I wasn't sure why she wanted to get together. All she texted was 'meet me at Cisco's at 6:30,' a typically terse demand.
She was on time for a change, weaving through the chairs with an attractive long haired woman in tow who looked uncomfortable, like she didn't wanted to be here. When they sat down Lisbeth introduced her as Harriet Glover then picked up a menu, quickly scanned it before indifferently tossing it aside, sitting back and stabbing me with her eyes. "I told her about your plan. She wants to go."
"My plan?" I repleted stupidly, having no idea what she was talking about, which was nothing new: Lisbeth is the worst conversationalist I know. She assumes you totally understand what she's thinking; she tells every story from a point three-quarters of the way into it, and she could care less if you're interested in what she has to say.
"The world tour." She said this like I was an idiot. "She wants to go with you."
"Ah," I said, "that plan." Which wasn't a plan at all. I had mentioned in passing a few days ago that I needed a break; I needed to get away. 'The Plan' came, not from my heart but from the top of my head: I was thinking of bicycling through a bunch of countries in Europe and Asia for a couple of years. But it was just a spur-of-the-moment thought, certainly no plan — and subsequently, I had not made a single move to put that fleeting fantasy into action. In fact. I hadn't thought about it again ... though, in fact, it had been simmering for awhile.
"Ya, the timing couldn't be better for her." I knew from experience that Lisbeth's irrational enthusiasm could make even the dumbest idea sound doable. "Harriet needs a break, too, needs to get away. Two years on a bike would be just perfect for her. Tell her about it."
I looked over at Harriet for a reaction but got nothing more than a feeling that she had been coerced into meeting me, never mind joining me on what was now billed as 'a world tour.' So I didn't feel even mildly awkward talking about a trip I hadn't yet thought through never mind actually planned. Given the vibe, there wasn't even the remotest possibility that this woman, whom I just now met me, would want to go anywhere with me, never mind around the world on a bike.
So I said to myself 'what the hell' and waded in. My plans were obviously fuzzy but I got through them in a few minutes of halting ad libs and stabs at memories from my grade 3 geography class.
When I finished Lisbeth turned her sparkling eyes on Harriet. "What do you think?"
Harriet's reaction seemed midway between a grimace and a grin but she nodded what might have meant her acceptance so, with Lisbeth's prodding, we spent a few minutes considering an acceptable departure date. Then, before a waiter had even shown up, they were gone and I was left alone wondering what just happened.
It had been fun. I like bullshitting, especially when it's absolutely harmless. And this was harmless. It was impossible to believe that this stranger had any intention of peddling out of town with me; she looked so uptight she could barely tolerate my presence: all the time she was at the table she never once looked at me.
I started feeling a little more ... troubled four days later when the woman herself phoned to ask about the list I had promised her of the things she'd need to buy for the trip, something else I had not thought twice about. I covered my ass by saying that my list wasn't quite ready but would be in three days when we could meet for coffee and go over it. That was fine by her: it would give her a few more days to continue experimenting with the recipes she was trying for quick, nutritious meals on the road. I felt my balls shrivel.
When I put the phone down I tried hard to imagine the woman I had just been speaking with; the one I had met for 20 minutes a few days ago; the one I was supposedly going to be traveling with ... for two years ... on a bike. All I could remember of her was that she had long brown hair and indiscernibly coloured eyes that never once glanced my way. And she may have had a nice rack, it was hard to tell through her shapeless, baggy sweater.
What in the fuck was going on here?
Her eyes are brown, I discovered that three days later in the coffee shop. Brown, intelligent and dartingly evasive.
In fact, I hadn't prepared the list I had promised for this rendezvous. Why would I? I had absolutely no intention of going anywhere on a bike, except maybe on the city's bike paths. No, I had come to the cafe to put an end to this silly misunderstanding, not that I felt I had to. The likelihood that this woman actually wanting to peddle her ass around the world was probably zilch.
So why was she still pretending? That had me fascinated ... and stumped. So before I called the whole charade off I thought it might be fun to find out what was going through her head; it was pretty enough I was coming to realize.
I hadn't thought about the tact I'd take; I just struck out blindly taking a somewhat suggestively erotic tact. I deliver what I thought was a very good, although spur-of-the-moment lecture about the need for partners on an adventure like this to be an intimate team, after all, we would be living, eating and sleeping together under nylon as a near-married couple. Did she understand this?
"Yes," she responded in a whisper, somewhat sullenly.
I blanched at this with a snort — her wimpishness was getting my dander up, and I didn't even know what dander was. Enough of the toying around. End it. "You can't even look at me, Harriet, never mind live with me. Give your head a shake. There isn't a chance in a million you have any intention of pulling this off."
I felt good about my conclusion. It was the perfect kiss off. I was just about to push away from the table when those gleaming eyes, now tear-glistening, caught me in a fiery glare. "Look, I have some issues, OK? I know that. But I'm trying to deal with them. And I'll continue to work on them. I want this, Jim. I need this. And, ya, I get the partnership thing. I know I have a big responsibility with that. It'll take time and effort ... and some understanding from you. I know it's a huge challenge for me but I know I can pull it off, too. I know how badly I want it."
I looked at her tear-stained eyes dumb-struck. Was she fucking serious?
Then she added, entirely enigmatically, "'If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.'"
The quote was from someone, I gathered, I should know. I didn't. But the quote hit me hard: it says exactly what I had been thinking, why I wanted to get away. I felt my heart sink and my butt cheeks clench but I still didn't think she fully understood what this trip would be all about. I'm a good guy, I simply couldn't let this doe-eyed dreamer continue her fucked-up fantasy. I had to find the coup de grace to put her away. And I had it. "Look, Harriet, this wouldn't be some passive platonic partnership pasted together just to get by. This would have to be a raging, rutting, arranged marriage of loud arguments, territorial battles, dirty laundry and sore muscles. Why in hell would you think you would want to go through that with someone like me, someone you don't even know?"
She weakened now. I knew I had her. My hand, that just seconds before had been trembling nervously, now reached out confidently for my coffee mug.
I had her. I could see she was searching for her inner wimp. Her voice was entirely absent of confidence. "Lisbeth and Janet said you're the perfect guy to do this with." It sounded like she was about to break into full-on tears. "And from what I've seen I think they're right." She passed the back of her hand against a slightly damp cheek. "They told me how much you've done for them over the past two years and that you could help me, too." Now, she seemed to be gaining confidence: she sat up straighter and leaned forward. "Ya, sure, I've never thought of doing anything like this before. Never once. But when Lisbeth told me your plans and told me I should go with you, she said it would turn my life around, like you turned theirs around. That's what I need — I don't want to end up where I'm heading." She hesitated for a dramatic impact that may have been more heartfelt than theatrical. "I'm in Jim. I think I know all the implications ... I might not be prepared for them all but I think I understand them. When I handed in my resignation last week I was scared stiff but I'm not now. I'm just really, really excited and really, really determined."
The phone rang four different times in my black-out apartment. But I didn't answer it. Each time I thought it might be her. And anyway, I was thinking. Hard. Obviously I had to extricate myself from this stupid predicament of my own making. But how? I had thought through a number of tactics but nothing quite worked. Nothing quite dealt with the reality that she had spent the past week slaving over a hot stove to find the right recipes for a two-year bike trip I had no intention of making. Nothing quite made up for the fact that she was struggling hard to over-come some mysterious psychosis that made her so adverse to me she couldn't look me in the eye. Nothing quite addressed the shocker that she had already quit her job to go on a trip that had always been a pipe-dream. And nothing quite mitigated the horror that she had me tightly and painfully by the balls.
The key, I concluded, the ticket out, was in her weird behaviour. How could I co-habit in a sleeping bag with a woman who was afraid to look at me? I couldn't. But nor could she. Obviously.
"Look," said the grand creator of all these troubles, Lisbeth, after I carefully explained the next day why I was calling the whole thing off, "you made a commitment to her. It's a done deal."
I almost screamed into the phone. "She won't even look at me for fuck's sake. How are we supposed to get ..."
"So she's got some baggage!" Lisbeth fought back. "Big deal. We all do. Work your magic for fuck's sake. You did it for me; you did it for Janet; you've done it for all kinds of people. Take her under your healing little wing ..."
"What baggage?" I demanded.
"I don't know. I think she had a bad marriage she hasn't recovered from. Not yet, but then she hasn't had the tender care of Saint Jimmy Mallory, either."
"Ya, ya. So how long ago did they split?" I couldn't imagine this woman getting close enough to anyone for an altar walk.
"Don't know. Years."
"Come on, Liz. Details."
"Lisbeth for crissake! Right? I hate Liz and you know it. And no details. I don't have any. I've never asked. But there was violence I think, and there are trust issues. She just needs a little of your ... niceness, Jimmy. Two days in that tent with you and she'll be cured." She threw me some hope. "Maybe you can turn back then. Maybe all she'll need is a few miles."
"Ya, well," I protested, embarrassingly weakly, "I can't see those few miles happening."
She snickered derisively. "You're going, Jimmy. The last thing Harriet needs is for her to finally put some trust in a guy and the first thing HE does is screw her ... and I don't mean the loving kind you're so famous for. Anyway, think of that body. Have you had it yet?"
For the first time in my life I was feeling the utter helplessness of despair. "I didn't know she had one," I said, sullenly, "she dresses like a bag lady," although I thought I saw some impressive pressure against her formless sweater when she turned to get her purse from the back of the chair at the coffee shop.
Lisbeth could be dismissive and she was now. "She's a wonderful woman, Jim, with a fabulous body — trust me, I know. And you can thank me any time you want for putting her in a tent with you — FOR TWO FUCKING YEARS. So if you're phoning to find an excuse to get out of this, forget about it. Jan and I have already planned the going-away party. You're going and that's fucking final!" She hung up.
'Not fucking likely,' I thought as I dialled my dad's number. If anyone would put the boots to this insanity it was my ever-responsible, always-practical father. I edged into the reason for my call hesitantly, positioning my tentative plan in the worst possible light, certain that he would positively forbid me from dumping my job to pursue such insanity, not that he has ever forbidden me from anything in the past.
But at the first sound of his response I got to know the absolute pit of despair. The moment I put out the two words 'bike+trip' together he exploded in envy: it was the very thing he had wanted to do when he was my age; he had always "bitterly" regretted he hadn't (he had to settle for having my sisters and me as a wholly lamentable alternative). He couldn't wait for his vicarious pleasures to start.
I stared at the ceiling wide-eyed from my bed. Was I really and truly fucked? No! Three hour after I hung up with my dad it hit me: the one sure-fire tactic to sabotage the trip. I called Harriet from the office the next day and invited her to dinner at my place three days later.
With each passing minute I grew more optimistic. A woman who couldn't stand to look at me wasn't about to let me lower myself into her. Not a fucking chance.
I barely recognized her when I opened the door. The long brown hair was familiar enough, so were the darting brown eyes. It was the wonderfully thin lips, they were way off, they almost wore a smile, and the nicely rounded chin in the perfectly heart-shaped face seemed unrecognizably set with more confidence than I remember, or was it determination? But even if I recognized the bits and pieces of her face what was entirely new was the body holding up the head: it had form! And from the brief glimpse I allowed myself, it looked like a killer form.
She wasn't even through the door when she turned to me and used every bit of her new-found self-confidence to look me straight in the eyes. Her head was slightly cocked to the side when she said, "I've had three days to work on this and I'm still not going to get it right but I want you to know right from the start that I'll be trying as hard as I can and I'll get better. OK? I promise. I'll get better."
I didn't know what she was talking about. "Get better? Get better at what?"
"The sex." She seemed confused that she had to explain herself. "You asked me over to give me a test drive, right? You read me the lecture, now you want to see how much of it sunk in: you want the performance. I get it. I'm just telling you that whatever happens I can and will do better."
Now, MY eyes were darting. I could feel them involuntarily poking about the room behind her looking for anything that could help me deflect the accusation or change the subject. I heard myself utter a limp denial but I knew I wasn't convincing. 'Test drive' was a pretty accurate description of what I had in mind. What she didn't know was how badly I hoped she would crash and burn on the first (and hopefully only) attempt.
"Scary isn't it?" She was obviously reading my body language now, it wouldn't have been hard. "We're committed to spending two years together and we don't even know if we're ... you know, physically ... if we like each other."
I grabbed at this. "Ya, I've been thinking about that. It wasn't very considerate of me. Maybe we should get to know each other first; maybe put this off for a year."
She turned and moved gracefully to a chair in the living room. She was slimmer than I had thought, with a delightfully contoured ass. Before she sat down she turned back to me (almost catching me in mid-glance). "I've kind of had some problems in the past; dug myself into a deep, dark hole that I'm trying to get out of. An emotional hole that just doesn't make sense any more. I need to grow up and move on. But that isn't always easy to do, especially when you're avoiding the very issues you should be working on." She sat down and looked up at me. "I'm just saying that I don't want ..." she hesitated, then went for it, "I don't want this to be an issue with me any more. But there may be some ... ah, rocky moments ahead; trying to work things out isn't always easy or predictable". She smiled sweetly. "But you know that about women, don't you ... some women." She shrugged her shoulders in helplessness. "What can I say. That's about it."
I half expected her to be gone by now so I hadn't put much effort into dinner. But that's not why I turned to go into the kitchen. I turned because I was getting a fucking hard-on.
To kill time I fumbled with a bottle of wine and mentally scanned through my diminishing options. How do you throw out a woman who warns you she might not be very good at first but to keep trying and, with a little work, she plans to get it right? Fuck. It was only two weeks ago that we agreed we would peddle away. That makes it just over a week before I have to hand-in my resignation ... which means I have only seven days to find a way out of this mess and as far as I could see there wasn't a single person out there, my putative partner included, who thought that this punishing Tour to Nowhere was anything but an excellent idea. Fuck, fuck. Fuck.
I turned off the stir fry which could easily be nuked and went back into the living room with the bottle and glasses. I put them all on the table, filled the glasses then went to get my clipboard before sitting down. "Did you bring your list?" I asked, resigned to seeing through at least this part of the fucking charade.
She smiled an assent then sipped her wine. "I wonder, though, that if before we get to that, we might stay on this for a bit." When she saw I didn't follow her she explained. "Sex." She hesitated then asked an alarmingly direct question: "What are your expectations?"
Fine. Sure. I can talk about this. I deliberately scanned her body, deliberately hesitating on the remarkably impressive rack, nicely straining at her thin shirt. Then I sipped, sat back and asked, knowing that I'd found my winning tact, "Do you have an imagination?"
This didn't phase her. She sipped before she answered, perhaps wondering what the catch was. "Yes, I think I do. A good one."
"Good. Then imagine a man, say, me, imagine him in a four by six tent with a woman like, say, you, and imagine him, me, trying to get to sleep when those," I pointed at her chest, "are resting peacefully not more than a foot away." I wasn't trying to read her; I was just concentrating on getting this out. "Now imagine how long it might take him, me, to get to sleep each night with those." I pointed again, "resting not a half an arm-length away, and imagine what he, me, might do to facilitate his necessary and hard-to-come-by sleep, like what he might do to himself to get some relief. Then imagine how you might feel if night after night you had to endure this man's sleeping ritual. Are you with me so far?"
"I think so." She was entirely impassive ... but noticeably unimpressed.
"Any man might call that torture. But not me." I raised my voice now, "Because there's not a chance in hell I would put myself in that situation. I would only ever get into that tent with you if there was an agreed upon and full range of ... reciprocity."
"Equal parts of giving and taking," she said, helpfully.
"Precisely," I nodded. "Underpinned, of course, by respect, consideration and ..."
She waited me out but when I didn't fill in the final blank she added, "Romance?"
"Passion, certainly," I conceded.
She waited a moment before speaking. I think she looked a little pissed off. "There are more mature ways to have this conversation, aren't there?"
"Ya, probably." I had talked my way into feeling a little pissed-off. "But the gist of it would be the same."
"That if I go into a tent with you I give you full access to my body." I didn't say anything. I just let the full weight of her words hang out there so they could sink in. Then she added, "But with respect and consideration. Have I got that right?"