Invitation

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Cam steadied herself on the bottom step. She could hear their bright voices beyond the wall, laughter punctuating conversations like a foreign accent. There was fragrance of food unlike any she recognized, rich and well spiced. Her stomach lurched and she leaned on the wall. She felt ready to leave. A phone call with apologies and an excuse of sudden headache would not be thought contrary or so surprising. She was the woman they barely thought to count as one of their own, after all, and certainly not since the events that unfolded over summer. Her watch indicated it was not quite past the brunch hour, yet she felt as though it was both too late to enter and too late to leave.

What could they be saying? She strained to hear and caught snatches of sentences. Something about Harry’s shoes, how they were a “tad long” but grandchildren grew fast; she wanted to shop for “first year of private school and all.” And then other words about editing, “failed efforts at improving miserable copy” and Cam thought of Marie at her mahogany desk, hair pulled back from her face into a long grey ponytail, eyebrows arched, lips tinted raspberry. Then laughter and another–was it Giselle?–woman noted that her husband was travelling south of the equator “of all places.”

Argentina!” she squealed.

Cam felt a ripple of anxiety and turned her back to the brick steps. It was too hot for September, or more likely she was in a feverish state brought on by the nearness of these people. She imagined them in a tight circle around the glass table in the garden, manicured fingers gripping drinks, faces peachy–and caramel, including Fran–in the sunshine. Cam irrelevantly mused on how women used make up named for food or sweets. Sensory delights. She was likely persimmon, red-cheeked and tart, even sour. This somehow cheered her.

Her shoes hurt. They were new with medium heels, bronze-toned leather–to go with a long sage green dress she’d found at the back of the closet. There hadn’t been time to change her clothes over from summer to fall. She didn’t care. Maybe when the rains hit she’d find her sweaters and pull them close, feel their heavy cotton a comfort. But now she dreaded the clear weather fading fast, the thick clouds that would knit themselves together and refuse to split open so light could break through. In summer, after the horror, she could lose herself in forests and meadows, hike for hours with snacks and water and no one to impede her. Being alone meant peace.

All too soon she’d have to sit in the house and remember. Think of the day she was taken away. The categorizing of her grief determined by the so-called authority of the DSM-IV Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders: Major Depressive Disorder  officially speaking. In essence, depression gone terribly awry. Ending in a sort of mini-breakdown with a day in jail and five days in a psych unit. She thought it just the exhaustion of sorrow cloaked in a brazen attempt at revenge. The psychiatrist had to be paid; insurance needed codes.

What would they have done? The women here, with whom she hadn’t officially become that friendly–they waved in passing, nodded on the street when they walked–and Marie, almost her friend before the crash. Would they have just shopped more, disregarded others’ poor choices? First the move here which Cam did not want; then Puck, their dog, getting lost or stolen; then their son’s, Alan’s, drunk driving accident, lost job and return to the new family home. The accident did more damage than they suspected and he suffered, as did they. It took until late August for Alan to rouse and return to Nevada and a faltering design career. And then her husband, Nate, and Rebecca Moore, “the VP of Marketing” he said off-handedly, seen at the golf club. Not once. Four times. Not during company events.

She shuddered. Even thinking that woman’s name stirred up residual but excessive anger. But how noble would her neighbors have been? She had tried. But eventually, after three months of it all she “took the roof off”, as her husband noted more than once to the police. What he meant was, Cam had had two very stiff drinks, tossed the pots and pans all over the kitchen, overturned his dining room chair and when she had thrown the fuchsia and apple green pillows off the couch three lit candles were knocked over, igniting newspapers and magazines. Alan sat on the porch in shock. Well, it was a nightmare, she agreed. She had behaved poorly and was embarrassed. Then came the shame. Never had she lost her temper like that, never had she screamed such things at Nate. She needed time out, room to breathe and think. Now she had a decent therapist and her husband had come to his senses. Maybe. She agreed to no more alcohol and he agreed…well, he said he’d be home more from now on. In autumn’s chill they’d sit before the fireplace, just talk. By winter, maybe there could be love again.

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The brunch carried on. The talk was muted; they must have been eating. Cam wiped her damp face with a tissue. They didn’t understand her and why should they? They didn’t know her, didn’t know how life could turn upside down in a flash. She looked up the steps to the gate and the sun blinded her. Then she saw the outline of Marie’s head, sleek ponytail swinging.

“Hey Cam, are you going to come in?”

“I don’t know yet. I was but…”

“You should come and eat with us. The gals are all waiting to see you.” She opened the gate and stepped down. Her face was a relief to see, open and warm as always despite those fine, hinting-at-haughty eyebrows.

Cam took a deep breath. “Yes, well, I don’t know. I don’t think I’m right for this group. Maybe next year.”

Marie laughed in a chesty way that was restrained but full of timbre. “Oh, heavens, never mind any pretensions. They all have their own sad stories! I’ll share the mantle of shame with you over coffee one day. But I want you here. I want you to come over any time, but especially when I cook. Who else eats my marvelous dishes? Dan is gone a lot and my daughter only eats smoothies and salads.” She linked her arm in Cam’s and looked her straight in the eyes. “You’re human. It’s quite alright.”

Cam felt something lurch inside, as though the heavy stone in her heart had been pushed aside. She felt tension drain a little. Maybe she wasn’t that unique. Life could be flush with craziness. She put her arm around Marie’s waist and they climbed the steps to the gate, flung it open, and stepped into the party. Their neighbors raised their glasses and cheered.

Dragonfly Glass

IMG_2868It had called to me from the shop situated in a mountain valley: a sturdy clear glass, pleasing of shape, with good heft. But most of all, the dragonflies that were in relief near the top brought a smile. I am a fool for insects of all sorts (even scarier ones), and dragonflies intrigue me with their grace and short lives (one to six months) in temperate zones. They love the water but do fly elsewhere. They rarely bite and don’t break the skin if they try. They have been with us 300 million years. If that isn’t a wonderful bug I don’t know what is.

But enough about dragonflies. The glass grabbed my attention and I pondered the price, which was more than seemed reasonable. Still, it was small enough for juice, a good size for a quick drink of water. I turned it around in my hands and visualized how it would look with my sturdy Desert Rose table ware. But such extravagance. I walked away. And back again. I left the shop with two cheerful glasses.

Today it was more summer than spring with a cloudless aquamarine sky and sweet breeze. I sat on the balcony and sipped chilled tea. The glass–the new favorite. It had held water, ginger ale, apple juice and iced tea. I admired it’s combination of ordinariness and decorative good sense. And then I held it up to the sunlight and the thought that came forward was a surprise. It looked like a glass used for a stout mixed drink or rich-colored wine, not tame juice or water. It was the right size, and its heaviness ensured it stayed put when set down. But to contemplate all this took me back.

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Way, way back. You see, none of my glasses have had a lick of alcohol in them for twenty-two years. That was when I stopped drinking. something I write around but have never stated bluntly. Now it seems I want to speak of it.

The day I last drank has been, perhaps oddly, increasingly less a subject of daily personal interest than professional, as I have counseled and educated chemically addicted persons for twenty of those years. Yes, I have attended plenty of support groups. But after awhile something happened to my thinking. It was like the clean, unmistakable click of a lock’s mechanism disengaging to full unlocked position. The door that opened led to the life I had always wanted but could never fully discover or create.

I became free of not only any desire to drink but also of significant feelings about it. I didn’t and don’t hate alcohol and its undeniable power to alter even ordinary people’s responses to others and themselves. It is a power that the alcohol-imbibing public still doesn’t fully respect. I had a quite short drinking career revolving around too many goblets of wine and stiff mixed drinks, resulting in some harrowing tales. It would be dishonest to not note that a family member asked me to make a will when I was still pretty young. There is a common misconception that it is how much you drink that identifies whether or not one has an alcohol problem. In fact, it is more simply how it chemically impacts a person physiologically, emotionally, mentally. It didn’t take so much as you’d think to provide experiences I don’t care to live again.

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So, I didn’t long for alcohol when I was finally done.  I detached from it while keeping clear the reality of what worked for me in life and what did not. Alcohol was definitely on the negative side. Recovery has remained number one every day despite not thinking of it all the time. The reasons are simple: I want to stay alive, live well and long, and be true to who I am–none of which alcohol could support. A drink–or a drug, for that matter– will eventually rob an addicted person of everything good and fine in human life. I reclaimed my own power to live more freely and richly again. Over time, I integrated what I knew about my unhappy relationship with alcohol into a broader understanding of my worldview and beliefs, as well as my authentic needs (not those society dictated) as a person.

All this sounds relatively easy, perhaps. It has been, in a real sense. Of course, there have been moments when holding tight to one moment of sobriety was the goal for the day. The painful events of life, physically and emotionally, didn’t back away or even lessen much when I put down the drink. But the good news is that as humans we are provided with an amazing array of solutions and aids to help us live intentionally, in peace. Our brains manufacture chemicals called endorphins (among others) to help us with bodily pain and even heartache. Our free will enables us to make many kinds of choices that either nurture or undermine who we are and want to become. Out of the caldera of the past, we can construct a Spirit-shaped life that is a wellspring of clarity as we imagine, act, speak, love.

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It all completely works, I told my clients; you just have to try it and then keep at it. I perhaps did not tell them I am a good case study with a complicated history (which we all seem to have) coupled with an early onset of sedativism precipitated by prescription drugs. This made me a sitting duck for alcohol problems later on. The whole journey was a strange one that no longer haunts me. It was one of those dead-end roads. I got off (with much timely help), surveyed the options and took a different direction. Such liberation had a revolutionary feel; it stays with me to this day.

I return to my humble dragonfly glass. It holds peppermint-tinged iced tea; it cools and soothes on this magnanimous May day. And I hope to enjoy it for many years–at least all the days that are given to me. I consider the myriad wonders of life and know I am fortunate. The important parts of the puzzle of living fit together, and I fit there, too. I ask you this: what is not to love in this very moment? I thank God for this ordinary and bountiful life, come what may.

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“What is to give light must endure burning.”
-Viktor Frankl

New Tree City, as Pen Sees It

The look-out is the monster maple in our back yard; it’s the main place I like to be, especially when dad gets home and relaxes on the porch. His spot and my spot both overlook the hilly area behind our garden. He watches the tomatoes, cucumbers, squash or sugar peas grow and ripen–whatever is in season, we tend. I guess he  must look at the hills and woods and remembers what it was like when he grew up here with Pops and Gram, but they’re both long gone. He has told me how there wasn’t a house for at least a mile in all directions back then. Now we live on a paved street at the edge of town and Marionville just keeps creeping past the corner where they finally put a stop sign. A few good cars had to get bashed and a half-dozen lives of cats and dogs ended before it mattered. Now it’s a four-way stop. Dad says it doesn’t mean anything; nothing will stop the town from spilling over the hills and up here.

I’m who he has now. He calls me his blue-eyed soul girl because I like Motown music and because I’m the only girl left, I guess. Mom took off last year. She found out she could make more money as a medical receptionist down below, some small city by Ann Arbor. She has this new person in her life, a girlfriend named Lela. Don’t ask me what that’s all about because dad doesn’t say a thing so I’m not going to ask. I don’t see Mom much since she moved out. She calls once a week or I do. I haven’t met Lela but maybe one day I will. I miss mom too much some days, others not so much. When you get down to it, dad is about what I have, too, except for three good friends at school and a couple of neighbors I like to fish and ski with, meet for a Saturday movie at the Miracle Theater. It’s strange growing up with just a dad but we always did get along better than mom and me. I didn’t ask him to go school shopping with me, though. Telly’s mom took me and got me a bra, too. He hasn’t noticed which is a relief. I’m afraid it will upset him, my growing up already.

Dad says I’m better at climbing trees and running than most boys and he’s right about that. I’m eleven, I can outrun most of the guys around here, and I’m a strong cross-country skier and better downhill skier. He says when I turn twelve I might get faster or maybe slower. We’ll find out in three weeks, after my birthday. I have no intention of slowing down. I can’t help being strong and fast, it just suits me, as mom says.

The reason I spend so much time in the upper third of this maple is because I can see everything. And it’s peaceful. I can survey a small kingdom. There are the Scranton hills, named after Jonas Scranton’s farm that went under before I was born. They’re a relief no matter what the season, they just roll out their colors and designs: mind-freezing beauty. I get a great view of Marionville spreading out beyond the bottom of the hills, namely the south end of the lake, several businesses and the jumping waterfront park. The big woods on the far side of the lake are special after it goes dark. Yellow and white spots shine here and there until the dense trees are sparkling like they’re full of fairy lights.  And I get a decent view of Telly Martin’s place to my right, where he, his parents and sisters live by Silver Creek, in their chalet. Especially their back yard, which is where most of the interesting action is at any house. They’re always doing something, like badminton and barbecuing. I haven’t been there in a few weeks and I miss them even though the two girls are younger and like Barbies too much. My mom, I know, enjoyed Telly’s mom; they had coffee many mornings. But no one asks about her.

Telly and I used to hang out more; he’s fourteen now. I think he also wonders about my dad. One time Telly came by, dad was sitting in the rocker by the scarred square wooden table he uses for about everything. A glass was in his hand so he didn’t reach out to shake Telly’s, as is his way. A big ole bottle of Jack Daniels was next to his book, likely a complicated spy novel he can get lost in. The reading has always been his pleasure, but the whiskey came out after spring break. Before that, a cold beer on a warm week-end was all I saw.

“Come around to see my Penny, eh, Telly?” dad said. He’d had two small glasses already. Three is his limit but it should be one. Or none.

Telly shrugged. “We were going to take a walk. I keep seeing a red fox at the creek. Real pretty.” His hands were in his jeans pockets. He smiled nice.

“Never mind the fox, son, and never mind my daughter. She’s too young to go off with a young man.” 

“Dad, I’ve known Telly for six years–” I protested. It was shocking to hear him talk like that.

“That’s right. He was eight, you were barely six. Played all day.  That was then. This is now. We don’t need more trouble.”

Telly frowned, then winked at me with each eye, our way of saying “later.” He left before I could stop him. But I can see him in his yard; we keep an eye on each other in lots of ways. In fact, my dad doesn’t even know we leave notes under a big loose rock in the field stone wall that divides the Martin’s property from the empty lot between us. That goes back at least four years. Still, I’ve had some doubts about Telly this fall. He’s like a polite acquaintance when I see him in school and hangs out with the first person to move into New Tree City. That’s what dad and I call it.

A developer bought ten acres of the hills and planted skinny, skimpy trees, some maple and some poplar, a little bunch of white pine. It was re-named New Scranton Hills. They brought their big earth-moving machines and started digging up the rich, sweet earth. First time I saw it I winced. It hurt my bones, even my teeth. Dad swore.

So what dad really watches since spring are the new houses cropping up like morel mushrooms. Only he likes those so much he’s on a mission to gather them every spring.

“That’s what’s wrong with Marionville. It can’t stand being the same year after year. It keeps looking to progress but it’ll end up being just like any other fast-growing town. They’re all the  same. Like white bread, right, Pen?”

He took another swallow–I could hear him cough a little–and I grasped the next branch, got a familiar foothold and pulled myself up higher. The leaves were starting to fall and a red one landed on my face. It smelled ancient and comforting.

“Well, dad, nothing can stay the same forever, probably.” I zipped up my hoodie against the autumn chill.

“There you go, that’s the mentality your mother has, our county has, the whole blasted country has. Gotta be bigger, fancier, more, more, more.”

I looked down through a new hole made by leaves falling. He was on his second glass and already he was getting miserable. I had a mind to shimmy down and grab that whiskey bottle and pour it in the garden, let the bugs and squash get tipsy for once. They’d probably just get sick, though.

“Well, no one knows this land like all of us up here, dad. And for sure no one loves it more than you. Pops would be happy you haven’t sold out.”

He chuckled. “That’s right, Pen. No selling out. You can bury me right here, too.”

I looked out over the land and blinked, then looked again. There was a house going up that looked way too big for the land it had grabbed. The carpenters were done for the day, and the frame they had left was a three-story something that dwarfed the new trees and the houses on either side. It hinged on being a mini-mansion from what I could tell. I wondered if it was one of those community places where there would be an indoor swimming pool, rooms to throw big celebrations in, maybe a game room for things like billiards.  I pressed against the sturdy trunk and leaned out a bit, parted the leaves. But it might just be a house, with all those options in it. You could fit four of our house into that building. It made me dizzy to think of it,  excited and mad all at once.

“You hear me, Pen? I don’t want you to start making friends with any of those people, okay? That’s the type young Telly might go for now, you wait. New Tree City people just don’t belong up here.” He banged his glass on the table. “Period.”

But I was gazing out at the lake and the woods and the sky beyond. A silky wash of dusk and then twilight colors spread over the treetops of the lake’s far shore and they glowed for a minute. It got so intense, that’s all there was: oranges, pinks, yellows, then night blues but with a weird light of gold fanning out over the world. The tiny fairy brights lit up the blackened woods after that.  I was alone but happy in my treetop. My dad had given in to whiskey or sadness or maybe sleep. I understood this: he wanted to forget some things and remember others. But New Tree City sat mostly empty of memories while I had nearly twelve whole years in this place. I really held the whole world in my arms. It fit me just right. I’d write a note to Telly about it in the morning; he always got it.

The Point of Drinking on this Tuesday Afternoon

Win Ottomeier ran down the library steps with light restraint. She was anxious to be on her lunch hour but didn’t want the others–Marie, Theo and Antonia–to take any notice of her. They sometimes ate together but usually not, as they liked to talk shop and gossip and she more often liked to not talk. Her hour was important to her, a time to empty her mind of a million orderly bits of information, of the sight of the heavy books she consulted as well as the glaring screen of the computer with its cornucopia of search engines.

And the people, oh the public, how they often swarmed her desk with their eager faces, located her on the phone, their words spitting and swirling up to the Rubenesque women cavorting on the ceiling’s mural. To Win, it was a veritable storm of faces and hushed verbiage from the moment she walked in, esoteric inquiries and needs.

Not that she didn’t like data. There was a solid appreciation of the ways one made sense of micro and macro worlds, how she could  conquer and divide until the facts were distributed or disposed of correctly. Win did not complain when the first computer system went in all those years ago. Adaptation brought rewards. It complemented her studied reserve, that sleek machine.

But it was her twenty-first year at the city library and she was becoming–what? Disengaged. Bored. Libraries had enchanted and upheld her, even saved her life a few times. Her work had mattered once. But now it all pressed in on her like a too-small room. She felt she was becoming irrelevant as people did more of their own digging, PCs in hand. And then there were all those virtual books, disturbing in their untouchable distance, their convenience. The images of an increasingly synthetic world mystified and daunted her.

At times Win had desperate fantasies of heading to the airport and buying a one way ticket to, say, Patagonia, where Magellan thought he had stumbled across native giants in 1520. At five foot eleven they had seemed enormous to the small Spaniards. But that was a view from history. When she got there, what then? There was petroleum and tourism and who knows what other irritants. She had only to look it up to find out, so why bother going at all. Still,  she asked herself: how much could one person absorb in a lifetime? Especially if one had a near photographic memory as Win did. She would go to her grave with footnote 219 on page 367 of a tome regarding prehistoric America emblazoned on her brain. Where was the meaning to it?

This is what she had been plagued with during sleepless nights: the exhaustive nature of fact gathering and what it all boiled down to, at this point in her life. Living in a junkyard of data, that’s what. She carried on in an expert loneliness infused with random, electic knowledge no one really cared about. Not even Win, anymore.

So at twelve-fifteen on Tuesday, she slipped out and headed three blocks down to Tate’s Lounge. She liked the soup and sandwich special there. And the drinks. They all greeted her like a regular. It had surprised her a couple of months ago. Had she gone there that much?  Since March when she discovered the place on a particularly soggy day, Win had been stopping by during or after work, maybe once or twice a week since summer began.

She looked over her shoulder to make sure her co-workers had turned the corner as usual, seeking out Indian or Lebanese fare. Then Win took the last booth and ordered a bowl of soup and a half gilled cheese. Zina, the waitress, called her by name and asked how the books were doing.

Win answered, “They’re looking great, standing at attention as usual.” The waitress chuckled; she was a tolerant sort.

It was such a relief to be here. The place smelled of onions and peppers, grilled sausages with cheese, creamy chicken soup. It was very unlike Win’s kitchen which was gleaming and small, the refrigerator sparsely populated with yogurt and orange juice, take out Thai leftovers, a handful of brown eggs. Two bottles of wine.

Win finished the remainder of the chicken soup and wiped her mouth with the thin napkin. Now for dessert. She reached for her vodka and cranberry and sipped once, then let the vibrant mixture fill her mouth a few seconds before swallowing. It was calming, tart, smooth. It was just the antidote for all the faces and tongues wagging and the tangled weave of supposed facts, data parading itself before them all as though it was critical to something, the final word.

Win breathed in the scent of her drink and finished it off quickly, then sat back.  The last word was something her husband, Harry, once enjoyed. She should not wear anything but sensible shoes or she would have bunions, she was not to clean the oven with nasty chemicals, she was cautioned to not spend more than allotted for Christmas despite her desire to get something really good for the nieces she loved so. He’d even had the last word on whether they would have children–not a good idea, not in this crazy world, not on their improving but modest income.  But he did care for her, didn’t he? Didn’t they take a week’s vacation at a national park she picked each year? Didn’t he cook dinner three times a week? What did he tell her every night before they parted ways at their respective bedroom doors? “Rest well, old gal.” She got and gave a medium hug and it counted most days.

Six months ago he had said good-night–she’d hardly head him–and the next morning he’d left before she got up. A note on the bed told her everything: “I know you don’t like Flagstaff, but you know I do and I’m now retired, so I’m gone.” And the P.S. was his final opinion about her life. He advised her, “If you stay, you should work until 65 to be on the safe side.  Or just come to AZ and we’ll figure it out.”

She thought she couldn’t manage but she did; discipline went a long way toward getting through things. It was more and less than what she thought, this being by herself. It hurt less in some ways, not at all in others.  His face receding, she ordered another vodka and cranberry. Just saying the drink’s name out loud calmed her: a healthy fruit full of antioxidants with a fortifying alcoholic beverage. Harry hadn’t wanted her to drink, not even a drink made with cranberries. One makes you a bit goofy, two makes you unpredictable, he’d said, as though either was character defect she needed to avoid. Perhaps so. The wine she drank, then, was drunk sparingly, a half glass when he was watching, two or more when he was not.

Now she had endless nights to watch the skies and the city’s bustling business from the tenth floor condo, a glass or three of wine keeping her company. And she had the afternoons weekly, one at the least, two if lucky. She could sit and drink, float away. After awhile it felt as though she was on a fanciful barge decorated with multi-colored lanterns, headed down the Nile or the Colorado or even the Columbia River which lay just beyond the condo, rushing to join the Pacific, salt and fresh waters mingling.

When she got back to her post, no one at the library ever said anything. They might look bemused, but that often seemed the case to Win. 

She decided to order a third drink despite the waitress–was it Zina or Zinia? –raising her eyebrows, biting her lip.

“Are you going back to work, Win?”

“Of course, in a few minutes.” Win shrugged off her discomfort, drank away the dullness she felt.

She wanted to say so much more: I can drink as much as I like now. Harry has no say. I am not thirty; I’m hanging on to sixty by a thread so I am a full-fledged grown-up who makes my own choices. I deserve a break, a change in routine. I am happy as a clam nestled in this booth. I am a talented research librarian but truly sick to death of gathering information instead of living it and so I am drinking to think it over some more.

Win finally got up, gathered her purse and wobbled to the register, paid her check and with a nod to Zinia (of course, she knew that), left. She walked gingerly down the sidewalk–lest she lose her  balance and look a fool–then climbed the library’s steps to the brass-handled doors and yanked one open. She took the elevator to the third floor and walked right up to Antonia’s huge desk. The lovely old dear had a pencil in her mouth as usual but took it out as soon as she looked up.

“The whole point of drinking on this Tuesday afternoon is so I can  finally look into your piercing hazel eyes–which I’ve always admired despite your unkindnesses–and say I quit, good riddance, farewell, and good luck.”

Win turned to go and lost her center for a moment. But there was Theo, who had always looked good to her, even when he’d lost the last of his hair, even when he’d dropped too many pounds after his divorce. He took her elbow in his hand and sidled down the stairs with her.

“Good show,” he whispered. “Can I come by later? Dinner?”

She smiled, almost kissed him, but instead shook her head and plucked his hand off her elbow. Then Win left without a backward glance, just slipped away to Argentina.