Chapter 33

I continued my conversation with Brad. “So, what is your dad like?” Having his father absent most of his childhood, curiosity made me wonder how that affected his adult life.

Brad’s shoulders slumped forward, a deep sigh escaping his lips. “He’s a part of my life I’m not very proud of. That’s why I don’t normally talk about him.” Embarrassment coated his words, revealing raw nerves. Sliding his fingers through his dark hair, he pushed back frustration.

“I’m sorry. You don’t have to share,” I apologized. “I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”

“You’re not,” he answered. “There’s really not much to tell. He wasn’t involved in my life as a kid, and he’s even less involved now.” Brad laced his fingers together and cracked his knuckles, shifting slightly in his seat.

I studied his solemn face. “I’m sorry he’s not in your life. That’s really sad. He’s missing out on knowing a great guy.”

Brad unbuttoned his collar and loosened his tie, slumping back in his chair. “Yeah, well, I’m not. When my dad was around, Mom constantly needed rescuing from his crazy messes. Humiliating doesn’t even begin to describe it.” Brad picked up his spoon and used the handle to trace the inner circumference of his empty bowl. “One evening in the dead of winter, Dad wandered out of the house in a drunken stupor wearing just a pair of boxers. He was halfway down the street before I caught up with him in my pajamas and bare feet.” An emotional weight wilted Brad’s posture.

“How old were you?” I implored.

“Twelve or so,” Brad guessed. “Mom ended up calling the cops. The whole block came out to see what all the commotion was about. Sadly, the police showing up was the only way we could keep Dad from hurting himself.”

“That must’ve been hard,” I offered some sympathy.

“He was a proud man. He spent the night in the slammer sleeping off his intoxication before coming home. He never did forgive Mom. Moved out a short time later without as much as a forwarding address. I can’t say I was disappointed. All he ever did was make Mom cry. Without him around, most of the tension in the house disappeared. His absence was actually a relief.” Brad nudged a pebble on the ground with the tip of his shoe.

I reached out and gently touched Brad’s arm. His eyes held my gaze for a moment, then he looked down at my hand and covered it with his. I slowly withdrew my forwardness, placing my hands in my lap.

“I’m sorry,” he apologized. “I don’t know why I’m sharing such dark, personal secrets. I don’t normally divulge this kind of stuff to anyone, but with you…you’re different.”

My heart broke as I imagined Brad as a child having to defend his mom. He appeared vulnerable, unguarded, and I wanted to make things better for him. “It’s OK. Your story’s safe with me,” I smiled.

Gratitude flooded Brad’s eyes. “Thank you. I appreciate your discretion.” Perking up, he tapped the table with his pointer finger then pointed at me. “There’s something else you might want to know about me,” he baited my interest.

“Really?” I allowed myself to be lured in. “And what might that be?”

“I have a deep passion for learning, and I love sharing my knowledge with others—that’s very likely how I ended up teaching. What about you? What made you want to become a teacher?”

“My third-grade teacher,” I answered without hesitation.

“Oh?” Intrigued, Brad crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair, ready to listen.

“Yeah. She was pretty and nice, and she smelled heavenly.” Brad’s eyebrows rose at my unexpected answer. I stuck out my tongue and chuckled at how silly I knew I sounded. Brad cocked an eyebrow and waited. “I know. Such strong attributes to hinge a life decision on,” I laughed, “but she was a really good teacher and made learning fun—if that counts for anything. I wanted to be just like her—you know, help others understand that learning isn’t a bore. What about you? Who or what helped you discover your passion?”

Brad grinned. “That’s easy. Being an only child. I’ve always wanted to be a part of a large family. I love being around lots of people. Mind you, these are little people, but still….”

“They’re people just the same,” I finished his sentence.

Brad’s dimples returned. “Precisely! You read me like an open book.”

“Not hard to do. I’m pretty good at reading people, too,” I referenced one of his earlier comments. “Looks like we have something we have in common.” I stood and straightened my skirt, cheesin’ a grin. “So, what’s this about you wanting a large family someday?”

“The more, the merrier!” Brad flirted. “I think a house overflowing with children would be awesome.” He scrambled to his feet, pushing my chair under the table, then turning and doing the same with his. Clearing the trash from our table, he disposed of it in a nearby waste bin.

Such a gentleman, I thought. “That’s a nice dream to have,” I spoke, “but what if God has other plans and your wife can’t have kids?”

Brad didn’t miss a beat, falling into step next to me. “Oh, that’s simple. My wife and I would adopt.”

“Really?” I tried to hide the surprise in my voice. “You’ve thought of everything, haven’t you?” He shrugged and smiled, continuing to stroll down the sidewalk with me. “Will your wife have a say in how many kids fill this imaginary house of yours?”

“Absolutely!” He dug his hands into his pockets and established a pace comfortable for the both of us.

Mere curiosity moved my questions forward. “So, how many kids do you see yourself having?”

Again, he delivered a quick response. “Enough to account for having my own baseball team.”

“Nine kids?” I nearly choked on my response. “Are you serious?” I started laughing and couldn’t stop.

“Is that how many are on a team?” He pretended not to know.

“That’s how many are needed to cover all the positions on the field.” I bit my lower lip and shook my head. “You’re nuts, ya know that, right?” I studied his expression, unable to read his sincerity. Is he serious or just playing?

“Well, maybe only half a team then,” he jested.

“Good luck finding a girl to head up that league,” I jibed.

“Oh, I know there’s someone out there. I just haven’t found her yet.” He eyed me with a twinkle in his eye, pretending to transform me into a possible prospect.

“I don’t think so,” I interrupted his assessment. “I’m not having more than two—maybe three—and it won’t be any time soon.”

Brad feigned defeat. “It was worth a shot.” He exaggerated a shrug.

I rolled my eyes and shook my head some more. “I’m not dating, remember?”

Brad smiled, undeterred. “Your words weren’t lost on me.” Purposefully bumping his arm against mine, he grinned as I nudged back.

“Regardless, you have me curious now,” I continued. “Where do you see yourself housing this family the size of a baseball team?”

He smirked. “In a two-story house with a white picket fence, probably somewhere in the South,” he answered. “People are so friendly here.”

“On a teacher’s salary?” I chuckled.

“Oh, no. I’m planning on winning the lottery, then I can stay home and play golf all day,” he comically retaliated.

“Golf? Really?” My eyebrows disappeared into my bangs. “I didn’t peg you for the stuffed shirt type. Do you even know how to play golf?”

Light-hearted mockery answered my inquiry. “No, but I can learn. Semantics.”

“So, you’re telling me you wish to have a huge family in a big house and not have to work for it?” I concluded.

“Isn’t that the American dream?” A grin toyed at the corners of his mouth as he answered my question with a question.

I threw him a crooked glance. “Life doesn’t work that way. You know that, right?” I watched him shrug again, presenting a humorous face.

“It does if you make it.”

“Not realistically,” I objected.

“Really? And whose reality would you be referring to? Yours or mine?” His bright green eyes challenged me to answer.

“Oh, so you’re a philosopher now, are you? I see how you’re going to be.” I tried dismissing his eagerness to debate, but something compelling moved our conversation forward. “Believe whatever you want, Mr. Moore, but I know delusion when I see it—just like I know that it takes hard work and effort to be a success in this world. There is no such thing as a free ride. I don’t care whose reality you’re in.”

“But you didn’t ask me about the real world,” Brad wrangled the moment. “You asked me what I envisioned. I could tell you that I envision owning a circus someday with flying pigs and purple ponies, but that doesn’t mean it’s gonna happen or that I even want it to.”

I eyed him sideways, noting dimples caving in the sides of his cheeks. “Wow! Now there’s a way to go twisting a girl’s meaning!”

Brad released a hearty chuckle. “Now, if you asked me what I’d really like to see in my future, that would include a wife, 2.5 kids, and a dog named Fido. Is that more like the answer you were looking for?”

“If that’s a truthful answer,” I responded.

A broad grin consumed Brad’s face. “Truth can be subjective,” he bantered.

“Not if it’s based on facts.” I pulled my hair into a ponytail at the nape of my neck then released the strands to fall down my back.

“Which facts are those? The ones mainstream media feeds you? Or your opinion based on flawed or partial information? Truth changes depending on what you believe or think.” Confidence exuded from him.

“I guess I’m asking what you believe then, because I’m not interested in another person’s reality. We’re talking about you.” That would seem to be a common sense expectation, I kept to myself.

“Note taken.”

A comfortable silence fell between us as we walked down curvy sidewalks and past several quaint shops that displayed blue and white “closed” signs dangling from metal door handles. A light breeze also graced our evening. “I bet this would be a fun store to visit during business hours.” I tapped on a glass window, drawing attention to an elegant tea exhibit decorated with fancy china and exquisite, cream-colored laces.

“You like tea?” Brad inquired.

“I like Victorian stuff. Tea is only a part of it,” I defined my interest. “The colors. The intricacies. It’s feminine and beautiful.”

“Interesting. I would’ve pegged you as a coffee connoisseur,” he mused.

“Nope. Tea is my preference,” I answered.

“So, what’s your favorite flavor?” Brad paused for dramatic effect. “Wait. Don’t tell me. Let me guess. Earl Grey! Yes, that’s my answer. Earl Grey.” Certainty lit up his face.

I grinned but didn’t speak.

“Uh-oh. I guessed wrong, didn’t I? That look tells me I need to try again,” he reneged. I giggled at his silliness but still didn’t say a word. “I’m changing my answer to chamomile. Yes, chamomile,” he emphasized. “Everyone likes chamomile, so that has to be it.”

I scrunched my nose and wrapped an arm around my stomach, making a pitiful gagging sound. “It is definitely not chamomile.” I shuddered at the thought. “Chamomile makes me sick.”

“Good to know,” Brad smiled. “Putting that on my mental list now: never order chamomile for Hope. Done.” Reaching the lake’s edge, Brad resigned his quest. “OK. I give up. What’s your favorite tea? I’m afraid those are the only two I know.”

“Darjeeling,” I grinned, formally curtseying.

“Of course,” Brad laughed. “You are quite the colorful character, ya know that?”

I matched his enthusiasm with a cocky smile. “I could say the same about you.”

His eyes flirted. “And I will take that as a compliment.”

“Good. It was meant as one.” We paused, staring at the moonlight as it shimmered off the rippling water, stirred by the warm night breeze.

I glanced to my right as joggers sprinted past, winding their way along the footpath which which skirted the lake. Nearby, a teenage girl wrestled with her Collie tugging on his leash as he dragged her across the lush green grass carpeting the sloping banks at the water’s edge. Looking at my watch, I noted the time. “I believe your ten minutes are up, Mr. Moore.”

Brad let out a hearty laugh while nodding. “Yeah. A long time ago.”

“Ok. Well, are you ready for a speed round?” I enticed.

“Sure. Why not?” He tugged on his tie, tossing his head back and forth to help loosen it some more.

I thought a moment then began. “Politics.”

“Can’t stand them.”

“Guns.”

“Would never own one.”

“Alcohol.”

“I don’t drink. I would never risk becoming like my father.”

“Cigarettes.”

“Disgusting. They would never ever touch my lips. You?”

“Absolutely not!” I replied. “Just the smell makes me nauseated—also, instant headache. I would never be with someone who smokes, either. It’d be like kissing an ash tray. Ewww.”

“Smart girl,” Brad approved.

“Religion.”

“It’s about your relationship with God, not about the church you attend.”

“Good answer. Same thoughts here.” Rummaging through my mind, I came up dry. “That seems to cover the biggies, I guess. Think you can handle a few trivial questions?”

“Sure, I’m game. Whatcha got?” Brad picked up a stone and skipped it across the water as we inched our way along the bank. We stopped near a log that protruded out of the water and onto dry land. Brad rested his foot on the side of it, but remained standing. I picked up a rock and tried skipping it across the water’s surface like Brad had done. It landed with a heavy plunk several feet away. “Nice!” Brad approved.

Ignoring his compliment, I continued. “Toilet paper—over or under?”

“Under.” My eyebrows raised, and I eyed him curiously. “The roll doesn’t get all messed up that way,” he explained, “and it’s harder for the cat to unroll. I used to have a furball named Rascal. Guess how he got his name?”

“I can only imagine,” I smirked.

“Next question?”

“Toothpaste,” I challenged. “Do ya squeeze it from the middle or the end?”

Brad chuckled. “Why argue over it? Give each person his or her own tube. Problem solved.”

Very creative! I like the way you think,” I stroked his ego. “OK. Last question.”

Brad turned and looked me in the eyes. “Make sure it’s a good one.”

“Of course.” I tossed another stone, then brushed the grit off my hands. “Blondes, brunettes, or redheads?”

Brad watched the pebble skip across the lake as he sidestepped perceived entrapment. “The color of a girl’s hair doesn’t reflect the content of what’s inside her heart. Is she loving? Kind? Care about others? That’s all that really matters.” He turned his gaze back toward me and continued. “I also like her to be educated, witty, able to think for herself, and not dependent upon me in order to make up her own mind. A girl who understands life but who isn’t hardened by life experiences is someone I could definitely see myself with.” I received his implied compliment with a smile.

High on the bank, not far from the shore, a young man with holes in the knees of his jeans started strumming a familiar tune on his guitar while leaning against a grand oak. “Dance with me,” Brad encouraged.

“Me?” I shook my head. “No. I don’t think so. I don’t dance.”

“Aww, come on. It’s easy. I’ll show you.” Brad reached for my hand and pulled me into the song. “All you have to do is feel the music. Let your body do the rest.” I swayed in his arms, strangely comfortable with his closeness. “See? Look there. You got it.” He twirled me about, putting distance between us before bringing me back to him. “Ready? I’m going to dip you,” he warned. I released a carefree laugh as my head fell backwards, bending in a grand gesture.

“I thought you said you couldn’t dance,” Brad joshed, returning me to a standing position.

“No, I said don’t dance. There’s a difference.”

Brad’s cheeks flushed in the moonlight. “Yes, there is. Well, thank you for giving me the honor.” He steadied me on my feet then released his hold.

“You’re welcome. Thank you for reminding me what it means to just let go and have fun for a change,” I reciprocated. “It’s been a while. I’ve really had a nice time tonight.”

Brad’s eyes traced the outline of my face like he was memorizing the moment. “I have, too.”

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