The Cheryl Crow song playing on the Chocolate Factory’s jukebox ended. Carrying a Chocolate Royal banana split in each hand, I seated myself at a black and white chequered table. An old-fashioned 1950’s soda fountain and ice cream dispenser ran half the length of the room. Celebrities of decades past hung on the walls. Yellowed with age, set behind glass, original poster portraits of Jimmy Dean, Elvis Presley and John Wayne dressed up customer seating. Hung beneath little spotlights, a silk-screen of Marilyn Munroe, the one where she stood on the street grate, graced the wall beside Jane Mansfield. Raquel Welch and Grace Kelly occupied the wall across the room. The Chocolate Factory’s décor caught the eye and fooled the mind into thinking one had stepped back into the mid-century modern era. And then you logged onto the WYFI network and paid your bill on a wireless module.
Odera eyed the whipped cream summit and crushed nuts blanketing the banana split I set before her.
“I would have been happy with a mocha latté. This is officially my cheat day.”
Seated at a two-top next to ours, two ultraslim women wearing Lululemon workout gear eyed our desserts with sweet yearning. I rescued a curling wave of whipped cream threatening to roll off my ice cream mountain with a prolonged lick. They glared at me when I shared a mouth-watering grin of caloric delight. Satiated, I turned to behold Odera as they picked at a wedge of pecan pie shared between them. Each time they pecked at their miserable bounty, like a pair of vultures, their neck tendons rippled and popped. When they swallowed, their throats bobbed from collarbone to chin.
“Don’t you ever gain a pound?” and committed the maraschino cherry to oblivion. “I hate people like you.”
“You don’t need to diet. Your jeans have great back pockets.”
“Uh oh, diplomacy and a compliment. Should I be worried? And thank you. I didn’t think you noticed the last six pounds.”
“Unless,” I told her hooking a thumb at the two women, “you want to roost with the buzzard twins, Binge and Purge. Women should have curves.”
Odera’s mouth turned upwards a moment before she feigned insult on behalf of all women. She scooped a finger’s worth of whipped cream and nuts and licked it off.
“That’s mean and tasteless.”
“Meaner than coming into a chocolate, coffee and ice cream bar to eat a tasteless low-cal dessert?” After a pause, I asked, “Why did you arrange dates for me?”
“Friends want to see friends happy, in the beginning. Later, I was feeling claustrophobic, as though you were cancelling me out. I needed space. Subtlety isn’t your strong suit. Speaking of old dates, who was she?”
Concentration furrowed her brow as she dug to the bottom of her dish, loaded her spoon with ice cream, banana, chocolate syrup and whipped cream to produce the perfect flavour burst. I had learned that pauses such as these allowed her to formulate her next questions.
“Your old girlfriend. The one with the raven hair. I ran out of Loonies.”
“You mean the woman my first month out,” and dug into my pocket for coins. “Though I wouldn’t call her a girlfriend.”
“That’s the one. Any preference?”
“Classical rock,” I said and rose halfway from my chair as she stood.
“Thank you for seating me but you don’t have to stand every time I come and go.”
“It’s safer than wearing ice cream.”
She stood at the jukebox next to our table.
“I’ve yet to spill anything on you.”
“See, it’s working.”
“I’m not the one who’s accident-prone.”
“Some things should be forgotten and never again mentioned out of tact,” she told me flicking a bundle of hair off her shoulder virtuously.
“The Coke you spilled in the guy’s lap is probably still tacky. He jumped out of his chair spraying ice cubes on the teenager seated in front, who in turn dumped his popcorn onto the floor as he lunged to his feet with surprise. You’re a scarlet tomahawk missile raining confectionery chaos.”
“It was dark and someone had their foot in the theatre aisle,” she said returning to the table.
“Not dark enough to hide his face,” I declared smiling inwardly as she allowed me to seat her.
“I offered dry cleaning costs.”
Two tables over, a woman looked at me disapprovingly. Women on the subway issued the same small-eyed squint, usually followed by a half-headshake when I offered my seat up on Sardine days. Some women responded short and snarky, as though I had demeaned them. I did not let it affect me. And it did not stop me from repeating it on the next standing-room-only day. This particular lady wore an expression claiming I had committed a social faux pas. It said this is twenty-first century and women are not helpless. She whispered to the Metro-man type across from her, one with manicured nails and a seventy-dollar haircut. Judgement showed in his gaze when he peered over his shoulder. Meeting his appraisal directly, I put dominance into my eyes. He shrugged his shoulders at his companion and turned back around.
During my imprisonment, I felt that societal doctrines had eroded male and female roles, or I had failed to evolve if I chose to accept Odera’s explanation. Which I did not, mostly. I preferred well-defined roles, not fuzzy ones that changed with the wind. What was wrong with men shovelling driveways and cutting grass, while women focussed on less physically demanding chores? Any woman was capable of performing oil changes, building a garden shed and taking garbage out, but why would she want to if she did not have to? Screw the ever-changing trends. Metro-man could keep his fashion sense, his manicures and his facials. I’ll take snow shovel- and lawnmower duty, and I’ll stand on Sardine days. Sometimes a guy should just suck it up and stand his ground, not succumb to social pressure because it’s trendy.
“You never answered my question,” she told me digging into her dessert.
“The woman,” she repeated and licked away the bounty of ice cream and chocolate sauce. “Miss Raven hair.”
I shrugged my shoulders.
“You had sex with a nobody! Was she inflatable? What was her name?”
“A hooker!” The heads at the two closest tables turned. “What did she look like?”
“Dark-hair. Nice hooters. Long legs.”
“Shallow male values.”
“No point picking the girl next door, unless you’re into that.”
“And you paid her?”
“And?” she entreated leaning forward.
“Did you skip birds’ n’ bees’ day?”
“I mean where did you do it?”
“In a hotel room. The moment we stepped through the door she held out her hand,” I recalled as the red Fire Evacuation sign on the back of the door flared into memory.
“One hundred and fifty for half-and-half.” At her silence, I explained, “Oral sex and intercourse. She placed a condom in her mouth and put it on me with her lips.”
“I wonder who taught her that.”
“Maybe she went to hooker school.”
After loading another spoonful, she requested, “I don’t want the nitty-gritty, just hit the high points.”
“Once I was ready, she laid on the bed. Touching her tits and kissing was off the menu. She laid stiff and still saying, ‘C’mon lover. Oooh, you feel good.’ Had I been able to get a refund, I would have, but I couldn’t, so I finished and left.”
“Was she typical?”
“Dunno,” I told her as she licked her finger clean. I wondered if lust was stronger than friendship. “She was my first and last.”
“Too boring. No kissing. No touching. Just a slab of warm meat.”
“I’ve never met a guy who admitted he paid for it. Why didn’t you try another? Work out terms before you started.”
“It wouldn’t have mattered.”
“Oh, why not?”
“Just one of those things.” Emotional uneasiness felt like it was squeezing my chest. “She was a hooker. Pay as you go.”
“Was it the same with us?” she queried studying my expression.
“What?” I asked, lost in my own thoughts.
“I didn’t let you touch me. Was it similar with us?”
“It was different,” I said uncomfortably, though I could not define why it was different or why I suddenly felt apprehensive. “You’re not a hooker.”
“Well, no, you didn’t pay me. But there were restrictions.”
“What do you want to do next weekend? Beck gave me a travel permit.”
“Please don’t change the subject. I want to understand what wasn’t the same?”
“She didn’t cry afterward.”
“Cuz we kissed and I let you touch my breasts?”
“Do you mind?”
“No, I don’t. I’m not ashamed. I won’t pretend it didn’t happen.”
“Pick a new topic.”
“I don’t see why you’re getting upset, Bruce,” observed Odera in a calm voice, ignoring the heads that turned. “I only want to understand.”
“I need to walk. Understand the word ‘No.’”
When I turned to Odera, I found her honest eyes waiting. She was trying to understand when I did not understand. A level of frustration dissolved. Rather than speak, I held the door for her. Odera stepped out onto the street awaiting a response. Walking silently at my side, she watched me out of the corner of her eye. I headed for the dog park. Instead of asking questions or enquiring after our destination, or her car, whose parking meter would soon run out, she waited for me to answer, all other considerations forgotten. I turned back for the meter. My pockets were empty. Reaching into her purse, she handed me a few Loonies she had collected from the table. My flash of anger and frustration drained away.
I said, “I don’t know what got into me.”
“Where did the anger come from?”
“Leave it be.”
I headed for the park.
“Your eyes have turned dark. They do that when you’re upset.”
“I don’t want to discuss it.”
“You’re the one who asked if I wanted to hear it.”
“I changed my mind,” I decided and felt my frustration rekindle. “Friendship doesn’t guarantee admittance to every thought and feeling.”
“We agreed to be honest.”
“It’s none of your business. Nothing to do with honesty.”
“Last time I checked, I was on the giving end. I think that makes it my business. Don’t you?”
“How long are you going to play that card?”
“Until you stop reacting to it.”
Feeling trapped and confused, an irrational demon had shut down my brain. I felt frustrated at being frustrated. Not much different from insomnia. The more frustrated one grew, the harder it was to sleep. Odera remained silent. We stepped into the park. When I glanced over, she wore a mantle of calm, punishing me with her reasonable nature, I was sure.
“This conversation is over. We’re done. Move on.”
“Forget it. That look won’t, Mansbridge. Don’t push beyond friendship’s boundaries.”
“Fine, be silent.”
In the very least, she could get angry.
I sat down under a tree. She seated herself across from me. Under her scrutiny, I grew uncomfortable and embarked upon an adolescent staring contest. A partial grin toiled at the corners of her mouth as I pitted my cloaked eyes against her bright gaze. Flecks of blue mingled with deep cobalt around her pupils, whose circumferences opened and shrunk as the clouds covered and uncovered the sun. I grew uncomfortable imagining that I looked into her soul, and she into mine.
A young couple walked hand in hand past us. They searched for their own tree. To the right, a father played soccer with his son. I turned to Odera, ready to apologize, and found her waiting. She demanded nothing. Neither did she assume expectation, other than honest disclosure. I watched her expression, her face, examined her lips, but to no avail. Desperate, I stared at her breasts, hoping to make her feel self-conscious, to pick a fight and to keep it burning. Odera removed her jacket, placed it beneath her body and propped herself up on both elbows so that her breasts pulled firm and rounded. Red-faced, I looked away. Our intimacy made me inexplicably uneasy but allowed her to accept my gaze. Why should intimacy make me uneasy? Another riddle to solve. Nothing fazed her. Those damned vulnerable eyes waited. Wounded and trusting.
“What are you thinking?” I asked at last.
“What it was that made you not want more hooker sex.”
“You’re the most ruthless, stubborn woman I have ever met,” I uttered without anger, disarmed by her ability to bare her soul. Reasons behind my anger and why I ignored her, surfaced. Emotional understanding filled me. “The hooker left me feeling hollow. While you cried afterwards, I recognized how fulfilling it felt to be the one you turned to.”
“Welcome to the human race. Warm emotions translated into a physical urge that enabled us to share and express deeper feelings.”
“Don’t push it Mansbridge. You’re beating a dead horse,” I said around a grin.
I leaned forward until my lips were inches from hers and waited. Tasty cherry lip-gloss came forward. Chocolate yet flavoured her tongue when I probed for it. My arm cradled her head as I pulled her to me. She relaxed into my embrace lifting her chin higher. I broke free while I still could.
“You’re an amazingly pushy person.”
“I know. Your eyes aren’t dark anymore. You’ve never connected sex with feelings before, have you?”
“C’mon, I need to walk. You’re stealing my air.”
“You mean run,” she chortled and extended her hand. “Talking about the unbearable increases your tolerance to cope with it. It’ll get easier, I promise.”
“I’d rather milk a porcupine.”
I pulled Odera to her feet.
“Besides your annoying habit of protecting your feelings and thoughts from detection, I can live with the rest.” After a second, she added, “I prefer Neanderthal guy to Metropolitan man. Something’s not kosher about men who spend as much time as me in front of mirrors.”
“Did you just call me a Neanderthal and make it a compliment?”
“It’s getting really tough to sneak anything by you.”
“Just once I want to identify a basic feeling without an epic battle.”
“You’re a guy. Women practice. And it took me over five years to get here, which includes several years of therapy. You were inside forever. Give yourself a day off and quit analyzing everything. I need honesty. I’d rather deal with stubbornness than with lies. You keep it real. It’s comforting to know where I stand. I couldn’t exist without it. Not after what happened. Your stubbornness anchors me, makes me want to dig in and fight back.”
“It also reduces you to tears and brings back memories.”
“I run physically while you flee emotionally. So long as we keep banging into each other now and again, we’ll be okay. By the way, you owe me something.”
I pulled Odera to me, incrementally tightening my arms until I was aware of the familiar scent of her hair, her perfume and the way our bodies fitted. Odera snuggled deeper into our embrace, surrendering herself, which contrasted with our conversations. Lust and desire surged when I felt her breasts flatten across my chest and when her warm breath blew on my neck. Her leg slid between mine. After ten or twenty seconds, lust and desire changed into something else no less acute but longer-lasting. We will never have hooker sex, I realized suddenly.
“Definitely improved,” she declared some minutes later, walking beside me.
“You’ve Forest-Gumped your way from rookie to amateur. Do you ever wonder why you make yourself wait for something that you clearly enjoy? It felt as though you were trying to pull me inside that time. Smothering, really.”The reflexive arch of my eyebrow answered her remark. Rather than comment, I dropped into a comfortable silence. Odera let the matter go, but I knew she savoured her victory of having uncovered another feeling. That she knew that I knew sweetened her triumph and prompted me to frown at her some minutes later. Her quizzical expression, as she tried to uncover the source of my grimace, afforded me a small concession. She could not read my mind after all.