My waitress Stella pushed a scrap of paper across the table. Her hand lingered for a second and my eyes were distracted by the glittery blue nail polish she wore. I wondered vaguely just how many different shades of polish she owned before my eyes landed on what she'd written. I stared in disbelief at what I saw: five letters, seven numbers, and a little heart drawn underneath.
"What's this?" I looked up at her, confused, and she leaned close and smiled.
"My number, silly."
"I can see that, but—"
"Elliot," she said, drawing my name out slowly and leaning closer. Her voice had a teasing lilt to it, and her plump mouth curved in a knowing smile, drawing my full attention. "Do you really not know? I've been flirting with you for months, waiting for you to ask me out." Her voice was low, but I glanced around unconsciously anyway, nervous of anyone listening. "I know you're single. And I've seen you checking me out, so I'm pretty sure you're not gay. I'm pretty sure you're interested..."
She continued leaning closer, bringing her face level with mine, and my eyes slid from hers, drawn to the view she was giving me down the front of her orange and yellow striped top.
"I've been thinking maybe you're too shy to ask, so...I decided I'd make it easier for you."
She paused and crossed her arms below her breasts. I watched her cleavage rise like mercury in a thermometer and felt my body respond as a rush of arousal sent my blood pumping fast. I had to drag my eyes back to meet hers.
"I want to get to know you better, Elliot. Somewhere where we can sit and talk for a while." She paused for a second, searching my eyes and then looked meaningfully at my coffee cup, which she'd just refilled. "How about coffee. Six-thirty. Ferris Bakery on Oaklawn Avenue." Those were statements, not questions. She cocked her head, still smiling. "You know it?"
I nodded and managed to croak out a noise of affirmation, my eyes inadvertently dropping again and zeroing in on the deep cleft between her soft breasts. When I looked back up at her, her smile had grown and her eyes shone with excitement.
"Awesome," she said brightly. "I'll meet you there."
And then she straightened, picked up the coffee carafe, turned, and flounced back to the kitchen, the fabric of her skirt swishing over her round backside, and I stared in complete disbelief, a little alarmed and a lot turned on.
She'd been my waitress for over a year, so she wasn't a total stranger, but it would be a stretch to say we knew each other in any meaningful way, more of an artificial but pleasant and not uncomfortable way. I knew her, but I didn't really know her, if you know what I mean.
I found it hard to believe she'd been flirting with me for months—with me. I'd noticed she was friendly, lingering at my table at times just to chat, touching my shoulder now and again when she laughed at something I said, but she was a naturally gregarious person, full of energy and always smiling, so I'd just assumed the attention she gave me was nothing special, it was simply how she treated her customers. But apparently I was wrong, as unbelievable as that sounded to me.
Her name seemed a perfect fit for her personality: Stella, Latin for star. She had a bright intensity, a friendly, open attitude about her, and the self confidence she possessed only made her seem brighter, more vibrant. She withheld nothing, voicing her opinions without hesitation, laughing easily and often, her face always busy with emotion. Many times I'd marveled at how comfortable she was in her own body, in the way she looked—her colorful clothes, her bright silver jewelry, the dyed streak of fire-engine red in her dark hair, and the way she moved through the room and the world. She had a power about her, an intangible something that people responded to. I could see it in the faces of her regular customers, the way they lit up when she greeted them. I know I never left the cafe without feeling a little better than I did when I came in. Even in the darkest days of my divorce, Stella made the world seem a little brighter.
And while she wasn't a classic beauty or a super model, she was beautiful, without question. She had big brown eyes and skin the color of caramel, possibly the result of bi-racial parentage, and a smattering of freckles across her nose, like stars. Her long, dark hair was wavy and she wore it in a thousand different configurations—up and down, braided and pinned, short then long, then short again, and more often than not, there was a streak or two of artificial color in it—bright red, copper orange, and once, even a deep purple. Before I met her I might have dismissed her as insecure, that her outrageous dress and hair were just bids for attention, but after being around her for a while, it was obvious that the way she looked, the way she dressed, the many tiny star tattoos that circled one wrist and swirled up her arm were all physical manifestations of her colorful personality.
I liked her. She was impossible not to like, and I confess to having looked at her from a less objective point of view than I normally viewed women. She didn't dress provocatively, but the striped leggings, the flared skirts and snug-fitting shirts drew and caught my eye, and once she had my attention, I found it hard to look away, impossible not to follow the curves of her body as she turned and moved. So, even though I'd never dreamed she'd be interested in me, never dreamed she'd be a woman I could approach, let alone have anything in common with, I did allow myself to check her out now and then; I'm only human, after all.
She was around 5'4" with a full backside and breasts—curvaceous in a sensual way, the lines of her young body pulled my eyes along like a car on a roller coaster. She inhabited her body with remarkable ease, her hips swaying and her breasts bouncing as she hustled around the room filling coffee and removing empty plates. And smiling—always smiling. She was the definition of sexy, a word I had let slip from my vocabulary ten years into my marriage.
The last time I'd been on a date I was in college. That was more than twenty-five years ago. It was an understatement to say I was out of practice with women. I definitely was, but more than that, I was out of my depths with a beautiful young woman like Stella, and utterly confused by her advance. What did she want? Was she really attracted to me? Was this a date to her, or just what she'd said—coffee, a chance to get to know each other better? Somehow, given the way she'd presented her lovely breasts to my view, the way she'd waited, making sure I looked, and the smile she'd worn once my eyes had made their way back to hers, I thought—however insane the idea was—that she wanted more than conversation.
The bakery was crowded inside, but I caught sight of Stella right away. She was at the counter talking with a good-looking guy her age. He had a huge smile on his face, a smile I recognized from other customers in the cafe when they talked with Stella, one I suspected I wore as well when she lingered at my table to chat. She was wearing a tailored, yellow denim jacket and a peacock blue skirt that ended just above her knees. I was accustomed to seeing her in tights and leggings, often patterned or bright colors, but tonight her legs were bare, and instead of the usual her usual work footwear—a seemingly endless variety of colorful sneakers with even more colorful laces—she had on a pair of heeled shoes in a shiny yellow patent leather.
I watched her toss her head as she chatted, saw the boy smile back, obviously entranced, and thought they looked like a good couple—same age, both attractive. So how it me, meeting her? When she turned and saw me and smiled, I felt warm all over and the how seemed much less important.
"You made it," she said. "I was worried you wouldn't come." She clasped her hands in front of her face, grinning, and when she spoke her voice went momentarily shrill, her words caught in a squeal of delight. "I'm so excited!"
"I uh—I did," I said lamely, taken aback by her genuine enthusiasm. I was aware of the boy behind the counter staring at me with interest. I couldn't imagine what he was thinking. "Have you been waiting?"
"No, just got here." She continued to smile, her eyes focused on mine. "Your timing is perfect."
We got coffees, paused at the bar next to the cash register so she could add cream and sugar—three sugars, I noticed—and headed toward a table at the far side of the room. It was crowded and I followed Stella, noticing how easily she navigated the maze of chairs and elbows and heads—clearly a skill she'd picked up waiting tables.
She took off her jacket at the table and draped it on the back of her chair before she sat down, and my eyes were drawn to the pale yellow top she was wearing, or, to be more specific, the way it draped across her breasts and the unmistakable protrusion of hard nipples beneath the thin fabric.
"Wow, it's totally packed in here," she observed, glancing around the room. "I hope you don't mind."
I shook myself and sat down.
"No, I don't mind at all."
"Good. I love this place. They make the best cupcakes and cakes." She smiled. "Sooo...Elliot." She picked up her cupcake and began to peel the paper from the bottom, her head tilted slightly in amusement as she did. "I have a zillion questions to ask you."
"You do? A zillion?"
"At least. I want to know all about you. Tell me everything."
She took a bite of her cupcake and looked at me expectantly. I was surprised by the way she leaped into the conversation—no chit chat, no warm-up—and not sure how to respond. Not to mention, her interest in me was confusing. Exciting, but confusing.
"That's a pretty broad topic...what do you want to know?"
She shrugged, her mouth still full.
"Ah, let's see. Not a lot to tell." I wasn't sure what about me would interest her, or what I had to share that she'd want to hear, but as I searched my brain for something of interest, I realized just how true it was; there wasn't much to tell. What had I done with my life so far? What had I accomplished?
"I work downtown, at the courthouse as a clerk," I said. "It sounds more important than it is," I added, seeing her expression of interest. "It's interesting, but it's more or less a glorified secretarial position."
"Secretaries are what keep businesses running," she said matter-of-factly. "Big wigs would lose their wigs without a good secretary."
She took a sip of her coffee, still studying me.
"That's true, but it's not a very glamorous job."
"Hmm. Not like waiting tables," she said. "Now that's glamorous. Everybody wants to be a waitress."
I laughed, my embarrassment eased a little.
"Tell me more," she said, picking up her cupcake again. "Tell me where you live. What do you like to do? Hobbies, sports, all that. You were married, right? Tell me about that—about your wife. Did you guys have kids? Pets?"
"Woah," I said, laughing. "Slow down."
"Told you," she said, looking at me seriously. "I have a zillion questions. This is just the tip of the iceberg, mister."
I answered each question in turn while she finished her cupcake, a self-conscious excitement building inside me. My whole body was buzzing with a strange arousal. I hadn't talked so much about myself in my whole life, and to have this beautiful girl's attention on me as I did was a heady experience. Every question I answered made her think of two more, and her interest in everything I said seemed genuine.
She wasn't afraid to ask direct or personal questions, which I found as refreshing as I found it frightening. I couldn't believe the things I was saying out loud, let alone out loud in a crowded bakery. I was grateful for the chaotic atmosphere and the music as I was pretty sure no one around us could hear.
She wanted to know all about my wife and our marriage, and as I told her, she reacted with such honest emotion I found myself describing the way our sex life had dwindled, how my wife's modesty had grown and I, through what I thought was love and respect for her doubts about her body and her sexual desire, had given her more space, leaving her feeling even more conflicted and insecure.
"Her childhood was more strict than mine," I said. "I had my share of Catholic guilt about sex, but it was nothing compared to hers. I guess it's harder for women.
"Looking back, I'm not sure she ever enjoyed sex. Maybe when we were in college, when we first met it was exciting and new, but after we got married..." I trailed off, remembering. "I think she tried, but her beliefs were at odds with her desires, and by the time our son left for college the space between us was just too big, and she had filled that space with religion," I said. The painful memory stung for a second. "So in a way, she didn't need me anymore; she had God."
"Ironic," Stella commented. "Sounds like religion is what made sex a problem to begin with."
I nodded, impressed by her astute observation. "Exactly."
"I feel bad for your wife," she continued. "I mean, I can tell it was no picnic for you, but she's really missing out, not enjoying sex. I know it's not the most important thing in life, but it's a really nice thing in life, you know? We spend so much of our lives feeling miserable and worrying about things. It's a shame sex can't just be fun and relaxing. Instead, it makes people feel guilty and sinful."
I watched her chase a pink sprinkle across her saucer until she trapped it under her finger. "I love sex," she said dreamily, almost to herself. Then she lifted her finger to her mouth and her eyes to mine and watched me watch her wrap her lips around her fingertip and suck. She withdrew the finger with a soft kissing sound and smiled. "Don't you?"
"I—ah..." My words left me for a moment and I noticed with alarm that I was getting hard.
"Drive me home, Eliot," she said, shifting her weight and standing. "We can talk more in the car."
The abrupt change of focus confused me for a second, but I followed her lead, watching her shrug her yellow jacket on. She flipped her brown hair over her shoulder and smiled at me. No, she beamed. "Where did you park?"
She followed me out onto the street into the chilly spring evening. Immediately she looped her arm through mine and pressed herself against my side. I tried not to show my shock, but I was pretty sure she saw it in my face when she looked up at me.
"Oooh it's cold," she squealed. "What is this? I thought it was Spring."
I caught sight of our reflection in the window of the dark store next to the bakery and stared, almost surprised to see it was real. There was bright Stella, in yellow and blue, clinging to my arm, while I nearly disappeared into the dim evening in my grey suit. But it was real—I felt the heat of her body and the pressure of her elbow linked with mine.
"Which way?" She tugged at my arm lightly and I shook myself and looked around, not sure at first which way I'd come.
We walked for a few blocks, Stella hanging on my arm, still asking questions. I was aware of people glancing at us and wondered if they thought I was her father, if they even noticed me at all. I knew why they were looking at her; she was nearly impossible to ignore.
We were a block from the car when I managed to turn the conversation around. I'd been longing to ask my own questions all evening, but she'd dominated the conversation so skillfully I hadn't had a chance.
"Enough about me. It's your turn," I said. "Tell me about you."
I listened with interest as she spoke, stealing glances as we walked, enjoying the curves of her profile, my eyes lingering on her plump lips. Each new fact she relayed was more surprising than the last.
"I grew up in total chaos. I had a very loving family, but they were a mess—big on vices and with no self control. They're not mean or violent or anything like that, but they can't resist pleasure and they can't help but go to the extreme." She paused, thoughtful for a second. "I guess I should include myself in that, but I'm not nearly as out of control as my mom and her siblings. I think I have at least a little self-control."
She looked at me then and when I met her eye she smiled slyly, a hint of a wink in the way her eyes narrowed.
"Anyway," she said, holding my gaze for a few heartbeats, and making my heart race. "They're all big drinkers, and gamblers and womanizers, well the men anyway. My mom wasn't into gambling, but she was a real pleasure-seeker. She was really young when she started having sex. I don't know how young, but she had me when she was 16.
"There was always drama in the house—my uncles were always getting into trouble, getting arrested and stuff. They were wild, and my grandmother couldn't do anything to tame them. Believe me, she tried. She was tireless. Kind of scary to think of how much more trouble they would have gotten into if she hadn't been there."
Stella sighed and I felt her snuggle against me a little more, as if seeking my warmth or comfort. "My poor grandmother. She was the most devoted and patient mother, but she had her hands full with my mom and her brothers. I honestly think they just wore her out. And my grandfather was great, but not any help in that respect—he just left it all to her to sort out because she was the woman and the kids were her job. She always said she felt more like a lion tamer than a mother."
Stella was quiet for a second and I glanced at her, wondering what she was thinking.
"You were close to your grandmother?" I guessed.
"Oh yeah, we all were. I mean, her kids were a mess, but they loved her. Even my uncles and my mom—when they left, they still called her all the time."
"Your mom left?"
We'd reached my car and I held the door as she slid into the passenger seat. My mind was busy with her story, but my eyes didn't miss the sight of her legs as she lifted them and swung them into the car, giving me the briefest glimpse of her smooth inner thigh beneath her skirt.
I closed the car door and came around the back, aware again of how turned on I felt. A thought raced through my brain with equal parts alarm and excitement: I'm driving her home. Would she want me to come in? Would I, if she asked?
"She just couldn't do it," Stella continued once I was seated in the car. "She was just a kid when I was born. I mean she was young, but she was also really immature emotionally. She wasn't ready to be a mom, she wanted to keep partying and having fun, so she took off."
"She just left?" I asked, amazed.
"Just didn't come home one night. She'd done it before, but she'd always shown up early in the morning, so it didn't scare my grandparents too much at the time, but then she called the next day and said she wasn't coming back for a while. She'd hitched a ride with some guy and was going to Florida."
"She didn't come back?" I was incredulous.
"Oh, she did. But not for three years, and then she didn't stay for long before she met some other guy and went off with him. She called all the time, though, and after a while I think I just didn't think it was weird she wasn't here.
"I don't remember missing her, really. That probably sounds awful, but I had my grandparents, and the house was always busy with neighbors and family friends around...and I had school friends, and cousins." She shrugged. "I don't know, it sounds worse than it was. I mean, it was hard on my grandmother, it's probably what killed her—the stress—but I had a very happy childhood."
She shifted her legs, uncrossing and crossing them again, and I couldn't help my sideways glance. She saw me looking and smiled.
"What else do you want to know?"
I was still recovering from all the information she'd given me, unable to imagine a family in so much trouble. Stella was impulsive, that was obvious, but she didn't seem reckless, not self-destructive like that, but I couldn't help wondering if she was less in control than she seemed.