A Road Trip Fantasy Pt. 03

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Jennifer swung her bag over the threshold of her front door. She was digging out her keys from her purse when a voice interrupted her.

“Did you make sure the stove is off?”

“Mom, we haven’t used the stove the entire time you’ve been here. It’s off.” She pulled the door closed and went to lock it.

“No, I made us tea last night. Remember?”

Jennifer sighed inside but now that little nugget of paranoia niggled at the back of her brain. She almost opened the door back up to go check, but forced herself not too. The stove was off, the lights were off, all the faucets were off, the furnace was turned down, the windows were all closed and latched. She knew that. She turned back to her mom with a smile. “Everything’s off. Time to go.”

Behind their mother, Jennifer could see her sister, Rebecca, give her a little eye roll of sisterly commiseration. Despite all of that, having her mom and Rebecca visit these last two days had been wonderful, and now they were all heading back to San Diego together for nine days. Nine days to catch up with her family and friends, to relax, and to formally introduce Aaron to the rest of her life. He had impressed her friends here at school, and Rebecca had spoken to him a handful of times and had no complaints so far, and her old workmates from the office approved, but what would all of her old friends and her parents think of him? The grain of doubt would be there until her two worlds collided in a little less than twenty-four hours. With nothing else to do about it at the moment, Jennifer squared her shoulders and began rolling her suitcase along the walkway toward the far stairs.

The trio had almost reached the stairs when the apartment door just beyond them popped open, and Daniel, her neighbor stepped out. “Hey there, Jen, looks like you’re heading out.”

Rebecca stopped two steps down from the top to take in the muscular young man in the doorway.

“Hi, Daniel.” Jennifer paused at the top of the stairs and brushed her hair back behind her ear. “Yeah, I’m going home for the week. You’ll have to find yourself a new gym buddy for a while.”

“I’ll keep an eye on your place while you’re away.” Daniel stepped out his doorway. “And who are these lovely young ladies?” He flashed Rebecca and her mother a gleaming white smile.

Jennifer blushed a little. “Oh, sorry. Mom, Rebecca, this is my neighbor, Daniel. Daniel, meet my mom and sister, Rebecca.”

Daniel shook hands with both women. “I can see where Jen gets her looks,” he said when he shook her mother’s hand.

Her mom laughed at that. “Pleased to meet you. You can call me Julie. It’s nice of you to keep an eye on Jennifer’s place while she’s away.”

“Not a problem. It’s an easy enough job.” He looked at Jennifer. “Do you need a ride to the airport? You should have asked.”

Jennifer was irritated to feel her face burn a little more. “We’ve got an Uber. Thanks anyway.”

Those big shoulders shrugged up and down. “Well, if you need someone to pick you up next weekend, just give a holler.”

“Okay, thanks. I’ll keep it in mind. Have a good week.” Jennifer turned to the stairs and ushered her family down them where indeed a car with an Uber symbol in the front window waited in the parking lot.

“Have a nice trip,” Daniel called after them.

Jennifer could feel his eyes on the back of her head until they were almost down the stairs, but she refused to turn around to wave again. Finally she heard his door shut.

As the driver was loading their bags in the trunk, Rebecca put one hand on her stomach and other over her mouth and blanched.

“You okay?” Jennifer put a hand on her sister’s shoulder.

Rebecca shook her head. “Just a little jet lag. I should still be in bed at home.”

Jennifer cocked her head and narrowed her eyes. “Are you sure?”

Instead of answering Rebecca looked back up the stairway at Daniel’s closed doorway. “Cute neighbor you’ve got there.”

Jennifer shrugged. “I’ve got a boyfriend, and you’re married, so it doesn’t matter. And you’re changing the subject.” She poked her sister’s arm.

“It doesn’t hurt to look since neither of them are here. It’s just nice to know that if you hadn’t met Aaron, you’d have options here, that’s all.” That response did not seem to satisfy Jennifer. “And I am fine. I’ll nap on the plane and be good as new.”

Jennifer nodded but kept wearing her narrowed, suspicious eyes. “Hey Mom, Rebecca’s feeling a little queasy again this morning. Maybe she should take the front seat.”

Their mother came over fussing. “Oh honey, two days in a row. Why didn’t you say so? Take the front seat. It’s just a short ride anyway.”

Jennifer just smiled at her sister’s second eye roll.

*****

The next day, Aaron pulled out his phone before getting into his car and texted: Leaving now. ETA 25 minutes.

Before he could even start the car, Jennifer texted back: See you then.

The drive from his townhouse across the varied suburbs of San Diego took just over eskort bayan gorukle the twenty-five minutes Google predicted. He parked across the street from a two-story ranch style house with peach colored sides and white trim. A bushy podocarpus tree stood in a well trimmed front lawn, and a line of rose bushes sat under the front windows. It had everything but the white picket fence. The neighborhood was older, modest, middle class homes, all well maintained.

Aaron straightened his arms against the steering wheel and pushed back in the seat. His pulse was up, and he felt jittery. Strange to be a successful professional and still nervous to meet his girlfriend’s parents at this stage of his life. He was not a teenager or college kid anymore, but it had been almost ten years since he had to appear and make a first impression like this. Apparently, that kind of performance anxiety never went away. Maybe it was because despite knowing Jennifer for over a year, they had been dating only two months, all of it long distance. In some sense, he had no idea what he was walking into this afternoon. Jennifer had tried to prep him, but his palms were sweaty, and he was not sure he was ready. Another spin around the block and some deep breathing exercises might be what was in order here.

His phone trilled with Jen’s familiar text tone. Are you coming in?

Aaron laughed. He was just being stupid again. He hit the switch to roll up the windows, closed the sunroof, and while they all went up, wiped his palms off on his shorts. Show time. He climbed out of his car and headed toward the front door.

Jennifer was watching him from the kitchen through the bay windows that looked out of the living room. Once she saw his car door open, she turned her phone over on the counter and started toward the front of the house.

Rebecca, flipping through a magazine at the kitchen table, looked up when Jennifer started walking. “Oh, is he here?”

Without stopping, Jennifer looked back over her shoulder. “Yes, he is.” No sooner were to words out of her mouth, than the doorbell rang.

Before Jennifer could get there, her brother, Chris, vaulted over the stairway bannister to beat her to the door. He swung the door wide open with a wide grin on his face. When he saw Aaron, his smile faded. “No solicitors.” He started to swing the door shut, but Jennifer elbowed her way past him.

“Quit it, Chris.” Jennifer caught the door, and turned her smile on Aaron. “Sorry about that. He loves messing with people.”

Aaron shook his head and laughed. “No worries.” His blue-grey eyes darted over her shoulder at the growing crowd in the hallway and then back to her deep brown ones.

Jennifer sighed, and turned back around to her assembling family members. “Excuse us a minute.” Then she stepped outside and closed the door behind her. “Now we can greet each other properly.”

She threw her arms around his neck, and his arm encircled her in a tight embrace. The soft prickle of his scruff tickled her lips as they kissed for a good fifteen seconds. Jennifer pulled back.

“It’s good to see you,” he said.

“All better now?”

“Everything’s better when I’ve got my arms around you.”

She laughed. “It’s all better when I’m in your arms. So, are you ready?”

“Yes, I am.”

When she turned to open the door, Jennifer kept an arm around his waist and ushered him inside. Her mother was there scolding Chris who did not look the least abashed, and off to the side of them was Rebecca with her husband, Tom. In the background, her father was coming out from the kitchen. The gang was all here. Well, all here except her grandparents who were still probably in the family room watching television or sitting outside in the backyard.

“So, Aaron, I’d like you to meet my mom.”

“Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Lee.” He reached out to shake her hand, and Jennifer’s mother took it in both of hers.

“Please, you can call me Julie. It’s so nice to finally meet you. Jennifer has told us so much about you. We’ve all been looking forward to meeting you.”

Jennifer saw Aaron flashing one of those charming smiles he used to win over patients. “Well, I’ve been looking forward to meeting Jen’s family too.” Now he held out a package he had been carrying under his left arm. “And I baked this for you this morning. It’s a macadamia coconut bread. I hope you like it.”

Julie took the loaf pan from him. “Oh and it’s still warm. Thank you I’ll put it on the table with the rest of the food.” She bustled back to the kitchen.

Jennifer came around to Aaron’s left side to take that arm now that it was free. “You’ve met Chris.”

When he shook Aaron’s hand, Jennifer could tell he was trying to use his vise grip to intimidate her beau, but she had warned Aaron about her brother. She could not quite see what he had done, but Aaron had positioned his hand deeper in so his fingers were wrapped around the heel of Chris’ hand which must have countered the grip or made it awkward because Chris mudanya escort quickly gave up with a little smile and nod of approval.

That obstacle overcome, they moved on to Rebecca and Tom. “It’s great to meet you in person, not just on the phone,” Rebecca told him and gave him a hug.

Aaron and Tom exchanged a polite handshake, and something passed between them Jennifer thought. Probably some sort of understanding. About three years ago, Tom had been through the same Lee gauntlet and had survived. Aaron would too.

And that just left her dad. “And last but not least, Aaron, I’d like you to meet my dad.”

“Nice to meet you Mr. Lee.”

Her dad shook the proffered hand. “It’s nice to put a face to the name. Like Julie said, Jennifer’s told us a lot about you. Sounds like you’ve been taking good care of her.”

Aaron blushed. “Well, that’s a little hard given the distance, but I try and do what I can.”

“Even without the distance, she can be tough to take care of. I should know. I’ve been trying to do it for almost thirty years.”

“Obviously, you’ve done a wonderful job, sir.”

“Stop the ‘sirs’. You can call me Marvin.” Now he put an arm around Aaron’s shoulder and started to pull him away from Jennifer. “So Jennifer tells us you’re quite the cook. Why don’t you come help me with the grill out back.”

Aaron’s arm trailed behind him with his fingers slipping through Jennifer’s. “Truthfully, I don’t grill very often, but I’d be happy to help out.”

“Jen said you were a chef.”

When their fingers finally separated, Aaron looked back over his shoulder to her, but Jennifer just shrugged and waved. It looked like her dad wanted to have a little one-on-one time with Aaron to size him up. Maybe she could intervene, but that would only delay the inevitable.

“Mostly just in the kitchen. I don’t have much room for a grill at my place.”

And then they were gone. Jennifer sighed. She had seen him less than five minutes, and already her boyfriend had been whisked away from her.

Rebecca came up behind her and patted her on the back. “Don’t worry. Aaron will do fine with Dad.”

“Yeah, I mean even Tom made it, and he’s only a graphic designer, whatever the hell that is.” Chris had come up beside his sisters.

“I’m standing right here,” Tom objected.

Chris just waved a hand in dismissal.

Rebecca pulled her husband over and gave him a placating kiss before turning back to her brother. “I can’t wait until you bring your next girlfriend home.”

“There’s a reason I don’t bring my girlfriends home. You think dad is bad? Remember what mom said to Leslie when she came to dinner that time?”

The four of them watched their father drag Aaron out to the backyard.

“I’m going to go lay down for a while.” Rebecca kissed her husband again and headed toward the hallway and the guest room.

Jennifer raised her eyebrows at Tom but he wore his poker face. “Tell you what, I’ll go join the men on the grill. I want to get to know this guy of yours anyway.” He brushed passed her and into the kitchen.

At that moment, her mom’s voice echoed from the same direction. “Jennifer, can you give me a hand with the vegetables?”

“And on that note, I will be upstairs playing video games. Call me when food is served, huh Jen?”

Jennifer sighed and went to join her mother without acknowledging her brother.

Outside, Marvin already had chicken cooking on the grill and a dish of marinading steaks on the table next to it ready to go on. “Here, have a beer.” Marvin popped the top off the bottle and handed it to Aaron before grabbing his own.

“Thank you.” The bottle was ice cold in his hand which helped a little with the sweaty palms that were returning.

“Can you grab that plate over there?” Marvin pointed to a clean dish near the steaks. “So you’re a doctor, huh?”

“Yep, pediatrician.” Aaron held out the plate.

Marvin starting flipping the chicken and moving the finished pieces to the plate and rearranging the others. “So you two used to work together?”

“That’s how we first met. She was a great MA to work with, but you could tell we were just a stepping stone for her to bigger and better things. She’s smart and hardworking. She’ll make a great NP.”

The older man snorted. “Took her long enough. Didn’t apply herself much in school and drifted for a while there. I was worried we were never going to get her out of the house.”

“Well, obviously she came around. After you’ve worked with someone, you can tell who’s just punching the clock, which ones will wash out, and who’s going to keep climbing. Jen’s climbing.”

“Rest of these need a few more minutes. Hand me the steaks.” He finished moving the chicken to the top rack. “I think she finally got motivated after breaking up with Roger. I think she saw what kind of rut she was stuck in then and got her going.”

Aaron just nodded and handed over the steaks. Roger was not a subject Jennifer liked bursa evi olan escort to talk about, and frankly, not one Aaron had much interest in either.

Marvin spread out the steaks along the lower rack. Behind him, Tom came up and grabbed a beer out of the cooler and started to come around to join the conversation. “So Jen tells me you’re divorced,” Marvin said. Tom did a U-turn and headed away.

Unsurprised at the question or Tom’s reaction, Aaron smiled and took a sip of his beer. “I was married for about five years. The divorced was finalized pushing two years ago now.”

On the grill, the steaks sizzled. Marvin finished arranging them and closed the lid. “Julie and I have been married for thirty-five years now through ups and downs. There were some hard times in there, but we made a promise to each other in front of God and our family and friends, and we stuck it out.”

So this was how it was going to go. A little early in their acquaintance Aaron thought, but perhaps it was better to get all the cards on the table early. Aaron had been raised religious, but as an adult neither he nor Catherine had a religious affiliation. They were married by a justice of the peace in a small private ceremony with just a few family and friends. Saying all of that might not leave the correct impression here though.

Aaron nodded. “I understand that, and I spent the last year or more of my marriage and a good six months afterward feeling like a failure and that I should have just tried harder or stuck it out longer. We mutually decided though, that sometimes you’ve just made a tremendous mistake and carrying on isn’t going to do either of you any good. We didn’t have any kids to worry about. Going our separate ways was best for both of us.” He shrugged. “So far, that’s been the right decision.”

Marvin’s dark brown eyes stared into Aaron’s. The look was a little disconcerting because Jennifer had her father’s eyes, and Aaron was use to a softer look from them, but he met their gaze and held it.

“So what was the tremendous mistake?”

Aaron sighed and glanced off to the left for a moment in thought. He had used dozens of versions of this answer over the past few years. “We could already see the cracks in our relationship before we got married, all the little ways we didn’t quite mesh together, but there was a time pressure. I was finishing medical school and moving away for residency. She was looking for a job in San Diego where I was moving. If we were making that big a commitment to move somewhere together, we thought we ought to get married right away rather than taking the time to see if we could fix our problems. Getting married only made the problems worse. What she wanted in life and what I could give weren’t compatible. Vice versa too.”

Somewhere a few houses away, the sounds of children playing echoed from a backyard. Spring birds chirped in the trees. The steaks sizzled under the grill. After a time, Marvin nodded. “My little brother made the same mistake for different reasons maybe, only he tired to stick it out and ended up drinking himself to death. It can take a big man to admit his mistakes. Hopefully, you learn from them.” A smile crossed his lips.

With an inner sigh, Aaron nodded. “Amen to that. I’m still learning all the time.”

“Good. You need to keep learning.” The two men tapped bottles and drank.

“Steaks are smelling great.”

“Few more minutes before we flip them. I can handle it from here. Why don’t you go catch up with Jennifer.”

“Thank you. That I will do.”

He found her in the kitchen washing the vegetables. “Back so soon?”

“Your dad said he could handle the grill from here.” Aaron smiled and shrugged. “You know, I gave him a few pointers here and there. He was very grateful for the insights.”

“Ha ha. He does not take barbecuing tips from anyone.” She glanced over her shoulder to see how busy her mom was. When she turned back to Aaron, she dropped her voice lower. “So did you pass?”

Aaron plopped down on a stool across the counter from her. “We drank a beer together and shared a toast at the end.”

“Tom said he was asking about the divorce.”

“I think I gave him the right answer, because he said to go hang out with you, not ‘Get out of my house.'”

“Good.” Jennifer finished rinsing the last of the vegetables and dropped them in the colander. “Here you go mom. Anything else?”

“No, no, I’ve got the rest. Why don’t you give Aaron a tour?”

Jennifer dried off her hands and met Aaron on the other side of the counter. She took his arm. “This way for the grand tour.”

There really was not that much to see. She introduced him to her grandparents who were sitting on the sofa watching television and reading the paper. The older couple lived just a few blocks away and walked over regularly to visit though her grandfather was beginning to have more trouble with the walks.

They tiptoed past the downstairs guest room where her sister was napping. Upstairs consisted of her parents master bedroom and three smaller rooms, one for each of the Lee children. Her brother had head phones on and his back to the door while he played some on-line shooter game. Rebecca’s old room had become her mother’s sewing room some years before. They stopped in Jennifer’s old room.

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