This story is by Ann E. Fowler and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Ally draped her damp towel on the door hook. Still dripping, she spun a wad of toilet paper on the bathroom mirror. Her face filled the wet circle—no new wrinkles this week, thank goodness. If she weren’t so preoccupied with being late, the overhead fan would’ve been whirling. Looking down, she pinched her waistline. If this first date went well, she’d visit the gym four times a week, not just three.
In the bedroom, she brushed wet tangles from her dark hair. A turquoise blouse, price tag dangling, hung over a chair. Ally touched the placket—no need to rummage around for the iron, as if anyone did that anymore. She selected khaki pants with pleats. A gift from her ex, she held them at arm’s length. Their relationship expired slowly, and because of that, Ally never felt the need to donate a decade of connections to charity.
After tightening her belt, she returned to the bathroom. Years ago, she’d stopped wearing high heels and makeup, but a special occasion beckoned. Brown mascara matched hazel eyes better than black. And dusty pink lipstick wasn’t too bold. Bright red suited younger gals, not a middle-aged woman tired of dining out alone. On her closet floor, she dug out her western boots and slipped them on.
In the kitchen, Ally glanced at the clock on the stove. She turned on the television and switched the channel to Fox. It was halftime and the Redskins led by a touchdown. Wondering whether her date was a Dallas fan, or hated football altogether, made her smile. It would be just her luck.
She opened the refrigerator and finished a container of strawberry yogurt. A rumbling stomach wouldn’t impress anyone. Behind her, Stinker meowed. Ally patted his head. “I know, buddy.” She opened a can. Stinker rubbed his cheek on her leg as he waited. She spooned half into his bowl. “Soon, I might bring home a new friend. What do you think of that?” He meowed again, but ignored her once his dinner hit the floor. In her bedroom, Ally studied her reflection in a full-length mirror. She smoothed her blouse and looked at her watch. It was better to be ten minutes early than two minutes late. She grabbed her purse and car keys.
In the driver’s seat, Ally thought of her ex. Why they hadn’t worked it out remained a tired mystery. After years together, they knew each other as well as any couple could. In the end, that wasn’t enough. In her twenties, relentless idealism ruled. With sincere effort, any two people could work out their differences. After a few painful breakups, plus witnessing once-loving spouses separate, Ally’s idealism died, too.
An introduction through mutual friends precipitated her last relationship. Ideally, that was her choice—a living, breathing filter of sorts. Recently, several co-workers declared she’d been alone long enough. Without admitting they might be right, she’d filled out an Internet dating profile. Although dating sites felt contrived, visiting a new bar each weekend equaled desperation. On Friday, everyone at Ally’s office urged her to relax. Chances were slim she’d fall in love with an axe murderer or someone who’d just filed for bankruptcy.
On the highway, she alternately sang with her iPod and reviewed her date’s profile page from memory. Pleasant features, a medical professional, the right age, a bibliophile and an amateur chef. Is this what ‘too good to be true’ really meant?
Despite her past and tonight’s sweaty palms, Ally might enjoy herself. She’d initiate the evening by discussing a calm topic like a last summer’s vacation or the last book she’d read. Hopefully, the hostess would seat them near the door. If the conversation fizzled in to checking phone messages, she could toss money on the table and escape.
Her GPS advised her to turn left off the ramp. Ally’s heartbeat quickened. It wasn’t too late. Via her phone, a white lie about the flu could hit her date’s In-box before she could spell ‘cyberspace’. As she wiped her hand over her thigh, Ally sighed. It wasn’t like her to overreact; she wasn’t a giggly schoolgirl anymore. So why did tonight feel like her Sadie Hawkins Dance all over again?
At the intersection, she turned right. The stoplight went yellow and Ally applied the brake. To her left, a police cruiser, siren blaring, pulled over a cargo van with a missing fender. She glanced back in her lane and stopped. Moments later, her car smashed a Volvo’s bumper. Her head snapped back. The pickup truck that rammed her car filled the rearview mirror. With her forehead resting on the steering wheel, she groaned. Ally rubbed her neck and opened her door.
Standing beside his hood, the truck driver pulled up his baseball cap and ran his hand through his sweaty hair. “Ma’am, I’m so sorry. You OK?”
Ally glanced at her car’s trunk. It sagged under the truck’s front end. “I’m fine, just shaken a bit.”
He looked down. “I’m sorry. Really.”
The Volvo door swung open. Ally turned around. A slender leg extended to the pavement. Ally’s phone chirped from the dashboard. She wouldn’t worry about a message right now. An accident must be reported. The travel lane needed to be cleared.
From behind her, a voice asked, “Are you all right?”
Turning, Ally nodded. The woman smiled. Why did her face look familiar? None of her friends drove a Volvo. Ally cleared her throat. “This is a really bad time for a fender bender.”
The woman raised an eyebrow. “Is there ever a good time?” She dialed and put the phone to her ear. In moments, she said, “Yes, I need to report an accident.” The man walked up to the woman. Ally overheard him apologize.
Ally opened her passenger’s door and reached for her phone. Obviously, her date deserved to know why she wouldn’t be there. A new text-messaging alert waited. After opening it, Ally gasped. With her hand still covering her mouth, she turned. No wonder that woman looked familiar. Ally recognized the hairstyle, but her expression wasn’t like the one on her profile page. But how could Ally blame her for not having dating-site poise at a time like this?
The woman from the profile, who she knew as Vickie, was now talking to the man. Ally still had time to make a good impression—after all, the collision wasn’t her fault. Keeping the text message open, she approached Vickie. “I’d like to show you something.”
“On my car?”
Ally shook her head and swung her arm. Vickie followed. Ally pointed to her phone. Vickie read the screen and looked up, eyes wide. “Guess we’ll both be late.” She laughed softly. “I suppose I should’ve recognized you.”
“We’re OK.” Ally smiled. “That’s all that matters.” Later, she might admit her own initial hunch.
Vickie agreed. “The police are on the way. Let’s move our cars.”
Ally and Vickie parked in front of the truck. As the man leaned against the tailgate, Allie and Vickie stood together. Ally touched her arm. “I’ve never been rear-ended on my way to a date before.”
“This is my third rear-ender. First time, I was heading to an interview in Mom’s car.”
“Mom was furious,” Vickie said. “I stayed unemployed a while longer, too.”
Ally smiled. “I’m not furious—just sorry we’re dealing with this instead of having a nice dinner.”
“We’ll get there.”
A police car pulled up. The lights stopped flashing.
Turning, Vickie smiled—mimicking her profile photograph. “I’ll call you as soon as I get my rental.”
Her calm, matter-of-fact manner boosted Ally’s confidence. “Great.”
As the officer’s tablet powered up, he asked for statements. Ally followed Vickie to his cruiser. The man admitted what happened. Vickie thanked him for being honest. The officer finished entering his report and the man left. As Ally stood beside Vickie, she grinned. “Does this count as our first date?”
With a slight smile, Vickie nodded. “Instead of breaking the ice all over again, we’ll talk about body shops.”
Ally laughed, noticing Vickie’s playful gaze. “And compare paint jobs.”
Vickie winked and settled in her car. As she turned the key, Ally waved.
Tonight, the aroma of chocolate cake—baked from scratch—would fill her kitchen. In the morning, her co-workers thank her for being so thoughtful. Considering their encouragement and support, the gratitude was Ally’s. Colorful foliage, crisp air, football season, and chocolate cake were the perfect backdrops for beginning a new autumn adventure.