By on December 11, 2016

keeneland_race_course

She looked like she had stepped right out of a Southern Living Style Guide, her chocolate hair ever-so-slightly colored with a glint of the Kentucky sky on a perfect August morning. Amidst the vapors of dust, smoke, and rubber that clouded the air of the racetrack, somehow, she effortlessly managed to be pristine in a white, off-the-shoulder blouse. Neither the smells nor the sounds of the mechanical chariots exploding all around her on the course rattled her one bit—she was a lady, and a lady is comfortable everywhere.

And as she strolled in her tall shoes down pit lane like it was the runway of a country club’s spring fashion show, one foot neatly tucked in front of the other, her thighs never leaving the frame of her pencil skirt, surely she could feel the eyes of every crew member and driver upon her. Women like her didn’t often make find their way to NCM Motorsports Park on race days. Yet her face remained kind. Friendly. Open.

It was only by seeing her eyes, hidden behind the darkness of her Tiffany sunglasses, that anybody would have known how frightened Michelle was that afternoon as she walked toward pit stall number 21.

“Hey, love!” Craig smiled as he pulled off his helmet, his face wrought by ninety minutes of wrestling with a racecar that wanted to go everywhere but in a straight line. “You came! I’m so excited that you’re here.” He seemed not to notice or care that his triple-layer Sparco suit was drenched in sweat as he engulfed her in a tight embrace.

“I’m here!” she replied, hoping her voice was a little steadier that it sounded inside her head. “Did I miss your…what do you call it?”

“My stint? Yeah. I just got out of the car, as you can see.” Craig was breathing rather heavily and, as far as Michelle was concerned, seemed a tad too exhausted for a man who had just been driving a car for an hour and half. Hell, she had driven three hours from her home in Versailles, Kentucky, in the summer heat just to come see him, and, well, she was barely even glowing.

“Oh, well. I’m sorry. I got a bit of a later start than I planned.” This was true, but not for whatever reason she was struggling to come up with on the spot. The truth was, Michelle had been very close to not coming at all.

Craig was a friend of a friend, just a guy that she’d agreed to meet at a bar one weeknight on a whim. In fact, she almost hadn’t gone on that date, either—her house was full of boxes, as she’d just broken up with her boyfriend of nearly two years and had to move on a moment’s notice. She’d found a cute little two-bedroom cottage, with just enough space for her rather large collection of clothing, her wine rack, and her calico cat. And on the evening of their agreed meeting, she sat on the floor with a bottle of Italian wine, surrounded by the moving cartons, and nearly decided that she just wasn’t ready to be on a date. It had been less than a month since Jacob had told her that he loved her, but he wasn’t in love with her, and that it was probably best for them to stop seeing each other.

But, damn it, why shouldn’t she go, right? After all, he was dating that bitch, the one with the giant nose and the thinning hair, the one she had introduced him to. So she got herself together as only a Southern girl can, and after just a bit of drying her eyes and applying some new mascara, she found herself sitting next to Craig at a trendy new bar where she knew all of the wait staff and she could signal one of them if it wasn’t going well.

The signal never needed to be sent at all. He wasn’t her type—a little shorter than she normally went for, and certainly a bit full of himself—but he was charming, with handsome blue eyes, and he had a lovely smile. And he’d worn a suit on the date—that was a nice surprise in this day and age. He claimed that he’d been coming from work, but they had agreed to meet at 8:00 PM, so she suspected that he’d worn it for her. And that was, well, it was just nice.

And as such, the date she almost didn’t go on ended up back at her cottage around 12:30—where she felt, as a lady, that she had to apologize for all of the boxes everywhere—and the night didn’t finish until they’d both finished at least twice, which had to have been close to four in the morning. And when he left, he hadn’t sneaked out or left a note; no, he kissed her gently on the forehead and thanked her for a lovely evening.

“It was all so unlike me,” she said to her friend sleepily in her work office at 10:00 AM that morning, the door tightly shut. “I don’t do, you know,” she said as she lowered her voice to a whisper, “one-night stands. But he was cute, and nice, and, well, just everything that Jacob wasn’t, you know? He made me feel beautiful. Special, even. When I talked, he listened. And I thought to myself, I deserve this.”

“EEEEEE!” Brooke shrieked a little bit too loudly for the confines of the tiny space. “I think the words you’re looking for are ‘Thank You.’ I knew it. I knew you guys were going to be perfect for each other.” And Michelle had dared to think that maybe it might be true.

But then a day went by, and she hadn’t heard from him. And another. But on the third day, there it was; a text, saying that he apologized, and he’d been out of town but he’d been thinking of her and he was back and would she like to have lunch that day? Quickly—probably too quickly, come to think of it—she had replied, “Yes! Where?”

“Where” turned out to be a cute little pizza place within walking distance of her office. It turned out, in fact, that her office and his office were within spitting distance of each other—if a lady were to ever spit, that is. And it was all so easy between them that she had entirely forgotten that he’d taken far too long to text her after their first date, and, sure enough, after eating about two bites of pizza, they were back at the cottage again, their work clothes strewn across the modest bedroom.

“I think I’ll work from home this afternoon,” she exhaled, her body splayed across his chest.

His fingers, surprisingly soft and gentle, ran through her hair. “You should probably take the rest of the day entirely off. You just did plenty of work, love.”

Her heart raced slightly. Love? Even though they’d just had sex for a second time on just a second meeting—one could hardly call a lunch quickie a date—love seemed a bit much. Like, was he saying “love” as a cute pet nickname? Was he hinting at something else? Why was she thinking so much about it, anyway? Why couldn’t she just sigh and relax and enjoy it?

So she sighed, relaxed, and enjoyed it. And she found over the next few weeks that she liked nothing more than being called “Love.” Especially when it was in the context of, “Love, let’s go somewhere this weekend.” One weekend it was Chicago, with dinner at a Michelin star restaurant and two surprise tickets to a play. The next, it was a quick jaunt up to Indianapolis to hear some down-home Blues. She relished in taking pictures of them together and sending them out via Snapchat to everybody, including Jacob. And each time that red solid triangle turned into an outline, she secretly smiled. Let him see that, she thought.

Michelle was pleased to discover that Craig even had a bit of a brain behind those pretty eyes, and even though they disagreed on nearly everything (he was a Republican) she didn’t mind so much as long as he was rubbing her shoulders as they playfully squabbled. Soon enough, they were together much more than they were apart. Not long after, they were barely apart at all.

And then he asked her to come see him race. She knew he raced cars—it was hard to be around Craig for more than thirty seconds and not know that he raced cars—but she didn’t really know what that meant.

“Like NASCAR?” her friend, Christina, asked as she sipped her champagne at the Junior League Sunday brunch. “Um, that’s classy.”

“Yeah, I don’t really know.” Michelle replied. “I’ve seen pictures. It doesn’t look like NASCAR. But I don’t know what to expect. Will you come with me?”

Christina laughed. “That’s a negative, ghost rider. But I seriously cannot wait to hear about you at a NASCAR race next week. Ha! Seriously, just the thought of you with all those hillbillies! Make sure to bring your beer cozy!”

Michelle stewed in silence as Christina got all of her laughs out. She’d been a little bit reluctant to introduce Craig to her friends, and she was coming to grips with why. He was a college dropout, after all. Yes, he made good money—considerably more than her friends, in fact—but there was an air of new money to him, and new money is never to be as highly esteemed as old money. In fact, she wasn’t even entirely sure what his father did for a living.

But look at Jacob. His family was very old money. Ancient. His mother was on the board of the Central Kentucky DAR chapter, for God’s sake. He had taken her to his corporate box at Keeneland Race Course for the Fall Meet, he wore his blue blazer and his khaki pants, he knew all about bourbons—oh, and he treated her terribly. So fuck it, she thought, nearly shocking herself with her own vulgarity. Maybe I’ll fit in better at a different sort of race track.

And that was how it came to pass that Michelle found herself in that pit stall that August morning in Bowling Green, Kentucky, a very different part of the Bluegrass than her family’s old home in Woodford County. It was true, she had gotten a late start, but only because she had sat on the edge of her bed for an hour, deciding whether she was actually going to go to this race; sitting there naked, staring at the outfit she’d laid out carefully the night before. It was still proper, yes, but maybe just a little bit racy. She giggled a bit at thinking of the word racy about the outfit she planned to wear to a race. She put it on, walked into the bathroom, and checked her makeup. No tear tracks today, she thought. And she smiled.

“You okay, love?” Craig asked, releasing her. Immediately, she snapped back into the moment, not realizing that she’d been replaying the two months of their relationship in her mind in the seconds that the hot, sweaty, uncomfortable hug had taken place. She took a moment to regain her composure, using every bit of the decades of training she’d received as a young girl to hide her emotion behind her pretty, perfect face—and then, shockingly, laughed out loud and let it all go.

“Yes, I’m okay. Better than okay, as a matter of fact.” She raised her sunglasses from her face, placing them on top of her carefully coiffed hairdo. She looked in his face and saw a man who had just battled heat, exhaustion, and the fear of death for ninety minutes, just so he could have a chance to win a plastic trophy. And when she saw the fear in his face, her fear was gone from her eyes, replaced by something she thought she had felt only months previously, but now understood she’d never truly felt before.

It was love. Love for this heavily perspiring, politically incorrect, uneducated man, who had invited her here not so he could show off his knowledge or wealth to her, as Jacob had always done—as every man she’d ever known had done— but so he could share something intimate, something important with her. The hope of victory. The horror of dying. And everything in between.

“Come on,” she said softly, placing her soft, pale hand on his filthy, scruffy face. “Show me this racecar of yours.”

 

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