He wanted to see me next time I was in town. Unless he was just being polite.
My thoughts played ping pong with my heart as I walked through the terminal, then stood for ten minutes, waiting for the baggage carousel to start. Every minute or so, my eyes darted to the mom and little girls I’d watched on the plane. They were maybe ten feet away.
I pulled out my phone. My hands shook, but I managed to send a message. “Vince, this is Marnie. Remember me? The addled purveyor of early-morning baked goods and awkward conversation? Just arrived in Charlotte. I’ll be delighted to hear how much you liked the muffins. Happy New Year!”
A horn sounded three times, a light began to flash, and the baggage carousel squeaked to life. Two little girls cheered, and their mom looked at them with a smile that grew quickly from tired to radiant.
I wanted to smile like that.
Their bags were among the first out, and I watched them leave. My bags were nearly the last to tumble down onto the carousel. I wrestled them into submission and headed for the economy parking shuttle alone.
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