Life Next Ch. 01byC.C. Rider©
Author’s note: This is a story of love, not sex – an erotic coupling of hearts, not bodies (necessarily). A romance in the end, I suppose, though not a typical offering.
My goal was to tell the story of two people almost entirely through their conversation. Virtually nothing is revealed except through the voices of the characters – so be forewarned.
We were seated on the restaurant’s patio under a trellis of leafy grape vines and a strand of white lights. I wasn’t used to the humidity in L.A. I had been on a plane from crackling dry Las Vegas only two hours before, so I hadn’t had a chance to decompress, and small beads of perspiration were gathered on my forehead. I had asked the hostess to seat us inside at first, but then I saw Addie’s frown.
“Then again, the patio does look inviting,” I had said to the hostess to correct our course. I could endure the sultry air for Addie.
We sat without speaking for a moment. Her eyes laughed and flirted, just like when we were kids.
“I am so glad we could make this happen,” I said. “I hardly got a chance to speak to you at the reunion.”
“Do you come to L.A. often?” she asked. I wished I could have said yes.
“No, not on business like this. We used to take the kids to Disneyland every few years, but not anymore.”
“It’s not ‘cool enough’ for them now.”
“It’s not that. It’s my wife; Rebecca has lupus. Her joints hurt all the time. I suppose I should take the kids myself, before they really are too old and it isn’t ‘cool.’”
“How old are they again.”
“Twelve and ten.”
“Your daughter is twelve, right?” she said with a knowing smile.
“Yes, the hormone ride has definitely started. She is so sweet though; we hope she doesn’t give us too much trouble.”
We were quiet for a moment and I heard the wind against the building high above us. I noticed faint wisps of gray in her jet-black curls. So she didn’t use dye. It would be so easy for her, with such dark hair. Good for her.
“So your boyfriend, um…” I snapped my fingers lightly like I couldn’t recall his name. She knew I was teasing her.
“You mean Dave?” She raised her eyebrows. His name was Rob, and she knew I knew that. I laughed. We had fallen right back into our easy ways. It seemed so natural.
“No, that’s not it. Your other boyfriend, the one that had so much fun at our reunion.” Rob had picked up a nametag of someone who couldn’t make it and had pretended to be one of us, with some humorous results.
“He’s a lot older than you, isn’t he?” She knew it was a compliment.
“Just a couple years.”
“You’re kidding. Really?” Now I was going to take a real shot at him. “I bet you and he didn’t go to his twenty-fifth.”
“No, we didn’t.”
“Not ‘cool enough’ for him?”
She smiled coyly, with me. “Something like that,” she said conceding he had been a bit smug.
“I thought he was funny,” I conceded. “I’ll probably do the same thing at my wife’s twenty-fifth – make fun of all the staid and pudgy Midwesterners.”
“He wasn’t making fun.”
I rolled my eyes.
“Stop it, Mark.”
Our waitress introduced herself as Gwen and asked for our drink order. Addie handed her menu to Gwen.
“You order for me,” she said looking at me with her warm golden-brown eyes. She had done the exact same thing twenty-five years earlier at dinner on the night of our senior prom. And she smiled, like then, but the light in her eyes seemed different now, less magical. There were some scars, I thought.
“Oh no, not another challenge,” I replied.
“No challenge; I like everything. You know that.”
I remembered her generous and adventurous appetite. I admired that about her.
“Okay. A double Stoly martini for her – lemon slices, no olives. I’ll have a double Glenfidditch rocks.
Addie started to speak but waited for the waitress to leave.
“Are you trying to get me drunk?” She whispered accusingly.
“Sure, just like our prom night.”
“It didn’t work then, either.”
I was going to say that we were just kids then, but decided against it.
“How long have you and Rob been together?”
“You mean Rob whose name you couldn’t remember?”
“I was just being a jerk.” I shrugged and grimaced appropriately.
She frowned at me with exasperation. “You think you’re so damn smart.”
She was right; now I was being smug. “I’m sorry.”
“Okay – seven years, ‘exclusively.’”
But I was right.
“You work together, right?”
“Used to. Rob is making movies now: independent films.”
I could have said, “Oh, so he’s unemployed,” if I had wanted to risk ruining the evening.
“Does he treat you all right?” I asked instead.
I asked her about the talent agency. We talked for a while about her job.
“I specialize in kids,” she said wrapping it up, “and I enjoy it – the few nice kids, anyway. I get invited to their birthday parties sometimes. Sometimes I feel like family, watching out for them.”
“But most of them are spoiled brats with pretentious parents?”
“It goes with the territory.”
Ironic, I thought. I so much wanted to know why she didn’t have any kids of her own – but that was too personal, for now.
“So you’re a famous author now,” she said.
“I am not famous. Occasionally one of my students will ask me to sign a paperback. And the only reason anyone has ever heard of the book is because of the movie.”
“That’s not true.”
“Yes it is. And trust me, the movie is better than the book, and the movie isn’t all that good.”
She patted my hand on the table. “I loved your book.”
“Thank you.” I suppose I wasn’t surprised that she had read it, so I didn’t pretend to be.
“It is a very moral story,” she said trying, at least, to sound sincere.
“A morality play about hookers, criminals, drugs, gambling, and deviant sex.”
“I suppose, but some of the characters were very decent, and very brave.” She looked at me sympathetically.
“I’ve got three ‘literary’ manuscripts sitting on a shelf. Much better stuff, really, but I could never get anyone to read it. So an agent at one of these writing conferences says to me, rather pointedly, ‘Jesus, Mark, you’re a criminal law professor at UNLV – write a goddamn Vegas crime story. I might read that!’ So I did, and he did. I still can’t get anyone to read my good stuff, though. ‘Write another crime thriller,’ they say.”
“Maybe I could get someone to take a look at your good stuff.”
She busted me. “Actually, they’re not ready yet,” I said like a man caught in a lie.
“The good stuff never is,” she said knowingly.
I ordered lamb for her, duck for me, and a bottle of Merlot. We shared our meals like a married couple, forking at will at the other’s plate (just like when we were kids). The conversation was pleasant and uneventful. Half the wine was left when Gwen took our dishes. She asked if we wanted dessert, and I said we wanted to talk.
A floral scent in the breeze, gardenias maybe. The grape leaves rustled. All around us, steely blue skyscrapers lurched into the darkness. We were in the heart of the city, and yet it was quiet and green and the lights were soft. So we talked.
“You know what always amazed me about you?” I started, feeling emboldened by the alcohol.
“Hmm… my relentless and naïve devotion to virginity?”
The glint in her eye – it was like she winked at me without winking. I coughed a laugh and had to cover my mouth.
“Okay, that too,” I said catching my breath, “but I was thinking about how you used to talk to your mom after school, right after, you know, ‘homework time,’” I said raising my eyebrows. I used to sneak into her basement after school, and she would meet me there under the guise of needing a quiet place to do her homework.
“You mean after having your tongue in my crotch and your dick in my mouth,” she said brightly and wryly. I had to cough again, this time in surprise.
“Yes; that would be the more direct way of putting it.”
“You could hear us?”
“Yes, through the vent grates. That’s why we had to be so…”
“Quiet, I know” she interrupted, “but I didn’t know you were listening.”
“Sometimes I’d linger in the bathroom. I thought it was so funny I had to listen.”
“What was so funny?” she asked warily.
“Not ‘funny’ funny, but cute. You’re not mad at me?”
“I don’t know.”
“It was nothing, really – church picnics, piano lessons, volunteer work. I never had a life like that, and how you could switch gears like that…”
“Oh, from being a slut?”
“No. I didn’t mean that,” I said solemnly.
“I know you didn’t.” She smiled. “I was just giving you a hard time.”
“I meant it as a compliment; I thought it was great how you were this genuinely nice, sweet person, and yet you could seem to enjoy yourself like that, at least I think…” I was sinking now, hoping she’d throw me a line.
“Oh, I enjoyed it.”
“I learned a lot from you – a lot about being a decent human being.”
“Thank you. I learned a lot from you too,” she said with a coy smile that reconnected us to the past.
We sipped our wine and wondered what the other was thinking.
“How’s your mom,” Addie finally said, more seriously now.
“She’s great. She’s never had another breakdown. Must have gotten it out of her system. She’s got a condo in a high-rise near the loop, right across from the campus.”
I paused to gauge my words. “I am sorry about that, by the way,” I sighed.
“For taking you to Mercy to see her that day.”
She pursed her lips. “No. I am glad that you did that.”
“I thought at the time that if she saw I had a girlfriend it might help her, but I shouldn’t have put you through that.”
“Did it help her?”
“No. It was all about her. My happiness wasn’t really weighing on her, obviously.”
Her eyes were wet. “I felt so bad for you. I can’t imagine…. For you to have to see her so frail and …”
“With her wrists in bandages like that.” And her eyes so dark and sunken, I might have added, but my mood was slipping, and I wasn’t going let my mom, my mom back then, do that to me.
“Mark, we were together. I needed to be there. I learned a lot about you. I was so… proud of you. All alone like that, no family… I don’t know how you did it.”
“How you took care of yourself so well, got to school every day, and you were still so friendly and smart. I wanted to feel pity for you, but I couldn’t – you were so damn strong, and it felt so good to be with you.”
I had to swallow and concentrate to keep from welling up.
“Shortly after that day,” she started with a smile, “my mom was going on about how you were a bad influence, and for the first time in my life I just unloaded on her.” Addie sighed like she was reveling in the memory. “I told her how I felt about you, and about who you really were, in here,” she put a clenched fist to her breast, “and then I called her a hypocrite and told her to go to hell.”
“Scared the hell out of her. Then she came to my room that night, and she asked me if all those things I told her about you were true, about your life and how well you did in school, and I said of course…”
“You never told me this.”
“… And that’s when she suggested I invite you to dinner.”
“That turned out to be a mistake,” I said facetiously. The food had been so good, and it felt so good to be part of a family meal, that I implied, at least, that I would be happy to come to dinner anytime, and I think I made them feel obligated to offer.
“We loved having you for dinner. Even my dad admitted, after the second or third time, that he liked you, and he meant it when he said you were always welcome at our table.”
“If only he knew.”
“Oh, I think they knew more than we gave them credit. And Joey,” she rolled her eyes (Joey was her little brother), “he wanted you to come every night, and when you weren’t there he pouted. He thought you were so ‘cool.’”
“You know, one of the reasons I so much wanted to see you tonight was because I wanted to thank you those invitations. It meant a lot to me.”
“I’m glad. It meant a lot to me too.”
“It beat the hell eating spoonfuls of peanut butter and swilling cans of Old Milwaukee in that crappy little apartment.”
We were the only ones left on the patio, and I detected a slight chill in the air (finally). Addie was sleeveless. I looked inside, and there were still a few people at the bar. I saw a dimly lit booth we could hideaway in.
“Let’s have a drink, inside?” I offered. She looked vaguely hesitant. “Something light – trust me.”
She started to say something and I gently interrupted her. “I am ordering: remember?”
“I’d love to.”
We were seated in a darkly stained booth. It might as well have been lit by candlelight. The booth faced a window that looked down a long boulevard. Lights flickered and the skyscrapers seemed to be falling away from the street.
I ordered a limoncello in a frosted flute for her and Campari with a twist for me. When our drinks came, I lifted my glass.
“A toast?” I said without a clue as to what to say next.
“To old friends?” she said holding up her glass with an exaggerated, comic wince.
“No. To all the young lovers of the world…” I started, but trailed off not knowing how to finish. And then Addie finished my thought.
“May they share an evening as lovely as this many years from now.”
“Thank you,” I whispered as we touched our glasses. “I had worried that you really didn’t want to be here.”
“Part of me didn’t, at first, but that was just the timid little girl part of me.”
“You know, it was such a great coincidence. I was so glad you came to the reunion, and then we were talking about L.A., and I realized that I was going to be here in just a few weeks. When you agreed to meet me for dinner, well, I shouldn’t have said that thing about…” I stumbled over my words. “I shouldn’t have said how I wouldn’t tell my wife about our plans.”
She didn’t say anything. I don’t know what I expected her to say. It was my topic.
“I didn’t mean it the way it probably sounded, it’s just…” I was sinking again. “I did tell Rebecca I was going to have dinner with you.”
She looked at me with no expression, like she was waiting for me to dig myself a deeper hole, so I continued.
“I said it because through some strange coincidences, my wife has managed to meet every significant girlfriend I have ever had. Homecomings at NU, trips back to Chicago, our tenth reunion – my circle of friends isn’t too big, and it’s not a long list, mind you, but it’s still eerie. Anyway, we have a rule that we never talk about our past affairs…”
“That’s a good rule.”
“Yes. It is. So shortly after our tenth reunion, where you met my wife…”
“I remember her. She’s very pretty.”
“Thank you.” I was hurrying now to try and make my point. “So shortly thereafter your name came up, and out of the blue she says, ‘I sense there is some kind of unresolved sexual tension between you two.’”
“She said that?”
“Truth. So I said, ‘You probably think that about all my ex-girlfriends,’ but she assured me no, it was only with you.”
“So you think there’s something to that?”
“I was only trying to explain why I thought it was funny to say, ‘I better not tell my wife.’ I just didn’t want you to get the wrong idea.”
“I’ll shut up now.”
There was an awkward pause, and then Addie said, “She’s not only pretty, she’s smart. I’m sorry she couldn’t make the reunion. I hope she feels better.”
“It’s hard.” I didn’t want to talk about that. I changed the subject and tried to lighten the mood.
“So what did Dave or Rob or whatever his name is think about you having dinner with me tonight.”
“I didn’t tell him.”
We just looked at each other for a moment.
“He’s out of town with his buddies on a ‘shoot.’” Addie made the quotation marks with her fingers. “I didn’t see the point.”
“You think there’s more partying than shooting going on?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, I wouldn’t worry, as long as his buddies aren’t gay…” Dammit! Her eyes pierced mine with a startled and icy glare – some of them were gay; how did I know and why did it matter? I don’t know what joke I was trying to make.
She looked away with pursed lips. “I’m not worried.”
I had to change the subject. “Want to see pictures of my kids.”
She was appropriately impressed. She thought my son was the classic surfer-boy model.
“I could get him into magazines tomorrow,” she said with believable earnestness.
“Thank you, but I have a hard enough time trying to give him a ‘normal’ childhood out there in Sin City.”
“Not that there is anything ‘abnormal’ about being a model,” I backpedaled.
“No, it’s different.”
“It’s hard, bringing up kids these days – Internet smut, global warming, terrorism…”
“I can’t imagine.”
We were quiet for a moment, and then she started to answer the question without me having to ask it.
“Rob is not a ‘father’ kind of guy. And all those costs, the worries…”
She trailed off and I waited for her to come back.
She turned and looked me in the eye. “I can’t have children,” she said with obvious pain. I didn’t know what to say. She looked away and waived her hand like she was chasing a dark cloud away from our table. I dared to lighten the mood at the risk of ruining it.
“You mean all that consternation, and there was never a chance of you winding up in a family way?”
She smiled, and I closed my eyes in a moment of thanks.
“Seems like such a wasted effort, doesn’t it,” she said, her good humor apparently restored.
“You know how you said it felt good to be around me?” I seemed to have captured her attention. “Well, I felt good around you too.”
She put her elbows on the table and leaned forward, as if to say, “Go on,” so I continued.
“I was always trying to figure out who I was in high school. I wasn’t a jock. I might have hung around with the greasers, but hell, I was on the debate team. I was playing up that ‘bad boy’ image when I started going out with you, but that wasn’t me.”
“I always felt like I could be myself around you. I didn’t need a definition because you didn’t have one, and you didn’t attribute one to me. We just were.”
“Yes we were.”
“I wish I had respected you more... I mean your… as you put it, your ‘devotion to virginity.’”
“It’s okay.” She sighed deeply. “It was quite a challenge.”
“Stop. I loved it. Trust me.”
“I was barely ‘not’ a virgin myself, you know.”
“I suppose I knew.”
“I had no idea what I was doing. And then that one time in college, when you invited me out…”
“To test out my new diaphragm.”
I laughed again at her unabashed bluntness. “Oh, so that’s all it was. I don’t feel so bad now. At least after that, you knew I wasn’t nearly the stud I tried to portray.”
We both laughed. It seemed so horrific to me at the time, but not now. I reached and took her hand over the table. She looked at me and pouted playfully.
“You were the first man I ever slept with,” she said almost dreamily. “That morning, you were lying there, naked – I thought you were the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.”
Be gracious, I said to myself. I wasn’t good with compliments.
“Thank you,” I said. “That’s about the nicest compliment I have ever received.”
“I was hoping you’d call me.”
She looked at me like I was being stupid. “Yes.”
“I felt… stupid.”
She closed her eyes.
“I should have.” I wasn’t being wholly honest with her. “I think the reason why I couldn’t make love to you that night…” – how was I going to say this? “Something was going to change, Addie, something big, and I wasn’t man enough… I wasn’t ready for it. I was scared to death of it.” I squeezed her hand. “You were the best thing that ever happened to me, and I fucked up – twice.”