Never Look Back

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Chapter 15

Mondays are slow hotel days. Except for a middle-aged couple and a five-piece matching luggage set arranged on the floor from tallest to shortest, we were alone in the Sandman Inn restaurant. Situated halfway between our homes, six months of Monday meetings rendered us fixtures to staff. Linda, a student who worked to pay her way through a teaching degree, waved to us. While I conveyed the universal sign for menus, Odera tossed her parka into the corner of a booth and slid in. She went to work freeing her hair from the leather barrette confining it. Now free, she ran her fingers from scalp to the ends of her long tresses fluffing and scratching. Duly ruffled and released, Odera held the wooden barrette stake between her teeth while she prepared to gather her hair into a ponytail. Tightly braided for work. Relaxed ponytail for social gathers.

When did she wear it loose? At home, obviously. Lest my mind continued its jaunt into the forbidden, I replaced those mental quandaries with memories of the city’s light festival. Christmas lights, actually, except that Toronto discontinued public nativity scenes and shunned anything religious as it pertained to holidays. When I went into prison, Christmas was still Christmas. My first winter out I discovered it had been sterilized so as not to offend anyone’s beliefs ― except those who held Christmas beliefs. I enjoyed thinking PETA would soon complain that Rudolph’s red nose proved he had caught the flu from poor care and control. Following Rudolph’s demise, a special interest Eco group would probably lobby City Hall for a Christmas tree moratorium. It was Pandora’s Box pandemic. Canadians loved to feel guilty about feeling happy when others might be feeling sad. To do otherwise bordered on impolite. That’s likely why we thank ATM machines when they dispense cash.

“Wehl? How id thingsh go wisch Alie-thaa?” slurred Odera around the stake.

“She should move to LA. Sidebar: I’m going to write City Hall to put Christmas on a milk carton.”

“What?”

“Christmas. Remember? Flock of flying reindeer hauling a fat man in red PJ’s who home invades to munch cookies and leave gifts.”

“You’re an atheist. An atheist who misses Christmas? That’s like an eagle afraid of heights. Let it go. Its Happy Holiday Season’s something or other.”

“I support Santa and the Christmas spirit, which began as a pagan festival to celebrate surviving all winter cooped up in a cave with the in-laws. A few thousand years later, to pacify rampaging Christians, Rome’s chief religious leader renamed the pagan festival Christmas. Christ’s birthday was changed from summer to winter to match. Santa didn’t come not the scene until mid-sixteen hundreds.” Odera’s scowl screamed blasphemy. She held devout Christian beliefs that I almost respected with sensitivity. “Want to hear how Easter’s resurrection got buddied-up with a bunny delivering art deco eggs? Which came first, the Christ or the egg?”

“Somewhere in that dull diatribe, there must be a point to your verbal hemorrhaging.”

“Christmas is social pacification through potlatch gifts. Who doesn’t like gifts? Did you read about Toronto’s ethnic melting pot in today’s paper? New stats are in about the complexion of its multicultural social milieu.”

“No, I didn’t. Stop trying to impress me with your Pagan Roman trivia and big words. Already know you’re an obnoxious rude history obsesser deeply in love with excruciating minutiae. No need to reinforce that.”

“Was that even a sentence, or did you just scrub out commas and string a bunch of random words together?”

“If the shoe fits. What were you saying about Toronto’s melting pot?”

“We are officially a minority. How’s that for a small word?”

“Like part of fading boomer children? We’re heading for a dip. Don’t rely on an old-age pension. We’ll be lucky if Canada Pension Plan is remembered by the time we’re eligible to drawdown. We need to organize and speak out.”

“Go buy another RRSP if you’re feeling anxious.”

“Old-age pension is every Canadian’s God-given right. Poor fiscal management is wasting it away quicker than an Ethiopian obesity program.”

Trying not to grin, I said, “Point made and acknowledged. Back to Christmas. As of today, right now, Caucasians are officially a minority in Toronto.”

“What does that have to do with Christmas and City Hall?”

“City Hall is being insensitive to our minority Christmas beliefs. Jews get Hanukah. Muslims have Ramadan. Chinese celebrate a separate New Year. Blacks have a history month. Anglos should be able to enjoy Christmas up close and personal. Now that Caucasians are a minority, we can speak up without being slapped down. And we can explore housing benefits and tax breaks. Let’s go find an ex-minority member to learn which government tit to latch onto.”

“Don’t tell me you fell for media stats? Please. We’re only a minority if you heap all the true minorities into one pile. The City’s fudging numbers and the newspapers are sensationalizing. Just another way to tout Toronto’s multicultural magnificence.”

“That’s a culturally insensitive remark. Let’s organize a protest march. Plenty of our minority brothers and sisters would come out to show support.”

“I’ll find you an online reindeer to adopt. That’s the closest you’re going to come to Christmas. And you had a prison tit for twelve years. Stop being a boob. You’re going through withdrawals.”

“I bet I can count on my sisters who marched topless on Ottawa for the right to go bare-chested to show Santa support. How’s this for a slogan ― ‘Show some booty for Rudy!’ There’d be no shortage of guys marching alongside. Don’t you miss Christmas?”

“Are you trying to bring back Christmas or trick women into going topless?”

“And your point is? I don’t see why you always have to pick at the fine points. You’re missing the broader picture,” I teased.

“Nobody will march topless in December. And before you ask, very few women will send in photographic support either.”

“But there’s a chance some might, though? Is that what you’re saying?”

“Men are pathetic. I don’t know why I bother trying to bring you current,” she told me with a shake of her head, trying unsuccessfully to hide a ribbon grin.

“We’re not pathetic; we’re goal-oriented.”

“Fine. I’ll agree that men are not, not pathetic. Back to Aliesha. She mentioned a theme restaurant.”

“Thor’s. The roads were clean, so I took my bike.”

Odera fiddled with the frilly end of a wide and fluffy cashmere scarf, drawn to its luxurious texture like iron filings to a magnet. Long fingernails, decorated with a red and green Santa motif, clicked on her water glass as she twirled ice cubes making them chink and chime.

“Was Thor’s worth the hype?”

“Food portions were generous and well-prepared, but the costumes and floorshow carried the evening. A door attendant, dressed as a Roman centurion, greeted us and strongly recommended we change clothes. I had a choice of four warrior outfits, an emperor’s toga and a costume that may have been either monk robes or a paladin.”

“What about Aliesha?”

“Not sure about her choices. But after another wait, she came out wearing a belly dancer costume.”

“What did the guys’ costumes look like?”

She stopped her ice cube twirling.

“There were Viking furs with a horned helmet. Totally lame. Horned helmets are for the opera, not battle. A Spartan soldier’s kit included a leather skirt and sandals with knee-high straps. The third was a convincing kilt with tartan wrap-on boots. The last was barbarian furs with rabbit leggings. Oh yeah, and the Brother Franciscan robes, or maybe it was a warlock’s robe. Hard to tell. Have you noticed that Christian monk and grim reaper wardrobes are nearly identical? Makes you wonder what else the soul scalpers share in common.”

Ignoring my observation, which was her way of saying my remark was unworthy of a reply, she nodded a thank you to Linda when she placed our order on the table.

“You chose the kilt, of course. You probably wished that you had a sword and shield to go with it.”

“Claymore and targe.”

“Whatever. Small details don’t interest me.”

“It’s your maternal family’s history. With that attitude, I may rethink your editorial role. I was hoping that you’d be a little more attuned to the fine strokes.”

“I’m a big-picture person. Broad strokes, please.”

“Aliesha’s a broad worth stroking.”

“If you were trying for wit, you came closer to twit. Struggle a little harder and come up a level from crude.”

I said, “I always forget, is crude vulgar or boorish? I wanna make sure that I’m not boring you.”

“Unsophisticated. Aliesha’s costume, what did it look like?”

Odera liberated a bite-sized baby-back rib from my plate.

“The top barely covered her tits. Her choice of skirts turned out to be a miniskirt that was closer to a loincloth draped in gauzy material and revealed a pair of legs that went on forever. Having accessorized her skirt and top with a veil, she sashayed to the table and plopped down in my lap.”

“You mean that’s what you fantasized.” Odera shook her head and freed another rib. “Is this a dull scene you’ve written, and now you’re trying it out on me? If so, it needs a complete rewrite. What was she really wearing?”

“Scout’s honour.”

“You were never a scout.”

“Want me to describe a cheeky tattoo? Berry butt blotter?”

“Fine. I was there when the tattooist needled the strawberry tatty on her butt. Continue. Rock me with your Fred Flintstone moves.”

“Right. You guys were university roommates. You should be describing bikini pillow fights.”

“Oh please! You’re such a child. Did you not age emotionally at all in prison? Three of us had tattoos done to celebrate the freedom of our freshman year. And before you ask, you cannot see mine. C’mon. What happened at Thor’s?”

“Why can’t I see it? Just how low down is it?”

“It means I want to hear this story. And you’ve officially perfected crass.”

“Quid pro quo, Clarisse. My story for a tatty peek. I am offering play-by-play descriptions of Aliesha gone wild for a three-second peek.”

“Fine. You can gawk after you tell me about Aliesha.”

“Done. She kept playing up the enchantress theme. Like she jumped off the pages of a John Norman novel.”

“Probably thought she was on stage. She was a drama queen in high school and in university crisis found her at least once a month.”

“Part of Thor’s wildness is the food service. Food is carted out on big wooden platters carried by pairs of women wearing alluring costumes. Call ’em wench if you dare, but you’re liable to get a pitcher of ice water dumped over your head.”

At the end of my description, I downed a spring roll lifted from Odera’s plate.

“I heard they sprinkled sawdust on the floor, and flinging food was common, but I didn’t know about the wench thing. I can see why the place is popular. It totally rebels.”

“The tables are little more than logs cut lengthways and bound together with wire. Utensils included a Bowie knife, a two-pronged fork and wooden spoons. Dented steel pitchers replaced wine bottles and brass goblets substituted for glasses. I stayed with juice, but Aliesha drank wine. At regular intervals, she got up to use the lady’s room in a flourish of fabric that floated up and down and around with each of her steps.”

“That must have been hard on your eyes.”

“Tolerance and non-judgement are qualities a discriminating dinner companion should always exhibit in abundance,” I told her nobly.

“I’ll agree that you nearly always exhibit an abundance of discriminating quality quirks that require huge levels of tolerance to endure, but no more than that,” she said in a sweet voice, as though she held me no more responsible for owning so many character flaws than one blamed a thirsty desert nomad for hoarding water.

The demure smile she wore was at odds with her words.

“Another distraction was the dinner show. Half a dozen dancers decked out in costumes took to the floor mid-evening. Roaring lions, screaming chimpanzees, the occasional trumpeting elephant and other African sound effects chased the dancers over the floor. At the end of their formal show, they encouraged everyone to join in.”

“Did you?”

“Aliesha danced enough for the both of us, sort of a half n’ half lap dance.”

“In a gauzy skirt? Sounds like her.”

“Couples took to the floor, though none of the other women lap-danced. There’s something about wearing costumes that lowers people’s inhibitions. After the wine, Aliesha was feeling no pain. Skimpy to begin with, her top couldn’t confine her boobs. The doorman asked her to sit down.”

Laughing, Odera said, “I’m sorry Bruce. That must have been embarrassing. I know how much you dislike public attention.”

“There’s nothing sexier than the under-curve of a woman’s breast. I’ll grant her this: Aliesha has one helluva body.”

“You liked her? After that? Seriously?”

“Don’t be a hater, Mansbridge. What’s not to like?” Odera’s earlier wonderment changed to a guarded expression. “A night with Aliesha was Girls Gone Wild and Jerry Springer combined.”

“I thought you were a cut above pig. Tell me you’re kidding. She did not dance in any such way. You are so full of caveman crap. Keep the fiction confined to your tiresome, banal books filled with painful, sleepy detail.”

“I’m going to accept that review as a compliment toward my dedication to accuracy. Anyway, she ended up so drunk that she couldn’t walk straight. That was an evening I’ll never forget. Except for her costume and carrying on, the night was just about a wash. She didn’t express a point of view about any topic, conveyed zero interests and agreed with everything I said. Major let down.”

“That was the end of your date?”

“Not quite―”

“Tell me you did not get one of my oldest friends drunk and then sleep with her!”

“If you don’t want me hitting on your friends, then don’t set me up. What do you think my agenda is? Anyway, you said the two of you had a falling out. You called her a frienemy. Just because we had nothing in common has squat to do with me wanting to…”

“But she was drunk!” Odera removed her scarf and threw it on the bench, far away from her. “That’s one step above a corpse.”

“Sure, I twisted her arm to chug wine and flirt. But, yeah, she was too drunk to drive. Before you ask, we didn’t go to bed. Not really.”

“What, you did it in the hallway? Do men have no standards at all?”

“Temperature and location aren’t standards. They’re limitations that define how long sex can last. After spending all evening looking at her body through that outfit, I wanted her. We started kissing as we stepped through her apartment door. By the time we reached her bedroom, we had left a trail of clothes behind us.”

“Do I want to hear this?” she interrupted. Rhetorical silence ensued. “Fine. Continue.”

“She kept asking me to tell her what to do.”

“And did you?” she asked curtly, her lips pursed until they became a slit.

“I’m a guy. Of course, I did. What guy wouldn’t want an attractive, almost anonymous woman asking him to tell her what to do? You’ve truly become a minority if you don’t understand that much.”

“I don’t want to hear any more. You have zero principles if you threw yourself at that drunken slut. Have you no minimum standards whatsoever?” It didn’t take long for her to say, “Sorry. I forgot guys compartmentalize sex; some women too. What happened next?”

“We had started kissing when she asked to have her nipple pinched. When I complied, she said harder. Aliesha was working a wild animal theme with nips, scratches and growls. The growls were sort of hot,” I admitted to Odera, who wore a stony expression. “Then she asked me to slap her boobs. She wanted to be tit-spanked while we had sex.”

“Aliesha said that?”

Leaning forward, I opened three shirt buttons, showed Odera red teeth indents, and asked, “Believe it.”

“Well?”

“Well what?”

“Did you play Adam’s Family S&M?” she asked pointedly.

“What do you think?”

“You’re a guy, aren’t you?”

“Not that kind, I’m not. I evacuated the premises before I drowned in crazy.”

“You’ve replenished some of my faith in most men, but very little in you. List the experience as the 51st shade. That’ll teach you for taking advantage of a lush in heat.”

“Christ, it’s been six months. And I don’t care what you say; half-in-the-bag, almost anonymous women dressed as belly dancers are fair game. A preference, actually.”

“Well, you are only a man, barely, by the strictest definition only.”

“As I dressed, she ranted and raved that if I told anyone she’d say I forced myself on her and that she had marks to prove it.”

“I don’t believe you. You fabricated all of it. What really happened? She turned you down flat and now you’re bitter enough to invent this fable.”

“I brought proof. Not proof of what happened in her apartment, but pics from Thor’s.”

“Who took the pictures?”

“An in-house photographer. Five bucks for each click if you decided you wanted one. At the time, I thought that I would return them the next day,” I said while Odera flipped through the pictures. “Kind of a second date gift to earn female gratitude.”

“Oh my God! Here she is with a boob out. There’s her bum and I can see...well...just about everything. There’s her tacky tatty. Did you wear protection before volleying the vivacious vixen’s vault?” she probed wickedly, unable to suppress a silly alliteration giggle.

“Stop that or the Yuk Yuk Police will arrest you for V-ing in public. Where do you find these women? Kooks R’ Us?”

“Sorry, Bruce. I had no idea. Aliesha was always a wild child, but nothing this extreme. It serves you right, Master.”

“Go ahead Mansbridge. Get it out of your system. But you weren’t there. Just remember, she’s your friend. Do you think she’d fulfil her threat?”

“She was probably embarrassed that you’d tell me and that I’d tell others, but I’d keep the pictures just in case.”

“Does she know your father?”

“Uh, uh. I haven’t seen her in years. I don’t go around telling people you’re a parolee. We bumped into each other a few weeks ago. She was having trouble getting back into the swing of things after a drawn-out divorce. I guess she made the pub- and club crawls, had a few other set-ups. The fact that I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel with you should emphasize just how hard it is for women to find half acceptable male companionship.”

“Glad to hear you acknowledge that the strongest flavours always fall to the bottom of the barrel. Tell Aliesha to visit punk rock bars. She’ll love the body piercings and nipple clamps.”

“That’s mean, Bruce.”

“You’re right, I don’t want to torment the rockers. Quid pro quo. My story was conveyed in painfully embarrassing detail. Time to unveil that tattoo.”

“Is it that important you would make me do so in public?”

“Hike the sweater. Drop the drawers. Whatever. You had full awareness of this going in. Nice try, Red. The only wiggle room here is your clothes.”

“You’d do that to me?”

“In a New York second.”

“Fine. I just wanted to see if you were a gentleman. Plainly you’re not.”

“And you’re just finding this out now? Talk about a slow learner.”

Standing beside her seat with her back turned to me, her head provocatively tilted down and to the side while looking over her shoulder, she hooked two thumbs in her waistband at the small of her back. One inch. Two inches. Stop. A second hand hiked her sweater a few inches. There, across the small of her back, she wore a cute little scroll with curled ends and a multi-coloured flower held within its borders. Hardly three seconds passed and she plopped back down in her seat wearing a self-satisfied grin.

“What a rip-off, Mansbridge. That was serious misrepresentation. All hype. My story was way more amusing than your Mother Teresa tattoo. You definitely owe me Santa and Rudy support.”

“Your guy brain dreamed up the hype. You had your peek. God, you’re so easy. Kinda like stealing. I almost feel guilty. Not! What was I going to say before you started complaining? Oh, yeah. There’s someone I want you to meet.”

“No more setups.”

“One more. Gail is dying to meet you. She’s even read your novel. By the way, when can I peek at your latest bunch of incoherent scribbles? Did I, or did I not provide usable input about Scotland in your last book?”

“And I thanked you profusely. Credited your contributions under Acknowledgements and gave you a signed copy. Let me say again how much I’m indebted to you for your useful insights.”

“See. I can do helpful. Let me read rough draft. I can do egghead grammar savant. Wanna hear edgy alliteration excitement expertly exemplified?” she rattled off, laughing hard enough to set her breasts bouncing. “One crummy chapter. I’ll cook us supper at my place.”

“Not going to happen. And seriously, Mansbridge, listen up. Alliteration isn’t attractive just because you scrub out commas and repeat similar vowels or consonants. Where were we before you tortured my ear? Oh yeah. Tell me you didn’t tell Gail my real name?”

I was neither able to read the circuitry behind those blue eyes, nor could I fathom why she played matchmaker. Perhaps she needed to punish her enemies.

“Of course not. She read your not-so-novel novel and enjoyed it without knowing it was you. Strike one and two against her intelligence and taste. I told her you’re a system manager, which is truer than not. She likes the idea of you opening doors and pulling chairs out. Told me she thinks you are gallant. Boy, is she in for a rude awakening. Ouch. That’s gonna sting when the ugly truth arrives.”

“Forget it. Say the words, Mansbridge,” I ordered in a deep, stentorian voice. “Let me hear them. C’mon Red. Spit ’em out.”

“All right. Whatever.” She looped the discarded scarf around her neck. “I promise. Happy now? C’mon, let me read a chapter. I can do grateful. ‘Oh my Good Lord, that chapter was so intoxicating that I’m ordering Cannes Film Fest tickets online, six months early, with an extra pair for my folks.’”

“Not going to happen. And by the way, one call to the cops from Aliesha and I’m back behind the walls on suspicion.”

“Don’t be so dramatic. I hardly think you could be jailed just because one person made a spiteful phone call. This is Canada, not a no-holds totalitarian society where citizens are jailed for rumours. Evidence of wrongdoing must be necessary. I mean, a complaint needs merit.”

“No, there doesn’t have to be any of that, not when it comes to suspending a parolee. The final decision is in the hands of my parole officer and his supervisor,” I asserted, exasperated, for I had tried previously to convince her of the narrow line I walked. “They will err on the side of caution and jail me quicker than you can say, Papillion. Suspicion and anonymous phone tips from spurned girlfriends, scared enemies and from people who owe money put parolees at risk. Jailing me for another five years is nothing to Beck if he thinks that he’s acting in society’s best interest. Hell, it would be easier than passing out speeding tickets at Daytona.”

“Fine. Pop a Zantac before you burst a blood vessel. You should consider Gail. She’s a lab assistant at a perfume company. Seriously, how wild could she be? Did I mention she competes in fitness contests and has a six-pack? No way she’d want bruises. Man-up Romeo. A kendo stick is pretty much a baton. You guys could practise twirling.”

“Why are you throwing your friends at me? Or is it just the ones you loathe that I get to meet? Have another rib. By the way, thanks for the raise.”

“Don’t thank me. I’m not paying your embarrassingly small wage.”

“Are you telling me that you did not speak to your father? Would you have me believe that he gave me a raise and now pays OT from the corporate crucible of his raisin heart?”

“Hey! Watch it, mister. That’s my sweet father and your generous employer who took you in when no one else would, whose character you’re debasing. But, um, in case he says anything, I may have mentioned in passing that you were thinking of other work. Sorta, in a round-a-bout way.” When my expression requested more detail, she said, “You said that you were considering opening a website. That certainly counts as other work. Next sunny day take me for a spin and we’ll be even. I’ll let you read a chapter to me afterward and pretend to be enchanted. I can do super fan.”

I cut her off, “Don’t start effing on me. If you can refrain from alliterating for one week, I could use your help with twittering versus tweeting and the whole hash-tag terminology thing. Would you show me how it works and teach me the lingo? You can read the chapters you help with. Best last only offer.”

“Twy to twain a twit like you to tweet? Twuly?” she said and laughed so hard that she snorted like Chrissy from Three’s Company.

“You can be replaced with Google.”

“Sorry, Bruce. The week starts now. Kay? Wrapping this scarf around a helmet for my birthday was not subtle. Oh, and Gail likes motorcycles. A lot.”

“Shut up and eat, Red.”

“Yes, Master. I can do devoted. Wanna see?”

She provoked a crooked smile from me when she raised both hands and bowed. After bowing, she turned the scarf into a veil that she held up to her face so only her eyes showed while humming a snake charmer tune, swaying side-to-side behind the veil harem-girl style. It was going to be a long and painful time before she let go of this tasty morsel of mocking material.

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