They were old now. It hadn't occurred to her until this moment. Spring sunlight warmed her shoulders as she gently rocked in her chair, while the pages of a book, lying forgotten in her lap, flipped in the breeze through the screen.
Across the room he slept face down on the sofa, each breath a low steady rumble she knew would soon build to a grinding roar, only to be abruptly interrupted by a few quick snorts. With a wide, flat palm he would rub his face, just as he must have done as a child, then scratch an ever-present itch on the inside of his arm, wriggle and adjust until he would settle into a new position and start all over again. Somewhere along the way this had become familiar, comfortable.
When had his tight, coffee-colored skin become loose and faded. With his face smashed against the cushions he looked like a shar-pei. Once thick, his soft black curls were now sparse and gray. Only his eyes remained unchanged. Those beautiful green jewels that sparkled when he smiled and flashed when he was angry. Time had stolen nothing from them.
How long had it been since she first caught sight of that sparkle? Wasn't it last night he had called to her from across the room?
She looked around to see who she was walking in front of; who this man might be calling to as he navigated a sea of bodies. His smile was warm and friendly and she wished it were intended for her. Don't be silly, she scolded herself, attempting to make her way to the lady's room through the gyrating jungle over flowing the dance floor.
"Marry me." He stepped directly in front of her, blocking any advance.
"What?" Is he crazy or what? He gazed down at her with a broad smile and there was no question who he was talking to now.
He was a kind, gentle man. She knew it instinctively. She had a personal, built-in alarm system that allowed her to assess a person's character at a glance. His was good. But at this moment, his unique approach and kind nature made her very uncomfortable. Kindness was not something she was accustomed to. She didn't know how to respond to it. She didn't trust it.
"Will you marry me?" he was so delighted with this game, he could hardly restrain his laughter.
"No. I'm already married." And with a step forward she expected the conversation to end.
He didn't move. He smelled of fresh air and sweat. And it fit him like the boots, flannel shirt and jeans he wore. He must have come here straight from work. Earnestly he pleaded, "Please marry me." Only a small crinkle at the corner of his eyes gave him away.
"Listen. I really am married." She leaned forward and yelled directly into his ear to be heard over the music. She put her hand on his shoulder for balance and immediately realized it was too friendly a gesture. If Dutch had seen this, he would kill her and this wonderful stranger. She couldn't let him know he was charming her. For the first time in her life she was truly flattered by a mans' attention. This had to end now.
"See that blond guy in the booth there?" She pointed to a row of deep booths that lined the far side of the room. Small lamps with cheap shades hung on the wall where windows should have been, painting circles of light on the marred table tops. Dutch sat with his back to them, deep in conversation with the friends they had come here to meet.
"That's my husband." That should put an end to this.
"So get a divorce." he grinned.
If nothing else, he was persistent. She couldn't help but laugh. She hadn't wanted to come here tonight. The long dark bar had a cavernous feel to it. She felt trapped by the music and crowds. Suddenly the flashing beer lights and heavy smoke made the place seem festive. She laughed deep and loud. It felt wonderful. She couldn't remember the last time she had laughed, really laughed. Nor could she remember the last time any one had made the slightest effort to get so much as a smile out of her.
Unexpectedly, she had an image of his bronzed body draped in white cotton. A leafy wreath sat nobly in his dark curls. Those laughing, green, Mongolian eyes contrasting features only Michelangelo could have recreated. He stood upon white marble steps led to white marble pillars. Where on earth did that come from?
"I don't know you. I don't even know your name."
His eyes never left hers. "Sam. My name is Sam." He winked and moved past her, leaving her alone in the pulsating mass.
What just happened? It couldn't have lasted more than a minute, maybe two. Other men had hit on her before. After all, Coyote Ugly she wasn't. Their attention had always offended her. Some acted as if she must comply simply because they willed it so. Others patronized and intimidated. Husbands and boyfriends of friends, promised loyalty and faithfulness. And for some reason she always ended up feeling compromised, dirty, even guilty. Then angry deep inside. These selfish fools had put her in jeopardy. She knew well the force of Dutch's temper. He would not care or wait for an explanation.
Never before could she remember feeling good about this kind of attention. But she did. She didn't want to. She just did. At this moment she liked the loud music and the crowds. She could hide here with her secret. Savoring it a few minutes longer.
She would pick it apart piece-by-piece and figure out what was different this time. She could hear her friend Donna's admonishing now. "You're always over-analyzing things. Just let it go. Enjoy it and let it go."
"Will you marry me?" he had said. Men weren't supposed to ask that. At least not until their neck was in the noose. It was an unwritten law amongst men. None shall speaketh until all hope is lost. Not even in jest. The funny thing was he meant it.
"You're the one that's crazy and you better lose that stupid grin." she said aloud to her reflection in the rest room mirror. "Pull yourself together and get back to the table before Dutch forms a search party." She washed her hands in icy water from a single faucet over a grungy basin and reached for a paper towel. Soggy bits came off in her hands as she tried to free even one from the over stuffed dispenser. No luck. She headed back to the table trying to shake her hands dry.
"Em, you look like you've seen a ghost." Dutch got up and waited for her to slide into the booth.
Her heart was pounding right out of her chest. She couldn't hear the music over the thumping in her head. Breathe, you idiot, breathe. Try to pay attention.
"Em, this is Sam North. He went high school with us. Sam this is my wife, Emily."
"Emily and I have already met." he shot her a conspiratorial smile. "I'm trying to convince her to leave you and run off with me."
Oh god. What will Dutch do? What will he say? I could puke on my shoes. That would be a good distraction. Right now it would be easy.
"Give it your best shot. Better men than you have tried and failed. She knows where she belongs." Dutch joked back.
Wait a minute. Dutch is laughing. This has to be a weird dream. What do you mean I know where I belong? You mean I know to whom I belong. She started to relax. This wasn't going to get ugly after all. Neither was it going to be easy.
But it was surprisingly easy. The conversation settled into school day reminiscences. Since Emily had not gone to school with the others, she had little to contribute. Under the circumstances she was quite content. Dutch would be happy, thinking she had finally learned to keep her mouth shut and look pretty, while she tried to figure out what was going on.
She could see the small twitch in the muscles of Dutch's jaw. Unconsciously he tore at the label on his bottle. Every so often a slight edge cut into his voice and, at the rate he was smoking, he would be a prime candidate for poster boy of the American Cancer Society. It soon became clear he did not like Sam. Not in the least. Although they sat talking for hours like old and dear
She might never know why he hated Sam. He would never admit it. Sam probably wasn't even aware of it, but it shed some light on a few things. Like, why Dutch had laughed earlier. All evening Sam had made a point to include her in the conversation, sometimes speaking as if she were the only one at the table. Yet Dutch was oblivious to this. All of his energy was concentrated on maintaining the appearance that everything was status quo.
"Last call. Can I getcha anything?" The waitress blew a wisp of spray-stiffened, over-bleached hair from her eyes. Smiled at each of the men in turn. Her ungirded breasts distorted the advertisement stretched tightly across her chest. A round tray rested on her hip. A tip glass perched precariously at the edge. The waitress turned to Sam, who politely asked, "Did you want anything, Emily?"
"No thanks." She wasn't a big drinker, and one more might be enough to put her over the edge. She had to get through the rest of the night with her wits about her.
"My sister will have another Chablis and we'll have another beer." Dutch pointed to Sam and flashed the waitress a greasy smile.
Damn you. I'm not incompetent. Do you think that's cute. That slut couldn't care less if I were - your grandmother. I don't want another drink. You son-of-a-bitch. She could feel the heat rising in her cheeks. She said nothing. She knew better.
With a nod and a smirk the waitress turned on her spiked heel and swaggered off. Two circles of flesh peeking from the hems of her skimpy shorts. Dutch watched every swing of her pendulum hips until she disappeared into the crowd.
With the straw from her drink Emily scratched designs in the ashes on the table around the tray. It was a self-conscious action which distracted her from looking at the others.
She didn't need to see him to know that Dutch was glaring at her with disgust. His blatant flirtation had less to do with faithfulness, than how much control he had over her. She suspected his infidelity, but he was careful to cover his tracks. He wasn't about to give her a good excuse to be rid of him.
It felt like an eternity before the others resumed their banter. Only then did she feel it was safe to look up. Now Sam must surely see her as a pathetic fool. There was no way out. She was trapped in that booth. Eventually, she would have to look at him.
He had been watching her the entire time and made no attempt to look away when she met his gaze. Hard circumstances made people cower at others' cruelty. He knew that. It was in those eyes. Those wonderful eyes were filled with kindness and compassion.
"It's late. I'm gonna take off." His voice was soft and he spoke directly to her.
"Dutch." His voice cooled slightly.
"Sam." Dutch held out his hand and they shook.
Then with a twinkle in his eye he turned to Emily. "I'll see you at the altar." and he was gone.
There was little likelihood she would ever see him again. But that was all right. Something had changed. Something she couldn't quite put her finger on. She was different and it was because of Sam.
"Yeah, I'll see ya there."
The forgotten book fell hard on the cat napping at her feet. He bolted from the room, stopping briefly at the doorway to emphasize his insult. She looked at the watch on what looked like her grandmother's wrist, her mind resisting ownership of liver spots and wrinkles. "Better get dinner started." She said as much to herself as to anyone.
Just for a moment the steady buzz saw rhythm stopped. She hesitated, waiting for the next breath. The moment seemed to drag on. Then there were the quick snorts and he rubbed his face, scratched his arm and rolled over onto his side.