The starter waved to someone behind me. "Match you up."
I nodded, pretending to understand.
A tall, well-built, bronze-skinned man walked up from the line behind me, carrying his clubs over his shoulder. His large square hand held out in greeting. "Dave Lopresti," he said.
"Cassie McBride," I said after an awkward moment.
I was in over my head, but it was too late to back out. I would just have to pretend I did this every Saturday, drove to the local McCormack Ranch Golf Club by myself and played with handsome strangers.
"I don't play all that well." It was an understatement and this guy looked like an ex-pro something.
He continued smiling and I couldn't help being reassured. "Not to worry," he said. "I've already played eighteen this morning. I'm just looking to be outside on this beautiful day. I'm in no rush and don’t intend to break any records." His voice was warm and mellow and he seemed sincere.
"Okay," I said, breathing easier, "but don't say I didn't warn you."
He teed off.
I'm glad it works that way in golf, with the men's tees coming before the women's. Going second took the edge off my anxiety, even if his drive was right down the middle. It landed directly in front of the green. I should have known. He couldn't be a mediocre player like me. But my birthday never goes as planned.
I pulled up to the ladies' tee and took a deep breath. I wasn't great in the best of circumstances, but if I tense up I’m really bad. After I slowly swung my club and hit the ball, it went in the air, not far, but at least it didn't roll off the tee, I walked over to the golf cart and climbed in beside Dave, very conscious of his large, imposing presence.
"I should take lessons," I mumbled.
"It will be something to do when we're retired."
We both hit again, onto the green. We each putted twice and finished the first hole quickly.
We sped to the second hole, only to find the twosome ahead of us were just teeing off, so we would have to wait until they were out of range. Since Dave hit so far, that would be a while.
"Are you from around here?" he asked.
I shook my head. I was glad for the chance to catch my breath.
"New Jersey, but I live here in Scottsdale now. What about you?"
"Been all over."
I looked at him, hoping he would elaborate.
"My dad was in the military, so we were never in one place for long. Guess it got in my genes I’ve moved around a lot, though I've been in Phoenix six years, a record for me."
"I wondered," I said. "I couldn't place the accent."
"Actually," he said grinning, "I couldn't place yours either and it's one of those things I pride myself on."
I returned his smile. "Me too. I was raised by my mom who was from Boston, and my dad from Brooklyn, if that helps. Her Boston watered down my dad's New Yorkese. "
The twosome in front of us were done, so we teed off. This time my drive went a bit further, and his shot went into the trees, making us pretty much even. After hitting my second shot, we drove into the woods to look for his ball.
He seemed fine with our pace. Although he was full of energy, bounding in and out of the golf cart and across the green to his ball each time, he was calm. Even the fact he'd just hit his ball into the trees, costing him at least two strokes, didn't seem to bother him. There was none of the usual cursing or dramatics or even heavy sighs. Maybe what he said was true, that he really just wanted an excuse to be outside.
It was a beautiful afternoon. The golf course was different than anything back home. Instead of lush green fairways, there was sand, rock, and gravel, with an occasional prickly bush. It doesn't sound beautiful, but when you combine the barren land with the big sky, which today was a vivid blue, mountains so close you could almost touch them, and with the cactus and desert flowers, it had a beauty all its own.
We didn't talk much during the next few holes. After the fourth hole, he did mention he was also divorced. Like me, he had two kids, a boy and a girl. Since our kids were the same ages, we spent some time commiserating, particularly about college tuition.
He didn't ask me about my ex-husband, for which I was grateful although I was curious about his ex-wife but didn't see any openings.
It wasn't until the sixth hole that we got into the subject of our jobs. This guy was one rare dude. He was relaxed playing golf, actually seemed interested in what I had to say, and did not seem to define himself by his job or feel compelled to brag about whatever it was that he did. I wondered how his wife could have let him go.
"How long you been in Scottsdale?" he said.
I nodded. "I moved here a month ago from New Jersey."
"For a job?"
I didn't explain about rattling around in the big house in New Jersey after my husband left and the kids went off to college or about how everyone in town gossiped about what happened to Gerry and me.
"Sort of. And I’m not sure I like it, the job, I mean." I added. "I've been there a month, so it's a too early to tell. What about you?"
"Football coach," he said.
"Really. Arizona State?"
He grinned and shook his head. "I wish! Phoenix Tech, one of the toughest schools out here."
I was impressed--talk about stressful. "Team any good?" I asked.
He nodded, looking proud. "They're getting there. We've had three winning seasons and the colleges are starting to look at us."
"It's more than great. It gets these kids out of their environments and for some it's a ticket to college."
I nodded, wanting to hear more.
It wasn't until the fourteenth hole that my birthday came up. Ordinarily it wouldn't, but the man had me so relaxed, on a golf course no less, that I wasn't as careful as I usually am about censoring what I say.
"Do you usually play alone?" he asked.
I shook my head and laughed. "I would never have the guts to do that. The woman I was supposed to play with cancelled two minutes before we were scheduled to tee off."
I got out of the cart, hit my ball and got back in before continuing. "I don't know many people out here yet. And it's hard enough to have a birthday at my age..." My voice trailed off. Birthday? My age? Anything else? Next I would be telling him how much I weighed!
Bless him for his reaction. I can only assume he was raised by a nice woman. For the fact was, he didn't react, at least not right away. Instead, he asked me where I lived.
"InParadise Valley condos, I said, "right off Scottsdale Road."
"Oh yeah, convenient, one of the older developments. I'm way up in North Scottsdale, but I got a bit of land," he said. He got out of the cart, hit, and then got back in. "The only downside is that it's a long commute to the high school."
I was still getting used to the lack of public transportation in Phoenix so most people commuted and did everything else by car. It meant traffic jams all day long. Many times I think fondly of New Jersey Transit and how there’s almost always an alternative to driving.
We teed off at the next hole. He reminded me to keep my head down, take it easy, and follow through. He'd started with the advice--very gently--on about the ninth hole and my game got better. I don't take well to advice, but he was so low-key and what he suggested (which, of course, I'd heard before) was working, so why not?
"So you're a Virgo," he said when I got back into the cart.
"What?" I looked over at him, confused.
"Your sign." He grinned, looking, I thought, a bit sheepish and very charming. He had one dimple that appeared when he smiled and his dark coffee-colored eyes sparkled. I had a warm feeling I ignored. He was too young and definitely unsuitable. Besides, after twenty-two years of marriage I was way out of practice.
"If today's your birthday, then you’re a Virgo."
"Right. How'd you know? Guys don't usually know those things."
"When my daughter was born on September 5th, my then wife was excited because she figured being a Virgo our daughter would keep her room clean. Says a lot about my ex," he said not even trying to hide his amusement at his own joke.
"So happy birthday, Cassie," he continued. "Any plans?"
"Playing golf, for one," I said, "and I treated myself to a massage earlier."
"Sounds good," he said. "Your kids coming out to help you celebrate?"
I shook my head. "School just started and besides, it's a long way to come for a birthday."
We didn't say anything for a while, though the silence was anything but awkward. I appreciated that--not feeling I had to prattle on. Constant chatter or the need to talk gets exhausting. But as we walked up to the eighteenth green to putt out and end the game, he spoke. "Let me buy a birthday drink before you head out."
He caught me by surprise, but I was pleased. "That would be lovely," I said. And it would be. Earlier I had noticed a terrace overlooking one of Scottsdale's man-made lakes and it looked inviting. But I hadn't considered actually sitting there and enjoying myself. The only time I'd been out in the evening since moving was the weekend the kids came. I hadn't found anyone to do anything with and I wondered if I ever would.
After posting our scores, putting our clubs in our cars, and changing our shoes, we reconvened in the bar. Dave led me to a table on the edge of the lake. The setting sun glittered on the lake, the temperature was a perfect seventy-five degrees, and for the moment, all was right with the world--at least my corner of it.
I took a sip of my Sea Breeze and smiled. "What I like best about living out here is this weather is more common than not."
He returned my smile. "So you have no regrets about leaving the east behind?"
I paused to think, not sure how deep I wanted to go. "It was time for a change," I said. I looked up at him and considered how much more I wanted to say. Just a bit, I decided. "I realized I was living more in the past than today or tomorrow--especially after my youngest went off to college." I shrugged. "It's been a tough two years that I would have preferred to skip, but I'm glad I made this move."
"If you could change things, would you want to be back there to the way it once was?"
"Interesting question," I said, stalling for time as I thought. I wanted to give him a true answer since he was nice enough to ask. Most people don't bother. I looked at the bougainvillea around the terrace, with months of warm weather ahead and, most significantly, without the memories or people I wanted to avoid.
"Even before things fell apart, it wasn't perfect," I said finally. "It feels good to be here."
He nodded, seeming to understand. "Maybe it's the big sky," he said, "or maybe my Native American DNA, but I find peace here."
He grinned. "Partly."
I'd been wondering. I hadn't been able to place him, but Native American made sense. It would explain the high cheekbones and his bronze skin.
"What about your ancestry?" he asked.
I shrugged. "Nothing exotic, that's for sure, just Irish and English. It's the perfect combination for skin cancer."
His lips twitched as if to smother a laugh. "I never heard it described that way."
"Maybe not, but it's the God's honest truth." I knew more about cover-ups, sun blocks, and sun protecting strategies and yet I still got burned. So why Arizona? I like the climate. Go figure.
We talked some more--easily, I noticed, although we were no longer on the golf course--almost like old friends. But when we had been lingering over our finished drinks for more than a few minutes, I spoke. "I should go," I said at the same time as he suggested another drink.
"I better not," I replied with regret. "Not if I'm driving."
He nodded. "You're right. This was fun," he added. "Glad we did it."
"Me too. Thanks for being patient on the golf course."
"I wasn't. Really."
I drove home smiling. It had been a nice birthday, golf with a handsome stranger. Dave had made me feel like a vital and attractive woman instead of an over the hill suddenly single woman. It was a very good birthday present, and one that was sorely needed.
I probably would not see him again--we hadn't exchange phone numbers, but nonetheless, I'd spent the day living in the moment and not thinking about my age, my birthday, or the wounds and insults inflicted upon me this past year.