Rice Pilaf, Wine Stains and Elephants under the Rug (part 6)

by Jen


Anna stood as far away from her bathroom mirror as possible.  Damn, why doesn’t this place have a full mirror, she thought.  It was the first time in six months she’d even noticed she couldn’t tell how an outfit looked on her.  She twisted around to try to see her back.  No, no skirts.  God, not after last time.  She shivered thinking of his hands moving up her thighs.  Stop it!  There will be none of that tonight!  I’m lucky to have a second chance, I’ve got to regain some credibility with this one.  She slipped out of the skirt and put on her black pants.  Boy, Michelle was right, she thought, these are “Melrose pants.”  Way too tight for Luka.  She longed for her friends back in Washington who would have come over in the afternoon and picked an outfit for her.  Rob would know what to wear, she thought.  Nobody dresses me like Rob.  What did he like?  Linen, she thought.  Linen’s classy.  She pulled on her tan linen pants.  Yeah, these’ll work.  I look good in these, and it doesn’t look like I’m trying too hard.  And they don’t look sexy.  Understated is key here.  I have exactly one night to convince him I’m not a slut.  But now the shirt doesn’t match.  She rummaged through her closet.  White?  Can’t go wrong, a nice simple look.  Anna tried on three white shirts before she settled on the cotton/lycra.  Close fitting, but not tight.  She twisted in front of the bathroom mirror again and decided she could change twenty more times and she’d still be worried it was wrong, so she might as well stop now.

She sat on the couch and glanced through the newspaper.  It was barely six thirty.  She’d gotten ready much too early.  She turned on the TV and flipped through the channels.  She made the rounds twice before she realized she wasn’t even looking at the screen.  Get a grip, Anna.  Get a hold of yourself!  She wandered into the bathroom to check her makeup again.  She was wearing very little, and suspected Luka would like that.  Hoped.  She refreshed her perfectly fresh lipstick, pressed her lips together once and wandered back to the living room, making sure to close the bedroom door behind her.  She straightened a perfectly straightened stack of magazines.  Sat down on the couch and glanced through the newspaper.  Turned on the TV.  It was six thirty five.

Luka sat behind the wheel of his car.  Anna had been right, parking was tough in her neighborhood.  He was glad he’d given himself plenty of time, he had circled the block half a dozen times before noticing a car pulling out down the block.  He glanced at his watch.  It was twenty to seven.  Too early to show up.  He sat in the car and peered down the block.  Twice cars slowed down as they passed, and Luka realized they were looking for a space and thought he would be pulling out soon.  He sighed and got out of the car.  Quarter to seven.  I guess I could walk around the block, he thought.  He opened the passenger-door and picked up the flowers he had bought for Anna.  Well, they look a little better than the poor batch I put together for Carol, he thought, and the memory gave him a momentary sense of panic at the thought of giving flowers to Anna.  He wondered how she would receive them.  Maybe men in America don’t bring flowers?  Is that why Carol looked at me like that?  He took a deep breath.  Go to her door, Luka.  Just go to her door.

Anna jumped at the knock at her door.  She stood up and smoothed her pants and tucked a stray hair behind her ear.  She put a hand on the doorknob and took a deep breath.  Relax, Anna, relax.  She opened the door and smiled.

“Luka.”  The sight of him hit her like an electric shock.  It had been three days since he had found her in The Java Hut and almost two weeks since they had slept together.  Had he gotten handsomer?  How is that possible?  He did look better, rested, that must be it.  But how could she have forgotten those eyes?  She thought she felt her knees buckle.  She wanted to throw her arms around him.  “Hi,” she said, taking a small step back.  Stay calm.

“Anna.  Hello.”  He shifted his weight.  Would it be okay if I give her a quick kiss on the cheek, he wondered?

“Hi.”  Another small step back.

“I have something for you,” Luka said, handing her the flowers, abandoning the kiss as he watched her back up. 

“Luka!  You didn’t have to do that.”

“I promised you a gentleman this evening,” he said with a flourish, “and gentlemen bring flowers.”

“Well then thank you, Gentleman.”  Anna stepped aside.  “Please come in while I put these in water.”

Luka hesitated for a half second and stepped inside.  Anna moved quickly to the kitchen, putting distance between them as he entered her apartment for the second time.  “Have a seat,” she called, “let me just get a vase.”  He heard water running and Anna came out with the flowers in a vase.  “Huh.  I don’t have anyplace to put them.  Sad.  I have a vase, but no table.”  She set the vase on the TV.

“The heat from the TV will be bad for them,” Luka offered.

“Hmm, you’re probably right.  Hang on a sec, I’ll be right back.”  Anna carried them down the hallway to the bedroom.  Luka noticed the door was closed, and when she went inside with the flowers, she pushed the door closed again behind her.  Does she trust me that little, he wondered? 

“Okay, they’re safe on my desk.  Thank you, Luka, they’re lovely.”

Luka stood up from the couch and looked down at her.  She had put on a little makeup around her eyes and was wearing lipstick.  He didn’t remember that from before.  And her hair seemed different.  She had gotten ready for him.  It made him unexpectedly happy.  He smiled.  “You look lovely.”

“Thank you.”  Anna blushed.  “I actually changed four times.  It’s a wonder I got all the clothes hung back up.”  Why did I just tell him that?  She shook her head and half hid her face in her hand.  The gesture charmed him all over again.

“Anna!  You don’t have to do that for me.” Luka grinned.  He had spread three different shirts out across his bed, but he wasn’t going to admit to it.

“What, change or hang the clothes up?” Anna laughed.

“Worry.  You already know I find you lovely,” his voice was lower than he meant it to be.

Anna blushed.  Luka shifted his weight.  It was intoxicating to be near her again. A light perfume he didn’t remember hovered around her.  He wanted to bury his face in her hair and breathe her in. It’s her, he thought suddenly, it’s this real warm woman not just any woman, not the idea of her, it’s her.  I want *her*.  He realized he had moved very close to her and was staring down at her.

“Shall we?” he asked, stepping back slightly and offering her his arm, breaking the spell.  Anna visibly relaxed. “Why, yes, we shall.”  If looks at me like that for one more second, Anna thought, all bets are off.  To hell with my reputation.

She’s still afraid of me, Luka thought as he watched her relax.  She still doesn’t trust me.  I guess I can’t blame her.  I have more to make up for than I thought.

Anna lived in a lively neighborhood, and suggested they walk up Belmont and see if a restaurant grabbed them.  Luka had wanted to take her to Catch 35, but realized now she probably didn’t want to leave her neighborhood.  Didn’t want to get in his car.  Didn’t want to have to rely on him for a ride home.  He kicked himself again for having made her so suspect, but he guessed he deserved it.  Well, if she doesn’t hate me, he thought, maybe we can go to Catch 35 another time.  If she doesn’t hate me.

They settled on a middle-eastern restaurant a few blocks away.  Inside it was lively and full of couples.  A waiter sat them in a booth.  Luka glanced over the wine list.

“Would you like some wine?”

Anna glanced up.  “Sure.  That would be nice.”

“A Shiraz?”

 “Good guess, Luka,” Anna said with a grin.  “How’d you know? I like a good Shiraz.  I couldn’t recognize a vineyard if my life depended on it though.  I’ll put myself in your capable hands.”  As soon as the words were out of her mouth Anna cringed and went red at the thought of being in his hands again. Luka grinned and tried to catch her eye, but she hid behind her menu.

The waiter poured the wine and took their orders, and Anna and Luka stumbled through awkward small talk.  She was busy with her research.  It had been going badly of late, and her dissertation chair was nagging her over email for another chapter.  She was hoping to visit Washington and visit her committee in person and see some old friends.  Luka told her he was off night shifts for awhile.  Things were manageable at the hospital, all things considered.  They were missing a resident and a charge nurse, Luka said with a small frown, but they were handling it.  He’d had dinner with some colleagues.  That seemed to make Anna happy.  They danced around the obvious.

The waiter brought their plates and they busied themselves with their meals.  Conversation slowed.  Luka’s fork scraped his plate and he winced.  He refilled Anna’s wineglass and almost knocked it in her lap.  Rice pilaf tumbled off Anna’s fork.  Onto the table.  Again. 

This is ridiculous.  She looked at Luka and shook her head.  “I swear I have better table manners than this, Luka.  I’m usually not such a disaster zone.  Really.  You can take me out in public.  Honest.”

Luka looked down at the constellation of wine stains and marinade on his side of the table.  “Anna.  Look here,” he said gesturing to the table with a tilt of his head.  “I think I am making a painting over here.”

Anna laughed.

“It seems we are nervous,” he continued.

Anna set down her fork and contemplated Luka across the table.  “I’m nervous out of my head, Luka,” she finally said.  “I think we need to…I think it’s a bad idea to try to pretend that…well, that, the other day didn’t happen.  It’s just getting bigger and bigger and pretty soon we’re going to have to pull up a chair and order it a meal.  I don’t know how to make it go away.”

Luka reached across the table to take her hand.  “Anna.  You don’t have to be afraid of me.  I’m not going to drag you off like some caveman.  I promised, remember?”

“I’m not afraid of you.”

Luka snorted.  “You won’t let me near you Anna.  You practically ran to the kitchen when I came inside.  You shut the bedroom door behind you when you put away the flowers.  What, did you think I was going to follow you down the hall and throw you on the bed, eh?  Rip off your clothes?  Do you not trust me at all?  After I promised you?”

Anna couldn’t prevent a quick mental image of him pushing her down on her bed and pulling her clothes off.  Stop it!  “Luka!  Is that what you think?  You’ve got it all backwards, Luka.  I hurried to the kitchen because when I saw you again I just wanted to put my arms around you and I thought that would be a bad idea.  I’ve been so forward with you already I didn’t want you to think I was about to jump you again.  I shut the bedroom door because…well because I didn’t it to look like I *wanted* you to follow me down there, like I was luring you down the hall or something.  It’s the same reason I changed four times, Luka.  Everything I put on looked like I looked like I *wanted* you to try to rip if off!  I don’t want you to think that’s all I think of you.  I don’t want you to think I’m trying to seduce you or something.  I’m not afraid of you, Luka. I’m completely unnerved by how attracted I am to you, as the rice pilaf zone here attests, but I’m not afraid of you.  Of course I trust you, Luka.  I wouldn’t have ever agreed to see you again if I didn’t trust you.”

Luka shook his head.  “It seems we are misunderstanding each other.  I’ve been thinking you were having second thoughts about dinner.  Look.  It’s been a long time since I’ve been with somebody besides…since I’ve been with somebody I don’t know half my life.  I can’t guess what you’re thinking, Anna.  It seems you can’t guess what I’m thinking.  How about this?”  Luka took a deep breath.  He knew the couple in the booth behind him could hear every word and he didn’t care. “I’m just going to tell you what I’m thinking.  I’m sure I’m not supposed to do that on a first date, but you’re right, Anna.  We can’t pretend we haven’t been to bed already.  So here’s what I think.  We’re both guessing the other person thinks the worst of us, aren’t we?  And it’s making us afraid of each other.”  Luka waited.  “Aren’t we?  I am.  I guess you’re mad at me.  That you think I’m…pushy.  That I sleep with women like it’s nothing.  I’m guessing you think I used you badly.  Maybe you think I’m hoping to use you again.  And that’s killing me, because I want you to like me.  The same as I like you.”

“No.  I don’t think you’re going to try to take me to bed now.”

“So why are we having this problem, Anna?” Luka asked in a pained voice.  She hadn’t said it back.

The question took Anna by surprise.  What was the problem, really?  He wasn’t a player, it was obvious.  He could be with that face, but he wasn’t.  She liked him.  He said he liked her and she thought she believed that.  What exactly is the problem?  We’re assuming when we should be talking.

“The problem, Luka, is we both feel guilty.  And maybe we should.  It wasn’t the smartest thing in the world we did.  It was really nice,” she said with a smile and a blush, “but it was stupid.  To say nothing of really careless, which we should talk about later - after we’re done with this awkward conversation we can have a whole *other* awkward conversation, but one thing at a time, no?  Look, I think you’re right.  We’re thinking the worst of ourselves, so of course we figure the other’s thinking the worst of us too. We’re assuming we know what the other’s thinking.  You jumped to the conclusion that I thought you showed up at The Java Hut to try to get me into bed again.  Well I don’t think that.  Maybe I did for a second, but that was my own guilt beating me up not an assessment of the kind of person I think you are.  Even if you did think that it would be my own fault.  I certainly gave you reason enough for thinking it.”  Luka opened his mouth to protest but Anna cut him off.  “But you promised me a gentleman and I believe you.  But we feel guilty, so we’re finding things we can beat ourselves up with even if they’re not true.  I’m completely appalled that I was so easy, so I guess you probably think that about me too.  You’re mad at yourself, so you figure I must be mad at you too, right?”

“I don’t think that about you.  It was my fault anyway.  I have been nothing but angry with myself,” Luka said quietly.  “It was wrong of me to go to bed with you like that.”

“Well stop it, Luka.  What’s done is done.  We can’t *un*do it.  If we keep beating ourselves up about the other day, we’ll never be able to see each other without feeling anger and shame.  And that would be a pity, Luka, because I want us to see each other.  A lot.  And I want you to like it.”  Anna regarded him closely.  She had to be careful.  She could see that he was on the edge.  That he had perfected the art of self-flagellation far better than she had.  That he had spent the week in a hair-shirt.  That he really did hate himself for sleeping with her.  That if she didn’t make him stop, she was going to lose any chance with him if she hadn’t already.  She thought she had a fighting chance, but barely.

“I think you’re…Luka, I think you’re sad,” Anna continued.  “I think I made you happy for a while.  I think you feel guilty about that now, you think you used me to make yourself feel better.  I don’t think that.  I really don’t.  Besides, I encouraged it.  I *did* want to make you feel better.  I think we both did something completely uncharacteristic, and strangely enough, if it was uncharacteristic of both of us, then I think it might actually have been real.  Maybe.  Poorly done, but real. Does that sound stupid?”

Luka said nothing.  She still isn’t saying it, he thought.  “I’m not mad at you, Luka.”

“What are you then?”  Luka asked woodenly.

Anna looked at him for a long time.  “Okay,” she said.  “I’ll tell you.  I’m quite sure the ladies who wrote The Rules would drum me out of dating for this, but I’ll tell you what I think Luka.  Why not?  I already slept with you, what harm can putting my cards on the table do?  I’m unbelievably attracted to you.  I’ve missed you since the minute you got out of my bed.  I can hardly stand to sleep there without you.  I think about you all the time.  If I’m sorry I went to bed with you, it’s only because I figured out too late that I want far more of you than that and I think I might have ruined my chance at it.”  She held his gaze.  “I like you Luka.  I’m sitting here nervous out of my head because I hope against hope you’ll ask me out again at the end of the night.  And I’m afraid I blew it by being easy.  And you think that’s who I am.  You must think I’m an awful person who couldn’t possibly be worth your time and here I am liking you so much.”

Luka squeezed her hand.  “Anna!  That’s not true!  I’m the one who was awful.  I should have left your apartment.  I should have…Anna you were so…” he closed his eyes and made a soft sound before looking at her again. “I won’t lie and say I didn’t enjoy you, but I know that’s not who you are.  You have to know that.  Anna, the girl I can’t stop thinking of isn’t the one who took me to bed, it’s the one who sat on the floor and ate dinner with me.  Who held my hand.  Who won’t talk about what she does best because she thinks it might hurt me.  You know I went to that coffee shop three times waiting for you to show up again?  You have to know I want to see you again.”  He suddenly saw himself through what he imagined were her eyes.  “Do you really think I want to see you again because I think you’ll let me sleep with you again?”  He dropped his head and rubbed his temple with his free hand.  “Is that what you think?  Can’t you see?”  Luka took a deep breath.  “I just want the girl who held my hand.”

“Well I’m right here, Luka.”  Anna stood up and stepped around the table to his side of the booth and slipped in next to him.  She looped her arm through his, leaned up against him, and gave him a small kiss on the cheek. She knew now she should have done that from the start.  They were full of misunderstandings.  What she saw as self-restraint he saw as mistrust.  He thought she was too afraid of him to even trust him with a kiss.  It would never occur to him it was herself she didn’t entirely trust.  He needed to know she still wanted to be near him.  That she trusted him enough to be near him.  She squeezed his arm lightly and rested her cheek on his shoulder.  “Hi, Luka.  I’ve missed you.  I’m so glad to be here with you.”

Luka turned to face her.  She glanced up and met his eyes with an even gaze and smiled that warm smile he remembered.  He kissed the top of her head.  “Hi, Anna.  Thank you for having dinner with me.”  He rested his cheek on her head and sighed.  “Thank you.”

Pilaf stopped tumbling.  Wine stopped spilling.  Kabob stopped skidding off the plate.  The uninvited guest slipped away.  Conversation picked up.  Anna stayed on Luka’s side of the booth and jostled him with her elbow.  He poked her ribs.  She stole lamb off his plate and he grabbed falafel off of hers.  They fought over the last Kalmata olive.  Luka let her win.  They ordered Turkish coffee and baklava and Luka tried to slip his onto her plate when he saw how much she liked it.  Anna slipped it back.  Luka tried again and Anna gave in.  He kissed her nose.  She kissed his.  He grabbed the check before she could even see it and gave her his sternest look. 

“I was a student once, too, Anna.  I remember those stipends.  Now I’m a doctor with a doctor’s paycheck.  Don’t even think about it.” 

“Thank you, Luka.”

“You’re welcome, Anna.”

He walked her to her door.  Don’t scare her, he thought.  You got a reprieve you don’t deserve, don’t ruin it now.

“I had a wonderful night, Anna.”

“Started out a bit rocky, though, huh?  I wasn’t sure we were going to get past the elephant under the rug.”  She smiled.  “I had a nice time, too, Luka, thank you.”

Luka wrinkled his forehead.  “The elephant?” he asked.

“Yeah. Elephants under the rug. When there is something really awkward going on and everybody pretends it’s not happening, it’s like trying to sweep an elephant under the rug. I mean, it’s obvious there’s a huge elephant under the rug, so it just gets worse and worse to pretend it’s not there.  It reaches a point where if you haven’t talked about it by now you never will so there it sits forever.  Soon it takes up the whole room.  Sleeping together.  It was our elephant.”

“Okay.  Elephants and ivory towers.  What a language.”

Anna laughed.  “A lovely dinner companion and a slang teacher too.  See how versatile I can be?”  She bit her lip and went crimson.  Wow, *that* came out wrong.

Luka raised an eyebrow.  “Versatile?  Mmmm, yes, you are versatile, my Anna,” he said with a grin and winked at her.  Anna shot him a look that made his pulse race. Behave yourself, he cautioned.  This is going better than you had a right to expect.  He shook himself.  “Can I see you again?” he asked.

“Of course.  I thought we cleared that up over dinner.  Of course I want to see you again.” 

“Good.”  He hesitated.  “May I kiss you goodnight, Anna?  I promise, just a little kiss, here outside. It’s not to late to deport me if I get fresh.  I promise to be good.”

Anna smiled and looked down.  Just a little kiss, Anna, don’t jump him again.  She looked up with a sly smile.  “Well I know it’ll be good, Luka.  The question is will you be proper?”

Luka laughed and shook his head at her.  “Yes, I’ll be proper.  Though you seem to be getting some pleasure out of making that difficult for me?”

 “Who, me?”

“Yes, you.  I’m not sure you deserve a goodnight kiss,” Luka said in his best Attending-gently-scolding-med-student voice.

“Luka!  Of course I do.”

“You think?” Luka asked skeptically.

“I think,” Anna said firmly.

 Luka bent forward and placed a soft kiss on her lips.  His whole body went hot.  She leaned into him slightly and then gently pulled away.  He straightened and looked at her.  Every inch of him wanted her, but he was fully in control of himself.  He smiled and stroked her cheek.  “Goodnight, my Anna.  I’ll call you tomorrow.”

 “Goodnight, Luka.”  She unlocked the door and slipped inside.  She gave him one last smile before closing the door.  When Luka heard the bolt turn in the lock he turned and walked down the steps.  The night was cool and pleasant.  Luka smiled.

to part 7

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