It was a rainy spring day and as much as I hated shopping I couldn't put it off any longer. Upon first entering the department store I passed a cute brunette trailed by two little girls. It was obvious that the shorter of the two wasn't happy to be there. She reminded me of myself at that age. I smirked and went to find the items I needed. While standing in the checkout line I could see the brunette searching the crowded aisles. It looked like only one of the little girls was with her. The shorter of the two girls was nowhere in sight.
"Zoe! Zoe! Where are you?"
When I heard her shouting for the little girl I decided to leave my place in line and offer my help.
"What happened?" I asked walking up to the distraught woman.
"We were picking out for clothes for Angie and when I looked around Zoe wasn't there," she said hurriedly.
"Where were you when you last knew Zoe was with you?"
"Over there. By the girls jean sets," she said pointing to clothes racks near one of the walls.
"My sister is going to kill me," she cried following me to the children's clothing section.
I looked back but didn't ask her about her comment. There were quite a few people in the children's clothing area due to the clearance sale. I kept bumping into shoppers or shopping carts and reminded myself never to step into another store on a Saturday again. If Zoe was anything like me she probably looked for a quiet space to crawl into to get away from everyone. At least I hoped she did. Every clothes rack I passed, I pushed the clothes aside and looked at the ground near the base of the rack. The closer we got to the jean sets, the more I worried that she wasn't here. My heart rate was increasing rapidly as I checked more and more places without finding Zoe. I pushed a number of clothes to the side of the largest rack, and I saw the little girl curled up against the center pole, asleep. I had not realized how tense my body was until I felt the relief at seeing the little girl. I looked toward the brunette who was trapped between shoppers and motioned with my hand for her to join me. When she reached me, I pointed to the floor.
The little girl opened her sleepy eyes, startled.
"Can we go now?" she asked oblivious to the havoc she had caused.
The brunette held out her arms to her, tears of relief running down her cheeks. She held the girl, looking uncertain about what to do next.
"How about we go to the food court and get an early lunch?" I offered.
She merely nodded and stood up, holding both girls' hands. We headed out of the store toward the food court. The walk was done in silence except for Zoe and Angie pointing out items in the stores we passed and calling out their colors.
"What would you like to eat?" I asked when we reached the food court.
"Whatever you're having."
"And the girls?"
The brunette looked at the girls and then back at me.
"I don't know. They're my sister's girls. I convinced her to let me take them shopping. It's my first time out alone with them," she said.
"It's okay. Don't worry. I'll get some slices of pizza and fries. All kids like pizza," I said and winked at her.
"Thank you," the brunette said quietly when I came back with the food.
"You're welcome. I'm Chris by the way."
"I'm Cassie," she said with a smile. "How did you know?"
"How did I know what?"
"Where to look for Zoe."
"Oh. I didn't. I just hoped she was like me," I said sheepishly, "When I was young, I really hated going shopping, any kind of shopping. I would get bored and tired of following my mom around the store, especially when she would stop at every rack to look at clothes. And of course there were always so many people there, bumping into me because they were never looking down. So I would crawl under the clothes hanging from the clothes rack to get away from everything."
"What did your mother do?"
"The first couple of times she freaked out. Fortunately I had not fallen asleep so when she would call for me I would crawl out of my hiding place. She caught on quickly to where I would go hiding after those incidents. A couple of times I fell asleep and couldn't find her. I walked around crying until someone took me to the Customer Service area. Then they would page my mom to come get me. Once I got older, she would just ask a cashier to page me instead of looking for me herself."
"Really?" Cassie asked incredulously.
I merely nodded in response and took a bite out of my sub.
"How old were you the last time she had you paged?"
I finished chewing and took a sip of my soda.
"Seventeen. The look on the cashier's face was priceless. She must have been expecting someone much younger," I said laughingly.
She laughed with me. She had a beautiful soft laugh.
"I should probably take them home before I screw up some more."
"You didn't do anything wrong."
"A good aunt wouldn't have lost Zoe."
"Come on. You don't believe that?"
She shrugged her shoulders. It was no longer raining but it was still overcast as I walked her and the girls out to her car.
"Will you let me buy you dinner tonight as a thank you?" Cassie asked after buckling the girls into the car.
"You don't have to buy, but I'd like to have dinner with you," I answered.
We arranged the time and place and exchanged phone numbers just in case. I watched her drive off and decided I had enough shopping for one day.
Looking in my closet for something to wear for dinner, I wondered if this was a date. It felt like she was asking me out but she was also grateful for my help. I picked black pants and a forest green blouse, which brought out the color of my eyes, hoping for a casual look. I arrived at the restaurant a little early and got us a table. When she arrived minutes later, my heart raced at the beautiful sight she presented in a navy blue skirt and a flowery white top. I stood up so that she could see me.
"Hi," she said with a smile that didn't seem to reach her eyes.
"Hi. If you don't want to have dinner, it's okay," I said when we sat down.
"No, no. I do. It's just been," she shrugged looking at me with sadness in her eyes.
"Nothing. I'm okay."
"I want us to be friends, Cassie. I'll listen. I won't judge."
"Thank you for saying that. It's just my family. They know what happened with Zoe."
"How did they find out?"
"Angie told my sister in front of the whole family about my losing Zoe in the store. My sister said that she knew something like this would happen. My mother agreed with her," Cassie said.
"Oh, come on," I said, "Anyone can lose sight of a child in a shopping mall especially when they have two in tow. It could happen to your sister and your mother, too."
"I doubt it. Apparently I am the only one that can't do anything right," she said.
"I'm sure you do plenty right," I said, reaching over and holding her hand.
"You're so sweet but let's talk about something else." She smiled at me.
"So what would you like to eat?" I asked, handing her a menu.
We proceeded to order food, and we talked for hours. Cassie told me she was one of three children. Her older sister was a CFO for a large company and her younger brother was a mechanical engineer for an aircraft manufacturer. Cassie left university after the first semester because school just wasn't for her. She took a job as a clerk in a supermarket and worked her way up to store manager. Her parents were furious when she stopped school and have been very critical of everything she did since.
I told her I was an only child and my parents had me when they were in their late thirties. They took retirement 6 years ago and travel a lot, sending me postcards from wherever they were and calling me on holidays. I worked in the sales and marketing department of a medical devices manufacturer. The spring and fall were the most hectic times of the year for me because that's when most of the trade shows occur. We both were unattached and we talked a little about our previous relationships. Cassie's last girlfriend treated her like her mother and sister so I changed the subject. We'd only known each other for one day yet it bothered me how her family treated her.
Due to our busy work schedules we only had time to meet for lunch once a week, but we talked every night, either by phone or the internet, catching each other up on what was going on. Throughout the day I looked forward to connecting with Cassie in the evening. It was always the best part of my day. One night the phone was ringing just as I entered my apartment.
"Hey," Cassie said.
"Hey you," I said happy to hear her voice.
"Is this a bad time?"
"No. I just got home. What's up?" I asked sitting down on my comfy couch.
"What are you doing on Saturday?"
"Yes, I don't have to work this weekend. I was thinking we could spend the day together. Not shopping," she said laughing, knowing my distaste for that activity.
"Um. Well, you see. It's the first weekend of the summer season and I planned to go on a canoe camping trip." I never mentioned the trip to Cassie since I didn't know if she would want to spend a weekend in the outdoors.
"Oh. Okay. Are you going with someone?" Cassie asked.
"No, no one," I hesitated, "Would you like to go with me?" I held my breath hoping she would say yes.
"I don't want to ruin your trip," she replied in a small voice.
"Why would you ruin my trip?" I asked confused, "I've thought about asking you many times but I didn't think you would like this kind of thing."
"I've never been camping or in a canoe. I would like to try if you think I could do it. I would try not to be too much trouble for you," she said quickly.
"I think you could do anything you set your mind to, and I would love it if you would go with me."
"Are you sure?"
"Of course I'm sure."
"Okay. What do I need? What do I bring? What do I wear? We'll have to go shopping," she said excitedly.
I simply groaned in response.
Early Saturday morning I picked Cassie up at her apartment. She hugged me quickly, and we loaded her things in my car along with the bags of food. Cassie said she would take care of our meals which was a nice surprise. During the drive, Cassie fidgeted in her seat barely containing her excitement. Halfway to the canoe site I stopped at a diner.
"Why are we stopping?" Cassie asked.
"Breakfast," I replied.
I am not a talkative morning person. Cassie looked at me waiting for more.
"We need energy for paddling the canoe, and depending on how long it takes us to get to the campsite, we may not have our next real meal for a while. So order big."
As we waited for our food, Cassie started giggling
"What are you giggling about?"
"Nothing. I told a co-worker about our canoe trip and she told me a joke. I was just remembering it."
"So what is the joke?" I inquired with raised eyebrows.
"What do you call two lesbians in a canoe?"
I thought for a moment but came up blank.
"Fur traders," she said giggling.
I smirked and rolled my eyes, which just made her laugh more. Her laughter was infectious and soon I was laughing with her.
At the canoe site, our canoe was poised expectantly by the shoreline. I knew the owners of this shop so when I had called ahead to reserve a canoe I was told it would be ready when we got here. I often thought of buying my own canoe, but my apartment in the city had no place for something that big. The parking lot was filling up with vehicles with boats in tow. The boat ramp near the shop made this a popular spot for boat owners. I handed Cassie dry bags to put her things in while I loaded the canoe. I took off my t-shirt and put it in one of the bags. I was left with my bathing suit top which was like a sports bra. When I turned around Cassie was staring at me with a questioning look which made me a little self-conscious. I have a slightly athletic build and the sports style top made my breasts even smaller than normal.
"It gets hot with a t-shirt and a life vest," I explained.
"Oh," she nodded and removed her shirt revealing an orange bikini top that matched her shorts. I handed her the sunscreen averting my gaze from her curvaceous body. I turned to tie everything down in the canoe taking a couple of calming breaths. I was fastening the last strap when I glimpsed Cassie. Her hands were applying sunscreen to her silky legs. I was so mesmerized by the motion that I didn't notice she was talking to me.
"Hello?" Cassie waved her hand to get my attention.
"I'm sorry. I was lost in thought. What did you say?" I asked.
"Could you put some sunscreen on my back? I can't reach," she said handing me the bottle.
I squirted some lotion in my hands and began with her shoulders. Her skin was softer than I imagined. I continued down her back making sure I didn't miss any areas. I realized my hands had been caressing her long after the sunscreen had been applied and I stepped back.
I applied lotion to my arms and legs under her watchful gaze.
"You forgot some here," she said pointing to my stomach and took the bottle from me. My stomach quivered at her gentle touch and I stifled a moan.
She then applied lotion to my back and my body was responding to her touch. I noticed that we had attracted the attention of several onlookers and once again I stepped away from her.
"How about we get this show on the road?"
I handed her a life vest and put mine on.
"I've never done this before," she said hesitating by the canoe.
"It's alright. I'll show you how."
I pushed the canoe into the shallow water.
"Okay. Come stand next to me." I motioned her to my side.
"Grab this side of the canoe with your left hand and put your right foot in the center of the canoe," I said as I held the canoe with one hand and guided her with the other.
"Good. Now crouch low and grab the other side with your right hand. Swing your left foot in and get down on your knees."
Her knuckles were white and she was shaking a little. I put my free arm around her and held her.
She nodded in response.
"Sit up on the seat behind you and I'll grab your paddle."
I retrieved a paddle and gave it to her.
"Here, sit up straight. Put one hand at the top of the paddle holding the handle. Move your other hand just above the blade. If it's uncomfortable move it up until it feels better. I'm going to push the canoe a little deeper in the water so you can paddle."
She looked slightly frightened when I nudged the canoe.
"Don't worry. I got you." I smiled reassuringly and she relaxed.
"Put the blade in the water as far forward as you can reach. Make sure your bottom hand doesn't get wet because you'll end up with blisters. Don't lunge your body and keep the paddle vertical," I directed.
"Push your top hand forward and pull your bottom hand back. Pull the blade as far as your hip then take it out of the water. Turn it parallel to the water and carry it forward back to the starting position. There you go. Try it again," I encouraged. I let go of the canoe knowing it would not go far. I retrieved the other paddle and walked the short distance along the shore parallel to the movement of the canoe.
"Great! You got it! Now stop for a moment so that I can get in."
I pulled the canoe closer to the shore and got in the rear.
"Switch sides every so often so that you use your arms equally," I said when we began our journey.
After an hour of paddling close to shore, I rested my paddle on top of the canoe and took in the scenery. It was a beautiful day with a solitary cloud in the rich blue sky. The sea water was calm; a bare whisper of wind could be felt. The air was filled with the delicious perfumed scent of the white blossoms from the magnificent arbutus trees hanging overhead. The only sounds came from the cool water lapping against the side of the boat and the rhythmic splash of the blade of Cassie's paddle. Every so often we would hear a high-pitched call from an eagle perched in a treetop.
"Hey! You're not paddling!"
"Taking a break."
"But we're still moving," she said perplexed.
"You were paddling."
"But what? You thought you weren't contributing?" I asked gently.
"I..." She beamed and turned in her seat to paddle.
"Relax, babe. There's no rush. Enjoy yourself!"
We talked and laughed while we traveled at a light pace for four more hours until we arrived at our destination. As we pulled the canoe onto the shore Cassie turned to me.
"Chris? There's a Private Property No Trespassing sign. Can't we get into trouble?"
"No. I bought this piece of land last summer."
While we unloaded the canoe and set up camp, I told her of my plans to build a small cabin on the land and how I would be able to store items here and not lug everything on each trip. I glanced at her every so often when I thought she wasn't looking. She caught me once but didn't say anything. She also paid very close attention to me when I was tying down the tent. Cassie surveyed our campsite with a look of pride. The canoe was completely unloaded, and the tent was up. The sleeping bags and our personal items were inside.
"We work well together," she said.
"Yes we do," I said as I was setting up two compact canvas folding chairs I'd brought. After a day of paddling, there is no better treat than chairs with backrests. I stood up to stretch only to find Cassie standing next to me. The sweet scent of her perfume mingled with the smell of the outdoors was intoxicating. I leaned closer to her. She put her arms around my neck and pulled me to her.
"Thank you, Chris," she said timidly just before her lips touched mine in the sweetest kiss. I wrapped my arms around her and our barely covered flesh fit together as one.
"For what?" I asked dazed when her lips left mine.
"For asking me to come with you. For being so patient when you showed me how to paddle. For letting me help you with the campsite." She put her fingers on my lips when I tried to interrupt her.
"For not treating me like I'm incompetent or useless. For making me believe that I can contribute and that I'm your equal. For being you."
To my surprise, she leaned in and kissed me again. My heart soared, discovering not only that my shy friend wanted me but because she was initiating the kiss. We stood there kissing, exploring each other's mouths. We lost track of time until my stomach signaled that it was hungry by growling loudly which caused us both to erupt in a fit of laughter.
"Come on. Let's have some dinner," she said leading me by the hand.
"Where did you get all this food?" I asked looking at all the prepared food we took out of the cooler and bags.
"I made it last night. I love to cook."
"It looks delicious."
"Wait until you taste it," she said confidently and with good reason. The food was incredible, and I told her at every opportunity. I regaled her with tales of my misadventures in the kitchen, my lack of cooking skills, and how the microwave oven became my best friend. Her laughter warmed my heart.
After dinner, we watched the boats in the water, stealing glances at each other, the sun setting in the background. I went over to our bags and came back with some foil and several candles. I placed the candles on the foil and lit them.
"That's so smart," Cassie remarked.
"Well we don't need a big fire and this way our clothes won't smell like 'Eau de Woodsmoke' in the morning," I joked and she giggled.
"How do you feel about going out there again?" I asked extending my hand to her.
She smiled, taking my hand. I stopped to pick up the cooler.
"What's the cooler for?"
"To sit on," I said while putting the cooler in the canoe under the rear thwart.