Fifth Place

byrpsuch©

"So the cupboard is so bare you're reduced to giving me a shot. You are in desperate straits."

"Nice sense of humor yourself," she said. "So when did the ballroom craze hit you?"

"Long time ago. I used to dance with my wife. We took lessons too. Then eventually she said it wasn't fun anymore so we stopped going." I shrugged.

She had been looking at me for the entire conversation. A look passed across her face and was gone. I don't know if it was sadness or disappointment that her life had led her to actually consider what must have seemed like second class romance with me. Or was it just concentration?

I parked and Karen opened her own door. "The independent woman," she said to me with an enigmatic smile.

The first number was a Foxtrot and she followed flawlessly. That encouraged me to try more complicated steps even though she might not know them or have ever seen them. She followed as if we had been dancing together for years. When it ended, all Karen had time to say was, "Wow," before a swing number started up.

Again she followed effortlessly and when the number ended she threw back her head, and her hair, and was laughing.

We sat to catch our breath. "That was really fun. You're a terrific leader. I never even saw some of that stuff, but I could tell exactly what you wanted. People who don't dance, don't get the connection you develop from doing it. More."

No, they don't. I get to put my arm around a woman and hold her much closer than would be possible, or permissible, in any other public context. Our faces are so close to each other. When you see people that close in the movies, it feels uncomfortable somehow. But dancing, it is natural. I get to hold her soft hand in mine. I get to move with her and she matches my moves exactly. It is as if there is only one mind, shared between us, moving two bodies. There is no struggle of wills. I ask, she accepts. If she has time, and it doesn't mess up the rhythm, she may throw in an additional movement or wiggle or gesture. I'm in charge, but we share the experience. It's almost spiritual. Maybe not almost.

We danced for about two hours. It was time to go. Karen leaned her head back, stretched her arms, closed her eyes and let out a sound, "Aaaaaaahhhh. That was fabulous. No matter what happens between us, if you ever want to go out dancing, you call me. It was wonderful just to let go of all control and do whatever you asked. It's almost like I was a submissive tonight."

"So I'm a Dom?"

"A leader; a no-equivocation, no-hesitation leader." She was shaking head as if in disbelief. She added a shrug. "Get me out of here before I get carried away." She hugged me tight, moving her head to the side of mine so there was no possibility of kissing. "Thank you. I don't think I've had a better date."

She told me where she lived and I only needed instructions at the end.

"I'm sure it's completely obvious, but in the wildly unlikely event that you missed it, I'd like to pursue this," I told her.

"I can't remember when I've heard it more romantically put. We, I've never developed such a strong connection so quickly. I'd be interested in pursuing this even if you were only looking for a mistress."

Then, after a brief time of looking at each other and sorting through our own thoughts, we moved together as easily as a perfect lead and follow and kissed for a considerable time. Karen was pressed against me as we explored each other's teeth and tongues and passion. Then we separated, understanding that I had to get home. It had not been brief, but it was all too brief. I was noticeably aroused. She noticed.

"Is your wife going to get the benefit of that?" Karen asked, glancing down.

"Probably not." I made a facial expression I thought to be the equivalent of a shrug. "I'll call you."

"And I'll call you if you don't."

Chapter 2

"And goodnight to the old lady whispering 'hush.'

"Good night stars.

"Goodnight air.

"Goodnight noises everywhere." I knew Justin was asleep. He would definitely have joined in with "hush," had he been awake. He was already past three, but I suspected I might have to keep reading him Goodnight Moon until he graduated high school.

I put down the book, turned out the light and headed to the kitchen where Nancy was studying at the table. Earlier, she had told me she needed some help with Social Studies. In this particular case, she was having trouble remembering some names and dates. I was tempted to tell Nancy that the reason she was having trouble was that nobody really ought to care, and that the names and dates were mostly irrelevant. What was important were the concepts of why things happened and the general time periods in which they happened, the flow of history. I was tempted, but I didn't. I remembered the math incident.

My younger brother Richard had a very unpleasant encounter with an algebra test. Actually, it was really an unpleasant encounter with an algebra teacher. Richard had understood all the material covered in the test and used the concepts correctly except for the slight problem that he was careless with his arithmetic. Sometimes he would use the multiplication sign, but add the numbers. Sometimes he would subtract instead of divide. All of the correct formulae and symbols were right there on his paper except for some of the final answers. And to this written proof of his understanding of the concepts, his teacher had affixed a red "55."

Mom said Dad should do something. Dad said that Richard had to learn to be more careful. I tried to explain to dad what a complete understanding of the material Richard had shown. I passionately argued that the answers were of minimal importance compared to understanding in order to correctly lay out the problems. Dad was unmoved. So I decided to visit his teacher on Parents' Night.

I confidently strode into the correct room. After all, I was a senior. Richard was a ninth grader. "I'm looking for the engineering teacher, Mr. Werth."

"I'm Mr. Werth, but I'm the math teacher," he said.

"No, that isn't possible. I'm looking at this paper, and the engineering teacher marked many of these problems incorrect because the final numbers were wrong which, of course, is the correct approach in engineering. Do that kind of sloppy work and the bridge will fall down. But, if you were a math teacher, you would understand that the final answer is almost irrelevant. What is important is understanding the concepts and how to do the problems. I want to talk to the other Mr. Werth; the one who understands mathematics, not the guy who builds stuff."

I had meant to focus him on what was important in math, understanding the concepts. I thought this approach would bring clarity. He thought I was being insulting. He said as much to the principal, who demanded an apology on behalf of Mr. Werth the following day. Rather than proffer the requested apology, I sought to elucidate. "Look at this handout. Look at all these extraneous steps. No wonder this dufus can't recognize when a test is done correctly, he doesn't even understand the material himself. Math is about concepts, not answers. He thinks he's teaching engineering. Look at these steps. They're here because he doesn't understand the basic concept that both sides of an equation --"

That was as much as I got to say. The principal was not concerned that fundamental principles of mathematics were not being taught correctly. And apparently, my attempt educate him on that point did not suffice for an apology in his opinion, because I was invited to spend the next week at home, rather than at school. I may have been less than gracious in my acceptance of the principal's judgment. "If that's the kind of stuff that's being taught here, I'll learn a lot more by not being here to have to listen to that crap."

Mom and Dad disagreed with my approach, at great length and great volume. They made their points with words like "grounded" and "punished" and phrases like "you can't use the car for a month."

As a result of this incident I learned that, for most teachers, understanding the material completely was absolutely irrelevant. What they wanted was to have the material spoon fed back to them in the format in which they understood it. They didn't want a better way. They didn't want a more efficient way. They wanted their way.

So I decided not to try to retrain Nancy's teacher. I taught Nancy how to make up a silly story about the names and dates and details. Make up a silly, outrageous, inconsistent fantasy and it would be so memorable that any information you embedded in it would be unforgettable.

Harry didn't need any help with his school work so I just let him tell me about what was going on in school and, to the extent he was willing to talk, his life.

Betty noticed all of this activity. It wasn't anything unusual. I helped the kids whenever they needed it and, when I was home while they were up, I would visit if they didn't need any help. "Nice you could spend some time with them," she said. I could just leave it at that, but then you couldn't possibly understand what was going on.

Her tone could have said she noticed but really didn't much care what was going on. It could have said this was because she was tired or she wasn't interested in them or in me or she was so involved in her own thoughts that she was just marking time by commenting on what she'd seen. She could have used a tone that said she loved to see the interaction between me and our kids and it warmed her heart to see we had such a close relationship. Or, though as I have indicated it would have been unjustified, her tone could have contained a tinge of sarcasm. Or, more subtly, irony, because the time spent with them was so unusual in her opinion.

Betty opted for irony. I had no idea whether she cared how I interpreted it. Our relationship was not the same as it was when we got married. I chose to see her irony and raise it. "Yes, I really enjoy it. Don't you?"

Chapter 3

"Randy, your 4:30, Karen Sugarman is here," said the voice on the intercom.

I pressed the button on mine. "Thanks, Bev. Please show her in." I got up and walked toward the door. Beverly appeared, flanked by Karen. I extended my hand. "Hi, Karen. Nice to see you again."

She shook it and replied, "Nice to see you, too, Randy."

"Bev, please don't buzz in unless it's urgent."

"Sure, boss." Karen didn't see the leer Bev gave me before she closed the door.

She took a seat on the other side of my desk and started right in. "As I said, I don't have anything like that prepared. The basic information is out there, but I don't think anyone has put it all together into a course. I have developed courses before, and my experience, and the generally accepted reality is that it takes around eight hours to prepare an hour of instruction."

"I fully expected that. I've done some courses myself. I'm prepared to pay for all that time but, if I do, I'll expect to own the copyright."

"Wow." Karen chuckled. "You said it would be strictly business and you weren't kidding. Any give there?"

"It's the typical work-for-hire-scenario. We pay a contractor for all the time required to produce a copyrightable work and we own the copyright."

"I know. I just thought you might cut some slack to a prospective girlfriend."

"Insufficient inducement. This has to be businesslike."

"What about some arrangement on future use of the materials? I might be able to give this course for other organizations. It would be nice not to have to create one from scratch."

"I think I can live with that. I wouldn't want you doing it for my competitors, but for government or in some other kind of group, that would probably be okay."

"That's funny." She didn't laugh, but she had a big grin.

"What?"

"When it's a position you don't expect to move from, it's 'we.' When it's a position on which you have some flexibility, it's 'I.'"

"That is funny. I never noticed. I guess I will notice in the future."

We proceeded to discuss what would be included in the course about reading people in interrogation and taking statements or whatever the hell we were going to call it.

Beverly rang me at around five. "I'm going to be heading out if you don't need me for anything, Randy." Always the flirt, she put special emphasis on anything.

"That's fine."

She waited briefly for a response that didn't come. "Would you like me to come in for my hug," she paused dramatically, "or should I take a rain check?"

"Uh, yes, that would be the better approach. I'll see you tomorrow."

"Was she being flirty?" asked Karen. I nodded. Karen added, "She has the hots for you, you know."

"No. We just kid around here a lot and we're all very friendly."

"That may be, but she still has the hots for you. Do you play in the office pool?"

"No, never. Am I sending the wrong signals?"

"I have no idea. I just needed to know for my end of the non-business business we have."

We talked about how long the course would be and, although I didn't want to make an open-ended commitment, we agreed that it would be as long as it needed to be. I asked her to explain that amazing magic she had performed at our first dinner and she tried to give me an outline, but it mostly amounted to explaining what she would explain later.

I ordered in Chinese food. It wasn't that there was any problem being seen in a restaurant, but it was quiet in the office and there was no concern in talking about any topic.

We finished talking about the course and Karen moved on to some personal questions.

"I've done some research on you, but I figure you can save me time. You didn't stay with the FBI very long. What happened for you to cut it so short?" She shoveled some fried rice into her mouth with the chopsticks.

"Well, a couple things. For one, my wife didn't think I would make enough working for the government, so she constantly encouraged me to leave and do something else. But, I guess it was really my last assignment that gave me the push. I hadn't been all that thrilled with the bureaucratic orientation to begin with. Then when I got sick from that assignment, the red tape they threw up to keep me from returning to work and to keep me from staying out of work, coupled with the paperwork about what happened and who should take the blame, well, it was just enough already."

"What happened with the assignment?"

"I can't talk about it."

"How long were you sick?"

"Many months."

"With what?"

"Radiation poisoning."

"That's nasty."

"Considering I survived, I'm fine with it, though it had some effects on my life."

"Gee, that's really informative," Karen said. I shrugged. "When did you meet your wife?"

"College. We got married when we graduated. I was approaching twenty, she was twenty two. In hindsight, we were too young. Or maybe just too stupid. Then three years in law school while I worked nearly full time."

"I didn't think you could finish in three years at night."

"Day. I cut a lot."

"They must have loved that."

"I didn't exactly take out an ad in the paper. Anyway, we agreed to have kids. The first arrived shortly after I left the FBI, though we had been trying for a couple years. Harry. Two years later Nancy. Justin joined us about four years after that.

"I told the FBI I was leaving because of the accident, so I didn't make any enemies, and they've pointed business my way. It helped me get started. I've been doing this for over nine years and we're doing okay. I did it again, didn't I, attributing the doing well to 'we' and the working to 'I?'"

"I suppose it's only fair that I give you my story," Karen said.

"We do security and private investigation. I know your story."

"Not too much, I hope."

"I don't know for sure, but I'd bet your password for anything you keep secure at home or work is either Sherri or Cuddles."

"Damn."

"It was just a guess. If we had needed it, we would have visited you unobtrusively."

"You mean burglarized?"

"That word carries such an unsavory connotation."

"Great, now I don't know if I can trust you not to snoop."

"I wouldn't abuse it. You can trust me completely. I wouldn't lie to you."

She laughed. "I suspect you already have," she said.

"You didn't let me finish. Unless it was really important." I smiled.

Karen laughed again. "There's never going to be a dull moment, is there?"

"Possibly not, but it should be fun. Speaking of which, what would you like to do when we finish up?"

"I want to go dancing again."

"Fortune cookie?"

She cracked it, put one piece in her mouth and threw the rest into the bag. "It says, 'You may have a future with a man who can dance.'"

"Does it really say that?"

"Would I lie?" Her tone was ironic, yet flirtatious.

I smiled. "Everyone lies."

We talked about people lying, and about her, as we danced. Dancing is a good way to get to know someone. Think about it. When you're getting to know each other, there are dinners across a table that physically separates you about three feet. When you walk together afterward, unless you're arm in arm, the gap is reduced by half a foot. When you talk at a party you may close the gap to two feet. Any less and the intimacy can be uncomfortable for people who have not known each other a long time.

But when you dance a slow dance, even if you've only just met, the distance is nine to twelve inches. You can feel the other person's breath on your skin, the warmth of it. A few more dances, friendly conversation and you may wind up cheek to cheek, chest to chest as your muscles relax into what is perilously close to an embrace. And there is no social taboo. You're not rushing things; you're "just" dancing. The proximity, the intimacy, encourages your conversation to follow suit. It quickly moves you well beyond, "The fish was very fresh." I've been told that women are especially susceptible to this effect - by the women I've danced with.

You tell her she has a lovely scent. She's a good dancer. She is so responsive. And it's true, despite the fact that you both suspect you're not just discussing dancing. For Karen and me, that would come later. Despite the fact I wasn't offering a storybook relationship, I didn't just want to find someone who would be satisfied with that situation; I wanted someone I desperately wanted to spend my time with. Is that asking too much?

I knew some of Karen's background. I knew she graduated college at twenty. I knew she had her Ph.D. by twenty three. I hadn't known she had a head start by taking college courses while still in high school or that she was starting to pile up graduate credits in her senior year of college. I had no idea of the professional resentment and resistance she had faced because she was attractive, young and female, though I wasn't surprised.

She was quite comfortable in professional relationships, despite the continued resentment and envy she experienced. Karen was slightly less comfortable in friendships. The same things that had made boys, and men, reluctant to approach her, kept friends at a greater distance than she perceived other people kept their friends.

Then she told me, "I'm twenty eight and I can't say I've really had a boyfriend. I've dated people for a while, but there was never really a decision to make an emotional commitment to the relationship from either of us. It's been easier to talk to you and I've been more open with you than any man I've known. You're finding out everything that's wrong with me. But what do I have to lose? You can't really afford to be fussy given what you're looking for." Karen made a nervous laugh, trying to make it seem like a joke. But it wasn't exactly. I felt body tense as she said it. I heard the truth in her voice. We were dancing cheek to cheek with considerable connection between our bodies.

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