Fifth Place

byrpsuch©

My breath caught. My eyes moistened. Maybe someone was smoking. I moved us apart, still in a dance embrace. I spoke very softly. "Don't say that. You're a treasure far beyond my means. That other people don't recognize it is their misfortune. That you don't is a tragedy."

I think the smoke was getting to her eyes, too. She pulled me in and changed her mind. "I have to go to the ladies' room." She hurried off.

Damn. That must have sounded rehearsed, a sonnet of seduction. I had just spoken what was in my heart, but I'm sure if I saw it on screen, I would have imagined a screen writer tossing pieces of paper in the waste basket as he, or more likely she, searched for the precise phrasing to cause the victim to drop her guard.

Perhaps Karen would understand. Last time we were out together she had heard something just leap out of my mouth. I would like her to understand. But it struck me as far more important that she realize how special she was, whether or not she figured out how to get confirmatory praise from men, sincere or not. It saddened me that her experience in this culture prevented her from emotionally understanding her worth without validation from men, many of whom she knew would not hesitate to say things to a woman in the hope of gaining something from her. How could I possibly help her recognize her worth? Whatever I might say, I could well be one of them.

Karen took quite some time to return. When she returned, she had an enigmatic smile. That's the worst kind. How are you supposed to have any idea what it means?

"I'd just like to sit and listen to the music for a while," she said.

Great! Something, probably important, is going on and she wants the luxury of thinking about it. All right, it's not a luxury to her; it's probably a necessity. But while she has the opportunity to think about it, understand it and work it out in her mind, I'm just going to be sitting here like a fool, and I don't even know what "it" is. I simply said, "Okay."

Maybe it's something that is necessary for women, but it seems inordinately cruel to us men to make us sit and watch, clueless bystanders to some unknown event.

What should this course include? Are the revelations in the details of what we observe or are we looking for patterns? Should we set aside some lab time to practice the skills? Are we going to need to create scenarios and train actors to be the people we observe, like the people who present with scripted symptoms to train doctors? I should probably make a list of questions and issues to discuss with her, but I'm pretty sure that if I took out a note pad and pen and started writing it down while she is sitting here thinking, she would, unfairly, judge me insensitive.

"Can we dance? No talk, just dance?" Karen stood there waiting for my answer for a moment. It must have been too important for her to keep waiting. "Okay?" she asked.

I got up and offered her my hand. She leaned into me with very little pressure. Her head rested on my left shoulder, her arm was over the right. Her body was very relaxed. I enjoyed it. I would also have enjoyed knowing what was going on.

What is it with women? They're always saying, "Talk to me! Tell me what you're thinking," in that urgent, agitated, strident manner. They have emotions, feelings to be worked out. What are we men, chopped liver? We will not be treated this way. I was going to stand up for our gender, quietly. So I spoke my piece.

"Hath not a man eyes? Hath not a man hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a woman is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?"

Karen just followed silently for a time. Then she responded quietly and slowly. "My God. How you surprise me." She took a deep breath before continuing. "I'm sorry. You're right. Unless your point was that, like Shylock, I shouldn't trust you. I think we forget you men have feelings. Why talk about our immediate issue when your silence just means you're thinking about the score of some game?"

"Our silence often means we have no idea what's going on."

"I know." She sighed. "You really got me with that treasure thing."

"Treasure thing?" I teased.

"Yeah, treasure thing. I'm a treasure far beyond your means. You know what treasure thing. You meant it. That was no line. I could see it in your eyes. I could hear it in your passion. It moved me, but I wasn't sure quite how, so I had to think about it." Karen shook her head a few times. "This is all too quick. Not just the way we're moving, but some of the message of that treasure thing made me think about my view of myself, where it came from, the messages I've gotten from other people, how it came about and what it all means."

"Oh, is that all?"

She smiled. "I'm getting into the danger zone where I'm starting to care about you. You are physically appealing, though that wouldn't make any difference. You have a good sense of humor, you're very smart, you seem to be straightforward and you've shown interest in me, which is always attractive." Again she smiled. Karen certainly could get to the heart of a matter. "You're confident, you're successful, and you seem to think things out before you take action. Have you been involved in undercover operations?" The tone said this was clearly rhetorical. "Did you learn enough doing that to be able to run a con on me? Perhaps. But for what reason? I can't think of any advantage you would gain and many ways it could cost you.

"Then there's my side of the danger zone. You're right that I haven't exactly been built up by men. I think maybe they were too insecure, but whatever the reason, they didn't help me. I've, been out with you twice and I'm already more emotionally involved with you than I've been with any man in my life. You didn't realize that, did you?"

"No. That silence thing didn't give me all that much information."

She laughed. "So now I'm at a fork in the road."

"Take it," I said.

"Very funny. But I think I'm going to take the road I've traveled less. That means that, at this surprisingly early juncture, you're going to have to fill me in fully."

"I wonder if I'm being conned," I joked. She gave me one of those looks that only women can do. This was not an appropriate time to be kidding around. Of course, that had rarely stopped me before. "I don't think we should go back to my place. My wife would probably not be very helpful in this conversation. And, I really wouldn't want to involve the kids. Do you have any suggestions?"

"Is that your version of my place or yours?"

"So it's your place then?"

We left dancing early, which was probably good since it gave us more time to talk.

Chapter 4

"Regular. The caffeine won't keep me up."

We were in her kitchen. She hadn't mentioned a brand and I wasn't enough of a coffee aficionado that it made any difference, but I hadn't acquired a taste for decaf.

"Artificial sweetener and milk would be nice," I said.

She puttered around, taking things out of cabinets. The water was heating in the coffee maker.

"I think I have some things figured out. You have a way of putting things that is very revealing, probably. Everyone does. If you say you prefer your coffee black, it means you may be willing to do it a different way. That might be to ingratiate yourself to your hostess or you might want it enough not to quibble over it not being the way you prefer. But, if you said you take your coffee black, that probably means you are not willing to compromise. If you can't have it that way, you don't want it. Just a very simple example, but most people give away lots of information they have no intention of revealing. I'm sure I do it too. It's unintentional.

"You see your wife as a burden, or at best a responsibility. You've never referred to her by name to me. That keeps her impersonal, and I don't think it's because you care whether I have any connection to her, but that your connection to her is not something you value."

I could feel the flush. She had to see me turning red.

"But you love the kids," she said softly.

I nodded.

"You're worried about them if you leave."

"Yes."

"There's more, isn't there?"

"Yes."

"I'm pretty sure I know some of it. I don't know where you are with this, but, for me, it's decision time. I went into this with mild interest and a fair amount of amusement, but you came with Linda's highest recommendation and that counts for a lot. The more time I spend with you, the more I want to spend. It happened surprisingly fast, especially for me. I'm more hooked than I've ever been. Yet you're just barely available and I've known you such a short time." She shook her head. "It's, overwhelming. So, before I get drawn in any further, I need to know the whole deal. If it's too soon for you, I, I have to back off."

"Lucky for you, no, lucky for me, you're very special, and you're absolutely captivating. If I wasn't ready to, gee, listen to me. I sound like I'm trying to smooth my way into a business deal. I ought to be grown up enough to tell you I'm falling in love with you."

"That must be why the Baptists are so against dancing. Look how it sped us up," she said.

"We might as well assess our compatibility on some key issues."

"You are such a romantic." Her use of irony was unmistakable, but I could not help but love her smile.

"Children: I guess we've both indicated we want them. How many? Do you care?"

"Two to four," she said. "I'm not sure you really know until you have them."

I sighed deeply. "You've got that right. Money: how much do you want? How important is it?"

"I don't want to have to worry how the bills are getting paid, or the mortgage. Beyond that I don't much care. I think we're probably in agreement on that from what I've observed. Money is just something you use to buy stuff. It has no intrinsic value to me."

"Agreed. Travel: importance, frequency?" I asked.

"I've done a lot of travel. I liked it but I don't feel the urgency to go back to places I've already been. I do think it might be fun to share some of the places I've been with someone I love. Do you get to ask all the questions? Just a businessman running down a checklist?"

"I've had a lot of time and experience being in a relationship. It's given me the opportunity to think about what I want and what I don't want. So, yeah, I guess I have a checklist. Don't you?"

"Sort of. But, it never really made any difference because I never got far enough to think about that stuff, let alone talk about it with anybody. Having thought about it, though, I think, at this point, there's only one thing I really want: a man who thinks I'm a treasure beyond his means."

"Wow, that really got to you didn't it?"

"You could have thrown me down on the floor and taken me in the middle of all those people."

This time I knew without any coaching that it was not a moment for humor. It was usually just an automatic reaction. That would be dismissing the importance to her of what she was telling me. "Who would have thought such a simple phrase could have such power?"

"Sincerity can be very seductive. I want you so bad now my skin hurts."

I moved to sit beside her and reach for her.

"No." She put out a hand to keep me away. "I want to wait. I want to wait until I need it so bad I'd do it with my parents in the room. I want to need it so bad I'm comatose when you're done with me."

I was starting to sweat. "Talk about the power of words."

"So, do you like to travel?"

What!? How did she do such an abrupt about-face? "Uh, I can take it or leave it. I've done quite a bit for business, so I don't have the urgency. But it can be fun with the right people. I assume you're not interested in being a stay-at-home," the proper word eluded me, if there was a proper word, "wife?"

"No. Is that what you'd prefer?"

"Not hardly. What about sex, what do you like?"

"That was a subtle segue. I suppose it's all good."

"Anything you prefer? Anything you won't do? Better to know these things up front."

"You guys don't get it. Yes, women like sex too. But it's completely different in the context of a relationship. Yeah, doing something naughty or illicit can be exciting. If you ask me if I like straight missionary sex, I'll tell you sure, it's fun. But if you ask about missionary with someone I trust and care for very deeply, I'll tell you it's wonderful.

"Let me give you an example. That dinner we had the night we met: it was a very nice meal in a nice restaurant. We had the excitement of just having met, the anticipation of everything that could happen as a result. It was very nice. If we had the same meal right now, with the way I feel about you, it would be a completely different experience. I'd be looking forward to going dancing and being held by you in a way that doesn't just say I'm the leader, follow me, but with a connection that's emotionally charged. Or I might be looking forward to coming back here and making love with you or even just holding hands and talking about things important to us. That dinner would be a much more robust experience."

I formed my lips in a small circle and blew out a "woo" sound of incredulity.

"It's not just smart women who turn you on, is it? You really go for articulate women."

"I want to throw you down and climb aboard."

"I want you to. But don't. This is too good to spoil with hot, frenzied sex."

"Spoil? You do have a way with words." I was shaking my head while smiling.

She moved in for a steaming, passionate kiss. In a Saturday morning cartoon, we'd have had smoke coming out of our ears. When we broke it, in a very soft voice she said, "You've got to be going home. You can only stay out so late before it becomes suspicious."

Chapter 5

A week later she was in our training room showing me her outline for the course. I asked appropriate questions and she gave appropriate answers. We spent a few hours there going over the materials and as the day waned, employees trickled out, wishing us good night, until only the two of us were left.

There was nothing in our behavior to suggest that this was anything but a strictly business relationship. And it was a business relationship, just not strictly.

"I don't want to stay here any later but we still have some things to discuss about the course," I said.

"Are there really things to discuss, or do you just want another date?" she asked.

"No, I can make a case that there is more to discuss now. I can also make a case that there are other things to discuss." She nodded. "Why don't we go back to your place and continue to talk while we make ourselves dinner?"

"Is that actually we, or is it the 'you' we?"

"I'm very good in the kitchen, among other rooms."

"Good. You can make dinner. I'm okay in the kitchen, but nothing special."

"No. I want to do it together. It's a good way to learn intangible things about each other."

She frowned. "Is this a course you've worked out on relationship building?"

"No, divorce avoidance. A little extra work at hormone time would prevent a lot of divorces."

"Because they wouldn't get married?"

"Exactly."

We talked about what she had to work with in her kitchen and decided to go shopping. She didn't keep the place fully stocked. I picked up two salmon steaks, a few scallions, a small jar of sesame seeds, a small jar of sesame oil and a head of cauliflower. She had garlic, carrots and broccoli at home.

"So, I take it you're not expecting to get lucky tonight," she said. "Neither of us is going to smell very good."

"No, I'm expecting to get very lucky." I said it slowly and with apparent sincerity. She raised her doubtful eyebrows. I got a confused look on my face. "Oh, you were talking about sex. I meant I was going to be with a fascinating woman and get to know her much better tonight."

She appeared doubtful, then thoughtful, then amused. "You were toying with me, weren't you?"

I smiled.

She didn't have a fine grater so she had to use a cheese grater to zest half an orange. I told her to mix it in a bowl with the sesame seeds. In the meantime, I placed the scallion on a cutting board, put down the tip of a large vegetable knife on the board and started chopping small, dark green ringlets. I had to move the knife to complete the job so it took around five seconds. I cut rings from the bulb end and shoved them into a frying pan with a couple pats of butter.

"Damn. Did you go to some culinary school?" She added two pinches of salt to her mixture and stirred it.

I sliced the carrot into quarters and proceeded to cut it essentially the same way as the scallion. "No, but I read and I've had lots of practice." The carrot went into the frying pan. "Preheat the oven on broil."

I cut the broccoli and cauliflower as close to the florets as I could manage. There's nothing wrong with eating a little bit of the stalk, but I think it's more esthetically pleasing this way. "Rub a little of the sesame oil on top of the salmon steaks with your fingers. Make sure it's pretty well covered, but that shouldn't take much oil." The broccoli and cauliflower joined the frying pan and I turned the flame on medium.

I put two cloves of garlic on the cutting board and smacked each with the flat of the knife. The skin peeled off with little effort. "I apologize if it's obvious, but wash and dry your hands before you sprinkle the mixture on top of the salmon." I smacked each clove, harder this time, holding the knife on top of each in turn.

"Why did you do that?" she asked.

"I read that it breaks more cell walls than slicing them and it releases more flavor." I added the squashed garlic to the frying pan and it started to sizzle. "It adds flavor to the mix, but if you don't like garlic, the pieces are big enough to avoid this way."

"You know an awful damn lot about cooking. Are you sure you're not really a chef?"

"I love to cook. I think it's time to put the fish in the broiler. It should only take eleven or twelve minutes in there."

She put it in and started to set the table. "What kind of work does your wife do?"

"I think she's retired."

"You think?"

"Well, she doesn't work. She doesn't clean. She often cooks and she spends about as much time with the kids as I do, so I guess she's either a part-time housewife or she's retired." I continued to stir the sautéing vegetables.

"I take it that's not what you're looking for. What are you looking for? It wasn't always like that, was it?"

"Of course not. Who would get married with that expectation? Well, I guess lots of people would, but not me. What am I looking for? Backup. Like my partner in the Bureau. I want to know that whatever happens to me, it's easier, less dangerous, more manageable because my partner's got my back. I want to have the confidence that when she's got to figure out what to do in a situation, she's thinking about how it will affect me as much as how it will affect her. And not just thinking about it; that it's important to her. That's what I want more than anything." I turned off the flame under the vegetables and moved toward the oven.

"And you don't have that now?"

"No, I don't." I put on the oven mitts, opened the broiler and took out the baking dish.

"You're not giving it to her either."

"No, I'm not. We're both long past that." I poked the salmon with a fork and it flaked nicely. "Trivet?" I looked at the table and she had put one out. I set the dish down on it.

She sat down at her place setting. "Were you ever like that?"

I lifted out a steak and put it on her plate and put the other on mine. "We both were." I took the baking dish to the sink and returned with the vegetables, which I pushed onto our plates, alongside the salmon steaks. "I can't really say who did a better job, but it certainly came to an end." I took the frying pan back to the stovetop and returned with the scallion ringlets. I sprinkled them over the salmon and vegetables on both plates and sat down.

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