She blocks my view when she sits next to me on the bench by the marina. Then realizes it. "Oh, sorry," she says, half-turning to me. "Do you want me to move?"
She is very pretty in a fragile, elegant kind of way but with a severe, even angry look. "No, no, it's fine," I replied, not really bothered.
I'm just resting after a long walk. A boat had caught my eye when she sat down and interrupted my view. With her now there I'm trying to look around her but it's impossible so I briefly focus on her instead and admire a nicely trim body that could be 50 years old.
I settle back. It's a beautiful day, everyone is out and wearing as little as possible. A couple are at each other on a bench across from us, too aggressively for my comfort.
The woman notices them, too. "Ah, love," she says with discomfort before she looks away.
"Wasted on the young, eh?"
I mean it as a throw away but she turns to me with a rather challenging look. "What's that supposed to me?"
"Shaw?" She looks harder at me, a little more confused now.
"I was quoting George Bernard."
"Ah, yes." She turns away. "Sorry again."
I sit in silence for another few seconds then stand — I don't need the angst. "I'm sorry to be ruining your day."
She looks up at me. She isn't combative any more. She is tired, her visage is etched with ennui if not despair. I'd bet she is pathetically lonely and lost. She doesn't have a ring on her finger.
I didn't plan it; I don't do these kinds of things; it just comes out. Yes, I think I want to piss her off a bit but after watching those kids I'm feeling a little lonely myself, as lonely as she appears. I look at her sternly. "It seems to me you could use a little of that." I gestured to the couple across from us. "I'll be back here at 7."
And I am back at 7. I sit down beside her.
"I gather you agree," I said to the empty bench across from us.
She doesn't say anything, she's just looking straight ahead where the couple had been.
I didn't expect her to be here but now that she is, I didn't plan to waste any time. "I'm staying with my brother. Can we go to your place?"
She looks at me, as stern as before, sizing me up. She gets to her feet and starts walking. She has said nothing, given me nothing, so I sit there until she stops and looks back at me. I get up and join her, we walk without words until we near what I gather is her condo. I stop as she heads up her walkway. "I'll go get a bottle of wine. It'd be nice if you got into something a little ... beguiling, you know, just to hint that you might be interested."
She stops, looks back at me with a mixture of shock and anger then turns and walks on.
I'm back in about 20 minutes and I'm surprised when she lets me in. I was sure she wouldn't. She's wearing a short shift that reaches down just past her knees. It's surprisingly colourful, almost African in its vivid opulence. Three of the five buttons on the neck are open. She could be a strikingly attractive woman if she wanted to be. Instead, she appears haggard and ill-kept with an air of somber repression.
I follow her into a tidy kitchen where she has two glasses set on a counter. There is a cheap corkscrew beside the glasses. She leaves me to open the wine and continues into the next room. I meet her in the living room, sit down on the couch beside her and pour the wine.
She allows me to clink my glass on hers. I sit back and look around. My first and lasting impression is that she bought the place furnished. It has all the joy of a hotel room. The only personal touch is a few newspapers stacked beside a chair in front of a small TV.
"I'm to take it on blind faith that you aren't diseased." She has an interesting voice. It is low, almost sultry ... and accusatory.
This is going to be a challenge. "As am I," I say, trying to hide my irritation.
She hasn't looked at me since I got in the house. She's looking straight ahead, at nothing. "I've been faithful to abstinence for a long, long time."
I nod. "A bachelor for 5 years. Wife died. I've been true to her memory but I'm getting tired of it ... the truthfulness, not the memories."
She continues looking straight ahead. "So you thought you'd give me a whirl."
I smile, but she doesn't see it. "I like to bet on really long odds."
Her voice is unusually cold. "Beware of what you win."
I turn, sit back and deliberately inspect her. "I'd like to win. You've very handsome." There is some grey in her otherwise long black hair falling past her shoulders. If she applied even a little make-up to her thin handsome face she could easily be exceedingly attractive; without it she looks, washed-out, run-down, even a bit depressed — defeated.
She is uncomfortable with my eyes on her. "I said beware of what you win, not be a-ware " I thought I might have detected a slight smile.
"Ah," I said, crossing my legs. "Are you always so trusting to complete strangers? I could be a ... well, I could be a not very nice fellow."
She is still looking rigidly straight ahead but her shoulders are a little more hunched now, as if this encounter is wearing her down. "I'm not sure I care."
Troubling, but I am here to be interested. Conquests are a thing of the past. "But you do want me here?"
She thinks about this for quite a long time as if she doesn't really know the answer. "Yes, I suppose I do. I think it's about time I brought a man home with me — 15 years is a long time."
"More like 16, we weren't on speaking terms near the end."
"Kids?" I probed, seeing a little of her humanity emerge,
"Two. 28 and 27. Both girls, women now. One is gay the other is ... well, maybe the sexual equivalent of the atheist, I don't know what she is." Her position and demeanour hadn't changed a jot.
"Two for me," I said, cheerfully. "One of each, or is it one of both? I've always felt that 'each' should only apply to a quantity greater than two, while both is always the either-or of two. Both married, five grandkids ..."
"And happy ever after." She sounds bitter.
"Usual struggles. No pictures, I promise."
A prolonged silence ensues which I am determined to wait out.
And she does, too until finally she says, "Look, I don't mean to be impatient but should we just go upstairs?"
I'm a little taken aback by the suddenness of this but try to hide it. "I'm going from an aging memory here but I seem to recall that I always preferred knowing a little something about the women I sleep with. A name, for instance. Call it old fashion."
She is quiet. She sips her wine nervously. There is no way she is enjoying this. "I'm a tax lawyer. I'd retire tomorrow if I had anything better to do. I do crosswords in front of the television," she points in its direction. "With the sound off. I read popular fiction for the vicarious thrills. I'm referred to behind my back as Strappy, though my name is Alicia Stroppard. I've vowed to clean this place on Wednesdays but I usually do it on Saturdays, too because I never have anything better to do. On Sundays I go to church, seldom the same one. I sit in the back row. I don't believe in God and I can't carry a tune but church gives me a reason to get out of bed." For the first time she looks over at me. "Now are you ready to go?"
"Almost," I say, touching her arm. "Maybe we can start here." When I gently encourage her to lie back I have no idea what to expect. She doesn't resists me. She puts her glass down then leans against me as if fulfilling an order. I wrap my arm lightly around her and gently squeeze her into me.
She lies still for a full minute before she says, "What are you doing?"
"I'm holding you."
She rests her head against my chest. "That's what I thought."
I haven't had a woman in my arms, even as awkwardly as this, for a long, long time. It feels wonderful, even knowing this woman doesn't want to be there — still, it's a warm breathing body. My pulse quickens just feeling her breath against my shirt.
She flinches when I run my fingers down her neck. I wait for her to calm then do it again, slowly, I run them up and down the side of her neck then up into her hair, gently tugging at it like Wendy, my wife, liked. I do this for awhile, maybe a few minutes then she looks up and asks, "What do you want me to do?"
"You're not enjoying this. I'd like you to try."
"Why?" Her single word has a ring of hopelessness.
"Because that's the objective and I think you'd like to."
I am uncomfortable, how can I not be? I'm 51 years old, I'm bent awkwardly into the corner of a not very comfortable couch and I am trying to comfort a woman who may well be beyond comforting. But I like that I am trying; I like that there is a bottle of wine in front of me and another cooling in the fridge, and I like that this troubled woman might actually get something useful out of this ... and I like the challenge.
I rake the backs of my fingers across her cheek. Lightly. Then I drag them down to her throat and, remembering the open buttons, down her chest. She stiffens so I don't go any further than the second button, I just play up and down her throat for awhile as I listen to her breathing.
After a few minutes she reaches out for her glass and seeing this I help her up so she can drink. I drink, too and after we put our glasses down she leans back on me but higher now so her head is touching my jaw.
I caress her arm — it is the easiest piece of her to reach. I'm feeling good about this because I have nothing else to do and I'm doing it with a fellow human being.
Her voice is almost a whisper, I just barely hear her. "I don't do anything for you, do I?"
I only detect her sadness. "What do you mean?" I have dropped my hand down and am gently caressing the back of her hand.
"You aren't hard."
Ah. This is the first time I've had to deal with this. I've always expected it to happen; hoped it would. "It's not you, believe me. I had my prostate out last year. I'm not as responsive as I once was; it doesn't usually like the evenings much. It's more of a morning guy."
Her mind is ticking over, I can feel it. "Then why are you here?"
I squeeze her hand hoping to connect with her. "Those two on the bench were cuddling, Alicia, they weren't having sex. They were enjoying touching each other."
She doesn't move a muscle and the silence seems deafening. Finally she whispers, "I haven't said 'I'm sorry' for years. Today I've said it twice. 'I'm sorry,' there, three time."
She relaxes a little on me. "I'm just sorry."
I hold her tighter. She has a slight tremble but she isn't fighting me.
I hold on to her for longer than is comfortable. When I feel her stir I release her0.
. We reach for our glasses again and drink, both with our own thoughts.
"I haven't played this very well, have I?" She's looking over but not really at me.
"I wanted to hold you, that was the point, like those kids were holding each other on the bench. I have. I've enjoyed it. I feel a little more charged — you can feel empty when you're alone."
She stares ahead. "I thought it would be over by now: I would have opened my legs ... done my bit to get back in the game. I would have failed, of course but at least I would have tried and I could get on with my final decade."
I think about this for a minute, the despair and the hopelessness. I pick up the wine bottle and pour. "To quote a not very original but oh so defensive tax lawyer, 'I'm sorry.'"
When I fill her glass she picks it up and salutes me. "Well, at least she's succinct."
I don't want to leave but the moment has come. I drink the half measure I poured myself and am considering my exit line.
But she interrupts my thoughts. "I haven't done this in years, in decades but I'd like to get a little drunk tonight ... with you ... ah, ... you do have a name." When she looks at me, for the first time all evening, she seems genuinely curious.
I nod with some gravitas. "I do, yes, a given name, given to me by my parents. And a surname, too, endowed to me by my patrimony which records show, was legitimate."
She is looking at me as I speak and when I finish her eyes go blank for an instant then she chuckles, a remarkably husky chuckle, like her voice but more guttural, as if it comes from a place of real depth. "No one has ever called me Strappy ... that I know of, and my name isn't Alicia Stoppard, though I like it. I'm Erica Curtis."
"Allan Carsten," not caring about her lie.
"Well, Allan Carsten, I will never get a little drunk without you so will you stay?"
"Not if I can't take my shoes off."
She edges over to the far side of the couch, leans against the arm, tucks her feet under her and she watches me take off my shoes. "How does that feel? Not being able to perform?"
As I'm kicking off my shoes I'm wondering if I shouldn't be using them to beat a hasty retreat. "It's a little frustrating, as you can imagine. Or can you? You're giving me the distinct impression that you're relieved by my admission."
She eyes me cooly. "I gave it a try. I can't be faulted if it didn't work out."
I sit back flexing my toes. "And that's important? That you tried and you can't be faulted?"
"I've never done anything like this before." I assume she is referring to inviting a strange man home. "It took courage I didn't think I have."
I know better but I really am trying to get comfortable: I put my stocking feet up on the coffee table. "Looks to me like you're more relieved you don't have to have sex than you are proud of yourself that you were willing to go for it."
She shrugs indifferently, "OK." She sips and then sort of shakes the glass at me. "What happens? It doesn't get stiff enough for penetration? Do you get any of the sensations? What?"
I have never talked about this with anyone. I'm surprised that I don't mind. "Well, take now for instance. I could probably get it to cooperate, to get penetration but it's not all that interested. But that doesn't mean I'm not. I haven't been with a woman in this way for a long time so, ya, there are sensations, pleasant sensations, lots of them."
"Like the good old days?"
"They are less to do with lust and more to do with the comforting feeling of intimacy. I liked holding you, Erica. It may not have given me an erection but I didn't enjoy it any the less. And I could have given more, it just seemed like it wouldn't have been welcomed."
She smiles. "We're quite a pair, aren't we. The halt and the lame."
"I don't feel like that, do you?"
She gets back on track. "So you have the same sort of feelings, just not the same ... ability?
"That's about it."
"No, not really. More like diminished expectations."
She shifts, sips from her glass, then looks over the rim and says, "How do you know all this? You said you haven't been with a woman since the operation."
"Ah, that." She turns away, obviously uncomfortable.
"We're not into that?" I ask, inquiringly. Is she frigid? Is that what she was referring to with 'halt and lame?'
She looks at me cooly and reaches her glass toward me for a re-fill. "So how does that work exactly? Muscles, ligaments?
I refill her glass then my own. "Blood flow I think but I don't really know." It occurs to me in an instant. It felt ridiculous, absurd but I am now looking on this woman as a lost challenge that I didn't yet want to lose. Anyway, she seems interested so I decide to up the ante — vastly up the ante. "Want to see?"
Her eyes had been concentrating on a piece of fluff she was picking from her dress. They shoot up and search my eyes. But just for an instant before she assumes that same cool, dispassionate, slightly condemning look. "Yes, if it's flaccid, I think I would."
I stand up and drop my pants and underwear to the floor as if it was the most natural thing in the world for me to do, then I turn to her holding my limp dink.
She sips while studying me over her glass. "Not very threatening."
I sit down and lean back and stroke myself a few times with my thumb and forefinger — I did this to try to wipe the imperious smirk from her eyes. "It'll come around a bit but no, it's not very threatening."
Alternatively, she looks at it and me as if trying to figure something out. Finally, her feet come out from under her, she sits up, leans towards me and looks at me. "Can I?" She is just about to reach for me.
I instantly see this as a chance to find out more about her. "No. I'd rather you touch yourself."
She sits back trying to cover her shock. "And why would I want to do that?"
"For both of us, Erica. The halt and the lame will be helping each other." I feel totally ridiculous now — way too out there but her aloofness is pissing me off. I want to shock her from her inhibitions and maybe loosen her up — or inspire my quick exit.
When she hesitates, the depth of my embarrassment is catching up to me. I am just about to re-clothe and bolt when she says, "You've figured me out, have you? You know I don't touch myself."
"Why not?" I thought this might be true. "It can be a wonderfully relaxing sensation and it can inspire some amazing thoughts. You must know that." I still had myself between my fingers but the stroking had stopped with the drama.
She's looking away. "I think you have to like yourself before any of that can happen."
"Then do it for me. I guarantee you I'll find it a wonderful sensation."
I can see she is wrestling with this. I let her. She had expected sex. Was she going to do this as a proxy? I look away now very lightly flogging my limp penis. If she declines I will quickly get up, get dressed and get out of there, feeling all the better for this wacky experience. She moves.
She stands up. She hikes her dress to her waist, she leans down, strips off her panties and sits back down with both feet on the couch, her legs open slightly and the tips of her fingers poised in her black pubic hair. "Is this so easy for you?" she says, looking through her knees.
"I was trying to shock you, Erica," I laugh, "and I sure as hell am shocking myself. If it didn't work I'd leave and deal with my embarrassment later." I am aware that she is moving her fingers down. I take a peek. She has her legs just barely apart but I can see that she has entered herself with a single finger. And I can see her struggle. She is painfully tentative.
"I don't want you to go, Allan. I don't know how this is going to turn out but I don't want you to go. OK?"
I feel for this woman. She is a very troubled soul. "I'll stay as long as you're trying. When you give up trying, I'll give up." I don't pretend any more. I look at her but I can't see much. "Open your legs."
She does, obediently but slowly. "I planned to finish reading my book tonight. And do my puzzle, of course." She seems to be concentrating, as if doing something that requires undivided attention.
"You might not like me saying this but I think you look really, really sexy."
She smiles genuinely for the first time. "So do you, in a male kind of way." She looks down at me. "The weirdness wears off pretty fast, doesn't it? Now it's merely surreal."
"You never did this with your husband?"
She abruptly takes her hand away, sits up, and reaches for her glass.
"I mean it, Erica. If you quit I do, too."
I almost laugh when she absently forces her left hand back between her legs as she drinks from her glass. "I don't have a lot of fond memories there, Allan. Maybe if we leave him out of this ...
"Can you go on being miserable, spiteful and angry? Have you ever seen a shrink?"
She nods, "For awhile, during the roughest part."
"She helped, I'm still alive ... if barely."
"Hating all men?"
"Only the ones who tried to get close to me and there haven't been any of those for years."