It turned out Ashley needn’t have worried about the girls at Paul’s Agri-marketing Association meeting; there were none.
Paul’s friends from his program were excited to meet his girlfriend. No doubt he had spoken highly of her, and Ashley felt a little like she was on display as if he’d brought her merely to show her off to his friends.
They settled in for a nice long meeting and talked about things that Ashley knew little about, and cared about even less. This was Paul’s world. This was the world on the other side of her property line; the world where Paul worked.
Doing chores in her barn first thing in the morning was very different from the work he did on his own farm. His was a business, and she could tell that this particular group was going to be something important in his life.
Good, she thought. It will give him something to do on Thursday nights. Gradually, her thoughts traveled far away.
The discussions of marketing plans, and the upcoming national convention, and fundraising events sank to the lower reaches of her consciousness and she traveled to the place where she really wanted to be. Ann Arbor.
Now would be exactly the time when she would be sitting in her Institute class, learning the doctrines of the Gospel, fellowshipping with her friends, and sitting next to Caleb.
Why am I thinking about Caleb? I’m here, with Paul, a boy I’ve loved forever. In her mind Caleb was pointing out some little gem in the scriptures that clarified the message the teacher was trying to convey. He was holding out his worn little book highlighted with various colored markers that he’d used over the years to denote sections of scripture that had special meaning to him. Caleb was sharing with her little tidbits of information that he had gleaned from serving in the mission field. He was holding her hand under the table, and sitting close enough to her that their knees were touching.
Suddenly, Ashley realized it was not Caleb’s knee that her leg was resting against; it was Paul’s. She shook herself out of her drifting fantasy and smiled over at Paul. He winked at her.
“We’re almost done,” Paul whispered. “Sorry it’s taking so long.”
“It’s no problem,” she whispered back. She took a deep breath and captured the hint of cologne that was uniquely Paul. He didn’t often wear cologne; he usually smelled of the farm life. But when they went out on a date, or he came over for dinner, or when he’d just showered off the dust and grime from a long day’s work, he smelled just like this. It was intoxicating. She pushed away thoughts of Caleb and focused her senses on Paul.
Finally, they were done and the formalities were over. The small group of guys started discussing which local pub they should hit. A sort of panic set in when Ashley realized she was about to enter an environment where she would not feel comfortable.
“Let’s go to O’Malley’s,” one guy suggested. Ashley thought she remembered his name was Ted. He seemed less like a farmer and more like a college kid who wanted to go out and party.
“No way, man, that place is a dive.” Another kid, named Ricky piped in. “It’s loud and crowded and we won’t even be able to hold a conversation. Besides, it’s always filled with a bunch of obnoxious college kids.”
“Not this early in the night,” Ted pointed out. “We might actually get a table. Besides, we’re not going for the food anyway. I just want to meet some chicks.”
Early? Ashley glanced at the clock. It was almost 8:00 and she was getting tired. This wasn’t early. She was ready to head back to her barn, finish up some chores, and maybe take Shelly out for a quick ride before heading off to bed.
“How about Harper’s or the Roadhouse?” a guy named Josh suggested.
“Nah, Harpers has a cover charge,” Ricky said. “Plus the microbrews aren’t even that good. I don’t think the Roadhouse even has food, and it’s filthy.”
“Okay, since you know everything. Where do you want to go?” Ted asked.
“Let’s go to the Beggar’s,” Ricky suggested. “The appetizers are really good, and I’m hungry.” He looked like the type of guy who was always hungry. He was a typical farm kid who was built like a bull, but seemed like a really down-to-earth and sweet guy.
Ashley smiled slightly. Food did sound good. They’d had an early dinner, and she was starting to feel hungry again. She looked up at Paul with a shrug of the shoulders.
“That sounds kind of good,” she whispered.
“See, there you go,” Ricky said. “We go where the lady wants to go.”
“Yeah, well she’s already spoken for,” Josh said. “I’m with Ted. I want to meet some chicks.”
“It’ll get crowded later in the night,” Ricky said. “We’ll be there early and actually have a good table.”
There was that ‘early’ word again. How late did these guys plan to stay? Ashley didn’t care as long as she and Paul could take off as soon as they wanted and leave the other guys to their “meeting chicks.”
It was decided, and everyone started gathering up their stuff. All the guys packed into two cars, but Paul and Ashley rode separately.
Beggar’s Banquet didn’t look like much from the outside, and seemed more like a store front than a restaurant. It was much classier on the inside, especially compared to the bar that Caleb had taken her to.
They did find a table quite easily, but the restaurant was pretty full, considering it was way beyond the dinner hour. This was different than anything Ashley had ever experienced. She was reminded once again by how sheltered her life had been. Still, she tried to keep an open mind just as she’d done in Whitmore Lake.
The menu was cool and showed some really unique appetizers, and Ashley felt a little more excitement. The regular food menu looked upscale and quite expensive, but she managed to find a normal-sounding appetizer, chicken quesadillas.
When the waitress came to take their drink orders, each of the guys ordered a different kind of beer. When the lady came around to Paul, he ordered a Coke.
Ashley let out an audible sigh of relief as if she’d been holding her breath, hoping the man she’d loved forever, and thought she knew better than anyone, would not choose to follow the crowd. She realized that she’d been silly to be nervous. She ordered a Sprite.
Suddenly the guys all decided they should do a round of shots. Panic swept over her again, and she suddenly understood what she’d heard described as ‘the Spirit left the room.’
“None for us,” Paul quickly told the waitress.
“Ah, designated drivers, huh?” She nodded. “Good for you.”
More panic. They weren’t driving these guys home. How are they going to get home? Ashley felt a little sick. Not just because of the negative spirit in the room, but because she felt a sudden sense of responsibility to these boys she barely knew. She almost felt like she was going to cry.
Paul looked down at her and his face mirrored how she was feeling. He shook his head almost imperceptibly and grabbed her hand to give it a little squeeze. She didn’t know how they were going to handle this, but at least she knew that he was on her side. The waitress left and the conversation turned inward.
“You’re honestly not gonna have a drink?” Ricky asked. It didn’t sound like an accusation, but more of a slight surprise. He kind of looked back and forth between the two of them and Ashley decided to wait for Paul to take the lead on this one. She didn’t think it was the proper time to share a lesson about drinks they should avoid.
“No, we don’t drink at all.” Paul explained.
“Ah, you’re just trying to be good in front of your girl.” Ted jostled Paul’s shoulder. “You just want to get lucky tonight.”
“I usually get a girl drunk so that I can get lucky,” Josh said. He and Ted reached across the table for a fist bump.
Ashley snapped her jaw shut after she realized that her mouth was gaping open. She was not just offended; she was appalled.
“We don’t do that either,” Paul said quietly but with pride. All the other guys looked over at him with shock that also included a bit of mockery.
“Man, if I had a girl like that, I sure would be.” Josh was staring at her appraisingly. Ashley gulped and looked away from him quickly.
“I don’t think our sobriety or our relationship is any of your business.” Paul looked around at each of them as if he were a father who was disappointed in his teenage boys for acting inappropriately. “And I don’t appreciate you speaking of Ashley in that manner.”
“Hey, Man, chill out. We didn’t mean to offend you.” It seemed Ricky was the only mildly sensible one of the group. All the other guys just sort of looked embarrassed. She heard the word ‘sorry’ a couple of times spoken under their breaths as they sort of looked away.
Just then the big plate of appetizers arrived along with their drinks. Suddenly Ashley didn’t feel hungry. She took a sip of her Sprite and glanced around the room to distract herself.
All around her, people were laughing and drinking and standing near the bar with glasses in their hands, getting acquainted with people at nearby tables. It felt as if she were the only person in the room who was not having fun.
She was normally a very happy person. Her life was idyllic and calm. She loved to ride her horse and serve in the 4-H and play with Paul’s little sisters and brothers and hang out with her older brothers. She even liked her older sister…sometimes.
But she’d never felt like this. She looked over at Paul and could tell that he felt the same way. She held his gaze for just a moment, and didn’t even have to say the words.
Paul stood and reached for his wallet. He laid a ten dollar bill on the table to cover the cost of their sodas and their portion of the chicken quesadillas, even though neither of them had taken a bite, and began to escort his date away from the table.
“Hey, come on man, don’t be offended. We’ll stop teasing you.” Ricky tried unsuccessfully to smooth things over.
“It’s okay, guys.” Paul said. “We’re getting tired. I’ll see you in class next week.”
Ashley wouldn’t even look up as she followed Paul out of the restaurant. He led her to his truck and she was silent as they drove the few blocks to the expressway and then she’d be away from this town. She wasn’t sure how long it was going to take before she felt better, but she knew they were heading in the right direction at least.
They didn’t talk much as they left the Lansing area and merged onto I-96. Paul pulled off the Okemos Road exit without telling Ashley why, and crossed the overpass to where there were a couple of fast food restaurants.
“McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Little Caesars,” he started rattling off. “What sounds good to you?” He turned toward her with a soft smile.
She was glad they’d stopped. Even if they’d had a disastrous experience with the guys at the bar, they were both still hungry. She smiled back at him, then looked out over her selections. Another restaurant caught her eye.
“How about Cracker Barrel?” She pointed. “We could sit down and have a meal, not be confined to fast food.”
“That sounds really good.” Paul turned in that direction.
They were taken to a comfortable table near the back of the restaurant where they could have some quiet time together. Ashley wondered if he had tipped off the hostess that he wanted to be in a cozy location with his date. Whatever, she appreciated the gesture.
“Would you like a Sprite?” he teased her after the hostess had left them with the menus.
“Oh, I hear the Coca-Cola is quite good at this establishment,” she fired right back, playfully.
“Are you sure you don’t want to do a couple of shots with me?” he inquired with a slight chuckled.
“Most definitely, thank you.” She said it with finality, but still playfully. “I think I’ll stick with a Sprite.” They turned their attention back to the menus.
“Let’s have breakfast,” he suggested. “I’d love some pancakes or something.”
“That sounds really good,” Ashley said. They enjoyed a nice playful meal and closed the place down. They laughed at the fact that their choice in restaurants was closing at ten, when the guys back in East Lansing were probably just getting started.
“Maybe we should have gone over to the bonfire instead of out with my buddies,” Paul admitted.
“Nah,” Ashley grabbed his arm as they playfully stumbled to the truck, high on life and pancake syrup. “This was way more fun!”