Jules & Portia, 2004
San Angelo is a typical west Texas town: dry, dusty, small. Most of the occupants work for Johnson & Johnson, like Portia. They hang out at the bar, church, or go to San Antonio (the closest big city) for fun. So special events are exciting and get big crowds.
The Texas Wine & Food Festival was at the Coliseum, which was an all-purpose building; even the rodeo was held there. The vendors set up along the perimeter of the oval and tables filled the middle. The dirt floor was uncovered.
This story is set in 2005, the last semester of my undergrad degree. I needed to find a job before I graduated, because I had two little mouths to feed (well, three if you count mine). I couldn’t afford time to look around for a job. I didn’t expect to find a lover, too.
As we walked in, Portia remarked, “They have a live band!”
“Of course, this is Austin, Texas—Live Music Capitol of the World.” I looked at Portia’s questioning face and burst out laughing. “I’m not in Austin, am I?!”
“Well, I have my best friend from Austin with me, so I feel at home, I guess!” I told her. She smiled at the compliment.
As we walked around, Portia introduced me to the people she knew. Which meant that every three feet we stopped to say hello to one of her coworkers. I didn’t mind; they were all friendly Texans.
At the Capstone Wine booth, one of her friends begged her to help. “Just for an hour, then Jamie will be here,” the woman said.
Portia apologized to me, “Sorry. I volunteered to help with this a month ago, and then they said that they had it covered; anyway, I need to help them.”
“No worries, I can amuse myself,” I said.
I wandered over to the cars that were parked nearby. A car salesman was getting people to register for a drawing and advertising the cars at the same time.
A handsome man about my age was looking the cars over, too. I said, “Yep, looks like a car.”
He replied, “Four doors, windshield, tires…yep, looks like the cars that I’ve seen, too. What a coincidence!”
I laughed and introduced myself. “I’m Jules. I’m a friend of Portia,” I pointed at Portia, who was pouring wine about 20 feet away. “I’m from Austin.”
“Pleased to meet you,” he said, “I’m Harry Handsome. I work with Portia.”
Yes, you are, I thought, and shook his hand. “Everyone here works with Portia.”
He returned the smile and nodded, “This is J&J Country.”
We continued our perusal of the vehicles. Harry is about 5’7”, brown hair, brown eyes, and a wedding ring on his left hand. Sigh. He’s married. Oh, well, at least I had someone to laugh with for a little while. I almost wish that I didn’t have a date; I could hang with him all night.
Harry and I joked around some more, then he wandered off to get some food. I wouldn’t see him again until October; but that’s another story for another time.
“Dawn said that Harry really liked you,” Portia told me. Dawn is her best friend in San Angelo.
“How does she know? Did he tell her?”
“No, Dawn said that she could tell by the way he looked at you at the Texas Wine and Food Festival.” I thought back to April and the funny guy that I enjoyed talking to by the car on display.
“I liked him, too. Tell me about him.”
“Harry is about Pirate Boy’s height and build.” Pirate Boy is 5’7” and petite (that’s a nice way of saying he’s skinny and small for a guy). Since I dated him for over two years, Portia knew that I didn’t need a tall guy. “Brown hair, brown eyes. He’s a mechanical engineer and well liked.”
“And single, right?” I asked.
“As far as I know. Since you’re interested, I’ll make sure.”
I was visiting San Angelo for a job interview with Johnson & Johnson (Ethicon), the company that Portia worked for. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to live in West Texas, but since Portia was like a sister to me, I’d have “family” there. Also, Austin (my current hometown) was only 4 hours away. That’s close enough for a weekend visit. With nothing to lose, I accepted the interview. At worst, I’d get an all-expenses-paid visit to see Portia. At best, I’d get a job, and not have to worry about interviewing/job hunting –I could concentrate on finishing school.
I didn’t know that Harry was going to be one of my interviewers. I was a little taken aback when I saw his name on the agenda that Kathy, the Human Resources (HR) representative, handed me the morning of my interview. My mind raced; I could tell Portia not to invite him out with us. ‘Cause I didn’t want him to think that I was hitting on him to get the job. Then again, he was one of a dozen people that I talked to that day, and they all voted on whether to extend a job offer; so he didn’t have much pull as to whether I got hired. Jeez, I hate being in this situation!
I put it out of my mind and concentrated on the interviews. The whole day was packed from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Harry was part of my second interview, along with Ed, the HR manager. When Harry shook my hand, he said, “Good to see you again.” Shocked, I was momentarily at a loss for words. He remembered meeting me in April, 6 months ago? Cool!
I pulled it together and smiled at my interviewers. Now was not the time to flirt, it was time to be charming, intelligent, and dazzling.
Harry said, “One of the advantages of working with J&J, is that they have different locations. I could transfer to Tennessee if I wanted.”
I hope he didn’t want to move; I was looking forward to getting to know him. Shifting my focus, I concentrated on the human resources rep, because my thought about Harry were too distracting.
After the interview was over (I nailed it, btw), Harry walked me to the next interviewer. At the door, he shook my hand formally, but smiled warmly and winked. I blushed and totally wished that it was time for happy hour.
The rest of the interviews went well. The last interview was the most challenging. Three interviewers (two engineers and one HR rep) sat with me in a small room and asked me more behavioral questions. The last question they asked was, “Describe a time where you failed and how you handled it.”
I said the only thing that came to mind. “My divorce signaled the failure of my marriage. The root cause, I believe, was communication. So after the divorce, I studied communicating. The most helpful books were How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, Men are From Mars, Women are from Venus by John Gray, and How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber. The last is a parenting book, but it helped me to talk to other adults as well.”
The interviewers seemed to appreciate my answer and thanked me whole-heartedly for my time. A couple looked like they wanted to hug me.
I was done and thoroughly exhausted at 2 p.m. Went to the library to check email, called Mom. I told her, “They have some cool machines, but I don’t want to work there. Manufacturing is not what I want to do.”
Mom said, “That’s why you do these on-site interviews, to find out that you don’t want to work there. That’s not a wasted trip.”
“You’re right,” I said, because Mom usually is. “Still, I felt guilty, especially because Portia was so excited about the possibility of us being neighbors and coworkers. We wouldn’t work directly together, we’d be in different departments in different parts of the complex, but we could still have lunch together.”
Mom sympathized with me, “Yes, that would’ve been fun, but you’ll find friends to have lunch with, at a job that you like better.”
“I guess. Thanks, Mom. I love you,” I said. She echoed the phrase and we ended the call.
The pool hall was the next stop. Portia said that she invited several people, including Harry. We drank, played pool.
An old man flirted with me, half-heartedly. “We don’t see too many pretty women in here,” he said. “You must be new in town.”
I laughed. “You may be old enough to be my grandfather, but you just made my night! Thank you!”
Harry showed up with two friends (Jeff and Mack). Jeff was a hunk: tall (~6’0”, muscular (obviously worked out). I was tempted, but stayed focused on Harry. After all, Jeff wasn’t an engineer. I’ve dated guys without college degrees and they just don’t understand my nerdiness. I couldn’t talk to Mike the Plumber about physics class and the disparity in our educations made him a little defensive. So now I’m looking for a guy as nerdy as me. With a little sigh of regret, I tore my eyes away from Jeff’s pectorals and concentrated on Harry.
He seemed surprised by the attention.
Jeff was miffed that I wasn’t more interested, evidenced by how much he teased Harry. “Come on, Harry! Have a drink!” Then to me he said, “Harry gets drunk after 2 beers. Once, we drove to the edge of town and drank in the park. He was falling down after 2 and a half cold ones!”
I just rolled my eyes; like I cared whether a man could hold his liquor.
Portia let her boyfriend Frank lead her onto the dance floor (the open area by the juke box).
“Wanna?” I asked, and nodded in that direction.
“Nope, I don’t dance,” Harry answered. “But I like watching.”
So I went on the floor by myself. I’ve never been very shy, and I love to dance, and so I did.
Later, we exchanged numbers and hugged goodnight. I didn’t have a good read on how well the night had gone. Sure, he had stuck around until Portia and I said it was time to go; but was he just being a gentleman, so that I wouldn’t be a third wheel?
I didn’t have long to wonder. The next morning, Harry called me about 9 a.m. I took it as a good sign that he didn’t wait a day or two to call me. I agreed to lunch and he picked me up promptly at 11:30 a.m.
After the usual, “Where do you want to go,” conversation, we wound up at Chili’s.
“I love Chili’s,” I told him, “It’s a good, American restaurant with a variety of foods. You can a hamburger or fajitas, a salad or flatbread pizza – which means that you can decide while you look at the menu. It’s a great place to bring kids, too.”
“So you have kids,” he said.
“Yes. Jack is 11 and Sally is 8. They are blonde-haired, blue-eyed little angels—though I may be a little biased,” I said, and we laughed.
“When did you get divorced?” he asked.
“We separated in August 2000 and our divorce was official in October 2001. We waited over a year to give the kids time to get used to the idea. What about you, ever been married?” I always hold my breath when waiting for someone to answer that question, ever since one guy told me that marriage was forever and he was only doing it once. Well, duh, don’t we all hope for that?!
“Yes, I was married for just over two years. She was young and we rushed into it. We just weren’t compatible,” he said, then quickly changed the subject. I’m glad; I didn’t want to spend the entire meal commiserating about failed marriages. “So you went out with Joe back in April, is that right?” he asked.
“Yes. We got along fine, had a good time. Talked on the phone once or twice since then. Guess we just didn’t like each other well enough to have a long distance relationship.”
“That happens,” Harry acknowledged.
“We’re friends now. Had dinner last night, even. It was nice.” I paused, not really knowing where to go from there. So I did what I always do when I’m nervous and don’t know what to say: I babbled. “Portia set me up a couple of times before that. Once was a plumber who left me on my 30th birthday.”
“No! On your birthday?!” Harry exclaimed, shocked. He was so animated that, had it been anyone else, I would’ve thought that he was being sarcastic.
“Ya. And then there was the guy that bought me jewelry and poetry after our first date.”
“I know I’m beautiful, but he went a little overboard.” I rolled my eyes. “Of course, I was the first person that he dated after his divorce. Now I have a rule that I don’t date a guy within a year of his divorce.”
“Really?” Harry seemed interested. I swear his ears perked up.
“Ya. Guys—girls, too—go a little crazy after a divorce. They aren’t centered. Even people like me, who were separated for a long time before the actual divorce, need time to get their heads together. You know Portia; she really went wild. She hadn’t been with anyone but her husband, and was kinda of a prude. Since the divorce, she’s been with three different guys. She’s like a new person. I’m ready for her to calm down and go back to normal!”
“You’re right, she has been different since her divorce. I didn’t know that she was that wild.”
We paused for a minute while he struggled with what to say next. He surprised me by changing the subject entirely. “What do you think about San Angelo?”
“Well, I like what I’ve seen so far, which isn’t much! Are there any parks where we can go hiking? Or at least go for a walk?”
“Parks, yes—but they’re not big enough for hiking. I can show you, if you like.”
The park was representative of domestic West Texas: mostly grass, some trees, with an unexpected garden oasis. We talked and walked for a couple of hours. The flowers delighted us, we swung on the swings, and in a magical moment under a canopy of green trees, he kissed me. It was a perfect moment.
“What do you think about joint checking accounts?” Harry asked.
“I had one when I was married. Not at first; in the beginning, I was writing checks out of two checkbooks and balancing two checkbooks. That seemed silly; it was just extra work; so we combined our accounts. Why do you ask?”
“When I got married, I wanted to keep our accounts separate, but Dad said that married people should have joint accounts. He talked me into it.” Harry made a face like he just tasted a sour pickle.
“What about the kids?” he asked.
“What about them? They have a father and a father figure (in my father). I’m their mother. They’re good.”
He thought about that for a moment.
“I’m not looking for a dad for them. I’m looking for a partner for me.” He accepted that and looked a bit relieved. I can only imagine that going from single with no kids to being a step dad of two half-grown children would be intimidating.
That night he had a prior engagement and invited me along. His friend Tanya was in a beauty pageant. Tanya is a beautiful 20-year-old college student intern at J&J. She’s about 5’6” with shoulder-length brown hair, brown eyes, and dark that skin implied a Mexican ancestry so common to Texas.
The pageant was interesting: besides Tanya, the contestants included a large girl who barely concealed her nervousness as her family and friends cheered her on and a couple of professional contestants who (we later learned from Tanya) traveled to different pageants. One of these last women won. She was a bleached blonde, tanned beauty who looked more like Ms. Santa Monica than Ms. San Angelo. Afterward we went to a restaurant for dinner with Harry’s family and friends. She confided how the new Ms. SA had stretch marks and cottage cheese fat that looked awful up close, but weren’t visible in the audience. Plus it didn’t seem fair that residency wasn’t a requirement; the winner was from Houston, an 8-hour drive away!
Harry dropped me off at Portia’s house with a kiss good night. I floated in with hearts in my eyes. I might have to rethink whether I’d accept the job, if I were offered it; San Angelo just got a lot more attractive.
What a great memory! Come back next week for the second half of this flashback.