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It's just a night out with girlfriends, not the Academy Awards, thinks Gabby, frowning at her wardrobe as she endlessly pushes hangers back and forth, hoping something compelling, something worthy, will suddenly appear and jump out at her: the perfect shirt, the perfect dress.
It shouldn't matter, this being a girls' night out, but of course it matters far more than a night out with Elliott. She is dressing for the other women, not to attract the attention of men, although she has heard that on these girls' nights out, it is not unusual for men to gather round the girls, not seeing, or ignoring, the wedding rings on all their fingers; ignoring the wedding rings so often on their own.
Gabby doesn't care about these men, but she wants to fit in, wants to at least look like she has made something of an effort, that she too can scrub up into something of a glamourpuss, that she deserves her place at the bar, just like the rest of this particular group of friends.
She settles on black pants, all the better to hide her thighs with, and knee-high boots, the only pair in her wardrobe that have something of a heel. These boots are almost ten years old, old enough for them to have gone completely out of fashion, then revolve full circle to be not dissimilar to all the boots she passes in the store windows in town.
She bought them when it seemed important to look good, before life, children, pots, and pans got in the way, before it was easier to slip her feet into furry Merrells and be done with it.
In their thirties, all her friends wore the same dull uniforms, but suddenly, in their forties, these same girls are reemerging from their self-imposed cocoons, eschewing the dull blanket of motherhood and grind, emerging in a flurry of bright chiffons and silks as their children no longer needed babysitters, tripping out on girls' nights out in impossibly high heels and blown-out silky hair they flick flirtatiously, wanting to be seen.
Gabby does not have bright chiffons and silks, would not have bright chiffons and silks for that is not her style, but she does find a black floaty blouse that no one needs to know was $15.95 from Marshalls. As long as you didn't look too closely, you might think it was silk organza rather than the eminently more practical polyester.
There. A shake of her hair, a brush of mascara, a slick of gloss. She looks good, she thinks, without looking as if she is trying too hard. Unlike some of the others, in their plunging blouses and glittery jewelry, Gabby looks as if she is out to have fun with the girls, men be damned.
* * *
Gabby orders a second martini, knowing she won't be able to leave anytime soon, wishing she had turned down the invitation to go out, was tucked up warmly in bed, watching a movie, her husband by her side.
When Ella invited her to a girls' dinner, Gabby had looked forward to a large table of fun women in the corner of the Grey Goose, but when she and Claire arrived, the women had already established themselves at the bar, and were lapping up the attentions of a swarm of eager, older lotharios, flicking their hair back as they gave the men flirtatious smiles, punctuating every sentence with loud and, to Gabby's ears, slightly forced laughter.
The energy these women are giving off, their overt flirting, is making Gabby uncomfortable. Used to seeing them with their husbands, or occasionally during the day by herself for walks around the beach or lunch, she is unused to this transformation. It is discomfiting to see these women, who she had assumed were just like herself, turn into the seductive, provocative creatures who are here tonight. Married to Elliott for eighteen years, Gabby no longer has the desire or inclination to flirt. Even if she did, she's pretty sure she's forgotten how to do it.
Although, she thinks, examining herself in the mirror lining the back wall of the bar, it would be nice if someone, anyone, looked at her these days. Lately she has felt more and more invisible. Last week she went into New York, and noticed that as she walked up Park Avenue, during what was clearly lunch hour, all the men passing her flicked their eyes to the two younger women flanking her, in miniskirts and high-heeled boots. She didn't blame them particularly, but surely one would catch her eye, look her up and down. Even an old one. Someone. Anyone.
Her growing handful of grey hairs was subsequently banished this week with a chestnut brown dye, and she has made an uncharacteristic effort tonight, but it is nothing compared to the effort her friends have made. It is because I am English, she often thinks. I may have lived here for years and years, but I simply can't pull off high maintenance. It's just not me. Look at Ella, with her springy curls, her chiffon blouse that displays more than a hint of cleavage, her high-heeled sandals bouncing prettily at the end of a tanned leg.
Look at the tanned older man—attractive if you like a touch of lechery—now whispering in her ear as she laughs, her body tilted toward him, looking up at him through thick lashes.
What are all these women doing? wonders Gabby. Why are they behaving like this? I know these women, know their families; my children go to school with their children. How have I not seen this side of them before, and what does it say about them? About me?
"Is this as much of a scene as I think it is?" murmurs a voice next to her. Gabby turns, finding herself facing a young man. He gestures at her friends with a shake of his head. "I feel like I'm in a cattle market."
"I know," Gabby says with a polite smile. "I haven't been here before. It's pretty … intense."
"That it is. And not my scene. I'm Matt." He offers his hand as Gabby shakes it, noting his rolled-up blue sleeves, his strong arms, remembering for a moment how it felt to have the bloom of youth, for he must be in his late twenties. At forty-three she is almost … almost old enough to be his mother, and it is this that causes her to relax, smile as she introduces herself.
"I'm Gabby." She settles into her chair, relieved to have someone to talk to, someone who has no ulterior motive, who has not come here to pick up women. Even if he had, he would definitely not be interested in her.
She looks at him curiously. He is, by any definition, gorgeous. Dark hair, blue eyes, a twinkle and a kindness in his eyes that were she twenty years younger and single, she would find utterly disarming.
"So why are you here, Matt? Particularly if it's not your scene."
"Good question." He grins, showing straight white teeth, raising his glass and toasting her. "I'm here on business. One night only. I'm staying across the street, but I thought I'd grab a drink here before I check in."
"I have a social media website."
He laughs. "I wish. Maybe one day."
"Would I know it?"
"I don't know," he says, naming a website that Gabby knows well; that everyone knows well.
"That's you?" She looks at him again, reassessing, for she has read about this company, knows it was started by two young men, the heirs apparent to the Facebook throne. She was mistaken in thinking he was just some kid. He is an accomplished businessman—she recalls articles about him, how they built the company, and she is impressed. And excited.
He cocks an eyebrow, as Gabby blushes and starts to laugh. "Sorry. I mean, I know exactly who you are. I've read about you."
"It's such a weird thing, that I have this strange kind of celebrity that isn't. No one would have any idea who I am, but as soon as I mention the company, everyone knows."
"At least you're able to sit anonymously at bars. And I bet you have an amazing house." She peers at him with a teasing smile.
He snorts with laughter. "It's true. I do have an amazing house."
"Is it in LA?"
"Oh, God." She groans. "Do you step outside your living room onto a beach?"
He grins as Gabby prods him for a description of the kind of house she has always dreamed about.
They keep talking, Matt telling her about some of the more glamorous parties he's been to, including providing her with celebrity gossip that is better than any issue of People magazine. Gabby hangs on to every word, everyone and everything in the room dropping away as she notices nothing other than the fun she is having.
"And it was Lil Wayne," he says, finishing his story. "Sorry. You probably don't—"
"Know who Lil Wayne is?" Gabby scowls. "Believe it or not, despite being a middle-aged mom, I know exactly who he is."
She stops, midsentence, as Matt lays a hand on her arm.
"You're hardly middle-aged," he says, frowning. "You're, what? In your thirties?"
Gabby looks down at his hand on her arm, noting how beautiful his hands are, how smooth and strong. Briefly she wonders why he has not removed it, before looking back up at him with a burst of laughter, enjoying herself.
"Right," she says. "Ten years ago, perhaps. I'm forty-three, and yes, that definitely classifies me as middle-aged."
Matt shakes his head in genuine bemusement. "I swear I'm not just saying this, but you really don't look it. I thought you were around thirty-four."
"I think I may love you." Gabby grins. "Although your point of reference probably stops at thirty-five. At your age you can't imagine there is anyone older."
"Bullshit." He grins. "And I'm not that young. There's hardly anything between us."
"Let me guess." Her eyes run over his face, taking in the smoothness of his skin, the lack of lines around his eyes. She thinks of Elliott, his hair now more grey than brown, the deep lines around his eyes when he smiles, his physique, once so toned, now soft and cuddly; comfortable.
Everything about Matt shouts youth. His jeans, his scuffed-up brown boots. His blue shirt tucked into his jeans, with hints of intensive working-out rather than the paunch she is used to seeing in Elliott, in most of the men she knows.
"I think you're twenty-seven," she says.
"I knew you thought I was younger. For your information, I'm thirty-three. See, we're not so far apart."
"You may think that now, but wait until you're forty-three and you look back at how much you changed over that ten years."
He gazes at her over his glass. "How have you changed over ten years?"
He nods, calling the bartender over and ordering another martini for her, giving her pause to think.
For the truth is, not much has changed in the last ten years. Ten years ago she was married to Elliott, as she is now, only with smaller children. They lived in a different neighborhood. She drove an old Cherokee. Her life was preschool and playdates, coffees with women she hardly sees anymore. She had less lines, less grey hair, was fifteen pounds lighter.
Ten years ago she cared about dressing up and going out. Ten years ago she made an effort, wanting to be popular, pretty, invited to people's houses for dinner. She and Elliott would go camping, up in Vermont. They hiked, and skied. Now it is all she can do to take the dog for a walk.
What has happened in the last ten years? she thinks. When did life become so … she won't use the word "dull," chooses instead to use "pots and pans." How did she and Elliott drift so seamlessly into middle age, and where did all that energy go?
She can't tell all that to this stranger, choosing instead to share the positive.
"I am more comfortable in my skin. Turning forty was a turning point. I stopped needing to prove myself to anyone. I probably ought to make more of an effort"—she gestures to her friends, all of whom now make more of an effort, at the other end of the bar with a new group of men—"but I love that it doesn't matter to me anymore."
"I think you look great," Matt says evenly. There is not a hint of flirtation in his voice, and yet, as he says it, he holds her gaze until she blushes and looks away, feeling something inside her give a slight jolt.
Don't be ridiculous, she tells herself. There is no way in hell this lovely young boy is flirting with you. I have no idea what just happened, other than that it is in my imagination.
Gabby covers her embarrassment with a forced bark of laughter. "My friends over there?" She gestures toward them. "They look great."
He glances over before turning back to Gabby with a dismissive shake of his head. "No. To me they all look overdone. Too much makeup, too much hair, too much flounce. I prefer my women natural. Like you." There it is. That gaze again.
Grateful for the darkness, Gabby flushes as she says thank you, jumping as the phone in her back pocket starts to vibrate. She pulls it out to see Elliott's name on the screen.
"I have to get this," she says, hopping off the stool. "I'll be right back."
Threading through the crowd, she breathes a sigh of relief. Even if she was imagining it, she has not led him on. She told him she is married. That should put him off, if, indeed, there is anything to put off. Which there couldn't possibly be.
"Hi honey!" She sits down on a low stone wall outside, aware suddenly that she is not as sober as she had thought. "Are you having fun?"
"Not as much fun as it sounds like you're having!" laughs Elliott as Gabby starts. What does he mean? How does he know she's talking to Matt? But it's only talking. How does he know?
"What do you mean?" she says slowly, attempting to sound as sober as possible, knowing Elliott will know.
"First of all, it was noisy as hell when you picked up, secondly, I know you're having a girls' night out tonight, and third, you're drunk, and don't try to deny it because I always know. I can hear it in your voice."
Gabby laughs. "You're right. I'm stopping now."
"What are you drinking?"
"Aha! Just remember, martinis are like a woman's breasts: one is too few, three is too many."
"I'm on two and done."
"Ella. How's the camping? How are the girls?"
"They're having the best time. They tried going swimming in the lake with Sasha and Jolie, but it was too cold. They're dying to get to the s'mores later. This was a great idea, even though we miss you."
"I miss you, too," Gabby says, out of habit, although she hasn't thought about Elliott for a second since he left early this morning.
"And you were right to suggest I do this with Tim. Not that we wouldn't have had a great time, but I know you feel a bit done with sleeping bags and tents."
"Damn right," laughs Gabby. "What time are you home tomorrow?"
"Not until midafternoon, I think. You go and have fun with the girls. I love you."
"I love you, too."
* * *
Gabby walks back inside, seeing Matt through the crowd, her stool next to him empty, and as she moves back toward the bar he turns and watches her, smiling, and she feels another jolt.
Don't be pathetic, she thinks. Don't think this is something other than a nice guy who's bored and lonely, eager to have a friendly face to talk to. Not that I wouldn't be enormously flattered if he were flirting, but look at you! Look at him, now look at you. Even if he were flirting, which he isn't, there would be no point. I'm happily married to the loveliest man in the world. But if he is flirting, even though he's not, it would be nice to feel attractive again. It would be nice to feel that I still have it, even if it's only for three more minutes.
"Gabby?" Her arm is grabbed as she spins to find herself face-to-face with Claire. "Who is that adorable guy at the bar? I can't believe you've been flirting with someone all evening! We haven't even seen you!"
"I'm not flirting," Gabby says, certain that she is not. "I don't flirt. I don't know how to flirt anymore. I'm just having a really interesting conversation with a sweet young guy."
"He's not sweet." Claire glances at him. "He's a stone-cold fox!"
"Right." She nods. "And he's twelve."
Claire squints as she looks across the room. "He's not twelve. He's at least twenty-seven. Old enough to know what he's doing.…"
"Claire!" Gabby reprimands. "First of all, he's ten years younger than me, and secondly, hello? I'm married. Remember?"
"We're all married." She winks. "Doesn't mean we can't have a little fun."
Gabby doesn't ask her what she means by "fun." She shakes her head with a laugh as if Claire's suggestion is ridiculous, then moves toward the bar, where Matt is waiting with a big smile.
On the way there, Gabby is aware she is standing straighter, smiling more widely, giving off an aura that is causing the other men to turn and look at her in admiration.
Because tonight, thanks to this younger man who is paying her attention, Gabby feels beautiful. Despite her incredulity that he may be flirting, deep down she is aware of a connection between them. She has no plans to do anything about it—Gabby would never be unfaithful—but it has been years since she felt desirable; years since she felt sexy, beautiful. It is a powerful, heady feeling, and once tonight is over, it will be gone. Once tonight is over, she will once again be a middle-aged suburban housewife, caught up in the pots and pans of life.
What's the harm in dragging it out just a little bit longer? She isn't going to do anything.
* * *
"Everything okay?" Matt flicks his eyes to her phone.
"Just my husband. Checking in." Now she has said it. She has a husband. "He's with our girls, camping in Vermont." She breathes a sigh of relief, knowing she is safe now the information is out there. There is no pretense at being available anymore, and what man would not respect the presence of another?
"What's your husband like?"
This was unexpected. "You'd love him," she says. "Seriously. The two of you would get on like a house on fire."
"I'm sure we would. He's a man of excellent taste." Matt grins, as Gabby teasingly smacks him on the arm.
"Flatterer," she giggles.
"Truth teller." He grins back. "So what is he like?"
How does she describe Elliott? From the moment she met him, both of them sitting at the same table, at the same time, at a coffee shop in New York, she knew he was exactly the kind of man she had been waiting for. She was twenty-three, working at a bookstore in the city; he was five years older, a doctor, doing his internship at New York-Presbyterian.
He had asked if he could share her table, even though there were several empty ones; he spent the next two hours distracting Gabby from her work, and making her laugh with his impromptu stories about the people waiting in line, so that eventually she shoved her sketchbook and pencil into her bag and gave up any attempt at drawing.
The next day she met him at Central Park for a walk. He showed up with a basket that had belonged to his grandmother stuffed full of badly made sandwiches and packets of chips in every flavor because he didn't know which flavor she'd like, and didn't want her to be disappointed.
"I am married to the most wonderful man in the world."
Matt smiles. "What makes him wonderful?"
"He's brilliant," she starts. "And kind. He's curious about everyone and everything, and is the kind of man that everyone feels instantly relaxed with. He's warm, and caring. And a great father. We have two girls, and they're the apple of his eye. He's a great husband. I'm lucky.…" She trails off, aware she is doing a hard sell, unsure suddenly of who she is doing the hard sell for.
"He sounds wonderful."
"What does he do?"
"He's a doctor. Gastroenterologist. So, obviously, the good bedside manner helps."
I am a doctor's wife, she thinks. Which is exactly what it sounds like. Stable. Safe. And just a tiny bit dull.
For a second she indulges in a fantasy. What if she were a dot-com billionaire's wife? What then? She sees herself padding around a glass house in Malibu, in one of Matt's shirts, her legs having suddenly become miraculously tanned and toned, her hair a good six inches longer than it could ever be, given that she has been trying to grow it for ten years and it still doesn't reach much farther than her shoulders.
Imagine the parties they would go to! She and Matt, laughing together as they lean on a deck overlooking the ocean, the wind blowing her very long hair around, no sign of cellulite, children, or ex-husband, no sign of anything from her former life.
She shakes her head. What are you doing? she thinks. Are you completely mad?
"Another martini?" Matt is about to gesture the bartender over.
"God, no!" she says. "A martini is like—"
"A woman's breasts." He smiles. "I know."
"I should probably think about leaving," she says regretfully, not wanting to leave, but feeling as if they have reached the end. What is the point in staying, after all. There is a ripple of danger just below the surface of her consciousness, and she knows she has to go home.
"How are you getting home?" Disappointment is in his eyes. "You can't drive."
Gabby laughs. "Trust me, I know that. One of the girls is driving." She looks over to where her friends are, were, but there is no sign of them. "Oh shit," she mutters. "Where are they?"
Matt is amused. "They deserted you? What kind of friends are they?"
"Crap ones," Gabby says, annoyed, as she gets her phone out to text them. Matt laughs.
WE DIDN'T WANT TO DISTURB YOU ;) TELL US EVERYTHING TOMORROW!
"They've gone?" Matt doesn't see the text, but he sees the look on Gabby's face.
"I can't believe they left without me. That's just awful."
"Tell you what," Matt says. "Why don't you come to the hotel. We can have some coffee and they'll call you a cab."
Gabby studies his face. There is no ulterior motive; it is just a coffee, and she could do with a coffee right now.
He pulls notes out of a wallet and lays them on the bar, refusing to let Gabby contribute, then stands up as Gabby does the same. He is tall, much taller than her, and her heart does a small flip as she sizes him up.
Despite being twelve, he is unutterably gorgeous. Oh if only this were several lifetimes ago. She looks up at him, at the thick brown hair, the strength and breadth of his shoulders.
Matt checks in to the hotel while Gabby curls up on a sofa in the lobby, feeling, suddenly, unsure. Why is she here? Why is she having coffee in a hotel with a stranger while her husband is away? Of course she's not going to do anything, but hasn't this gone far enough? Wouldn't it be so very much better if she went home now?
Matt turns round and smiles at her from across the room, and her heart does that thing again, that flip. Not because she's planning on doing anything, but because being with him makes her feel beautiful again. It's been so long since anyone has noticed her; so long since Gabby has been seen.
She will not be unfaithful, she would never be unfaithful to Elliott, who she loves with all her heart and soul. But her self-esteem, already so fragile, can treasure this evening, this gentle chemistry, this feeling of someone as gorgeous as Matt being interested in her, for years to come.
And what would be the harm?
* * *
"I've really had fun tonight," Gabby sighs, a couple of hours later. Coffee became Irish coffee, and she is aware that her sobriety said goodbye a very long time ago.
"For the record," Matt says, "I don't make a habit of sitting at bars and flirting with lovely looking ladies. Especially when I'm traveling for work. You have made a boring business trip completely delightful."
Gabby says nothing, too busy twisting the words he just used over and over in his mind. "Flirting!" "Lovely looking!" I wasn't imagining it!
"I'll have them call you a cab." He doesn't move.
There is no one else in the hotel lounge. It is now the early hours of the morning. One receptionist is there, the lights dim.
Matt and Gabby stare at each other, as Gabby wills herself to move, to get up, to get out and go home before … before it's too late. But she can't move. Her heart is pounding, an unfamiliar heat is coursing through her body, and she knows she has to go, but she can't do anything other than stare into the eyes of this man as she lets out a deep sigh.
"Why are all the women I like unavailable?" he whispers, as Gabby's heart threatens to jump out of her body. She doesn't know what to say. She wants to leave, knows she has to leave, but oh how she wants to stay.
"I should go." Her voice is a whisper, and mustering all the strength she can manage, she reluctantly climbs to her feet.
Copyright © 2014 by Jane Green