The Risk Dish

I stood on the rutted dirt holding a block of Spanikopita in a Pyrex. It was a risk-dish. Most men I’d dated, including my ex-husband, were avid carnivores and hated it. Sometimes they would grin with their mouths full and make fake yum-yum noises before leaving two-thirds of their serving on the plate and asking if I felt like ordering pizza. Spanikopita was the dish I made best. Lesbians would love it, I betted. Tonight, I must have settled on it as a test, a set-up. I even sprinkled dill over the top. If he didn’t go for it, it wouldn’t be a total deal breaker, but it would be disappointing. It would tell me something. It might stop me from doing the stupid thing that I already knew I was going to do anyway. 

About 20-yards away, Owen’s headlamp swooped left and then right and then left again. He was like a wandering lighthouse lost in the dark. “Christ. What am I doing?,” I mused. “He’s not the one.” I looked away and tried to focus on enjoying the warm air on my bare arms. I was wearing my new lavender spaghetti strap tank with hiking pants that barely stayed on my hips. “You’ve lost weight, haven’t you?,” My boss observed. “Yeah, divorce’ll do that for you,” he added. 

I probably bought that top just for this occasion, though Owen and I made a big show of pretending our picnic was a spontaneous idea, not the premeditated fantasy we’d both nurtured since he’d helped me paint the kitchen to charm up my new place, a shabby chic shack that qualified as “affordable housing.” 

We were going to take a walk and then have dinner together for the first time alone without a group of friends to inadvertently chaperone. We’d engaged in long and tedious discussions about preserving our friendship, about propriety. We’d been hiking and inner tubing buddies for years. We shared a keen eye for small wonders, often stopping on walks to pick up and show one another a smooth rock or a small pottery shard leftover from the mill town days. We were weirdos who understood each other. So, there was a lot to lose if things didn’t work out. Plus, Owen had been acquainted with my former husband.

But last minute, he suggested that he knew this great surprise place. It was too late to get into the state park by the lake, but this would be similar. “Sure,” I agreed, disgracefully eager.

I was wearing nice lingerie too, slightly trampy but with that right hint of class. That’s how I was selecting my undergarments in those days: lacy enough to get my groove back but understated enough to stave off images of myself as the harlot my Victorian Grandmother feared I might become. “Did you see your friend Kristin with that young man? They were all over each other! You can just tell that they have sex,” Grandmother once announced, scandalized after spotting Kristin and the young man holding hands. At least she hadn’t made me sign a “Chastity Agreement” like my friend Leanne’s mom. The contract bound Leanne to “reserve” sexual intercourse for the sanctity of marriage. LeAnne dropped out of her first year of college and married at age 19 b/c she “just couldn’t wait any longer.”

The pyrex was getting heavy. I considered finding smoother ground where I could sit, but I was afraid I’d trip on a rut and risk sacrificing my culinary trap to a stagnant puddle infested with parasites. If there wasn’t an opportunity for Owen to reject my cooking, what hope would there be for me to keep my senses, to remain pure until I was, you know, really ready to get out there again?

I was left standing alone in the night with no headlamp but the one way off there, atop the meandering lost lighthouse in the distance. It had been at least 10 minutes. There were a lot of scary “No Trespassing” signs posted along the fence we’d circumvented to get to a semi-secret rural quarry with the term “Sugar” in the title.

I tried again to focus on feeling the night air on my skin, I mean REALLY feel it. The meditations my ex-husband sent instructed me to focus on singular sensations: the presence of my toes or just on the fact that I have skin. Or I could try feeling the breath move through my nostrils, but my inhalations always stuck halfway up my nasal passage. As my allergist told me, something wasn’t right with my septum. Kevin, the ex and an army veteran, was treating his newly diagnosed PTSD with meditation, and it was working. Well, working-ish. 

We hadn’t heard much about PTSD back when he was throwing full coffee pots at the wall for no readily identifiable reason. I’d seen the acronym somewhere, but I thought it had to do with Weed that somebody laced with hallucinogens. Once in college, I’d smoked something like that. It was supposed to help me see the face of God; instead, I saw Keith Richards.  

Kevin and I hadn’t been apart all that long. He’d tried a couple of times to get me to take him back, and it made me cry uncontrollably because I really wanted to. Friends and family had been waiting years for me to be, as they put it, “finally done.” And I was. Finally.  

During the earlier part of my marriage, I’d heard people talk about the “Seven Year Itch” and how women have a switch that can get flipped off. It sounded like a lot of nonsense to me. It reminded me of how shots and childbirth hurt a lot more when people tell you how much they’re going to hurt.  The power of suggestion can reliably transform myth into reality. But when Kevin hit a blind rage and knocked our seven-year-old nephew off a tire swing, my flip got switched. What I’d perceived as hooey hit me like an epiphany I’d never un-comprehend. 

“You should start trying to date again,” Kevin urged. “I’m seeing someone now. You’d like her. She’s really, really aware. She loves animals. She’s an artist.” 

I told him that I was thinking about it. 

“Not Owen though,” Kevin warned. He didn’t miss a beat. “Don’t date Owen. That nebbish has been trying to wriggle into your pants for years. I bet he’s been really helpful since you and me split, hasn’t he?”

He had. 

“It’ll be tempting, but trust me. It’s a bad idea.”

My naked silence revealed me. 

“Don’t date Owen” Kevin repeated before hanging up the receiver. 

God my arms were tired, but the headlamp was heading my way.

“I’ve found the spot,” Owen told me before leading me back toward the woods. Headlamp straps stretching over hair isn’t as disconcerting as the Red Cross logo-like target they made on his moonlit bald scalp. Silently invoking the name of the Lord our Savior and summoning whatever salvation from my bad judgment any deity might offer, I hobbled over more uneven ground and gravel in my flip-flops. I tightened my grip on the pyrex like it was a battle shield and followed Owen to his tranquil den of sin by the water.

He unzipped a shoulder bag that unfolded into a picnic blanket. “That’s handy,” I said unable to think of anything more witty or tantalizing. In high school, Owen earned Eagle Scout status by launching an initiative to teach foster children to play rock and roll. Plus, he’d been on a record-setting mission to earn every merit badge conceived, save the ones in dentistry and bugling. Bugling seemed like low-hanging fruit for him, I thought. He always came prepared, so the shapeshifting shoulder bag/picnic blanket posed little surprise. “It’s a re-gift from my sister,” he told me. “Several friends gave her one for her wedding. It was a trendy item that year.”

“Oh,” I said working myself into a blind panic over the need for banter, a daunting task when all one can think about is whether or not her jogging blisters look like foot fungus or her dry mouth makes her breath smell like the dead opossum her dog rolled in earlier. The pyrex was shaking as I began to, despite a sultry summer breeze, develop something akin to the night sweats that accompany menopause. 

I set it down and settled in next to him, crossing my legs to conceal my gnarled Hobbit hooves beneath me. I must have suddenly inhaled a heap of his pheromones. I had a thing for scent. I could have barely noticed someone for years until I grabbed a good whiff of them. Then, KABLAM.  I strained to regain control of my hypothalamus by focusing on the elastic bulls-eye on Owen’s head, but that was no help either. I’d harbored a preoccupation with bald men after learning that strong, barren-scalped Vin Diesel was a sensitive English major before he was typecast as high-octane, testosterone-overloaded bad boys. Despite the cliche, for me, paradox was erotic Kryptonite.

We continued sitting just close enough on Owen’s blanket contraption to barely avoid touching. I cut him a Spanikopita square and waited. He made a couple of yum-yum noises before our eyes locked in that hackneyed primal way that renders good sense without a prayer.  I tried to break the intensity by looking away, but, naturally, I looked back. It was Sodom and Gomorrah all over again. Our breath grew slow and heavy, synchronizing as we capitulated to months of burgeoning carnal curiosity. 

Owen slid his hand to the back of my neck with his thumb resting on my face. His lips were parted. I could feel the heat from his face and body before the rest of him was against me. Then there was a familiar shiver. I sighed. Or moaned. Likely both. 

During the early stages of any romance, it’s tough for me to tell if someone is *really* a good kisser or if I just *think* that he’s a good kisser because a sudden dose of neurotransmitters has overwhelmed me with delusion. Trite or no, in little time, we’d tossed my risk dish aside, and the spaghetti strap top and hiking pants went flying. It was smoking hot. Thank God for dopamine and delusion. People like to say that fantasy is always better than reality, but be real. When the two converge it’s like that old Reese’s ad about “your peanut butter falling in my chocolate.” Fantasy combined with physical reality is loads better than fantasy on its own. No other euphoria is its equal, no matter how fickle that brand of euphoria can be. 

According to Alfred Kinsey, sexual climax overrides our pain receptors. The sensory overload literally makes us forget our usual aches and pains. It also makes us forget practical realities like myriad “No Trespassing” signs. Owen and I were buck naked and calling for our Maker when the beam of a Maglite brought it all flooding back. The spotlight came from an eight-foot distance. We live in a very small town but could not see who stood on the other side of that beacon. Statistically speaking, chances were it was someone we knew. And chances were that my shining white, Scotch-Irish backside was blinding him. For once, my powdery pale complexion served me well.

“I’m pretty sure you know that this is private property,” said the disembodied voice that I couldn’t quite place. “And I’m pretty sure that you’d appreciate knowing that in five minutes, there are going to be six other men here. So . . .” The voice trailed off, and we began feverishly feeling about for boxer shorts and sundry trampy but elegant underpants.

We located enough clothing items to return us to a state of decency. Owen velcroed his water shoes as I continued scanning our blanket with my hands for one lone remaining flip-flop. The man with the flashlight began counting down. I’m not sure what we did about the Pyrex, but we fled, leaving the flip-flop behind like Cinderella’s lost slipper.

We had a long hike to our parking spot. Owen hoisted me on his back with my bare foot dangling and toted me to safety. I forecast a future in which I’d receive an envelope containing my lost shoe. The return address would make me embarrassed to enter public spaces. I might have to wear a scarlet flip-flop patch sewn to the front of my dress.  

But we scrambled into Owen’s truck and fell together laughing. He rolled the windows down, started the ignition, and we could feel the summer night on our skin, REALLY feel it, as we drove and, like kids, listened to Owen’s favorite band croon from his cassette player. 

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