BY BRUCE MADOLE
Copyright is held by the author.
IT WAS the kind of restaurant where they have different forks for everything, beautiful creamy linens on the table, and where the table napkins start out all folded up like a little swan or something. They were long gone by now. There was an almost-empty straw basket in the middle, where the fresh-from-the-oven bread had been, and a silver pitcher streaked with condensation, where the remaining ice water was gradually getting warm. The main course was done, and they’d both chosen a raspberry sorbet for dessert. Plus, tiny cups of coffee. It was the kind of restaurant where Barry and Claire wouldn’t likely meet anyone from the office.
“I’m thinking of writing a personal ad,” Barry said. “But a truthful one.”
“Nobody tells the truth in those things,” she said. “But why would you? I am curious.”
“So am I. Curious. That’s why I started. Here’s what I’ve got so far: ?‘Old. Short, married, overweight and unattractive guy, un-endowed with physical or financial resources, semi-attentive, occasionally kind or empathetic, and liable to drop dead or fall asleep in the middle of sex. Seeking clandestine relationship with gorgeous younger woman. Write care of Hairy Beast, Post Office Box etc. etc.’ That’s it. So, what’s missing?”
“How about, ‘Send nude photo,’ she said. “And you could add ‘frequent’ in front of clandestine.”
“I don’t think I have the stamina for ‘frequent’,” he said. “What about ‘regular’?”
“You mean frequency of sex? Or the condition of your bowels?”
“The former,” he said. “Though I could add ‘occasionally flatulent’ to the description.”
“That would spice it right up,” Claire said. “What are you afraid of? That it’d work? Because thousands of women will write to you, if they write at all, saying something like, ‘I’ve already got one of those — there must be something more.”
“I’m thinking my wife could be one of them.”
“Oh . . . like that song from . . . was it, the seventies? About pina coladas?”
“Exactly like that. At least, I know she’ll write looking for something more. If she sees it.”
“Obviously, you’re not spending enough time together,” Claire said. “If you were, she’d know there is nothing more, other than a propensity to bet on slow horses and losing teams.”
“You’re such a comfort,” Barry said. “Do you want to have sex with me?”
“We’d have to start lying about still being friends,” Claire said. “I’d much rather keep you as a friend than live with the lying.”
“Very wise,” he said. “Who’s paying for lunch?”
“It’s your turn,” Claire said. “As you know. You’re just being churlish because I won’t sleep with you.”
“Did I say sleep?”
“Very funny. But true. You did not say sleep. You don’t need to — you read me the ad.”
“Well, I don’t think you’ve tested the ‘drop dead in the middle of sex’ bit,” she said. “But I don’t want to hit that one. Not while you pay for the occasional lunch.”
“So, if I stop buying lunch . . .”
“Get the check, Barry. We’ll be late for the meeting.”
“It’s your meeting — it won’t start without you. But you’d worry about being late for it if we’d had this lunch yesterday.”
“That’s true,” Claire said. “That’s very true.”
“Is very true substantially different from merely true? Or just . . . true?”
“Oh, shut up,” Claire said.
The newspaper lay folded in Barry’s in-tray, open to the personals section, and Barry’s ad was there; Claire had circled it in red highlighter, so he wouldn’t miss it. Couldn’t miss it, even if he wanted to. Barry read the ad, shook his head, and tossed the paper back into his in-tray. Then he picked up the phone and called Claire.
“So, you couldn’t resist it, I see,” he said. “You went ahead, and did it? You know I was joking, right?”
“Were you?” Claire asked. “You said you were curious. So satisfy your curiosity. Find out. How many will write you back?”
“Well, I guess I’ll never actually know,” Barry said. “It was you who rented the post office box, so you’ll have to screen the replies. I’ll bet you another lunch, on me, there’s nobody I’d want to meet. And not one real nude photo. Though I expect there may be two or three pics lifted from some girlie mag by a prankster. But real . . . a true picture of the person sending the reply. There won’t be one of those.”
“Double or nothing on the nude photo, then,” Claire said. “Of course, you realize, you won’t be able to collect on the bet unless you actually meet someone, and then you actually see them without their clothes on?”
“Distant possibility,” Barry said. “The face should be the clincher.”
“That’s assuming you get a face pic,” Claire said. “They could send something else.”
“Well, you’re doing the screening,” Barry said. “You let me know. Lunch at the same place?”
“With wine,” Claire said. “You’ll need to buy me a nice wine, too. Especially if I have to spend time looking at a bunch of pictures from strange women.”
“Well, and what will you give me if my wife answers the ad? Another lunch?”
“At least that,” Claire said. “And maybe, the phone number for a good lawyer.”
“Give it a week,” Barry said. “We’re not going to re-run this ad, are we?”
“A week should be enough. Make it a week and a half, to be on the safe side, since it’s a weekly paper,” Claire said.
It took two weeks, before Claire got back to him. She touched him on the arm, at the end of a meeting, and steered him a few steps back toward her office.
“There’s only one suitable response,” she said. “Well in fact, there were a few other responses, but none of them were suitable. Here . . .” She handed him an envelope. “Open it when you’re alone. Photo included. So that’s two lunches you owe me, now.”
“My wife wasn’t one of them? The other responses?”
“Nothing in those responses to suggest it was your wife,” Claire said. “I wouldn’t take that envelope home, though, just in case. A little discretion . . . will you meet her?”
“I don’t know yet. Let me look in the envelope, at least. These are uncharted waters. I’ve got to get my head around that. Do you think my wife would care? If she found out?”
“Just because you don’t spend much time together, doesn’t mean she’s willing to share you with someone else. Yes . . . I’d say she would care. And this woman, in the envelope, she’s married too. Not likely to tell her husband either. Besides, your ad said it would be a clandestine relationship, which is probably why she answered the ad. So don’t tell your wife. Call me once you’ve checked out the envelope. In private.”
In the privacy of his own office, Barry opened the envelope, which contained a short note, and a nude photo of a woman. Being a guy, he looked at the photo first. It was obviously some form of selfie. Probably one of several attempts with a timer, he guessed, since both her hands were visible in the picture. The woman in the picture was not airbrushed, not posing in any of the ways that models do, but simply standing straight up, fully-frontal. Her hands were resting on her thighs, as though she had kept them there by an act of will, instead of obscuring her genitals. She’d done some kind of a recent trim there, in fact, so the view was presumably less obscured than was normal for her. Among other details, the small caesarean scar was clearly visible . . . so there were or had been children. Her breasts were a medium size, not augmented, with proud and erect nipples. Barry wondered if she’d teased them a bit, before taking the photo, to make herself look… more interested. Some facial expression would have been helpful, but the photo had been cut off at the neck. Not cropped, Barry thought. She’s used scissors… just snipped off the top of her own photo. Pity.
Well, he thought, she’s beautiful. Like a former athlete who’s born children, lived her life, and not ashamed of a mature figure. I’d have liked to see her face . . . but she’s still shy enough to resist the act of taking an identifiable nude photo of herself. Probably knows that it’s generally a bad idea, in this age of the internet. Taking a real risk, to do that. Thank God she didn’t ask for a nude picture of me. He turned his attention to the note.
‘Dear Hairy Beast,’ it said. ‘You’re probably more attractive than you think. At least, you sound like someone I’d like to know, if only because of your ruthless honesty about yourself. You sound like a man I know… in fact, you sound like my husband, if he was inclined to write such a letter. But I’m going through some changes, possibly some drastic changes, and I’ve decided there are some experiences I want out of life, while I can still take such risky steps. And while I have the nerve. If I have the nerve. I thought of a motel, but I think, for a moment like this, I’d rather have someplace nice and far out of town. Someplace where I trust the cuisine and don’t suspect the sheets. Rather than presume about your financial circumstances, I’ve booked a room already, at a lovely five-star inn up in Alton, for this coming Thursday night. It’s a one-time offer. Text me when you get there: use this phone number, and if you can’t make it, just send me a text that says “the weather is unfavourable for tennis” or something like that and sign it HB. I’ll know you’re not coming.’ She’d signed it Nervous Nellie.
His phone rang. It was Claire.
“Nice letter,” she said. “And that’s . . . quite a brave photograph, don’t you think?”
“She’s beautiful,” Barry said. “Sexy. And I love the way she writes . . . sounds like a real nice person. I’d like to see her face.”
“Will you go, is what I’m wondering,” Claire asked. “Should I send a photographer?”
“No, you should not,” Barry said. “What part of ‘clandestine’ escapes you? No, wait, you were the one lecturing me about that. Besides when would it be news, if two already married people arranged to meet in a hotel? That’s almost what hotels are for.”
“Alright, alright. No photographer.”
“Oh, you could do it to me,” Barry said. “On second thought. Bad for my reputation, possibly, but … to be seen meeting a woman like that. Married or not. People would ask, ‘How in the fuck can he manage that?’ There could be some up-side in it for me. But none for her, so . . . please don’t.”
“Enough already. I promise I won’t . . . is that enough?”
“You notice she’s still wearing her ring?” Barry said.
“I did. I’m surprised you did, considering that hand was about an inch and a half away from her bush.”
“What can I say?” Barry said. “She has beautiful hands.”
“You’re going to meet her, aren’t you?” Claire said.
“Maybe,” Barry said. “Probably. She sounds really nervous about it, though.”
“If she was the kind to shack up without a second thought, you probably wouldn’t be as attracted to her,” Claire said.
“How did you get to this point in your life, knowing so little about men?” Barry said. “A woman like that, looking the way she does . . . if there’s the slightest chance she’d really go through with it, I’d be on her like a bass on a bug. Chance of a lifetime, for an ugly git like me.”
“You can tell me after, if you did,” Claire said. “I assume you’re too much of a gentleman to give me the blow-by-blow.”
“Very funny,” Barry said. “Assume away . . . just like that African song.”
Barry enjoyed the drive north up to Alton, but only sort-of. His mind was racing, but he kept his car on cruise control. Picking up a traffic ticket would really suck, in the whole realm of trying to be discreet about where he was going. He’d thrown some fishing tackle in the trunk, and an overnight bag, and left a note saying that he planned to commune with the bass for a day, or possibly two, if the fishing was spectacular. And he hoped it would be.
When he got to the Inn, he parked and took a deep breath. Then another. Then he took out his phone and texted the number he’d been given.
“I’m here,” he said.
He got a text back almost immediately.
“It’s one of the crofts,” the text said. And told him which one, and how to find it.
He found it easily enough — the instructions were good — and he hesitated for a few heartbeats more before he knocked on the door. It opened. He knew the face.
“Hello Claire,” he said. He stepped inside, and she closed the door behind him.
She was wearing a light cotton robe . . . more like a beach cover-up, though it didn’t cover much, and probably wasn’t intended to. He dropped his bag and put his arms around her. He kissed her on the neck, on her ear, beside her mouth, then on the mouth. She kissed him right back, for a long time, then she got her hands busy with his belt buckle. The robe presented no obstacle at all. They spent a long time, several times, exploring the possibilities. Afterward, curled up together in the wide bed, Claire transferred another kiss from her lips to her fingers to his cheek. Barry could feel her smiling against his chest.
“Like a bass on a bug,” she said, “and you weren’t lying. That was fun. Do you want some dinner?”
“I think we’ve missed the dining room,” Barry said.
“I packed a picnic, just in case,” Claire said. “Nothing elaborate … there’s a salad with grilled chicken and mandarin oranges, some brie, and a bottle of that chilled white we had the other day, that you so much enjoyed. Plus, a bottle of a nice Daniel Lenko merlot, from my cellar at home, for later. I saved it for a special occasion, like this one. For dessert . . . I’m having you.”
“Won’t that be lovely,” Barry said. “And I’m so looking forward to dessert.”
Later, much later, with Claire once again curled up against his chest, with his arms around her, Barry felt the trickle of some tears against his chest. She was crying. He nuzzled her hair, and kissed the top of her head, softly. But he rested his other hand squarely on her bottom, because it was there.
“Penny for your thoughts?” he asked.
“Did we do this wrong?” Claire asked. “We’ve lost so much time.”
“The past is just that,” Barry said. “It can’t be helped.”
“I’m afraid,” Claire said. “What if the worst happens?”
“And what if it doesn’t?” Barry said. “It probably won’t. It very probably won’t. Surgical techniques improve all the time. We both heard the prognosis. It wasn’t great… but there’s still some hope. You’ll come through it just fine. And our daughter is coming home… she’ll help you with the recovery. But let’s not think about all that now – that’s not what tonight is for. That’s not what you wanted. I think what you need to distract you, right now, is a good kiss goodnight.” He rolled over top of Claire, and began to kiss her again, her lips still salty with tears. Her mouth was warm, and her tongue was playful. They kissed for a long while, then Barry began to work his way down her chest, kissing her breasts, licking her nipples, then moving down to her belly button. And then still further.
“Barry,” she said. “Are you . . .”
“I haven’t finished your goodnight kiss,” he said. So then, he did. Much later, he heard her slip out of the bed and tip toe to the washroom. When she returned, she kissed him gently on the shoulder.
“Sleep well, Hairy Beast,” she said. Then she curled up beside him, with her face against his back, and went to sleep with her arms around his waist.
Tomorrow would be just another day. One more precious day. Then the day after that. Maybe. One tomorrow at a time.