Claudia

bytarkatony©

This story is a continuation of a previously posted story called, "For The Fun Of It." While this story will stand alone, some of the characters will be more interesting if you've read the earlier story. I'd be very interested in any feedback from these two stories.

I waited across the street in a cafe. I wasn't nervous, mainly because I hadn't made a decision yet; I didn't even know if she would show. But I thought she would. She had said to me once a few months ago that she always ate at the restaurant on Tuesday nights. So I waited and watched. I'd make a decision on my next step if she arrived.

She did, ten minutes later, a thin figure in black pants, a shapeless red jacket and a knitted cap. She entered the restaurant and sat alone at a table by the restaurant's one large window.

I barely knew the woman. I had met her in the restaurant a few times over as many months. We talked, but never really connected, but even so, I got the sense that she wanted to get to know me, a 55 year old divorcee with three grown children.

I studied the figure leaning forward, reading a book I could see on the table. She seemed always to have a book with her, an easy alternative to company.

Screw it! I drank the rest of my coffee, as if the cold dregs could fortify me, picked up my purse and ignored my pounding heart.

She was facing away from the door so when I entered the restaurant I had to walk past her for her to notice me. She did, just as I pulled out a chair to sit two tables away. She smiled at me, looked behind her to see if I was with someone, and seeing no one, asked me if I would join her.

When I sat across from her I had no plan in mind. I simply wanted to get to know the woman, to see if she was interesting, companionable. Our conversation, like before, was spare, superficial and dull. I had the impression from before that she was unusually shy and unusually quiet. This conversation did nothing to dispel that.

After a mediocre dinner we left the restaurant together, each to go our separate way, when I heard myself ask her if she would like to come to my place for dinner on Friday night. When she said yes, quickly, I thought, we agreed on a time and I gave her my address.

I was a wreck for the next 24 hours: what to wear; what to cook; what wine to buy — a million details filled my head before it occurred to me that a mature woman shouldn't be acting like a school girl and I got a grip on myself.

I knew she'd be on time. I accepted the flowers with thanks, she joined me in the kitchen while I put them in a vase and we eventually settled into two comfortable chairs in my living room for a glass of wine before dinner.

She was pretty, in a minimalist sort of way, very thin, with a narrow face, framed by straight, rich brown hair, big eyes and a small sensuous mouth. She had a habit of staring into my eyes which was a little disconcerting because it suggested a boldness which belied my impression of her almost terminal shyness. Her clothes were plain and baggy and did nothing for her.

Her name was Claudia Niccolo. She was born and raised in a small town not far from the city, took a degree in Actuarial Science, and had been employed in the Actuarial Department at a large life insurance company for the past nine years. She was 32, although, probably because of her build, she looked much younger.

This information about her didn't come easily, I felt like I was prying these hard-won facts of her life as if they were a pre-condition to feeding her. I'm usually a good conversationalist, quick to ask, quicker to answer; I can't remember ever having to work so hard for so little. And it didn't get any easier at the dinner table where it took me an hour to fill in a few of the blanks in her life. She had a younger sister who was a masseuse; her parents had died two years before; she had never been out of the country; liked to take long walks on the weekends; loved dogs, although she'd never owned one; liked to write but claimed not to be very good at it, and never watched television or went to movies, although she'd like to, she just didn't like to go alone. Finally, a segue.

"You seem lonely. Are you?"

During the meal her eyes left mine only when she selected food from her plate. "Lonely?" She smiled shyly, "I don't know. I've always been alone, but I don't know that I'm lonely."

"You have a circle of friends, then."

"No." Then she added, "Some woman at work."

I wasn't getting anywhere so I changed my tact, "You are particularly well organized."

She seemed surprised by the observation, "I am?"

"Anyone who eats at the same restaurant every Tuesday night is definitely well organized." I smiled encouragingly, hoping this would lead somewhere.

She continued staring into my eyes, as if searching for something inside me, "There is a reason for that."

"Yes?" Finally, something interesting.

"That's where I first met you."

"Yes." I knew that.

She continued to pierce me with her eyes, "If you wanted to meet me again, you had to know where and when to find me."

Here words were utterly matter-of-fact, utterly logical, the words of an actuary. I hadn't know her name, didn't know where she lived, where she worked, only where she ate dinner on Tuesday nights. Her admission inspired my own admission, "I went there to see you on Tuesday."

She smiled, for the first time since she arrived. "I wanted to see you, too."

I didn't and couldn't understand why a young woman would want to talk to a woman who was, if truth be told, old enough to be her mother. "Why?"

"Because I like you, I like being with you."

"You're a lesbian, aren't you?" She had implied as much in an earlier conversation.

"Yes."

That's all she said, not 'yes I am, but that's not why I like you,' just, 'yes'. It was deflating and I didn't know what to say ...

"But not a very good one." A shy smile punctuated this startling remark.

"Not a very good one?" I repeated her words having no idea what they meant.

"Not a very successful one."

"Ah," then it occurred to me, "it's hard to be alone and be a successful lesbian at the same time."

"Yes." She, again, smiled shyly.

I was intrigued by her words, perhaps because I had never talked about lesbianism with anyone before. Never once. "Are you uncomfortable talking about this?"

Her gaze was steady, unflinching. "No." Clearly, she wasn't.

She had realized, she said, that she was more attracted to girls than boys from the beginning but, given her innate shyness and her small community, she never had a chance to explore her sexuality. College wasn't much better. There, she had been seduced a few times, used and discarded. But the workplace hadn't even offered that. She had never had a relationship, successful or otherwise.

In her social awkwardness, I saw a glimpse of myself in her story and didn't much want to go there so at the first opportunity I cleared the plates, she helped and in a few minutes we were back in our chairs in the living room, coffee cups in hand.

I usually feel uncomfortable with lulls in conversations. I'm usually one of the first to rush in to fill them. Tonight was different. Tonight I was learning to let long silences stretch into longer silences without discomfort, without my interruption. I was even enjoying it. In fact, we said almost nothing as we sat drinking our coffee.

After about a half hour of mainly silence, she glided from her chair, she had the lithe gracefulness of a dancer, and took my coffee cup and saucer from me and walked them to the kitchen. When she returned, I stood up as she went to the hall to get her jacket. It was in her hand when she said, "Thank you, Laura, I really enjoyed this evening."

I moved slowly towards her, smiled warmly, "I'm glad you came, Claudia. I'm glad I've had a chance to get to know you a little."

The smile that grew on her face was more happy than shy. It occurred to me that she may not have heard this many times before.

It was when she was putting on her hat that it hit me and I heard myself say, "I don't want you to go."

Her eyes looked straight into mine, "I don't want to go."

I helped her off with her jacket and we returned to out chairs. She didn't want more coffee, she didn't want wine, she didn't seem to want anything but to sit there and look at me, not expectantly, not waiting for me to do or say anything. She just seemed to be happy to be here. And that made me happy. And a little uncomfortable.

"I'm lonely," I said, "I've been lonely for years. I have lots of friends, good friends, but still, I'm lonely." I waited for her to say something but wasn't surprised when she didn't. "I want to care about someone."

"Yes. I do to."

I hadn't rehearsed this, hadn't thought about it, but I was very glad to hear myself say it. "Would you like to see if we can care about each other?"

"Yes."

A thrill shuddered through my body. Then a flight of panic, "I'm not a lesbian."

She smiled, "I know."

When I stood up, she did too and she walked with me down the hall to the bedroom and when I crawled on the bed, she crawled on beside me and we slipped into each others arms as if we had been there before.

There was nothing to her, she was as frail as a sparrow yet she was strong, even powerful — more than me holding her, she was holding me, trying to rid me of my loneliness, trying to soothe me, even protect me and I tried to fight back the tears. But she heard me, felt me tremble in her arms and understood. I could feel her hands pressing into to my back, pulling me to her and after a while I began to feel safe.

And then I felt silly. "Sorry." But she said nothing, she just held me and I held her, feeling her heat, sensing that she cared. At some stage in the night she pulled a blanket on us.

When I woke up at first light she was looking at me, into my eyes, as she had done all evening. "Would you like some coffee?"

"Yes."

When she left to make it I went to the washroom and stared into the mirror, trying to see in me the change I felt.

When I came out, she wasn't in the living room, as I had expected. I found her in the bedroom, a coffee cup on both night tables. I crawled onto the bed, as gracefully as I could, plumped up two pillows and sat back against the headboard, reached for the coffee and sipped from its thin brim, enjoying, as I always did, that first acidic stab of caffein.

When I looked at her, her eyes were on mine and when she smiled I reached for her and pulled her down into the same embrace that had locked us together throughout the night. I wanted to thank her, I want to tell her how much the evening had meant to me, I even pulled back to say the words, but I couldn't. Instead, I leaned in and kissed her lightly on the lips and I was thrilled when she kissed me back, not sexually thrilled, I was thrilled that she seemed to feel the same way I did, that she wanted to be here, that she felt safe and wanted. I found her hand and held it, tightly, between us.

I'm a masturbator, I've been an active and sometimes frantic masturbator for years, even before my awful marriage finally ended. It has long been my only tropical port in an otherwise north Atlantic storm. Often I begin the process unconsciously, spontaneously, while reading a book, at my desk, drifting off to sleep — or lying on my bed with a young Actuary. My eyes had been closed, I had been descending back into the same dreamy place I had awoken from not long before when I became conscious of the pressure against my groin. I realized in horror that it was my hand clasped in hers. I threw her hand away, and was struggling to form an apology when she took my hand back in hers, squeezed it and put it back between us.

For the next hour I didn't move. I thought. I thought about my life, where I had been, where I wanted to go. Why was I so unhappy? Why had I, for as long as I could remember, been unhappy? What did I want? Yes, that was the question: What did I want from the rest of my life? I thought long and hard about that. I didn't know. But at this moment, I was happy to be right where I was, lying next to a woman whose breath I could feel on my face.

She was looking into my eyes when I opened mine. "I'm happy, Claudia."

She smiled and said nothing.

I wanted more from her, I wanted her to tell me that she was happy too, she was happy being here with me, touching me. "Why don't you say something?"

"I don't want to scare you."

"Scare me?" Lying here like this, how could she scare me?

"I'm the lesbian."

"So." Was this supposed to scar me?

"I didn't know I could feel this way about someone. I didn't want to tell you how happy I am being here with you. I don't want to scare you away."

The words stunned me, shocked me, they were so honest, so innocent — so foreign and from a woman. I tried to think of something to say, "You feel 'this way?' What do you mean?"

"I mean that for the first time in my life I actually know what it's like to feel like a lesbian."

I had been lying and sleeping beside a woman, feeling her warmth, feeling her strength, feeling her compassion. Her words jolted me — for the first time, they were sexual and I felt a pain in my hand from squeezing hers. I said the words without thinking and I laughed before I said them. "For the first time in my life I feel I'd like to be a lesbian."

She laughed, too. But there was no hope in her eyes, no encouragement, no seduction. Just compassion and understanding. And maybe a little anticipation.

But I wasn't ready for that. I jumped off the bed with more vigour than I've felt in years. "Let me take you out for brunch."

It was a beautiful August day, but I felt exhilarated and alive, like it was the first day of spring. I deliberately bumped into Claudia, feeling like a kid on a first date, enjoying the contact. We passed on the first four possibilities, we were both too wired to want to sit, but we eventually settled on a bistro with a court yard big enough for us and the high noon sun.

"What would you be doing, if you weren't here with me now?" I asked.

Her eyes bore into mine, "Walking."

"By yourself?"

"Yes."

"Where?"

She shrugged, "Probably here in the city. Sometimes I rent a car and drive into the country, I have a few favourite places, but usually I just walk here, aimlessly, I sort of get lost in the city." She waited and when I said nothing she said, "You?"

"I'd be shopping right now, with friends." I hesitated as the waiter put my coffee in front of me. "We do that most every Saturday," I shrugged, "even though I don't actually need anything and even though I have no one to buy for."

"Then why do you do it?"

"Habit." I laughed, "I enjoy it, but I know its pointless. Do you remember when I said I'm lonely?" She nodded. "It's possible to be in a busy mall with a few friends and still be lonely — if what you're doing doesn't matter to you."

"Then why do you do it?" she persisted.

I didn't really have an answer, "Why do you walk?"

She glowed with enthusiasm, "I love to walk. It maybe pointless because I have no precise destination in mind, but I love to swing my arms, I love to feel the blood coursing through me. I feel alive when I'm walking and that's when I do my best thinking."

It was mean, but I wanted to know, "And what were you thinking when you walked here."

"I was thinking how lucky I was to have met you."

Innocent admissions are disarming and I felt cheap for having put her on the spot. I put my hand on her arm and felt a slight shock at the familiarity, "And that's precisely how I feel. Lucky to have met you."

We took a longer way back to my apartment, and the closer we got, the less I wanted to part with her. With my hand on the door, I looked at her. "I know I've said this before, perhaps it's once too many, but I don't want you to go."

She was close to me and she leaned against me when she said, "I don't want to go."

It was a tight fit in my small kitchen as we conjured something out of the relative nothing in my fridge, but not so tight that we couldn't have avoided each other. But we didn't. I bumped into her and my hand was on her whenever she was close enough, on her shoulder, back, arm. And I could feel her fingers lingering on me. We didn't speak throughout dinner, not a word and when it was over, we did the dishes together and it was there at the sink that I wrapped my arms around her from behind and pulled her into me and pushed my face against her hair, breathing in her scent. "I don't know what to say, Claudia, this has all been so ... fantastic."

She took one of my hands, kissed it then turned to face me and when I looked at her I felt physical shock: for the first time I could see this wasn't a journey to Claudia, an exciting exploration of naughty possibilities to mitigate the loneliness of aging women. Claudia had reached her destination, perhaps weeks, even months ago. She was deeply in love, hopelessly in love, that was etched in the anguish on her face.

I stepped back, I needed air, I needed to think. My harmless flirtation, my exciting little dalliance seemed now to be evil, self-serving, selfishly harming an innocent. Was I toying with this woman, using her to try to rekindle long lost feelings? Did she matter to me, really matter; matter enough that I could share her pain, so clearly evident?

"I had a wonderful day, Claudia." I walked to the hall and held her jacket.

She looked at me, in my eyes, for just a moment, then she took her jacket, opened the door and left.

Her large brown eyes stared into mine long after she had left. I felt empty, lost, ugly. I took a long bath, had a steaming cup of herbal tea, then a glass of wine. But her eyes continued to bore into mine, with love, sorrow, joy, anguish. And they haunted me as I tried to sleep.

It was near dawn when I felt her touch, felt it on my arm, on my back and on my shoulder. And then I touched her, feeling the softness of her skin, her heat and then I felt my breasts against her as I pulled her into me, felt her arms around me, squeezing me, felt myself shudder with happiness.

I was in the restaurant on Tuesday night before she arrived. I wanted her to know that I wasn't dropping in on her this time, that I was there waiting for her, but when she slide into the chair across from me, I didn't see what I expected. Her face, always so open and honest, was a mask of fear. She wouldn't look at me.

"What's wrong?" I said, thinking the worst, but not knowing what that could possibly be.

She didn't look at me, "I hate job interviews."

I didn't know what she meant. "Doesn't everyone? Did you have one?"

"I'm having one."

I was confused, very confused. "I don't understand."

"What did you decide?"

Oh, God, yes, of course: this, to her, was about a decision. My decision. She didn't have to explore her feelings, she knew them. She had to wait; wait for me to discover mine; wait for me to tell her yes or no.

I had decided early Sunday morning: when I was touching her, holding her, when the pain in her eyes had turned to happiness. Wherever this was to go, for however long, I wanted to be with her, I wanted her touch, her hand in mine, my hand in hers. But I couldn't tell her that on Sunday morning: I didn't know her number or address; couldn't remember her last name; had no one to call for it. I was powerless.

I waited in the evenings wrapped in a blanket in my bay window watching the street to see if she would come. But I knew she wouldn't. I knew she was giving me all the time I needed to understand that she loved me.

"I didn't decide anything."

For the first time, she looked at me. "What do you mean?" She was fighting through her fear for meaning.

I smiled, trying to convey an honesty I felt, "One person should never decide for two. We'll make our decisions together, as we go along."

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