I couldn't help notice my neighbor when we were setting up our stalls. For one thing, hers was right next to mine. For another, her compact, curvy frame moved with efficient grace as she set her paintings out for display. The big thing, though, was her cropped hair - an elegant cap the color of burnished steel. That, plus a face full of laugh lines (and a few others) really set her apart from the generally younger crowd of artists setting up for the fair. Having someone my own age right there made me feel a bit less ancient.
We were both set up comfortably before the gates opened, so she had time to change from jeans and sneakers into her "show" clothes. On her, that meant a linen jacket and slacks, barely-there sandals, and a gray blouse. The scoop neck wasn't especially daring, but her soft, heavy bust showed plenty of cleavage - and a pleasant bobble as she moved around the stall. She wore a wedding band, too. (C'mon, I'm a jeweler. I notice jewelry.) Outside of that, she had an un-fussy look: no makeup that I could tell, and short, neat nails.
She introduced herself, during the lull before the gates opened. "Hi, I'm Bette." She extended a hand in businesslike greeting.
"Beth?" My hearing isn't the best any more. "Dan. It's a pleasure." Her small, cool hand took mine in formal greeting. It always makes a good impression on me when a woman gives a real handshake.
"That's Bette." She accentuated the last 'T' sound. "You have some nice work here." She looked around the cases near the entrance to my stall. A lot of those pieces were priced to help a teenage boy impress a girlfriend. A few were meant to attract more discriminating buyers - Bette had zeroed in on those immediately.
"I'll be happy to show you more when things get quiet. And I'd like a tour of your paintings, too." A few of them were 'safe' subjects, mountain landscapes or girls in white dresses. They showed competence. I'm sure one or another would go with the colors in just about any living room. The abstractions really caught my eye, though. They covered a range of moods, often in colors that really wouldn't go with the couch - but good art never does.
"Sure. When do you take a break?"
"Monday," I answered. "It's just me here."
"Me too. I'm sure a moment will come up."
Once the gates opened, it didn't come until late afternoon. She's a social type, greeting anyone who came in, chatting with anyone chatty. I tried to look busy - an easy thing to do, when I had about six hundred more jump rings to link into the choker necklace I was working on, and more work after that. Some customers get a kick out of seeing me making the jewelry they might buy, and maybe buy it for that reason.
When the day warmed up, Bette hung her jacket over a chair. The blouse was short-sleeved, and showed a surprising tattoo on her upper arm. I offered her bottled water from my cooler, when a quiet moment came for both of us. I pointed to her arm and asked, "May I see?"
She showed me a relatively recent tattoo, still sharp-edged, not blurred with time, but completely healed. Two gold rings linked together, side by side, with a roses' stem woven between them. The name 'Mark' appeared below, along with three numbers. They looked like a year just a little after I was born, another just two years prior to the current date, and a third one between the two. Two years might be birth and death, the middle one puzzled me. I read it aloud, with a question inflection.
"That was the year Mark and I married."
"Wow. Not many couples last thirty five years, any more." She smiled, but somehow her eyes weren't smiling along. Cautiously, I asked about the third number.
"That's when he died." She could say it conversationally, despite the emotion behind the words. Then, rather than let me fumble saying something inept and sympathetic, she added. "Life goes on." I took the hint that the topic was closed.
Later that afternoon, the cell phone in her jacket pocket rang. She got to it and answered on the third ring. "Hello?" A pause, "Speaking. What can I do for you?"
I had a customer at that point, so didn't catch any more. Her tone of voice and gestures took on an angry edge. My non-buying customer wandered out about the same time she flicked the phone shut with a sharp click.
"What was that?" I asked cautiously - sometimes, anger overflows.
"That was my hotel, telling me I don't have a room after all. A construction crew broke the water main that supplies the place, and the board of health shut them down until the water comes back and they can flush the pipes. That will probably be tomorrow, but I'm still stuck for tonight."
"Ouch." I wasn't quite sure what to say. "So, what now?"
"They're trying to find another room for me, but they said it might take a while. Everything else is booked for miles around, because of this fair, and another hotel with the same problem was competing with them to find rooms for their customers. What about you?"
"I have a camper and a spot over at the state park. It sleeps two." Oops - that came out before I realized what I was saying. It does sleep two, but two together.
"Uh, Sam?" Here it comes, I thought, the appeal to my chivalry that I won't be able to turn down.
"Could you ... would it be OK if I ..." She wasn't quite sure how to ask.
"Stay in my camper? Sure - but when I said 'sleeps two,' that means one big bed. Big enough two and some space between them."
"Well, we're both grownups. Just sleep, right?"
I imitated a Boy Scout salute. "Just sleep."
The fair closed for the night long after dark. We both packed our stock up for the night. She loaded the paintings into a small pickup with a hard shell over the bed, and I moved my cases into a compartment in the back of my van.
"That's your camper?" She looked a little askance. Really, it's just a largish passenger van with a sleeping platform in the back. Extra headroom keeps it from being too claustrophobic, but two people in there would have trouble avoiding each other.
"If you don't want to ..."
She cut me off. "The only room the hotel could find for me was over an hour away." With a late night and an early start in the morning to set up again, that wouldn't give her rest. "Just sleep, right?"
She parked her pickup in the exhibitors' lot and grabbed a small overnight bag. I put it in the back of the van, and she got into the passenger's seat. The park was only a little way away. I parked and said, "I'll be right back." I rummaged for my toothbrush and toothpaste.
"Where are you going?"
"Men's room. I'll just be a minute."
"Wait, I'll go with you." Once she had her toiletry bag in hand, we walked to the only building in sight. She entered her door and I went into mine. After I finished, I waited outside and we walked back together. She stepped hesitantly through the side door of the van, into the lit interior.
I offered, "I could sleep on the floor. I have an extra blanket somewhere."
"Don't be silly. I'm not kicking you out of your own bed. The deal is, just sleep, right?"
"Grownups should be able to handle it." She started taking off her jacket. "Now, if you don't mind ..." A little twirling motion with one finger.
"Oh, right." I turned around and started undressing. I usually sleep buff, but kept my boxers and T-shirt tonight. I heard the zipper on her bag, some rustling, and the zipper again.
"OK, I'm all set." She had a black, over-sized T shirt on, and modest black panties. She crawled over to one side of the platform, and I moved as far as I could to the other side.
"Good night." I turned the lights out.
"G'night." She must have been dead tired. Her breathing turned slow and even with sleep in just a few minutes.
Some time later, I don't know when, I woke up in darkness. I was sleeping on my side, faced away, and found her hand on my hip. Looking over my shoulder, I saw that she had rolled halfway across, facing me. I tried to roll a little closer to the wall, out from under her hand. Her sleepy grip followed me, and she rolled closer. I had pretty much run out of running room at that point, and looked at her trying to figure out what to do next.
Then she woke up, all at once. She opened her eyes, saw me, and the dim light showed a terrified look. Her hand jerked away from me like I was a snake, and she started babbling.
"Oh, I'm so sorry. Dan, really, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean, I didn't ..."
I wanted to say, it's OK, you were asleep, let her know that I wasn't offended, but she kept on in an escalating stream. "Oh my god, I'm so sorry." She'd grab my hand, then flinch away from it, over and over. This was getting strange. She'd just touched me, but she was going on as if she'd just run over my daughter.
That teary catch worked into her voice, and grew. As she worked herself deeper into this frenzy, her voiced failed altogether, leaving only sobs that convulsed her whole body. At that point I had no idea what I was looking at, afraid to do anything and afraid to do nothing. I reached over and laid a gentle hand on her shoulder.
A moment later, she collapsed in onto herself and wailed, "I miss him so much."
It wasn't about me. This was about her, and about the marriage that lasted more than half her lifetime. I edged over and spread my hand across the corner of her shoulder, where she could brush it away if she wanted. She put her hand over mine and held it there, while the sobbing went on. "Dan? Hug me, please?"
I moved over and pressed my chest against the backs of her shoulders. I moved my hand from her shoulder to around her waist, trying to keep it brotherly. She backed into me, her round, soft hip against my lap, and laid her arm over mine.
After a while, the tremors quieted to sniffles and occasional sighs. She still held my arm around her, and my nose picked up the citrus scent of her hair. She seemed to ignore the erection pressed against her backside, and I tried to ignore it too. We lay in the darkness for some timeless time that seemed to go on forever. My next thought said, 'This will either work really well, or really, really badly.' I took the chance.
"Tell me about Mark."
Her breathing halted for a moment. She tensed under my hand and curled tighter, then rolled away from me. Her clothes projected blackness, she projected silence. I blew it. Wrong thing to say. I reached out to her shoulder again.
My hand held her upper arm for a moment, then she said "Mark was tall."
She and I froze, then the torrent began. Slowly at first, the words spilled out. The early years, including his residency, a birthday dinner, their children, his underwear on the floor, moving when her career demanded, all of it, in no order. After a while, she backed a little closer to me. I approached her too, carefully and cautiously. I let my arm curl around her just a little more, and she put her hand over mine. Soon, her back pressed against my chest, my arm encircled most of her little round tummy, and her thighs pressed against mine. I knew that awkward moment was coming.
Her bottom pressed into my lap, and against my erection. I have to take responsibility for it, of course, but this time I really can't accept blame. She bucked her hip forward, away. Damn.
Then she reached back and cradled it in her hand. Tears started again. She scooted back against me, moved my erection between her cheeks, and hugged my hand around her waist. The sobbing continued, but differently. I could have sworn there was a laugh mixed in. "Oh, god. Mark did that every night for thirty years, up against my bottom like that."
The babble continued, but differently. She hugged my arm around her waist, and backed into me until we touched almost from shoulder to knees. She kept talking as if her life depended on it, but something changed. What they did together, still, but more of how she felt. That flat tire in the rain, an inlaw dinner that melted down, being in labor for the first time.
She still had an arm over the one that I held around her waist. She moved it up, a little, til my thumb pressed the edge of her breast. I had my decades of happy marriage, too. Half-asleep, my hand fell into its old habit. I cupped the breast, outside the T-shirt, and her hand followed to cup mine in a heartbeat. I hadn't felt that in my hand in, well, too long.
Older women have charms that the under-forties don't even think about. Her breast had that rose-petal softness that firm young figures can't imagine. I had to shift my hand a few times to hold it properly, but it flowed into my grasp. I just held for a moment, until her story continued. Little moments of her life still spilled from her mouth, but they turned toward the warmer, more affectionate moments, even intimate one. Her hand cupped mine, she wanted it there, and I nuzzled her neck.
Her talk slowed and stopped. After a long silence, I whispered, "Bette ..."
"Please, I need a moment." Silence drew in again, but a different one. It wasn't about me, it was silence with meaning.
She held me closer, hugged my arm like a teddy bear, and said, "Mark says it's OK. He wants me happy." I didn't know how to answer that.
Her hand surrounded mine, mine surrounded her breast, and she tugged me close. She rolled toward me then, flat on her back, so all of my 'spooning' hold stopped making sense. She looked up into my eyes, through the darkness. It was my move. I shifted my hand across to the far breast, the far side, to cup that miracle softness until it mounded on her chest. I got up on one elbow, and looked down at her. I kissed her forehead, barely a touch, and leaned back again to look at her. She smiled, and pulled my head down again for a real kiss.
Our kisses lacked precision. Lip to lip happened often enough, but eyebrows, earlobes, even the edge of her nose came under my kisses. I wanted to touch every spot - perhaps, something special would open under the right kiss. She did the same, learning my unfamiliar landscape.
Then she found it, my earring. Just a click of teeth against it drives me close to the edge. A tug between the teeth, a gentle stretch of the lobe, drives me off the map. Did anyone wonder why I'm a jeweler?
The breast in my hand still filled it with womanly warmth. I massaged it with my thumb, feeling that delicate softness through her T shirt. My thumb found a gumdrop nipple, and she sighed when I stroked it.
My kisses trailed down the side of Bette's neck, to when it joined he shoulder. Her hand on the back of my head just held gently and followed. I worked farther down, across her shoulder, to the top of her chest. That hand on my head gave continued permission. My cheek found the softness of her breast, next, and the nub nipple. Through the cloth of her shirt, I took it between my lips. Her hand moved, then, to press my face into that pool of softness. I didn't resist. She pushed me away for a moment and lifted the shirt to expose her breast. I lifted the other side so they both showed pale in the moonlight, then my hand and mouth went back where they had been. I leaned up to kiss her face again, and carefully let the breast in my hand settle back to its natural, soft shape.
My roaming hand ranged down across her tummy. That little sway outward is one of the most feminine of curves, the one that so many magazine covers promise to "cure." I enjoyed it for a moment, and found her navel's indentation. I reached down, and touched that Maginot line, the elastic of her undies. I stopped. She stopped. Then her whole body sank into acceptance. I could touch.
Low on her tummy, where the abdomen curves into pubis, that's one of a lady's most enchanting curves. My hand slid outside her lingerie, lingering, and pressed against the full, fleshy bulge. Her legs parted, and I explored that wonderful curve. The thin cloth did nothing to hide the split between her labia, and I ran my finger along the indented line.
Bette tugged at my shirt until her hand could touch my skin directly. She explored, too, stopping when she found my nipple. I shivered - she pressed her palm against it, and moved on.
My fingertips had worked to the edge of her panty, near the crease of her thigh, but the cloth was stretched too tight to move easily. I went back to the waistband again, and slid my fingers just a half-inch in. Even though I wasn't touching her genitals, this seemed even more intimate.
"Oh, Dan. Go ahead. It's been so long." Her legs parted more widely, then my whole hand slid past the elastic. I stopped when my finger found that arch where her labia separated. It's one of the most magical spots on a woman's body. My fingertip fit it perfectly, so I let it nestle there before I moved on.
Then she took her hand out of my shirt, leaned up, and said, "This is ridiculous. We're not kids. Get that stuff off." She reached to peel her shirt off and I did the same. Then she lifted her hips, tugged her panties down to her thighs, sat back down, and kicked them off.
My boxers went in roughly the same direction, and we joined again. Bette lay on her back with arm up, beckoning. I lay down next to her again, and rolled a little on top of her. She made a small sound and said, "Could you lift up for a second?" She shifted her breast to a more comfortable position, then pulled me back down. Despite the light color of the hair on her head, he pubic showed dark in the dim light. My hand moved back to cover it, cup it. Then my fingers resumed exploration. I pressed against the soft folds, shifting to cover every part. I could feel that her open legs had moved the labia apart, exposing a new softness between them. I touched, gently, but didn't invade. Working back upwards, I found her clitoris. I wasn't sure she was ready for that much yet, so moved my hand to avoid over-stimulating it. Instead, I pressed deeply against the mons above, so that indirect pressure would touch her instead.
That seemed to be what she wanted. Her arms wrapped around me and pulled me down onto her. Her hands guided my head back for a long, deep kiss. She guided my head away, but kept it close and stared into my eyes. "Dan, I want to feel you inside. I've been empty for years and M-" she almost said his name. "And that's enough time."
My fingers moved lower to explore her invitation. The inner folds parted easily. A little lower, I felt the deep softness leading inward. A fingertip pressed in without resistance. I wasn't in a hurry. Just at the ring of muscle, the real entrance, I drew little circles with my finger.
"I don't have any protection."
She laughed and stroked my face, "You're such a gentleman. I'm long past needing that."
"But what about ..."
"Do you give blood?" Talk about mood-breakers.
"What?" I really had no idea where this was coming from.
"Are you a blood donor?"
"Yes," I answered truthfully. "I gave about three months ago."
"And I've donated twice this year. They screen every donation these days, so we've both had AIDS tests. And Dan - I'll just take a chance on everything else. It's been so long and M-" She stopped again. "It's OK. Really. Now get up here."
She tugged me on top of her - just direction, really, she wasn't strong enough to move me. I crawled up, then between her legs, supporting myself with both hands. I reached down between us, but found her hand there already. She held my penis gently, and rubbed it up and against her vulva. My pre-come let it slide easily. Then she guided it down to the edge of her vagina. She shifted her hips under me and lifted up. I was in, not all the way, but at the entrance. I lowered myself a little and pressed. I found that ring of muscle again. It stood against me for a moment, then parted. I stopped when the tip of my penis held it open and savored the moment.