Joe & Claire’s First Date

Welcome back, Dear Reader!  If you’ve read the first sixteen (it is a novel, after all!) excerpts, feel free to skip this preamble to the meat a few paragraphs down.  If you haven’t, well, thanks for joining me!

These are exciting times for your ol’ pal Jerry – after talking about it for most of my life, I finally put the proverbial money and mouth together and started my first novel, Of Dreams & Angels, in the fall of 2019.  I’m working on the second draft now,but in the meantime thought it would be fun to start putting pieces of it (and thereby my entire soul, don’t you know!) out into the universe.  Maybe you’ll get caught up in the intrigue and start following along too.

The synopsis – well, before we get to that, Stephen King, in his memoir On Writing, wrote that many of his stories can be expressed as a What-if question, and after reading that, my imagination (as it pertained to story ideas) started framing situations that way.  Of Dreams is this question: What if a man started dreaming about a woman he’d never met, but who actually exists; falls in love with her based on what he sees in the dreams and sets out to find her?

Don’t ask me where it came from, and believe me when I say I’m just as shocked as you are that my first idea for a novel – ok maybe not the first idea in the grand scope of my life, but the first one to make it to fruition – was a fantastical love story.  But as soon as I thought of it, *I* wanted to know what would happen, which made me think others might want to, too.

At all rates, here you have it, Dear Reader (also a not-so-subtle borrow from Mr. King, who as you may know refers to us as “Constant Reader”) – another excerpt from Of Dreams & Angels.  In this excerpt, Joe and Claire take those initial sparks from the previous entry and see if they ignite into a fire between them. Enjoy, friend.

Joe & Claire’s First Date

As the small talk ensued, they heard steps begin to descend the stairs.

Claire had been dressed to the nines when he’d seen her at the gallery.  The sight had knocked Joe back, after most glimpses had her attired as Audrey was now, or in business apparel.  As she descended each step and came into view, he saw she’d adorned something in-between, a blend of casual and formal.  The signature he’d come to learn: quiet and easy elegance. 

She paused for a moment halfway down the stairs, in full view now.  She looked at him and a half smile quickly formed, then darted a glance at Holly, Audrey, and Ainsley—the latter two looking on with something resembling tempered excitement. 

“I wasn’t sure what to wear,” Claire said quietly, looking down and smoothing out her top.  “You didn’t mention where we were going or what we were doing.”

It wouldn’t have mattered what she was wearing.  She’d stolen his breath and heart once more, and he had the feeling this time she’d taken them for good.

“You look…” he paused, his mind searching for the right, appropriate word to use, in the presence of her sister and daughters. 

A voice reminded him it might be permissible to put aside thoughts of right or ought or should, and instead let his heart lead the way. 

“You look perfect, Claire.”

Chapter 45

In what he was certain elicited a last gasp from prudence, Joe had elected to hire Manny again for the evening.  The Parliament members that might have had a problem with this were either exhausted from protest, or had gone on strike, exiting the scene altogether.  His heart was in charge now, and for once—or at least for the time being—Joe intended to listen.

Having a driver for the evening was a practical as well as (he hoped) romantic decision.  Of the former, he wasn’t about to attempt navigation of the London streets.  Of the latter—though he had a moment to fear it could go either way—he thought it might be a pleasant change of custom.  Not being interrupted by a waiter during a very-obvious first date.  Making decisions on what to eat.  Possible small talk with any acquaintances they might run into.  Joe hoped the presence of the chauffeur—with a measure of privacy from the glass partition they could raise or lower from the back—would help Claire feel comfortable; that this wasn’t just some ruse for less than honourable purposes.

Though most sights were closed, Manny would park as close as possible to whatever iconic structure stood before them, and Joe began presenting his “An Alternative History of Her Majesty’s Royal Kingdom” to Claire, inventing or embellishing facts about this royal residence or that emblematic cathedral.  He’d started their journey by saying to Claire “I don’t yet know what you like to do for fun, nor how much of the city you’re already familiar with,” (this much was true; it occurred to him nearly all the dreams had been limited to work or home and kids, or simply managing daily life), “and I had no clue how I could compete with or out-do the established history of such an iconic place.  So I figured I wouldn’t even bother, and instead present you with a version entirely unfamiliar.  Entirely factual, of course.” 

Of the Millennium Wheel, looming large over the Thames and newly under construction, he said “Contrary to common belief, this has been the hallowed ground of elaborate amusement park rides for centuries.  ‘Tis where Sir Joseph and Lady Clairesephine—they of the House of Superflousness and Royal Lineage of Loquaciousness—had their first courtship, way back in 1498.  Back then, the under-construction Half-Millennium Wheel was fabricated entirely of timber and gold.  Sir Joseph jimmied their way into the closed-off wheel, where he and Lady Clairesephine and snuck into one of the wood capsules—these fashioned from retired stagecoaches of the monarchy—while the palace guard pushed the back of each coach to get the wheel in motion.  The Ferris wheel industry was in its infancy, after-all.”

Of Westminster Bridge he claimed its actual age predated modern claims by a couple hundred years, fashioned when Sir Joseph—little more than dog-paddling-proficient when it came to aquatics—needed a way to cross the Thames to meet Lady Clairesephine.  Big Ben, Joe claimed, was constructed merely because Sir Joseph’s father, Lord Benjamin—a noted fifteenth century astronomer—had spent countless hours and innumerable missed dinners staring at the stars.  Lord Ben’s wife commissioned the clock to be built along the river where her husband contemplated the cosmos, thus he be never late for family time again.

Complete with postcards of the various landmarks he’d procured earlier that afternoon, Joe had written the Alternative History facts on the back.  With each stop he’d deliver a mock-tour guide address, at times outside the car if parking permitted and the wind wasn’t howling too much, while Claire gamely blew on her mittened hands.  At other stops they remained in the vehicle, with the partitioned window up.  After each “fact”, Joe would hand her the card, along with another flower from a second bouquet he’d kept in the car.  He’d knock on the window and Manny would roll it down, handing back another “course” of dinner—a collection of some foods Joe knew she liked, and some he ventured a wild guess on. 

He knew she was a fiend for tapas or finger foods; this much he’d observed in dreams as she seemed to prefer to nibble throughout the day, rather than sit down to full meals.  In addition to meats and cheeses and a carefully packaged shrimp cocktail, Joe had asked the hotel kitchen—while promising a generous tip for their efforts in bringing this first date to fruition—to pepper the courses with liberal amounts of Nutella, delivered in various forms.  Nutella on pastry.  Nutella on fruit.  Nutella straight from the jar with a spoon—which in the end, based on her laughter and delight when he’d handed it to her, seemed to be Claire’s favourite mode. 

At one point, when Manny passed back diced pineapple with—but of course—more Nutella, she asked Joe how he could have possibly been so spot on with the food selection.  He’d shrugged and deflected (hoping colour wouldn’t rise in his face), saying something to the tune of “Who doesn’t like pineapple or chocolate?”

Thanks to the tight timeline in the afternoon, there had been little time (though still fragments of it) for Joe to agonize about whether she’d enjoy herself or not, whether it would hit the right notes or not.  He hadn’t felt this kind of anxiousness in longer than he could recall—not a pressure to be perfect, exactly, but a longing for the time spent to be perfect for her.  He knew she rarely went out for anything that didn’t involve the children or work, rarely treated herself or was treated to.  With the benefit of hindsight (though one of the cabinet members sympathetically piped up to say “How on earth were you supposed to plan a date for a woman you weren’t even sure existed, in a city you’ve never been, on a timeline for which you had no clue?”), he would have arranged the finest, if he could have.  Whatever it took to convey how fortunate he felt to be in this place, in this time, with her.

If her reaction was any indication, Joe was confident he hadn’t completely missed the mark, as her laughter—and that smile that could send an endless number of butterflies within him in flight—were far from rare.  Unless it was his imagination, after every stop, every ridiculous “fact”, every new tiny tray of food and every flower, she moved ever closer to him, turning into him, open and released.  Though he couldn’t tell for certain, between the twilight sky and muted streetlight through shaded car windows, on a few occasions he thought he saw—between laughs and bites of food and sharing stories of her children or his career or mutual hopes or fears or dreams (save for one, of course)—the eyes he adored misting up along the edges.  He didn’t know why—and for the only time since he’d first seen her in true life the night before, he wished for a moment he was looking from behind her eyes rather than into them, so he might sense what she was feeling—but it wasn’t sadness he saw, wasn’t fear, wasn’t pain.  Though he didn’t have the language for it yet, as his eyes searched hers he could feel an unspoken shorthand beginning to form between them.  He knew in this moment it was as though all the cosmos had conspired to contract and fit within the small space they shared, a world made only for two, and for a moment, that tiny universe was perfect.

She’d drawn closer to him throughout the evening, and it was almost strange, feeling the energy of connection—the energy of her—pass between them externally, after all this time of feeling sensation through her eyes.  Rather than being a passenger within her sight, within her aura, it was as though their mutual energies were colliding; long dormant and nearly snuffed-out embers given oxygen to ignite within the space between them.  He fought every impulse to reach over and take her into his arms, trying to be cognizant the entire time that to her, he was still a veritable stranger, someone she’d first glimpsed only twenty-four hours before.  No matter the obvious and immediate chemistry—to say nothing of his unintentional subterfuge and prior knowledge—he knew that sitting before him was a beautifully strong and brilliant woman, but one who carried a heart that had been heavily bruised and carelessly discarded.  Above all things, Joe wanted that heart to feel entirely safe before he proposed to take it in his hands.  He only wished he could carry it for her now, as she already held his.

The only time during the tour they physically connected was after a stop at Hamley’s on Regent Street.  They’d exited the car, and in front of the ornate Christmas toy display Joe delivered a soliloquy on the dubious history of the FreeElvesSons, a secret society of defectors from Santa’s workshop who now surreptitiously controlled world governments and markets—all in their ability to mesmerize and make children and adults alike smile from displays like these.  When they’d returned to the car, her cheeks flushed and eyes watering from the cold, Claire removed her mittens and cupped her hands to her mouth, trying to warm them with breath.  Joe reached over and wrapped her hands in his—eliciting sparks he was certain threatened to set the car ablaze—and warmed them with his own breath and touch.  It was another moment of unspoken dialogue between their eyes and through their fingers, until—as people in the throes and wonder of new connection will do—they’d reluctantly released and acted as though nothing happened.

Time behaved as time will—whimsical and relative.  In contrast to the endless hours Joe trudged through in the last weeks, these hours evaporated in mere moments.  By ten o’clock, feeling a sense of responsibility to Claire’s time (even with the aid of Audrey, she still had all the obligations of a regular Monday morning ahead), he’d reluctantly requested that Manny return them to her home. 

After Joe opened her car door, they’d made the slow, hesitant walk to her front porch, as though the hesitation in their step would slow the passage of time as well.  Claire ascended the stairs leading to her door.  Joe followed, remaining on a riser below the landing.

“Joe, that was…”  Her smile fought to extend to its edges, but a heart taught to distrust held it at bay.  She looked down for a moment in a fleeting effort at composure.  “Thank you for a wonderful evening.”  As she looked back up, the smile won the struggle between mind and heart.

“It was truly my pleasure, Claire.”  The smile on his own face made no effort to hide.  Another moment of silent shorthand passed between them.

Joe looked to the bay window flanking the door, then back to Claire.  “I wonder if you might do me the privilege, Claire Langdon, of another evening of your time while I’m here.  And, if you like, more dubious facts about the land you call home.”

She laughed, snow beginning to blanket her hair.  “I would love that, Joe.”  She looked at her feet again, and for a moment Joe felt as though he was observing the two of them from some place above, where the snow had begun to fly.  For an even briefer moment, he thought he saw a glimpse of who both of them had been, before the world and its heartbreaks had armoured their hearts.

“Okay.  I will call you tomorrow.  In the meantime, I would offer you a hug goodbye, but I see we’ve attracted an audience,” he said, motioning with his head toward the window.  A curtain fluttered and two little eyes disappeared in haste, followed by muted giggles from Ainsley and Audrey.  Joe and Claire joined the laughter with their own.

“Goodnight, Joe.”

“Goodnight, Claire.”

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