Carnival Lights: Chapter Twenty-Six

Staring pointedly at her reflection in her bathroom mirror, Christina carefully applied a nude shade of lipstick to her pouting lips. Standing back, she surveyed the finished product. Her nerves jumped uncomfortably in her neck as she squinted back at her herself.

She looked fine.

Casual, but not too casual.

“God, get a grip,” she muttered, popping the lid back on her lipstick with a decided snap. She’d changed three times, spent over half an hour scouring her wardrobe –the pantsuit had been far too professional, and the sundress was choking on its own femininity…until she’d finally settled on a milky white sweatshirt with Jason’s high school mascot splashed across it’s front, which she’d purchased from Mary last year for some fundraiser or another, and a pair of tightly slimming designer jeans.

That was it: jeans and a sweatshirt. Rocket science, really.

She was more than a little disgusted with herself (especially the way her eyes kept traveling back to the mirror, as if trying to reassure herself she looked fine. Good.)

Her hair was up in a deliberately messing ponytail, with soft tendrils falling against her temples and whispering across her cheekbones—and to complete the ensemble, she’d rubbed on a tiny bit of blusher and just a hint of eyeliner.

And the lipstick, of course.

Taking a deep, uneven breath, she stumbled out of the bathroom and checking her watch, she took herself stiffly into her dimly lit livingroom. With a huff, she sat down in the arm chair, her fingers drumming against the cushioned rest. Jason had said he’d pick her up at 6:30—and if she were being completely honest with herself, Christina had been slightly let down that he hadn’t offered to take her to dinner first. She resisted the urge to check her watch again. It was 6:25 p.m.

With a decidedly edgy leap, Christina shot back up to her feet again, her boots pacing up and down the length of the floor. She was nervous. Understandably so. Excited and—dammit! Where the hell was Jason?

Almost as if on cue, a knock sounded at the back door, interrupting her thoughts. Spinning clumsily, Christina gaped behind her.

“Jason,” she whispered inanely, her cheeks taking on a dusty glow as she stumbled forward, jerking the door open a bit abruptly in her haste.

And there he was, standing on the other side of her threshold. At the sight of him, Christina knew she’d made the right choice in her outfit. He was wearing a pair of faded blue jeans and a red and white plaid button-down shirt.

For a split second, no one spoke. Christina felt tongue-tied, gauche—feelings she was entirely unaccustomed to feeling; but then again, she’d also never changed three times for a date before, either.

“Uh, hi,” she finally said, leaning self-consciously against the door frame. The pose felt forced, like that of a woman trying to be playful. She pulled herself upright.

“Hey yourself,” Jason offered with a tiny grin.

There it was again—that split second of stilted silence…

Christina remained where she was, watchful, waiting—

“Uh,” with a nod, Jason cleared his throat, gesturing toward his waiting truck. “Ready to go?”

“What? Oh.” Christina’s head jerked. “Yes. Well, Um, let me just check….” Her feet were already pedaling backward, her words babbling nonsensically out of her mouth in retreat: “Just need to lock up. I’ll be—right back. I’ll be right back.”

She didn’t wait to hear his response. Turning on her heel, she quickly disappeared down the hallway. Once she was out of sight, she made a quick getaway back to the bathroom where she quickly reassessed her appearance one last time. When she reemerged at the front door moments later, purse slung over her shoulder and keys in hand, she could only hope she looked the part.

It was a still evening, and warm for Minnesota temperatures at that time of year. Pushing her sleeves up her arms, Christina quickly turned the deadbolt in place and, with a half-glance at Jason indicated she would follow after him. If she felt tense and weird—like her skin was too tight and her limbs uneven sudden as she trudged down the short flight of steps to the sidewalk where his truck sad idling, Jason’s parting shot as she scrambled inside, shutting the door behind her, did not help matters anyway.

Giving her a quick grin as he buckled his seatbelt, Jason chuckled: “I hope you’re ready for this.”

“Ready for what?” Christina asked suspiciously.

“Oh, you’ll see” was all he said, turning the key over in the ignition. With a quick check in his side-mirror, he pulled out onto the street. His eyes were set on the road before them. “By the way, in case I don’t get the chance to say it later, you look beautiful tonight, Christina.”

Pressing her lips together reflexively, Christina squirmed under the glow of his compliment. “Thank you.”

“But then, you always do.”

“Oh no… I mean, it’s just a sweatshirt.” But she was pleased, beyond pleased, to downplay her attractions.
He grinned, his eyes still looking out at the road. “Yeah? Doesn’t that say it all.”

Christina ducked her head demurely. “Well, you don’t look too shabby yourself.”

In response, Jason chuckled, his fingers drumming loosely against the steering wheel as he drove out into the evening traffic. The rest of the ride passed in a blur of occasional small talk between patches of silence and radio songs. Christina had almost started to relax when he pulled into the school’s parking lot.

Climbing out, she’d no sooner felt both her feet touch the ground than Jason was there, circling the front of the vehicle, his hand reaching out for hers as he steered them toward the admittance stand.

Her stomach flopped at the contact, his fingers entwining with her own. A sense of pride rose in her as they stopped to purchase their tickets. Families milled in a semi-circle behind them, watching them….

But it wasn’t until they’d entered into the field that Christina really became aware of it: the eyes. They were being watched. By damn near everyone.

“Hey Mr. Gordman…” packs of girls would throw out, giggling behind their hands as they skirted past.

“Looking good Mr. G!” young teenaged boys, very cocky in their team jerseys and free from the hallways of the school, would shout at them from across the field.

There were even a couple not-so-subtle winks tossed his way.

“I take it this is what you meant in the truck,” Christina stated, nodding after a pack of kids, who’d been wondering loudly (almost too loudly to be strictly innocent) amongst themselves who the ‘lady’ was with Mr. Gordman.

Jason didn’t need her to explain that statement. He chuckled. “Yeah. Sorry. It’s always weird for kids, seeing their teachers outside of the classroom, being regular human beings.”

“Hmmm.” Christina’s eyes narrowed as they walked further out. “Then what’s your excuse for the adults?”

“Huh?”
Christina nodded toward a group of forty-something adults, all huddled together with questioning smiles on their face and arched eyebrows leveled their way. “They seem rather intrigued by your human status, too.”

Jason laughed. “Colleagues,” he offered by way of explanation.

“Yes, thank you. I sort of gathered that on my own,” Christina replied smartly.

“They’re just curious,” Jason commented.

“You don’t bring your woman to the games often then?”
He looked down at her. She couldn’t quite describe the look on his face. “You’re the first.”

“Ah. That explains it.”

“Explains what?”

“Why I’m feeling decidedly like a mid-term report right about now,” Christina informed him. “Graded.”

He laughed again. “Believe me, you’ve got nothing to worry about on that score.”

“Except for that one,” Christina said, nodding at one particular woman who was standing a little to one side of the crowd. She was younger than the rest of the staff, her age nearer to Christina’s own. She was wearing a beige fisherman’s sweater and black slacks, and her straight-straight black hair was falling limply to the tips of her shoulders.

Unlike everyone else, she wasn’t smiling.

Her eyes were narrowed on Christina’s person.

“She doesn’t look impressed,” Christina said.

Jason made a funny face, shrugging a little stiffly. “Yeah, well…” His free hand went up to rub the back of his neck.

And that’s when Christina knew—

“You two dated.”

He frowned, his steps leading them more quickly now to the stands. “Briefly.”

“And you ended it,” Christina continued as they walked on. Was it her imagination, or were the woman’s eyes following after them even still?

He sighed. “Yeah. I guess” His short answers told her quite clearly that he didn’t want to talk about it.

Christina pushed anyway. It was stupid really, but she found herself oddly…jealous. Jealous that another woman had tried to stake her claim; jealous at the notion that she could so easily lose him too; terrified to swap positions with that pour woman standing there, her eyes pitifully following after them…

And that’s at what time the thought occurred to her. “When?”
“Huh?”

“When did you break things off with her?” Christina had a sinking feeling she knew what his answer would be.

“Ah…” His hand was back again, rubbing against the side of his neck. His other hand tightened reflexively against hers as they reached the bleachers, their feet taking them higher and higher into the stands.

“When Jason?”
Sliding into a section, he paused to look back at her. His eyes were reluctant when they met hers. “A couple of weeks ago.”

She nodded robotically. It was, after all, the response she’d been expecting. That black-haired waif down on the sidelines looked too freshly hurt to be an old lover. “So, right after Easter?”

“Come on,” he said in response, tugging her forward to an opening in the seats. It wasn’t until they’d both sat down on the cool metal bench that he spoke again:“Don’t back away from me. Please.”

She felt her shoulders tense. “I won’t.”

He sighed. “Maybe not physically.”

 

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