Compared To What Came Before

Diane Grey hadn't returned to her maiden name after the divorce. She always said it was because she couldn't face the endless paperwork involved on top of dividing up the assets, squabbling over who got the house and working out some kind of visitation schedule so that David could still see his father.

But the real reason she kept her married name was to serve as a reminder of sorts, a reminder of the lessons she'd learned. Never again would she be so foolish as to fall for a man like him.

The Ex (as she now referred to him in her head, not even wanting her inner thoughts to face the bitter taste of forming that name out loud) had been in her year at high school. She had sat next to him in Mrs. Branston's fourth period English class, not that he'd noticed for a good long while.

He was the star quarterback of a less-than-stellar football team and she had been absolutely smitten. Following graduation they had quickly become engaged, married and pregnant (though not, strictly speaking, in that order. David had been something of a surprise and wedding bells had shortly followed this discovery).

It took Diane a long time to recognise it for the cliché it was.

In order to pay for the upcoming nuptials, The Ex had taken a job selling television sets at the local shopping mall. His plans of getting a full-ride football scholarship hadn't quite panned out on account of his unfortunate lack of talent – something he'd never quite gotten over.

It was a small job, which suited him, for he was a small man. He knew this. And he hated it. He tried to ease that sense of insignificance, tried to make himself bigger by making others small, and there was often no target nearer nor more convenient than Diane.

She remembered an occasion, when David was around 8 months old, when they'd held a dinner party. It was something of a reunion, old football teammates and the like and Diane had spent all afternoon preparing dishes and tidying the house.

She had just entered the living room to the sight of a gaggle of men surrounding the television set, listening to the man of the house espousing the many values of this particular model. Diane hovered on the edge of the circle, waiting for a break in the conversation to announce that dinner was ready.

One of their "friends" from high school (she used the term there loosely, never having been fond of him) was raving about the new dishwasher he'd just had installed.

"It's a GE, just had it installed last week."

"Oh yeah?" replied The Ex. "We've got a dishwasher too. Her name's Diane!"

Amongst the series of guffaws that were loosed, he brought his hand back over her shoulder and reached down to slap her squarely across the behind. Diane swallowed her gasp and made a hasty retreat to the kitchen.

Looking back, that was the night the cracks first began to appear.

It's been years since that night. Decades. But Diane never forgot the way he'd made her feel; the sting of shame just as sharp as the handprint across her backside. It had been a long time before she'd been ready to date again, and even then, she hadn't ever really felt comfortable enough to let someone get close.

And so, she'd become accustomed to living on her own. Now that David was all grown up and moved out of home, she'd grown used to the silence. She found it peaceful, rather than oppressive. She'd grown used to the idea of living alone and had accepted the idea that she would grow old alone too.

Well, not alone, exactly. David still came to visit from time to time and she had her walks and her garden to occupy her. She'd even been thinking of trying that watercolour class at the local community centre.

But then came Gander.

Suddenly, Diane was no longer alone. She had 700 bunkmates to keep her company of a night. She had a town of ten thousand people all eager to welcome her into their lives.

And she had Nick.

She'd been struck by several things when they had first crossed paths on the plane.

She knew it was wrong to compare, and especially to compare to someone so…. well, someone like him, but even after all these years she couldn't help it.

Where he had been loud and brash and obnoxious, Nick was gentle and polite. Where he had bombarded you with his presence, Nick had been apologetic for the inconvenience, still trying to state excuses like drunk people singing well after Diane had already gestured for him to sit down.

Over the next few days, their paths keep crossing and Diane keeps finding more differences. She really doesn't mean to compare but the contrast is so striking that she finds she just can't help herself.

They go for walk after walk, there being little else to do in Gander while they wait for the airspace to reopen. Diane is secretly pleased that Nick is always willing to oblige, despite what this must be doing to his heart condition.

Diane has always loved walks, but rarely got the chance in her younger days ("why go walking when you can travel the entire world with your tv remote?" he'd say.)

Nick and Diane walk all over the town and as they do, she finds herself opening up to him. She tells him about David (he responds positively when he finds out she has a son. Almost… relieved?) and how they had been travelling together in England.

"He's my rock," she says. "Always has been, ever since the divorce." (He definitely responds positively to finding out she's no longer married.)

She tells him about the sights they'd seen and how she hopes to return and how maybe he could tell her what else she'd missed and maybe even show her someday if she happened to be in his neighbourhood…

"Oh dear, I'm sorry," she says. "I don't usually ramble on this much…"

She has a momentary flash of a deep Texan drawl asking "do you have to ramble on so much, Diane? We don't need to hear your every thought!"

But then Nick's gentle hand is at her elbow, guiding her back to the present.

"Please, ramble on all you like," he says with a smile.

She begins to notice his hands more and more, the way his long, elegant fingers fold gently in front of himself whenever he's thinking, or perhaps whenever he's nervous; a subconscious effort to protect himself.

Either way, she much prefers these fingers to the short, stubby ones of days past.

She finds herself itching to reach out and capture these long fingers in her own, to feel their gentle strength. She wonders absently if he'd been a pianist.

She notices the way her heart flutters with a sort of giddy warmth when he's near. She treasures this feeling. It is a far cry from the heat of shame that his proximity had brought.

She notices how much Nick makes her laugh. None of his jokes could be said to be objectively funny, and he is overly keen and too earnest in his delivery to really hit the mark, but she finds herself laughing nonetheless.

She notices that this never fails to make him smile in return. It's almost like making her laugh was his sole objective. His attempts at humour are all made in an endeavour to put her at ease. There is no brash Texan ego here, not a trace of the cruelty or cowardice she'd known before. Nick's jokes are made for her, not about her and this makes her feel seen in a way she can't quite describe, but is quite certain that she likes.

They talk about work – he is apparently some sort of executive for an oil company – though it never dominates their conversations. Nick will mention his job in passing, usually as they are discussing travel, but he never dwells on it for too long.

Perhaps, like her, he is relishing the opportunity to be who he wants to be here in Gander. She is flattered that he seems to want to be that person with her.

Unlike The Ex, who used his job, his car, his tv, his one glorious win from the summer of senior year to big-note himself, Nick seems happy to rest out of the spotlight.

Perhaps he is even uncomfortable being the centre of attention – a thought that dimly registers in the back of Diane's mind as she drunkenly grabs his hand and tugs him forward into the midst of the Screech In ceremony.

She doesn't remember a whole lot else from that night, apart from noticing that instead of getting angry at her for putting him in that position, he simply shook his head, rolled his eyes affectionately at her and then proceeded to kiss a fish, all because she asked him to.

The next morning, she is greeted by a pair of kind blue eyes framed by silver spectacles (again, so different from the angry greys she'd…no, she really must stop comparing) and those elegant fingers clutching a glass of water and some paracetamol.

As they walk again that day, up to a lookout this time, she notices the almost magnetic pull she feels towards Nick. Up until now, she'd been so happy on her own, a lone planet with nothing to orbit. It seems now that Nick, with his gentle demeanour, his kind words, his terrible jokes and his wonderful ability to make tea just the way she likes it (which is really down to his wonderful ability to observe and the fact that he's paid attention to little else but her the entire time they've been here), has drawn her in to the point where it almost hurts to not be touching him.

She savours every moment they jostle against one another on the bus back to the airport. She could have sworn there was a moment up at the lookout where he'd wanted to kiss her, but she also knew this was probably just wishful thinking.

She's always been rather good at kidding herself. It's the only reason her first marriage lasted as long as it did. And now that this holiday romance (could you even call it a holiday romance if nothing had been declared?) was coming to an end, perhaps she was merely looking for a way to bask in the warmth of Nick's presence a little longer.

Diane's thoughts continue in a similar vein for the remainder of the bus ride and by the time they boarded the plane, they had swirled into a much darker storm of self-pity rejection and she had stopped noticing things about Nick, like the way he smelled now that he was back in his own clothes, or the way his unnaturally long legs bent in under him like a giraffe in order to fit into the economy seating.

She'd even stopped noticing things about herself, like the tears tracking silently down her cheeks, or the warm weight of an arm pressed around her shoulders.

What brought her back to the present was the feeling of two lips, soft and gentle against her forehead.

She glanced up at Nick, searching his eyes, desperate to find some echo of what she was feeling reflected back at her.

In those clear blue irises she saw kindness and patience and self-deprecation and intelligence and wit. But it was in the split second that his eyes darted down towards her lips and back that she saw it – a spark of desire, of longing, of hope.

With a flash of determination she sprung forward and captured his lips with her own, her hands snaking around his neck to hold him close.

Now is really not the time to compare, but she can't help notice how much better Nick is at this. His kisses are soft, yet exciting. Gentle, yet passionate. His tongue, when it gently parts her lips, seeks only to please, not to demand pleasure of its own.

She had never felt this way with her ex-husband.

Eventually the plane lands and they must go their separate ways. Diane is back to being alone, but it's different this time. Quieter. Lonelier. She misses Nick.

She finds herself looking forward to every phone call instead of dreading it. She relishes the sound of his light English tenor.

When he turns up unexpectedly on her doorstep in late November she is thrilled to see him and when he asks her to marry him, she says yes not out of a sense of duty and obligation and, well…pregnancy but instead out of sheer joy and adoration.

Each new day Diane notices new things about Nick, although she has since stopped comparing him to you-know-who. The one comparison she will allow herself to make, the one difference she will allow herself to note, is that every morning, even after all these years, she wakes up beside Nick completely and utterly happy.