The Way He Looked at Me - Susan Dugan


I fell in love with the way he looked at me. Aretha Franklin playing on the radio that day driving home nailed it—Respect! An expression I’d never seen before in a boy’s eyes; in anyone’s, actually. And I thought, in that moment before bleeped by my inner censor—well, that might be worth fucking for!


But then he, Gabe, asked me out to lunch a few days later in his big boy suit in the County Clerk’s office where we both worked that summer. After the plan to waitress at the Rusty Skiff cratered because the bastards over-hired and couldn’t give us enough hours to buy a God-damn cod sandwich let alone make rent on a cottage in Hyannis. Hot on the trail of hot young Kennedys beside the crazy old artist who offered to pay us to lounge around naked.

And so, we bailed and here I was. Hands down the worst receptionist in recorded history prone to repeatedly disconnecting raging constituents following epic sojourns on hold. Eating lunch in the kind of dark, air-conditioned joint married people on daytime soap operas slunk into to negotiate affairs. Drinking beer out of frosted glass steins because people back then routinely drank at lunch (which may explain a lot). Gabe in his white button-down shirt and vest. Me in an actual bra my mother had suggested and I had actually taken her up on, snug beneath an actual dress that did not involve a halter.

He was working in the building, too, for that trash-talking county supervisor later elected state legislator he would follow to Albany after NYU while he studied for the bar. But that summer, sandwiched between his second and third at Cornell, my first and second at B.U., we ate burgers and he reached across the table to wipe a squirt of cow blood from my lips and asked all manner of questions about my family and ambitions.

I told the truth for unknown reasons and he actually listened and have I mentioned the way he looked at me? Well, it was like a new essential-to-life element I had somehow completely missed on the periodic table. Headier than oxygen, more buoyant than helium. And even though he was straighter than the pretty losers I usually fell for with his rimless spectacles and razor features, the way he held doors for me, almost touched my back. I could have jumped him there and then had I been a girl with an underdeveloped inner censor.

We went to dinner that weekend, drank pitchers of beer this time, talked for hours and my if he didn’t have plans, big, kindred, changing-the-world-through-the system-type plans. The smarts and the focus to see them through. He was a boxer of all things, his muscles tighter than any male specimen I’d ever come across and we did it often until we hurt, meeting all the way through his first months in Albany. He never got tired or stopped listening or looking at me that way, no matter what I railed about. And the way he responded if I so much as brushed against him, the color rushing to his proper cheeks. My power over him. If I had known that he would be the best—we would be the best. But I did not.

Susan Dugan is a freelance writer, writing everything from newspaper and magazine articles to ad copy, marketing brochures and radio scripts, as well as fiction, essays, and poetry. Her short fiction has appeared in literary magazines including eclectica, JMWW, Carve, RiverSedge, Prosetoad, Amarillo Bay, The Saint Ann's Review, River Oak Review, and The Esthetic Apostle.

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