Seroje hated shopping. She couldn’t understand how a woman could take an hour to decide whether she wanted to buy a blouse or not. If she needed something, she knew what she wanted and she’d go into a store and buy it. Any longer than twenty minutes in a store meant they were too busy and she should come back.
The woman she was watching took an expensive silk blouse off a hanger and stuffed it into her large handbag. Seroje tapped the small box she had hidden under some panties. The box alerted security that she’d witnessed shoplifting.
Two women dressed like store employees appeared and Seroje nodded toward the suspect. The woman was led away complaining.
Seroje was playing department store detective. She preferred the hotel detective stuff because at least she could sit. The act of pushing around a cart and rooting through clothes made her feel conspicuous even thought there were many women doing the same.
The clutter of the racks was irritating. She adjusted the position of a blouse in a rack. It was in the wrong place. In her younger days, she’d have had to rearrange the whole rack. And if she’d not been allowed to, she would have exploded into a tantrum. Seroje forced herself to step away. This wasn’t her job.
“I love this blouse,” a woman said, with a shy smile as she sidled over to Seroje. “Which do think is best? The blue or the green?”
Seroje stared at the blouses, wondering why it even mattered what she thought. She had no answer other then to repeat what she’d been hearing from clerks all morning.
“Oh, definitely the blue,” Seroje said. “Much more slimming.”
The woman smiled and walked off with the blue blouse.
Seroje had no idea about what she’d just said.
The time was one pm. Her shift was over. Seroje put back all the items in her cart into the same spots she’d gotten them and returned to the back of the store to hand in her box.
“Good catch,” Stella, the manager, said with a smile. “We’ve seen her before.”
Stella was about two hundred pounds overweight, smelling like old socks and strawberry perfume. Her stringy blond hair was tied back, and she wore no makeup or jewelry. She never left her office since she always sat in front of the security cameras.
Seroje smiled a polite smile and walked out the back door with relief that she could leave and that it was also the end of her work day. She drove home to her condo in Spa Creek.
Her job brought in good money, which she never spent unless she needed something, allowing her to purchase what was listed as a penthouse, overlooking the water. There were two bedrooms and two baths. She’d decorated it in a simple manner in dull browns and greens and there was very little furniture in the place. She had a bed and dresser in her bedroom and one sofa in the living room.
She loved the place. She loved it so much that she didn’t want to share it with anyone, so she’d never brought anyone there. No one knew where she lived because she used a post office box for her mail. And she always took a convoluted path to get home so she’d see if she was ever followed. A guy she dated once tried to follow her home. She drove around for hours with him following until he gave up.
Seroje showered to get rid of the department store smell and changed into jeans and a light top. She slipped her ID, credit card, and some cash into a special pocket on her bra. The design was simple and easy to access without looking too obvious. She only carried two keys—one for her car and one for a storage unit. Her condo had a keypad. The keys fit into a special pocket in her jeans, where they were secure from falling out.
The weather was warm for this late in the summer. She paused to feel the sun as she headed toward her car, looking forward to spending sometime in the park. Her favorite pastime was staring at the water. It was relaxing.
Seroje parked in the same spot she’d been in the day before so Craig would have an easy time of spotting her car when he’d come. She headed for the hill overlooking the water. No one else was there and she breathed deep, allowing herself to relax as she stepped through Tai Chi movements.
Seroje remembered she was fourteen when she saw a program on Tai Chi. She watched the program just that once then practiced in her room, finding the movements helped keep her calm, reducing her feelings of frustration. She knew she was difficult to be around when she was frustrated. Since that time, she’d try and do the movements every day. The less frustrated she was the better everyone behaved toward her.
She began doing the movements a second time when she heard the faint step. Seroje didn’t have to look since she could smell jasmine. The old Chinese lady was there, mirroring her movements.
Perhaps this is what Craig meant when he asked if she knew dancing, she thought, feeling as if she and the old lady were in a choreographed dance.
Seroje ended her movements and stood for ten minutes in quiet meditation before turning and retreating from the hill. The old lady, wearing a loose gray shirt, slacks, and black slippers, watched her. Seroje wondered what the woman was thinking.
She found a bench near the parking lot and sat, staring at the ground, noting everyone as they passed. The old woman approached her, muttered, bowed, smiled, and walked off.
Seroje had no idea what the woman said or meant verbally or via body language. She had the feeling both were not in her language.
A short heavy-set man strolled into the area with his dog, a small mixed breed, on a leash. He caught sight of her and dropped the leash. The dog trotted with purpose towards her, but she growled as soon as the dog was within hearing, sending the dog running off with its tail between its legs. The owner ran, calling after it.
A counting game arose from the incident as she counted dogs. She counted how many men vs women walked dogs. There seemed to be more men than women and she saw more attempts at using the dogs to meet the women. There didn’t appear to be any women interested in using the park to meet men. Only one man got a response because he carried a toy Pomeranian, and that was a single comment of “how cute” before the woman continued on her jog.
She ended the game when she heard the car, but she remained on the bench, making him park and walk in to find her. The bench shifted as he sat beside her.
He was in his black dress pants and white shirt without the tie or coat again, looking relaxed.
“Afternoon, sweetheart,” he said, making no move to touch her.
“Good afternoon,” she said.
“Have you recovered from last night?” he said.
“I think so.”
“Ready for a quieter evening?”
“Always,” she said, following his lead as he rose from the bench.
He took her hand and led her to the car. Two teenagers were ogling the car. Craig tapped his car keys, causing the car to beep. The teenagers scattered.
Again he took her to the airport, and they boarded the jet.
“Prepare for departure. Please fasten seat belts,” Pete announced overhead.
As soon as they were in the air and leveled out, Craig served her iced tea.
“It’ll be a few hours,” he said.
“Okay. Where to this time?” she said, feeling like she was experiencing some déjà vu.
“You will see,” he said as he turned on some music, keeping the volume low.
She wondered if he was going to try something, since that was what men usually used music for, but Craig sat beside her and took her hand, seeming to be quite comfortable to just stare at her and sip his tea.
“Do you read books?” he said after thirty minutes of quiet.
“Only if I have to,” she said as she stared at the floor.
“Do you like to shop?”
“What’s so funny?” he said.
“I just spent four hours today playing store detective in an upscale department store. I hate shopping,” she said. “If I wear something fashionable, it’s by accident.”
Craig smiled, gently rubbing his thumb over the top of her hand as he held it.
“What’s your favorite color?” he said.
“For what?” she said, drawing a blank, not understanding the question. “Bananas need to be yellow. Oranges orange.”
He looked as if he was thinking that over.
“Some women have that perfect guy in their head, like blond hair, blue eyes. What is your perfect guy?” he said.
Seroje wondered what this game was.
“I don’t see the outside of people,” she said, expecting to get either ridiculed or pushed back on that concept as had happened to her before. “I don’t care if their hair is black or blue or pink or their eyes are green. I want to see what’s inside. Lots of pretty packaging out there. Lots of fake packaging.”
Craig appeared to think that one over for a long time.
“I wish everyone was like that,” Craig said, continuing to stare at her and caress her hand.
He didn’t talk for the rest of flight, looking content to listen to the music in the background and hold her hand.
“Prepare for arrival,” Pete announced overhead. “Please fasten seat belts.”
Seroje couldn’t see any airport out of the windows. All she could see was grass as the jet dropped lower and lower, touching down on a green field. She tensed, wondering if this was what was supposed to happen or the pilot had not told them he was going down, but Craig gave her hand a reassuring squeeze as the jet bumped over the ground and taxied up to a barn. The engines cut.
“We have arrived,” Pete announced overhead.
They stepped out into the heat and humidity. The trees and grass were a deep lush green. Horses ran in a pasture along side the airstrip. An orange wind flag fluttered from the barn.
“We’ll be here a few hours, Pete, or so,” Craig said to Pete, who nodded in acknowledgment.
“Where are we?” Seroje said.
“My little horse farm in the middle of Tennessee,” he said.
“Thoroughbreds,” she said, expressing the only information she could think of about horses.
“This way. It’s not far,” he said, taking her hand as he led her up a path toward a house.
The house was white with three levels and each level had a veranda that seemed to circle the house. One corner of the house had a staircase that led up to the upper areas.
“Evening, sir,” an old black woman said as she stepped out of the front door onto the porch. She was slender, dressed in jeans, loose shirt, and riding boots. Seroje felt the woman’s dark eyes pierce into her, and she kept her gaze toward the ground.
“Evening, Sarah. How are you doing?” Craig said.
“Ize just fine, sir. Sweet tea is on the veranda, sir,” she said with a wave of her hand indicating the direction.
“This is Seroje, my friend,” he said.
“Welcome, Ms. Seroje,” Sarah said, slurring the name just a bit because it was unfamiliar. Then she turned, going back into the house.
“She’s my manager. Runs a tight ship here,” Craig said, leading the way up the stairs and around the house.
The veranda was wide and shaded. The side where Craig stopped oversaw a slope that dropped down toward more pastures. A large ceiling fan turned, creating the needed breeze to make it comfortable. On a table were two glasses, a matching pitcher of tea, and a candle.
Craig poured tea for them both.
Five long-legged brown horses scampered in the pasture down below.
Seroje sipped the overly sweet tea, feeling a slight annoyance at the wobble of the fan.
There was the scent of horse manure and grass. The candle, not centered on the table, emitted the scent of citronella.
The scents and scenery were enjoyable. The wobble of the fan was annoying. Seroje stood and pulled the chain to turn the fan off, watching the blades as they slowed and stopped. The fan was within her reach and she stretched her arms up, moving the fan until one particular blade was above her. She took the candle and poured one drop of wax on the upper side of the blade, then put the candle back down onto the exact middle of the table. She pulled the chain and the fan started and she sat. There was no more wobble.
Another aroma joined the citronella, grass, and manure that she couldn’t recognize, but it was flowery. The rhythmic whir of the fan now melted into the background.
Craig sipped his tea, watching her, saying not a word.
“There is a lemony sweet scent I don’t know,” she said.
“Magnolia trees,” Craig said. “We’re surrounded by them.”
“I like them,” she said.
“Yes, I do too.”
A young woman wearing an apron over jeans and a t-shirt brought out salads and dressings, speaking not a word.
Seroje was pleased to find the salad chopped as were the vegetables, making it easy to slide on to her fork. This was her favorite way to eat a salad.
The salad plates were cleared away by the same young woman, who then brought soup.
Seroje expected that was it, but after soup came a tender piece of barbecued pork with apple sauce and a biscuit. She didn’t eat the biscuit and could not eat all of the pork.
“Very good,” she said, folding her napkin to signal she was done.
Craig nodded and they sat in silence, sipping tea while the table was cleared.
She couldn’t think of any small talk and decided if he wanted to talk, it was his turn to start it.
“Would you like a desert?” he said.
“Oh, no,” she said. “I’m quite full, thank you.”
They sat in silence for another ten minutes.
“This place is about two hundred acres,” he said. “Twenty-five horses. At least, I think twenty-five horses. Sometimes I miss counting the babies. I used to be pretty big into horse racing, but not so much now. Keep it going for the heck of it, and my trainer is actually doing well. It’s paying for itself. I have a few studs standing here.”
“I don’t know about horses or racing,” she said.
“Never ridden?” he said.
Horses trotted by in one of the pastures.
“Come, let’s take a walk,” he said rising and offering his hand.
She rose, slipping her hand into his. His hand was warm.
He led her down the steps and out onto the lawn where the scent of magnolias was stronger. The trees were tall over their heads providing ample shade.
“Why does that tree have a fence around it?” she said, noting the large tree that stood in the middle of a 12 by 12-foot square of fencing. She thought it looked rather silly since the tree wasn’t going anywhere.
“It’s in the horse pasture. Keeps the horses from chewing on it and killing it. Need the trees because they provide shade for them,” Craig said.
“The horses don’t realize they are killing it?” she said.
“No, they don’t. The horses get bored, and chewing is a natural activity for them. They’ll strip the bark clean off.”
“Oh,” she said.
A fine gravel path cut through the lawn and they followed it down toward a barn.
“There are some babies over here,” he said. “Well, not little babies. Almost nine months old.”
He opened the door and the scents of hay and leather combined with the scent of manure. The stable was clean and tidy. A few of the stalls were occupied by big brown horses with splashes of white on their foreheads.
“Hold your hand flat,” he said, showing her as he grabbed some grain pellets. He put some in her hand, then held out his own hand for the horse.
The muzzle of the horse felt for the pellets and the pellets disappeared.
She moved her hand closer to the horse, unsure. The horse’s muzzle was soft against her hand, almost tickling—and then the pellets were gone.
“Soft,” she said.
Craig patted the muzzle of the horse.
“She’s a good girl. Retired,” he said.
He led Seroje toward the back of the barn. There was a metal gate across an opening out to one of the pastures. The five long-legged horses crowded there, and she could see they were smaller than the one they’d just hand fed.
“These guys, I’d not trust so much,” Craig said. “They’re big kids and can get carried away. I’d not feed them by hand.”
One horse seemed to think he was boss and tried to scatter the others. The gate was banged by one, and they all took off with a spray of dirt.
Craig chuckled. “Yeah, big kids.”
He led her out of the barn, back onto the lawn. The sun was low in the sky, and the shadows were long. There was a bench not far from the veranda that looked out over the pastures and toward the sun.
“A good place to watch the sunset,” he said, sitting. “I love flying out here, especially when the weather is cold and nasty in Annapolis. The busy part of the place is at the other end of the property. So over here it’s quiet.”
“Winters would be milder this far south,” she said.
The breeze cooled only a little as the sun set, then there was no breeze at all. The sounds of the horses seemed amplified. Dishes clinked from within the house. She thought she could still hear the fan turning. The tall trees overhead were her favorite, reminding her of a park.
“I like this,” she said in a whisper. “I am impressed.”
She could not tell how he responded since he didn’t say anything and it was too dark to see his face.
“I think I do like you,” she said, enjoying the silence and the darkness.
“Took you that long?” he said in a soft voice.
“Can’t always go by first impressions,” she said. “Plus, this is only the third date.”
“Yes,” he said. “I liked you since the first date.”
He shifted, and she knew he wanted to do kissing and hugging, more then what he’d done so far. She wasn’t sure about that just yet. She needed some time to think about it.
He seemed to know where she was, and he touched her face to turn her toward him. She could smell him and his breath as his lips touched hers, but just for a moment, then he backed away and he kissed her cheek.
“I don’t like being smothered in kisses,” she said in a quiet voice, even though he had yet to do that.
“Okay,” he said. “Do you like to be touched?”
“Yes,” she said, “if I know I am going to be touched.”
The last of the light from the sun was gone, and the only light was from the house behind them. Stars seemed to pop out above them.
“Not a cloud in the sky,” he said.
Was he giving her breathing room to think? She didn’t know what her character would do, let alone herself.
He reached for and found her hand.
They sat for fifteen minutes, and she felt relief that he was waiting for her.
She relaxed and knew what she wanted to do. She stood, releasing his hand as she knelt on the bench, straddling his lap and facing him.
“Thank you,” she said. “You give me the time to think. I do like that,” she said and she kissed him, light and gentle.
He kissed her back, putting his arms around her.
“You are welcome. I want to know what you like and don’t like,” he said.
“I don’t like kinky. And no biting. Other than that, try me, and I’ll let you know.”
“I know you will,” he said, lifting her as he stood. She wrapped her legs around him.
He carried her into the house.
They did a slow dance of removing their clothes and touching each other’s bodies.
Seroje wanted to feel the pleasure. He did the job, taking her guidance, and then she let him finish his own pleasure.
They fell asleep intertwined together.