Busboys, waiters and captains, glided table-to-table anticipating requests almost before diners voiced them. Women of varying ages, from mistresses of twenty to wives of seventy-five, wore opulent pieces of ruby, emerald and diamond jewellery bedecking wrists, ears and throats in a gold, crystal and gemstone sea. Odera wore no such baubles but chose instead to wear a simple pearl necklace. Rather than display, she enhanced and by doing so, she was made beautiful by elegant simplicity.
On my left, a blonde wearing a halter dress cut down the middle to reveal a one-carat diamond bellybutton stud, makeup and hair done to the nines, sat across from a greying business tycoon whose belt-curling belly had enjoyed too many Caesars. They ignored our arrival, never looked up from ogling each other with great big goo-goo eyes that slung pet names across the table like Snook ’ems and Teddy Bear. Six months from now she would complain that he seldom visited their love nest, never took her anywhere anymore, and he would wonder how he failed to recognize the signs of a midlife crisis before purchasing all that jewellery, the sports car and signed a three-year condo lease.
Seated to my right, a golden-years couple returned Odera’s greeting. They were one of those husband and wife teams who seemed perfectly at ease sitting at a table crowded with Sterling silver cutlery, beneath one of four crystal chandeliers that broke the capacious room into sections. Elevated on a low stage and tucked away in the corner, a pianist chorded a classical piece covering conversations held low and respectful.
We whittled away our appetizers with inconsequential chitchat. As the busboy cleared the silver show plates, a waiter pushed a cart to our table. The captain materialized on cue and lit the Sterno burner while the busboy replaced show knives with appropriate dinnerwear. When the captain waiter tilted the copper pan to ignite my steak flambé, the first waiter served Odera’s entre. Blue flambé flames signalled a tidal shift in topics.
“We should tell Daddy. I hate deceiving him when he asks what I did the night before. Won’t you consider a compromise? For us? For me?”
“How’s your Monkfish?”
Once I had declined the pepper mill, the captain trailed the other waiter to the server station. Floating in pepper steak sauce, the silver dollar-sized chunk of beef was not heavy enough to touch the bottom of the plate. Had we dined aboard an ocean liner, the meat would have drifted away.
Odera interrupted my cruise ship musings; “He won’t mind that we’re friends, Bruce. And it’s none of his concern if we are. Your job is perfectly safe.”
“Especially if he doesn’t know.”
I used my dessert fork as a dinner fork to give Odera something else to focus on. She didn’t bite.
“Doesn’t it bother you that I lie to him?”
“You knew there was a chance you’d have to. You were counting yourself able to convince me to tell him long before tonight. You gambled and lost.”
“Which is my point. I’m lying for us. Really, let’s tell him before he learns on his own. You’ll feel better.”
“You’re lying for yourself. He’s never asked me about the night before.”
When I took a second bite of a four-bite serving, I wondered if I should chew slower.
After chewing and swallowing a carefully loaded forkful of fish, she said, “I don’t understand your objection. Give him a chance to know you outside of work. When he’s accepted our friendship, so will Mike. How much trouble could he make if we’re honest?”
“I’ve explained how easily Beck can re-order my life. You don’t believe what I said is true. I don’t want your dad watchdogging me or telling Beck that he’s concerned about you. I definitely don’t want to have to answer Beck’s enquiries or suffer more impromptu restrictions.”
“My personal life is none of Mike’s or Daddy’s business. Do you think me incapable of ordering my life?” Odera posed her question in a rising voice. “Who cares what others think?”
“Unlike you, I don’t have that luxury.” A rosy hue coloured her cheeks and neck. “Your father and Beck have an influence over me that I can’t ignore.”
“You mean won’t ignore! Daddy won’t sabotage you, if for no other reason than it would hurt me if he did.”
“To save you from yourself, meaning me, he’ll do what all fathers do best ― protect their daughters. It’s paternal instinct. Would you see me in jail to prove me wrong?”
“Oh Please. Don’t be so dramatic. You’re allowed to make friends.”
“You could send me friendship cards. There’s plenty of drama in those. You know the ones that say, ‘The sad thing about having you for a friend is you’re not here!’” I said more loudly than I had intended, which drew attention from the blonde twirling hair around her finger, eating cherries jubilee, using her tongue to pluck one red and luscious fruit at a time off her fork.
“You know I won’t betray you,” she asserted strongly, turning heads. “I don’t want to see you return to jail,” she orated leaning forward. Cleavage and a black lace bra showed; which reminded me I was not getting any, had not for some time and was not likely to either, which also niggled at me for no discernible reason. “Be honest and open, Bruce. People respect honesty. Give them a chance to respect you.”
“Fine. That settles it,” I decided, pretending to ignore the frowning older woman. “I’m not looking for respect, just privacy. Were you going to eat your fish?”
“Nothing is settled. It’s far from settled. The only thing we settled is that you’re as unyielding as rock. You asked me to accept your judgement, well, how about giving me equal consideration. Accept my judgement. We’re friends. It’s not a national security matter. How do you think I feel lying?”
“If our positions were reversed, I would accept your judgement, but it’s my liberty at stake.”
Blue eyes flamed insult across the table as she mutinously flicked her hair behind her shoulders.
“You’re really saying that you don’t trust anything I’ve said after a year of loyalty! If I risked parole violation, I’d trust you,” she proclaimed loudly, not caring if the entire room heard.
“You may as well go bang your head against the wall. Slippery arguments won’t change my mind. You’ve two choices: keep your promise or break it. What’s it going to be? Because if you intend to tell your father, have the decency to grant me a four-hour head start.”
“Shush, young man. Time and a place. Of which this is neither.”
“Lady, you can go bang your head. Now’s the time and there’s the wall,” I instructed, refusing to be tag-teamed.
“That’s entirely uncalled for, sir,” admonished her husband. “You’ve no right to speak to my wife that way!”
“You’re absolutely correct,” Odera agreed, daintily daubing her mouth with a napkin corner. “His remarks were callow and uncouth, far below civility. Please permit me to submit an apology on his wretched behalf.” When he acquiesced with a bowed head, she said, “He would have told you to go bang your head, but I think he worried your incredibly fake hairpiece would fly off!” she counter-punched, firing him a look that said if anybody was going to shush- and harass me, it would be her and her alone.
Uncertain how to respond to a woman’s chastisement, the gentleman’s mouth hung open. The bellybutton diamond blonde snickered behind her hand. Eyes darting side-to-side, her companion cautioned her to silence. In and amongst piano music that had dropped a level or two, drifted muffled ‘tee-hees’ and suppressed chuckles.
“Oh my. Dear me. Well, I’ve never―” began the older woman.
“That’s your problem,” I said. “You should start. Your husband looks tense!”
That suggestion drew laughter from the gallery of diners who now listened with unfettered interest. The woman looked to her husband to champion her. He scowled deeply at me. Almost convincingly. More diners smiled and pointed, grimacing social revulsion and whispering behind hands and menus. It occurred to me a man’s willingness to make a fool of himself is equal to the strength of his attraction to the woman across from him. The Duke conversed with a waiter who pointed at us and shook his head. A glower twisted the Duke’s ribbon moustache. He sent a waiter to our table.
“Excuse me, but―” the waiter interrupted, stepping between our two tables quicker than a hockey linesman blows an offside whistle.
“Butt out!” we ordered simultaneously and laughed. “Where were we? You may ready our cheque.” As the waiter darted off ― heel-toe, heel-toe, elbows pumping high and hard ― she compromised, “It’s Victorian and offensive, but what if you floated it by Daddy? Would that allay your concerns? I could almost forgive you that insult.”
“Single-handedly you’d set Women’s Lib back fifty years?; become a subordinate?; walk a step behind me? How about you ride in the back seat?”
“You do not want me behind you while I’m wearing pointy-toed shoes. But yes, I’d pay a pride price to stop lying.”
“To appease your conscience, let’s tell dear old Dad that a parolee wishes to date his only daughter. I’m certain that’s a dream of his.”
“Now you want to date me? Fat chance I’d date a liar. That ship has sailed.”
I turned to hairpiece guy. “What’s your opinion? You’ve been taking notes.”
“I, um, I wouldn’t know.”
Unable to resist, the grey-haired businessman said in a loud voice that let the entire dining room hear him denounce me, “You are bad-mannered, insufferable and a scoundrel by your own admission. I don’t know how you acquired a reservation. Mister, I wouldn’t let you date my dog!”
“That’s why you brought miss foot-stuck-in-your-lap all night and left the missus at home!?” I declared just as loudly.
Full-blown laughter rippled around the room like a long ocean wave crashing down the coastline. I rose from my chair offering Odera my hand, besieged by a deluge of staring eyes and nodding heads. As the businessman’s face flared red, our breathless waiter returned to say that our bill awaited immediate attention. He arrived under serenade, for the room hummed with open interest.
“You noticed that too,” said Odera accepting my hand with poise and grace. The blonde struggled to put her foot back into a shoe. Using a public-address voice, Odera commented, “I don’t recall seeing a Shiatsu side menu.”
Sliding her arm through mine with her elegant waterfall of curls held high in the best Shakespearean form, we waded through the diner’s pit. Neither self-conscious at our scrutiny nor ashamed that every person within fifty feet knew she banqueted with a parolee, she wore a striking smile. While Odera paid our bill, I retrieved my helmet and jacket.
“We make a formidable team. Did you see that man’s expression when you made the foot-in-the-lap wisecrack?”
“Geriatric George nearly swallowed his teeth when you set him straight. Burger King is our only option now that we’re persons non-gratis here.”
“I warned you not to open your mouth.”
The valet returned with Odera’s car. I pressed a tip and my key tag into his hand. As he departed, I walked her to the driver’s side. When she turned toward me, I took her into my arms and hugged her, relishing the gown’s thinness. Sandalwood and another earthy scent filled my head. Odera murmured something and lifted her chin. Our mouths came together. Soft lips parted, hesitantly sampling, redefining our friendship. Before I realized what I was doing, one of my hands went to the base of her neck, the other skimmed down her spine to find the small of her back while her arms circled my waist.
At the end of the kiss, she said, “It’s still early. Come back to my place. I’ll whip us up decaf mochas. Let’s not end this evening.”
“I have other plans.”
“You’re sloughing me off? I thought you were enjoying yourself as much I was.”
“I was. I am. But now it’s over.” What had begun as garden-variety discomfort seconds ago, strengthened tenfold. “Catch you tomorrow.”
“Wait.” When I turned back, she said, “What just happened?” Shoulders drooped and her voice went low. “Is it my attack? Is that it?”
“What?” Frustration now replaced the discomfort I had felt. It burned through me faster than a brush fire, igniting an uncontainable need to push her away. “Not everything is about you, Mansbridge. One little kiss doesn’t indebt me to you for a damned thing, including an explanation.”
“What’s come over you?”
The valet was close enough to have heard Odera’s last words. Now that I pictured myself leaving, a measure of calm began to reassert itself.
“It’s not you. It’s me. Hate me tomorrow, but tonight’s a wash.”
I passed the valet another tip.
“Fine.” Odera slid closer. Sandalwood again pervaded my senses. “I may choose to forgive you, but only if tomorrow comes with an explanation.”
The deep rumble of my engine drowned the night. She lifted an index finger and crooked it.
“What?” I called over the noise and leaned inward.
Clasping my shoulders, Odera leaned in, kissed my lips smartly, bit my bottom lip sharply and pushed off abruptly. Spirit and moxie captured her eyes. Anger and determination tensed her jawline and turned her face a scarlet hue.
“Best remember that. It’s your last. Don’t bother calling until you’ve come up with a convincing explanation. Nothing less than a Hallmark apology. Verbal. Not texted. With lots of grovelling. Now, hit the road, Jack.”
Rather than stay and try to explain my actions for which I had no words, I donned my helmet and popped the clutch wondering what had happened. A bundle of emotions had gotten jammed when they all tried to rush out together. Maybe I had an allergic reaction to something I ate.