Bill kept it all innocent. He simply stroked her back and her hair. He was tender about it, soft and quiet. He lay facing toward her somewhat. She lay on her side some and her stomach some.
“That feels so good,” she said. “But let me get my bra out of the way.”
Arlene hoisted herself up and unbuttoned the blouse. When it was open she slipped out of the bra one arm at a time.
Bill did not even bother to look. In other circumstances, at any other time, he surely would have. He would have looked and he would have reached out with both his hands and spread the blouse open so he could not only see her breasts but could touch and kiss them too. Feeling as he did, calm and at ease from the Quaaludes and the wine, it was a thought, a sensation, even a desire. But he did not act upon it even though he could feel himself getting aroused.
Arlene sat a moment as she was. She tossed the bra to the floor unceremoniously and looked at Bill. The blouse sat open but not spread wide. She reached for her wine glass, but because the motion was awkward from where she sat, she swung her legs over the side of the bed. This way she was facing away from him, her feet on the floor.
Bill wondered what she was thinking. He wondered what she wanted. He thought about what he wanted. He surely did not need another sex partner. He certainly did not need to get laid. No matter what he and Arlene did, he’d probably get laid tomorrow at work or tomorrow after work. Maybe it’d be multiple times, each time with a different partner.
Ain’t it funny how the night moves, he thought. When he needed a partner he couldn’t get one, sometimes months and months at a time. Then when he had a partner, now that he was a broiler cook and in control of the kitchen… Well, go figure.
He watched Arlene finish the wine in her glass. Then, since she sat a bit to the side, he saw her reach for his glass. She turned toward him, handed him his glass. As she moved, the open blouse fell away from her, not all that much but enough that Bill could see her bosom. He took the glass but looked away.
“Finish your wine and I’ll pour you some more,” Arlene said.
Bill sat up in the bed. He finished off the wine in one gulp then reached out to hand her the glass. She took it back, set it down, refilled both glasses. Then she stood and faced him.
“Why do you keep looking away from me? Don’t you want to see my tits?” Arlene put her hands on her hips. “Don’t you want to see me naked?” she asked. “Do I not appeal to you?”
Bill stood up and came around the bed to where Arlene stood. He stepped close to her and grabbed the blouse with both his hands, one hand on each side where the buttons and button holes were.
He said, “It’s not that at all. It’s that you’re vulnerable and emotional and I don’t want to…
“Be presumptuous,” said Arlene. “You’ve said that multiple times already.”
“I just want to be clear what I’m doing here. I want to be clear what you want from me and what you need. I want to make sure that you won’t think I took advantage of you.”
“Let me be clear for both of us,” said Arlene.
She turned them so that Bill’s back was to the bed and she had some room behind her. Softly she removed Bill’s hands from her blouse and stepped back two short steps.
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“Yeah, shit,” said Arlene. “I’m way too young to be all alone and my mother is way too young to die. She just starting dating about six months ago, and if I were to venture a guess I’d say she’s been getting some lately. More than I can say for myself.”
Bill made himself comfortable on the pillows. He scooched a touch closer to Arlene so their thighs were touching.
“What’s gonna happen at Cleveland Clinic?” he asked.
“We’ll get a second opinion and they’ll either suggest a different course of action or confirm the one we have. I’d prefer if we could just do chemo but I’ll make sure we do whatever promises the best results.”
Arlene moved to match Bill’s move. Now they were not casually touching thighs, they were pressed tightly against each other.
They lay touching until Bill got up to get his wine. He didn’t climb over Arlene but got up on the side he was on and walked around the bed. He stood beside the bed, finished the wine in his glass and refilled the glass. That done, he handed Arlene her wine and helped her sit up so she could sip it.
“How you feeling?” Bill asked.
“Sweet,” said Arlene. “Creamy and smooth. You?”
“Getting ready for a shower?”
“Soon, I guess. Why?”
“Cause you told me you wanted one.”
“What do you want?”
“I want to be held. I want to put my head in your lap and be stroked by you. I want you to tell me it’s all going to be okay.”
“So let’s do that,” said Bill.
He finished the wine that was in his glass before he returned to his spot on the bed. He made sure he was close to Arlene then leaned in over her and kissed her once on the forehead then once on the lips, closed-mouth kisses.
Facing him, Arlene leaned up on one elbow and kissed him on the cheek. Then she helped him put his arm around her, leaned herself on him and tucked her head into the space made by his extended arm. Bill pulled her even closer so that her head was more on his chest and began stroking her shoulders.
“I just feel like crying all the time,” said Arlene.
“I understand completely.” Bill turned to face her. He could smell her hair since it was close to his lips. Lavender. She was soft to his touch but he could feel that she was tense.
“And I feel so alone. I wonder if anyone can understand how I feel.”
Bill did not say anything. He squeezed her softly about her shoulders and adjusted her and him so they were less sitting up, more laying down facing each other. Situated this way he put his other arm around her and held her firmly within his arms.
“I think you’d be surprised. I think there’s lots of people who understand exactly how you feel. You just haven’t run up on them yet. Well, just me, and as it happens, I do understand.”
Arlene moved herself so close to Bill that she was almost upon him. Now Bill could feel the impression of her breasts against him. He could also stroke her back, which he did, over and over, softly but firmly. After a while, he tugged her blouse out from her skirt at the waist so he was able to reach up underneath it and stroke her bare back.
Arlene did not object in any way. She did not object in any way when he unhooked her bra and let it fall as it did. This way he could stroke her complete back unobstructed.
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Bill heard some fussing in the bathroom, the toilet flush, some more fussing. A little bit later Arlene returned. She was still wearing her waitress outfit, black skirt and white blouse, but her legs were bare and she was barefoot. Bill noticed that her toenails were done in a French pedicure and were shiny-clear. Seeing that, he checked her hands, what he could see of them, to note that her fingernails were done the same way.
Arlene said, “You could have laid down. I wouldn’t have minded.”
Bill said, “I didn’t want to be presumptuous, again, so I just waited.”
“I think you should stay the night,” said Arlene, “especially if you don’t have to go home. No pressure however. We don’t have to do anything and I don’t have any expectations other than to have you here to talk to.”
“If I stay the night I’d like to take a shower,” said Bill.
“Like I said,” said Arlene, “make yourself at home.”
Arlene sat on the bed next to Bill. First thing she did was put her hand on his thigh. Then she reached over and kissed him softly, a closed-mouth kiss on his cheek. With the hand on his thigh, she took his hand in hers and placed them both, her fingers clasped in his, in her lap.
“We could take a second Quaalude if you like,” said Bill.
“I’d like that,” Arlene said. “That way I’m sure I’ll sleep soundly.” She squeezed his hand gently and pressed it further into her lap so that he could feel the impression at the juncture of the thighs. “I’m starting to feel that first one and it feels good. I’ll bring the wine bottle in here.”
They both stood up and left the bedroom. Arlene went into the kitchen. Bill went to his coat. They met up and walked back into the bedroom together. Then they both sat back down on the bed. Arlene topped off their glasses of wine. Bill opened the pill bottle, popped a pill in his mouth and handed one to Arlene. Then he sipped his wine, except he didn’t sip it. He drank half the glass. He set the pill bottle on the night table.
Arlene sipped her wine too. She did sip, kind of daintily. Then she patted the bed and fixed it so they both lay down. She fixed the pillows and the throw pillows to make their heads comfortable.
“You really think you can fix my shifts?” Arlene asked.
“I’ll speak to Tommy in the morning,” said Bill. “Of course that’s independent of anything that happens here and you should definitely know that if you told me to go home right this moment and never spoke to me again I’d still speak to Tommy about it in the morning. I can’t promise that Tommy can do anything, but if he can’t, I’ll speak to Robert and see what he can do. Robert can supersede Drenovis and he can pressure Mr. Bowman.”
While Bill was speaking Arlene’s hand found its way to his thigh. Bill did not move away from her and felt himself stirring somewhat.
“What do you need in terms of shifts?” Bill asked.
“As much as I can get,” said Arlene. “My mother’s cancer is pretty pronounced. She needs at least one operation, maybe more, and then chemo on top of that. Even then the prognosis isn’t good.”
“When did you find out about it?” Bill asked.
“My mother’s been complaining for a while,” said Arlene. “She hasn’t been able to put her finger on it, but she’s felt queasy and weak and tired all the time. Then she started vomiting, mostly for no reason at all. That was about two months ago. That’s when I told her she had to go to the doctor immediately. I went with her and one thing led to the next and here we are. We’ll be going up to Cleveland clinic soon.”
“Shit,” Bill said.
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One thing led to the next and at nearly 2:00 AM Bill found himself calling home to tell his fiancé he was staying out in Whitehall, which was true technically since Arlene’s apartment was in Whitehall, the same actual city the steakhouse was in. Except there was no answer at home. So he imagined she was sleeping, which wasn’t all that likely because the phone would’ve wakened her, or that she’d gone to babysit Tim once again. This was the most likely of the alternatives. Either way, in effect, he could breathe easy.
Arlene kicked off her shoes and tucked her feet under her where she sat on the sofa. Bill sat as he had been sitting, relatively close to her but not imposing on her space. A time passed where no one said anything.
In the silence Bill thought about how since his mother had died he’d been afraid of everything all the time. He thought about how, worse than being afraid, for a long time he wasn’t aware that it was fear he was feeling. In reality, most of the time in his life thus far he had no clue what he was feeling or why. There was just this cloud hanging out there over him and this lead ball of near-nausea that endlessly sat in the pit of his stomach. On top of those was his impulsivity. His impulsivity was what got him busted and ultimately why he was sitting here with a waitress instead of at home sleeping with his fiancé. He wasn’t consciously aware of his impulsivity issue either. If he were, he might have already been a…
What-if was a dangerous game. Bill didn’t play what-if yet because he was too stuck in the here-and-now. His life was his life and here he was in it. He did things because they were there to do or because they needed to be done and that was it.
“So…,” Arlene finally said, “a penny for your thoughts.”
“How about you first.”
“I was wondering, since there was no answer at your house, if you were planning to stay the night.”
“That’d be presumptuous, don’t you think?”
“My planning to stay the night.”
“We went out for coffee, to talk.”
“And here we are. So let’s have a glass of wine and some Quaaludes if you have them and let’s lay down on my bed and talk.”
Later in his life, quite a bit later in fact, when he was in his mid-thirties, a waitress would ask him if he wanted to go bowling. Bill would discover that bowling was a euphemism of sorts, a type of code. It really stood for going to bed together. He would discover that he was her trophy and that even in his mid-thirties and married he was gullible, able to be seduced like a naive child.
He had gone bowling. Boy had he gone bowling.
Except he was not being seduced now. He got up from the sofa and went over to his coat. Arlene went into the kitchen. He took a bottle of pills from his pocket and sat back down on the sofa. Arlene came back with two glasses of red wine. She handed him a glass. He handed her a pill.
“Come on,” she said. She reached out for his hand and led him into her bedroom.
The bedroom was typically female. The bed was made tight, magenta covers and comforter, frilly and soft. Throw pillows were settled over the bed pillows, neat like ducks in a row.
“Make yourself comfortable,” she said. “I’ll be right back.”
Bill sat on the edge of the bed. He placed his wine glass on the night table and untied his shoes. He was unsure whether or not to put his feet up, so he sat on the edge of the bed and waited.
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Arlene led him to a small all-night diner. She waited in her car until he had parked next to her then they entered the diner together.
“I come here sometimes with my mother,” said Arlene. She led him to a corner booth where they sat facing each other. We usually have lunch, sometimes dinner. Saves my mother from having to cook.”
“My mother died when I was kid,” said Bill. “I’m only telling you that because I want you to know that I feel for you. I hope your mother still goes on and lives a long life.”
“She has cancer,” said Arlene. “They’re going to operate but the prognosis isn’t all that good.”
“I’m really sorry,” said Bill. “I’ll pray for both of you.”
Arlene reached her hand across the table signaling for Bill to give her his hand. They were holding hands across the table when the waitress came. They both ordered coffee and sat without speaking.
After awhile, Bill asked her if she had any other family. Arlene said she had some cousins but they all lived far away.
Bill didn’t know what to say. He held her hand until the waitress brought the coffee and then he let go. It was an awfully awkward moment. Arlene looked as if she were going to burst into tears. Bill hoped she wouldn’t, but he wouldn’t have blamed her if she did.
“Want some ice cream or something?” he asked.
Arlene said, “I just want to be held. What I’d really like is for us to be somewhere quiet, alone, where I could just cry on your shoulder.”
“You have a place to go?”
“Sure. My place.”
“Is it close by?”
They drove in separate cars, Bill following Arlene, to where she lived, a small apartment. When they were inside Arlene showed him where to put his coat and then led him into the living room.
First thing, Arlene kicked off her shoes. She motioned for Bill to sit on the couch and asked him if she should start a pot of coffee. He said no, that he’d had plenty. He told her under ordinary circumstances he’d ask her if she wanted to get high, but he didn’t figure this was a time for that. He also said he had some Quaaludes and that she was welcome to a couple if she wanted to really relax later on.
Then they were both settled on the sofa and Arlene was looking at Bill in a way that he didn’t quite understand. He couldn’t figure exactly what she wanted from him and he was very unsure as to how to proceed. He sat back and shifted away from her but did not actually move. He hoped she would read his body language but he wasn’t at all sure his body language was clear because he wasn’t sure that he was clear about what he was doing there or about what he was feeling.
He said, “I guess I should put this out on the table. I’m not sure why I’m here and I’m not clear about what you want from me. So if there is anything you would like me to be doing or you’re expecting me to be doing, just let me know.”
“I don’t have many friends,” said Arlene. “The friends I had were at the University. When I grew up I wasn’t one to have many friends. Then my parents got divorced when I was fourteen. Not many families had divorces in them so I was kind of a pariah.”
“We all have stories,” said Bill.
“I am so scared,” Arlene said.