I laughed. What else was there to do? This was really happening. He was really here. And it seemed like the most natural request in the world, for a handsome man to be standing knee-deep in the warm Abita River, summoning me to get naked for him. The rolled-up cuffs of his jeans were darkened by the water lapping at his muscled calves, his lean torso naked in the hot April sun.
He extended a tanned forearm to me.
“Dauphine, will you accept the Step?”
Instead of giving him an immediate yes and splashing towards him like I wanted to, I froze on the grassy bank in my vintage green sundress, which I had shortened to just above my knees. And now I was regretting it. It was sexy, not like something I’d usually wear. Do I look terrible in this? What if he isn’t attracted to me? What if we get caught? What if I’m no good at this? What if I drown? I am not a good swimmer. In fact, I’ve always been afraid of water. We were well hidden behind the swamp roses and pink mallow that sloped towards the riverbank, yet fear surrounded me. Control and trust, trust and control. My two competing demons. Why now? Hadn’t I put myself through school? Started a successful vintage clothing business, even before graduating college? Hadn’t I made it through recessions and hurricanes, pulling my little store behind me with the ferocity of a war hero rescuing a wounded comrade? I had done all those things—and more—but they required discipline and control and a steady hand on the rudder.
Accepting this compelling stranger’s invitation to join him in the rushing water meant inviting my life’s current to change directions. It meant allowing myself to enter a new world, one filled with spontaneity and risk, desire and possibly disappointment. It meant giving up control, learning to trust. Still, for all my bravado that day at the Coach House, I was suddenly unwilling to let things unfold as I had been told they would, as I had sworn to myself I’d finally allow.
But goddamn, this man was fine—and much taller than me. Then again, at five foot three, I was shorter than most men. He had smiling eyes, a rakish build, with messy, brown hair that the sun had coated with a copper sheen. I couldn’t tell if his eyes were green or blue, but he didn’t take them off me. The sun grew hotter on us, making my own hair feel like a long, heavy veil. I slowly slipped off my sandals. The grass felt cool on my feet. Maybe I could wade in. Start slow.
“Will you accept the Step? I can ask only one more time,” he said, without a note of impatience.
Now. Go to him. You must. I felt my hands drift up to my shoulders, following the lines of the halter on my dress. My fingers paused at the knot behind my neck. Then my hands worked of their own accord and the straps suddenly fell limp. I peeled down my top and bared my breasts to him. I quickly averted my gaze. I had to move fast before my mind caught up to my terror. What if my body disappointed? What if I wasn’t his type? Stop thinking. Act. I unzipped the back of the dress and let it drop to the grass. Then I rolled my panties down my legs, and straightened again, standing naked save for the gold chain circling my left wrist.
“I’ll take that as a ‘yes,’” he said. “Get in, beautiful. The water’s warm.”
My heart started pounding. As calmly as possible, I made my way towards him, towards the water. As I moved, I strategically covered myself. I dipped a toe into the edge of the river. It was warmer than I had expected. I placed the rest of my foot into the gentle current, then navigated the path of flat, moss-covered rocks leading to him. And I could see the bottom. I’d be fine.
As I stepped closer, our height difference became nearly hilarious enough to change the mood from sexy to funny; he must have been six-four! But before I burst out laughing, before I even reached him, his hands moved to the button of his jeans, causing me to stop and go quiet. Do I watch him? Do I not watch him? My Southern upbringing made me turn around to hide how red I knew I was becoming. I fixed my eyes on a distant oak shading the plantation beyond.
“You don’t need to turn away.”
“Dauphine, you’re safe. It’s just us.”
My back still to him, I heard a slight splashing and the sound of cloth against skin. Then he tossed his jeans over my head, where they landed on the riverbank next to his well-worn boots, my sandals and my green dress.
“There. Now I’m naked too,” he said. I heard him moving slowly through the water towards me, until his warm skin pressed hard against my back.
I could feel his chin resting on the top of my head, then his face nuzzling my hair and down the side of my neck. Jesus. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and tilted my head to give him my neck and the skin there. I could feel how much he wanted this, and me. My senses were electrified. My skin, warmed by the water, cooled by the air, soothed by his touch, came tingling alive. The wind carried the smells of the South— cut grass, the river, magnolias. I want this. I want this. I want him! What’s the hesitation? Why can’t I just turn around and face him? This man is here solely to please me. My only obstacle is my inability to let him.
Then, as he placed his hands on my hips, I heard that inner voice again, loud, insistent, with my mother’s Tennessee timber. He thinks you’re too flabby. Too curvy. Too short. He probably doesn’t like redheads.
I squeezed my eyes shut against the voice. Then I heard a low groan, the kind I recognized as deep male approval. Okay, he likes what he’s touching. He placed his mouth by my ear, his hands tugging my hips backwards, pulling both of us into a deeper current.
“Your skin is incredible,” he murmured, as he walked me farther backwards until I was waist-deep with him. “Like alabaster.”
He’s lying. They told him to say this. I begged my own critical voice to get lost.
“Turn around, Dauphine. I want to look at you.”
My arms slowly fell to my sides, my fingers touching the water. I opened my eyes and turned around to face the expanse of his chest and the unmistakable evidence of his desire for me. This is happening! Let it! I tilted my head back to look up at his calm, handsome face. Then whoosh! He scooped me right off my feet, so swiftly and deftly that I screamed out of joy, even as my stomach fluttered. By the time I secured an arm around his muscled neck, he was cradling me in the sparkling river, teasing, slowly dipping me in.
“It’s cold!” I gasped, clutching him harder.
“You’ll soon warm up,” he whispered, lowering me all the way into the water. His arms beneath me, I let my body give in to him and to the river. I stretched out, floating, dipping my head back, letting my hair drift inch by inch into the river. Okay here we go . . .
“That’s right, just relax into it. I’ve got you.”
I felt marvelously buoyant. The water wasn’t scary at all. I closed my eyes and let my hair spiral out, and for the first time in a long time I knew a real smile was spreading across my face.
“Look at you, Ophelia,” he said.
With one arm holding me up in the middle of my back, he moved the other arm out from beneath me and traced a firm hand up my leg, past my thigh, pausing at the crest, then moving to my stomach where he stooped to kiss the water in the pool my belly button created.
“That tickles.” My eyes were still closed. You’re weightless and divine. You’re body is beautiful, Dauphine.
“Does this?” he whispered, letting his hand travel across my curves, cupping a hand beneath me, his fingers exploring my cleft. Oh god.
“A little,” I said. My body opened like a starfish, my waving arms keeping me afloat. I loved what the water was doing to me. The chill firmed my skin. My nipples were ripe and hard. I opened my eyes and found his face, and I could see desire there. I watched him stoop to kiss my breasts while his hand below nudged my thighs open.
“How about this?” he asked, slowly sliding one, then two fingers inside me.
“Nope,” I gasped, “that doesn’t tickle.” I felt pulses of hot pleasure course through me. This could happen so fast, I thought as his firm fingers warmed my insides. I clenched around him, as he gently teased my opening with this fingers, tentative at first, and then more insistent, deeper. I felt the water ripple across my skin—a combination that quickened my breath. Right then and there, I wanted to come, I could have . . . but I pushed it back to savor the floating feeling. I arched slightly to urge his fingers deeper still, my hair fully submerged so that it spooled around my head. I imagined it looking like a fiery corona.
“You’re something to behold, Dauphine,” he murmured, the fingers of one hand gently moving in and out, his other hand keeping me afloat. Then he expertly maneuvered my floating body a quarter-turn, positioning himself between my legs. But before I could wrap around him to pull him into me, he bent down, his mouth meeting the water trickling over the inside of my thighs, now glistening in the sun, his other hand still beneath me. The heat of his lips married with the rushing water and his urgent fingers created a feeling so intense I slapped at the current to gain purchase. Then he slung my knees, one, then the other, over his shoulders, his strong arms underneath me, supporting my back, keeping me afloat. Both hands now beneath me, he brought his tongue to my soft groove, where my thigh curved into my short, red curls, and I watched as he nuzzled, the water like a million fingers across my body. For a second, I couldn’t tell the difference between the river lapping at my skin and his eager mouth, until his tongue, warm and insistent, found my perfect place, isolating it with a few talented strokes of his fingers. Ahh . . . I lifted my pelvis, my thighs opening wider, instinctively, hungrily, keeping my face above the gentle flow, my ears below the water. The rush of the current intensified the build as he drew circles on me, around and around, thrusting a finger in and out and . . . oh god. I felt his other hand, his wide palm spread across the middle of my back while his mouth and fingers did their dance. Then he reached up to tease my nipples. His mouth was liquid and warm, his tongue fluttering, lapping at me, drinking the whole of me in. I think he felt it before I did, the tension seizing my body, my knees clenching, my arms extending out at my sides, palms to the sun. Yes . . .
The first wave was warm and familiar. Ah this, I thought, I remember this. Then it intensified to something more, something deeper, with an urgency that made me cry out loud into the vivid sky. His fingers explored me deeper as his tongue traced faster and faster circles, and I was laughing when it happened, when I finally came, once, twice, in wave after wave of pleasure. I writhed, the backs of my knees clasping his shoulders, and we were, for a moment, one body. Then, after this blissful, floating moment, my breasts heaving in the sun, my own fingers on my cool skin, I came back to myself.
“So, so good,” he whispered. He moved me gently on the surface of the water like a paper boat, as I subsided.
“But . . . it’s not over, is it?” I asked, my thighs quivering, my legs now straddling his waist.
Nearer to the shore, I slid my legs off him, my feet finding stones to stabilize me in the shallower part of the river. I stood waist-deep as the water fell down my breasts in rivulets, my nipples still hard. I pushed the hair off my face, feeling dizzy, exhausted, satisfied.
“This is as far as I get to take you on this step, Dauphine. I don’t want to, but I have to give you back.”
He walked towards the pebbly beach where we had entered the river. Near our clothes was a pile of bright white towels. He released my hand and climbed the bank, the water shining off his back. Then he turned to pull me onto the grass. I shivered as he plucked a towel from the pile and swaddled me, pressing me to him, squeezing warmth back into my body, rubbing my arms hard.
“I feel so . . . I don’t know what to say.”
“You don’t have to say anything. The pleasure was all mine.” He turned to dry himself off.
I pulled the towel tightly around me, watching as he tugged his jeans over his muscled thighs and pulled on a crisp white T-shirt, which clung to his damp torso. He stepped towards me again, this time placing his big hands on either side of my face, pulling me into a lingering kiss.
When he pulled away, he said, “I mean it. The pleasure was mine, Dauphine.”
After planting a final kiss in the middle of my forehead, he walked backwards for a few steps. Then he turned to head towards the plantation, finally disappearing around an ivy-covered corner.
I wanted to scream a thank you for leaving me so beautifully shipwrecked. But the words were still underwater with parts of the old me, the parts that were afraid of surrendering, of wanting this, of simply receiving pleasure and trusting it was possible. Instead, I laughed out loud again, this time thinking, I did it. Something happened and I let it!
I turned to my dress and pulled it up over my damp, quivering legs. Smoothing it down over my hips, I felt something in my pocket and took it out. A small purple box. Inside, nestled in a cotton cloud, was a gold charm, pale and rough-edged. I picked it up. It had a Roman numeral on one side—I— and the word Surrender engraved on the other side. My heart leapt as I took the charm out of its nest, squeezing it tight in my palm. It felt like a warm, flat stone. It was mine. I secured it to my chain, the one I’d been wearing for three weeks.
I made my way slowly up the sloping hill towards the waiting car. As I passed a high stone wall covered with bougainvillea, I caressed the tiny pink petals. You did it. You gave up control. Now it’s time to take the rest of the Steps, however tentative, towards your new life—and away from those voices, away from that heartbreak, away from your sad past.
Three thoughts occurred to me that morning while stretching awake across my bed in Marigny.
One, it had been six weeks since that incredible night with Will.
Two, I had fallen asleep with my S.E.C.R.E.T. bracelet on again, which hadn’t been a problem when it had only one or two charms on it. But there were ten now, so the gold pressed into the tender flesh of my wrists, leaving marks.
And three, it was my birthday. My cat, Dixie, blinked at me from the foot of the bed. I reached down and pulled her into an embrace, where she purred herself back to sleep, a skill I wish I had.
“I am thirty-six years old today, Dixie,” I said, scratching her ears.
Another year had snuck up on me like a bratty prankster. I hadn’t been paying attention to time passing until after my night with Will. Time had begun to slow. Some days ached past, work at the Café Rose being both a major comfort and the salt in the very wound I needed to heal. How could I get over Will when I saw him every day? How could I continue acting like nothing had happened between us the night I’d danced in Les Filles de Frenchmen Revue and we’d kissed our way back to the Café, up the stairs to that dusty room, where he tore off my burlesque outfit and tossed me backwards on a mattress lit by moonlight? Though he didn’t know it, I had chosen him that night as my final fantasy. He knew only how badly I wanted him.
For me the lines between fact and fantasy had dissolved and he became real to me. His skin felt like home. We kissed like we’d been doing it for decades. We fit, our bodies perfectly molded for the things we did to each other naturally, wordlessly. It was beyond fantasy. And to think that all this time he had been right under my nose and I hadn’t seen him, couldn’t see him. But after a year of S.E.C.R.E.T., after a year of pushing myself past self-imposed boundaries, I had unleashed something very real inside of myself. And when Will told me he and Tracina had broken up, I felt the universe finally aligning in my favor. The morning after our magical night, I thought Will was my reward for coming back to life. I was wrong.
More than any other memory from that night, it’s Tracina’s face that haunts me—ashen yet hopeful, her steady voice delivering the kind of hard facts that kill fantasies. She told me she was pregnant with Will’s baby, and that he was thrilled when he found out.
What do you do with that very real information just when you think you’ve found the love of your life? You feel the final bubble burst around your fantasy and you walk away. That’s what I did. All the way across the city to the Coach House, where Matilda dried my tears. There she reminded me that embedded in every fantasy is reality.
“People love the fantasy,” she said. “But they ignore the facts to their detriment. And there’s a price to pay when you do that. Always.”
Fact number one: Will and I were finally together.
Fact number two: I was quite possibly in love with him. Fact number three: His ex-girlfriend was pregnant.
Fact number four: When she told him, they got back together.
Fact number five: Will and I cannot be together.
Because Will was my boss, I had planned to quit my job right away, but Matilda urged me never to let heartbreak get in the way of very practical concerns, like work, paying rent, being responsible and fulfilling obligations.
“Don’t give men that much power, Cassie. Get on with the task of living. You’ve had a lot of practice this past year.”
I was such a tear-stained mess that morning. I wasn’t certain whether joining S.E.C.R.E.T. was the right decision. But at least I was making a decision. That was new for me. Prior to S.E.C.R.E.T., I always went with the most powerful force governing my life at any given time, usually my late husband Scott’s. He had brought us to New Orleans almost eight years ago, but his drinking erased any notion that we’d made a fresh start. We were separated when he died in a car wreck; he was sober at the time, but still a broken man. I was broken as well. And for five years after, I worked hard and slept fitfully, falling into a pattern of isolation and selfpity, until one day I found a diary detailing one woman’s journey through a mysterious set of steps that seemed to have a lot to do with sex—a journey that was transformative, to say the least.
Then I met Matilda Greene, the woman who became my Guide. She said she had come to the Café Rose for the diary her friend had dropped, but really she came for me, to introduce me to S.E.C.R.E.T., an underground group dedicated to helping women liberate themselves sexually, by granting them sexual fantasies of their choice. Joining the group, letting these women arrange fantasies for me, and finding the courage to go through with them, she said, would pull me out of my malaise. She told me she’d help me, guide me and support me. Finally, after a week of turning the idea over in my head, I said yes. It was a reluctant yes, but it was a yes nonetheless. After which my life changed completely.
Over the course of a year, I had done fantastical things with unbelievably attractive men, things I would never have thought possible. I let a gorgeous masseur pleasure me without asking for a thing in return. I met a sexy British man in a dark bar who secretly brought me to orgasm in the middle of a boisterous jazz show. I was taken by surprise, in many ways, by a tattooed bad-boy chef, who stole a bit of my heart while ravaging me on a prep table in the Café’s kitchen. I learned to give the most mind-blowing orgasm to a famous hip hop artist, who enthusiastically returned the favor, the memory of which still makes me tingle when I hear his songs on the radio. I took a helicopter to a yacht, then went overboard in a storm with the most handsome man I had ever laid eyes on. Not only did he rescue me, but his whole (incredible) body restored my faith in mine. Then the Bayou Billionaire himself, Pierre Castille, took me in the back of a limousine, after making me feel like the most beautiful girl at the ball. I skied the risky black diamond runs with Theo, the adorable Frenchman who pushed my sexual limits further than anyone had before. Then I went into sensory overload with a man I could only feel, not see, during a night that was blindingly sexy in more ways than one.
Then came my final fantasy, when I chose my beloved Will. I chose Will over S.E.C.R.E.T. and couldn’t have had a happier night, or a more glorious morning after.
Now, six weeks later, there was no Will waking me up on my birthday with a thousand kisses. Instead, he was probably sleeping soundly next to Tracina, maybe even spooning her, his arms wrapped around her growing belly. She was just shy of three months pregnant, but yesterday afternoon she suddenly began lumbering around the Café like she was about to give birth at any moment. She kept one hand in the middle of her back while pouring refills, groaning and stretching between serving tables. She hadn’t cut down on her shifts yet; she wasn’t at the point of asking for help. Still, I wasn’t the only one rolling my eyes at her exaggerated discomfort. Dell wiped down tables while I refilled the salt and pepper shakers. When Tracina made a show of bending down to pick up a dishrag, Dell let out a long, slow whistle.
“That girl’s making an Academy Award–winning performance out of a regular baby growing in her. I had overdue twins and it wasn’t such a burden.”
We watched Tracina meander from the kitchen to her customers to the cash register, making everyone around her look like they were in fast-forward. She even made Dell— at age sixty—look spry. During a lull, she lumbered over to where Dell and I were clearing a large table. Her belly barely protruded through her tight T-shirt.
“Oh, let me help, Dell, ” Tracina said, waving her away from a tray of half-filled ketchup bottles. “My legs are sore. You take the next tables. I don’t mind losing the tips. I just don’t want to push things while I can still work. ’Cause soon I’ll be all ‘feet up watching TV, ’ right?”
“Why thank you, Tracina,” Dell said, hoisting herself off the chair. “Nothing like the pregnant one giving the old one more to do.”
“I’m just saying . . .” Tracina began, but Dell threw up a hand and followed the bell to the kitchen to fetch ready plates.
After the lunch rush, almost on cue, the hammering began. Will needed to make more money from the Café and the only way to do that was to expand to fine dining upstairs.
After finally securing the proper permits and a business improvement loan, Will had started renovating. And now, with the baby on the way, the work was more urgent. The loan covered materials, but not much extra labor, so Will was doing the renovations himself, one wall, one window, one beam at a time.
In those six weeks since Will and I had been together, I had done everything in my power to avoid small talk with Tracina, because it felt littered with landmines of truth. So I avoided Will and work topics as best I could, switching to Dell, or the baby, or gossip on the street. I still couldn’t tell how much she knew about what had happened that night between Will and me. Everyone at the Blue Nile saw us leave together, and half of Frenchmen Street saw us kiss, so she knew something had occurred. And even though she hadn’t participated in the burlesque show on account of the pregnancy, she had hung out afterwards with Angela and Kit, both of whom were S.E.C.R.E.T. members, and both of whom danced in the Revue. Now, sitting side by side at the big round table, we gave each other matching high-eyebrowed, tight-lipped smiles.
“So, uh, things are good then? With the baby and everything? You seem good,” I said, nodding like an idiot.
“Yeah, I’m, like, sooo good. Amaaaazing really. Doctor says the baby’s suuuuper healthy, though Will and I both agreed we don’t want to know the sex. But I swear I’m carrying a boy. Probably a linebacker. Will wants a little girl,” she cooed, her hand circling her belly.
The sound of Will’s band saw coming from upstairs caused her to jump, nearly sending her off her chair. I grabbed her arm to steady her.
“Oh my god! Has he been upstairs all morning?” she asked, trying to hide the real question buried beneath. Have you been alone with him today? Since reconciling over the baby, Tracina had moved back in with Will, so I assumed she knew where he was all day.
“I have no idea,” I said, lying. I had seen him that morning. We had said our awkward hellos to each other when he walked by me in the dining room and bounded up the stairs, wearing his stiff leather construction belt, shiny new tools hanging off it.
“He brought some big spools of wire upstairs yesterday. But at least he’s saving the loud work until the breakfast and lunch crowds die down.”
Tracina slapped her hand on the table to brace herself, then, without another word, headed up the stairs.
If avoiding small talk with Tracina was a hobby, avoiding alone time with Will was becoming an art form. The last few words he’d spoken to me in six weeks, or the last few words I’d given him the opportunity to speak to me, were “We need to talk, Cassie.” It was a harsh whisper delivered in the corridor between his office and the staff washroom.
“There’s nothing to say,” I replied. Our eyes darted around, making sure Dell and Tracina weren’t nearby. “You realize that right now, I can’t—”
“I realize more than you know, Will,” I said. We heard the trill of Tracina’s voice as she cashed out a customer.
“I’m sorry.” He couldn’t even look me in the eye as he said it, and the agonizing moment made it all the more clear that I couldn’t stay.
“Maybe we shouldn’t work together, Will. Actually, it’s probably best if I quit.” “NO!” he said, a little too loudly, then, more quietly,
“No. Don’t quit. Please. I need you. I mean, as an employee. Dell is . . . mature, and Tracina’s not going to be much help soon. If you leave, I’m sunk. Please.”
He clasped his hands into a fist beneath his chin, begging me. How could I leave this man in a bind, when his hiring me so many years ago had plucked me out of mine?
“Okay, but there have to be boundaries. We can’t be whispering in the halls like this,” I said.
Hands on hips, he waited a beat to contemplate the condition, then nodded at his shoes. The chemicals were still coursing through my system, ones awakened by the sex we’d had. We needed rules until they subsided.
Maybe Will wasn’t happy about the baby at first, maybe it had come as a complete surprise and he was as gutted about our truncated relationship as I was, but over the past six weeks, you’d never have known it. I watched him go from pinched attentiveness towards Tracina to textbook superpartner, never missing a doctor’s appointment, reading the books that only pregnant women seemed to dogear, and helping Tracina in and out of his truck, though she still hardly showed. This seemed to bring out a new sweetness in Tracina as well, even if it was in service of making her life easier and the lives of others a little harder.
Just before the end of my shift, I made a last-minute assist, helping Dell deliver food for a party of six. I was already cashed out, refilling my condiments and wiping down the counters. I had plans to go for a run and to have an early night, when Tracina came bounding back down the stairs, rubbing her neck. She did look pale, so when she told us she was leaving early, Dell wasn’t surprised.
“I’m just so sick. I feel like I’m going to throw up. Will told me to go home. Sorry, guys. It’s going to be like this for a little bit, I guess. Second trimester is supposed to get easier.”
There was no way Dell could handle dinner on her own. I pretended to stifle my exasperation, but truth be told I wanted to stay. I needed the money and I had nothing better to do. Plus, there was that awful, painful, marvelous chance I’d accidentally be alone with Will, something I longed for despite all my genuine attempts to avoid it. And sure enough, an hour later, after business died down and a few minutes into the post-dinner hammering, his plaintive voice called from upstairs.
“Can someone come up here, please? I need a hand. Cassie? You there?”
Instead of heading up, I waited for Dell to garnish the final platters for our last customers.
“Please! It won’t take long!”
“Are you hearing that man? Or is it just me hearing that man?” Dell muttered, handing me the hot turkey specials.
“I hear him.”
“Good, ’cause he’s not talking to me.”
“I’m coming!” I yelled over my shoulder, thinking to myself, No pun intended. I’d preserved an internal sense of humor even while nursing my wounds.
I dropped off the plates and headed towards the stairs. I had a flashback to the fake tumble Kit DeMarco had taken on the floor, the one that secured my spot next to Angela Rejean in the burlesque show six weeks earlier. I had had no idea they belonged to S.E.C.R.E.T. too. As I stood now looking up the stairs, more flashbacks played out in my mind’s eye: Will’s face contorted in ecstasy above me, the light from the street illuminating his features. I’ve wanted this since the day we met, he whispered, while I lay beneath him. I wanted you too, Will. I just didn’t know how much.
When does this stop? When do memories quit hurting so much?
If he were to say, We need to talk, Cassie, one more time, I would say, No, we don’t, Will. I would add, I told you we should not be alone, and I would say this while lifting my shirt over my head, tossing it into the corner along with all the unwanted memories stored in that room up there. Will would say, You’re right, Cassie, we shouldn’t be alone. Stepping towards him, I would place my hand on his bare chest, letting him reach behind me and undo my bra. This is such a bad idea, I would say, pressing my skin to his, kissing his mouth, pushing him back until the window ledge stopped us. There, with his thighs straddling mine, his hands on my body, unsure where to touch first, his fingers finally traveling up to entwine my hair, his hands pulling my head back, opening my neck to his hungry mouth, I’d say, See? We don’t need to talk. We need this. We need to make each other moan and sweat. We need to fuck each other again, well, and often. And then, I need to decide what I’m going to do, because I can’t be alone with you, because look what we’re doing to each other, because everything pointed to me and you and now there is no me and you.
And then the words would stop and we’d be just hands and mouths and breath and skin . . . and awful consequences.
As I took the steps up to the second floor, that delicious, piercing pain went through me again, the one that caused me to throb in places that had once been dormant but now came awake every time I was near him. At the top of the stairs, I stepped around a sawhorse and over an empty roll of cables. The hallway was lined with the detritus of recent renovations—empty pails of plaster, stray nails, remnants of two-by-fours. Behind a roughed-out wall where the new bathrooms extended, Will stood atop a stepladder, framed against the exposed brick between two windows. He was shirtless and covered in white dust. There was no furniture in the room, no evidence of the night a dozen giggly women got ready for an amateur burlesque show—no chair, no storm-tossed bed. He was holding the end of an iron curtain rod with one hand, a screw gun with the other, his T-shirt tucked into his belt.
“Thanks for coming up here. Can you eyeball this for me, Cass?”
Cass. When had he ever called me that? It made me sound like a pal.
“How’s this?” he asked, balancing the rod.
“A little higher.”
He jerked the rod a few inches too high.
“Nope, lower . . . lower.”
He had it nearly perfectly positioned, and then he brattily dropped the rod way below the window line, at an awkward angle.
“How’s this? Is this good?” he asked, throwing a goofy smile over his shoulder at me.
“I don’t have time for this. I have customers.”
He brought the rod even. When I gave him the go-ahead, he quickly drilled a screw to hold it in place and stomped down the ladder.
“Okay. Are you going to stay mad at me forever?” he asked, stepping towards me. “I’m just trying to do the right thing, Cassie. But I’m at a loss when it comes to you.”
“You’re at a loss?” I hissed. “Let’s talk about loss, shall we? You lost nothing. Me? I lost everything.”
Matilda would have slapped my mouth shut. Have you learned nothing? she’d have said. Why do you paint yourself as the loser?
“You didn’t lose anything,” Will whispered. His eyes met mine, and my heart stopped beating for three whole seconds. I picked you and you picked me. “I am still here. We are still us.”
“There is no us, Will.”
“Cassie, we were friends for years. I miss that so much.”
“Me too, but . . . I’m just your employee now. That’s how it’s got to be. I will come to work and I will do my job and I will go home,” I said, avoiding his eyes. “I can’t be your friend, Will. And I can’t be that girl either, the one who . . . who hovers on the sidelines, waiting like some buzzard circling overhead, to see if your relationship with Tracina dies and turns cold.”
“Wow. Is that what you think I’m asking you to do?”
He brought the back of hand to his forehead and wiped his brow with it. His face was lined with sadness, exhaustion and maybe even resignation. A tense silence fell between us, one that made me question whether I could continue to work at the Café while my heart’s pain still existed. But I also knew this was my problem, not his.
“Cassie. I’m sorry for everything.”
Our eyes met, seemingly for the first time in weeks.
“For everything?” I asked.
“No. Not everything,” he said, quietly placing the hammer on the sawhorse and tugging his T-shirt from his belt to wipe his whole face. The sun began setting over Frenchman Street, urging me to get back downstairs and close up shop.
“Okay. You’re busy. So am I. Curtain rod looks good. My job here is done,” I said. “I’ll be downstairs cashing out if you need anything from me.”
“It’s not a matter of if I need you. You know I do.” I’ll never know what my face looked like in that exact moment, but I imagine the flash of hope was impossible to conceal.
I went home and made a solid set of promises to myself. No more pining. No more pouting. That was yesterday.
Today was my birthday. I was meeting Matilda to talk about my new role in S.E.C.R.E.T. When you’re fresh off your own fantasies, it’s a tricky year. You’re not on the Committee. Not yet. You have to earn your spot. But you’re given a choice of three roles, and I was eager to plunge in, to have something else to do, someplace else to be, someone to think about other than Will or myself.
One of the roles was Fantasy Facilitator, a S.E.C.R.E.T. member who helped make fantasies happen, by booking travel, acting as a background player or participating in scenarios like Kit and Angela had the night of the burlesque show. Without Kit faking her injury, I wouldn’t have danced on that stage. And without Angela’s help with the sexy choreography, I would have made a complete fool of myself up there. This year they were becoming full Committee members, so those two slots were open.
I could also be a Recruiter like Pauline, the woman whose misplaced diary had originally led me to S.E.C.R.E.T. She was married, but her husband wasn’t threatened by her role as a recruiter of the men who’d participate in the fantasies, because, well, he’d once been one of them. Recruiting men for S.E.C.R.E.T. was different from training them; Pauline merely enticed them into the fold. Full-on training, or fine-tuning a recruit’s sexual skills, that was reserved for full Committee members, as was participating sexually in the fantasies—not that I was ready for that anyway.The third role was Guide, providing encouragement and support to a new S.E.C.R.E.T. candidate. There was no way I could have navigated the strange terrain of my crazy, sexy year without my Guide, Matilda. So I chose Guide, the least daunting of the three roles, though Matilda’s advice was to keep an open mind. “The most surprising opportunities could come up,” she said. Last thing left was to sign my S.E.C.R.E.T. pledge and bring it to our lunch.
I, Cassie Robichaud, pledge to serve S.E.C.R.E.T as a Guide for one term, doing whatever is within my power to ensure that all sexual fantasies are: Safe Erotic Compelling Romantic Ecstatic Transformative I vow to uphold the anonymity of all members and participants of S.E.C.R.E.T., and to uphold the principles of “No Judgment, No Limits and No Shame” during my term, and forever after. ___________________________ Cassie Robichaud
I signed it with a little flourish, while Dixie pawed at the reflections cast across the bedspread from the charms on my bracelet. It was time. Time to take a whole new set of steps—away from Will and my past and towards a new future, whatever it held.
That morning, I stood across the street from my store on Magazine at Ninth, watching my employee, Elizabeth, put together another one of her brash window displays. I had hired her away from our chief vintage clothing rival down the street because she had a unique eye, the kind you couldn’t train. But ever the control freak, I wasn’t quite sure I liked the direction Elizabeth was heading with this display. I saw bras and baskets and lots of yellows strips of crinkled paper. She hated when I did this—hovered, managed, tweaked—always doing myself what I don’t trust others to do. But it was the way I ran my business and it had worked so far, hadn’t it?
When my best friend Charlotte and I first bought the Funky Monkey more than ten years ago, I argued for keeping the store’s original name as well as most of its inventory, cataloging much of what we couldn’t sell. I didn’t like change. Like most Southerners, I was superstitious of anything new or novel. Then she insisted that we sell vinyl records and custom DJ bags to attract men as well as women, and I reluctantly agreed. When Charlotte insisted we also add other specialties—the Mardi Gras costumes, the wigs and formal wear, for people who really wanted to stand out—I balked. But I had to admit those were all good ideas, the sales of which got us through the leaner times. So I let her run the merchandising while I remained in the background, an area of life to which I had always been partial. Luckily, I had a talent for making other people shine, and now, with this store, I had a treasure trove to work with.
My ex-boyfriend, Luke, was from New Orleans proper, born and raised in the Garden District. He told me the building that housed the Funky Monkey had been a shoe store, a paint store, before that a bike repair shop, then an on-site dry cleaner’s. What dawned on me while watching Elizabeth slide into the empty window box, now holding a basket of pastel-colored bras (Okay, I see where you’re going with this), was that while this building had continued to recreate itself, I hadn’t. Change—that was Charlotte’s forte. That’s what made her a great business partner. Until, all in a day, one selfish action led her to destroy the business and our friendship.
But it was Luke’s betrayal I couldn’t recover from.
I met him in music class in college, and he had asked me out at the end of our junior year. I was studying Fine Arts, majoring in Design and minoring in Jazz Theory. I never played an instrument or sang. Never wanted to. But I loved to listen and learn about it, all of it—jazz, classical, alternative, you name it. Luke was tepid on music, only taking the course for easy credit. His passion was literature. When as a sophomore he precociously published his first novel, a coming-ofage story about growing up in New Orleans, I was so proud of him. He started to attract literary groupies, but they were of the earnest and respectful variety, so I rarely felt threatened. Naive of me, I realized looking back. But when he began receiving invitations to book events and festivals, that’s when the rift began. I’d go with him to readings and appearances provided they were local, but I couldn’t get on a plane. When I was eight, I had an uncle who died when his plane crashed into the ocean. We weren’t terribly close, but I was young and it was a formative time for me; at age eight you develop intricate theories to keep nightmares at bay. After that dramatic intrusion on my childhood, my terror of flying extended to anything I couldn’t understand and couldn’t control. I tried to keep fear from affecting the rest of my life, but it didn’t always work. I preferred sleeping in pajamas in case of emergencies, and having sex with the lights off in case someone walked in. This last habit had nothing to do with shame about the weight I’d gained in college or with the time my mother called me zaftig, a word I had to look up in private.
“You called me fat?” I screamed to her.
She protested dramatically. “No, honey! It means curvaceous. Why, it’s a lovely thing to be.”
Don’t get me wrong, Luke constantly told me how beautiful I was, how desirable, and I believed him. I wasn’t afraid of my curves. I wasn’t prim. I was adventurous. I liked sex. I just preferred it on my terms, my way, in flattering positions, in the dark, and showering directly after.
After graduation, Luke, Charlotte and I shared the second-floor, two-bedroom apartment on Philip near Coliseum, which is where I still live, one of those old clapboard Victorians painted yellow with white trim. The apartment had original windows and faced the street corner. Luke set up his desk and began to write what he called his “Southern Opus.” Our bedroom was drafty in the winter, but I didn’t mind because Luke kept me warm most nights and paid his share of the rent when he could hold down a part-time job. I hired him for a brief stint in the store, but I blanched when he tried to make suggestions to improve the business, or moved stock around on the floor so it would sell faster. “Be careful,” my mother warned. “Men don’t like criticism or self-sufficiency in women. They need to feel needed.” Dad disagreed. “Men just want to be wanted,” he said.
And the way Charlotte teased Luke or threw an arm around him, I always assumed was sisterly and benign. Luke was a nerdy writer, insular like me. Charlotte just wasn’t his type. He once called her flaky, whereas I was solid, layered. Charlotte was “Rocky Road” to my “Vanilla,” not an insult he explained, since I was his favorite flavor.
But tastes change. Working in fashion, I ought to have known that.
It was my day off, so I wasn’t supposed to walk in on them in the office at the back of the store, Charlotte atop a pile of sturdy suitcases we were refurbishing, her white
skinny thighs straddling Luke, his stupid black jeans bunched at his dumb ankles, his ass clenched, mid-thrust.
“My goodness, I am so sorry,” I mumbled, backing up and closing the door behind me. You know your Southern upbringing has grown twisted when your first instinct is to be polite when intruding upon your boyfriend fucking your best friend.
My back resting against the door jamb of a change room, I kept my hand over my mouth for the time it took for them to dress and assemble in front of me in a state of disarray and shame.
Luke, the writer, offered a bunch of words.
I’m so sorry . . .
We didn’t mean to . . .
It just kinda happened . . .
It wasn’t planned . . .
We tried to end it, but . . .
These words assembled themselves into the only answers that were pertinent. One: This had been going on for a while. Two: They were in love.
They moved out that night.
I bought Charlotte out of the business for enough money to move to New York, where Luke wanted to relocate before his second novel was published. Six months later, Big Red came out to more great fanfare. A “morbidly honest tale about the corrosive effects of the South on an overweight, sensitive young woman trying to break from the past.” When I read his description of his protagonist, Sandrine, a
“tense, controlling redhead” with a “sylph” of a sister and a “ballsy” best friend, I was in a state of shock for days, weeks, months . . . years. When it hit the bestseller lists, young girls ducked into the store (in the book it was called “Fancy Pansty”) shyly inquiring as to whether it was true: was I really the model for the famously tragic Sandrine from Big Red ?
Elizabeth used to get so mad at those girls. “Do you see a fat redhead in this store?” she’d yell. And here’s the worst part: I never thought I was fat until the book was published. I’d always rather liked my curves. I wore only well-made vintage dresses, the kind constructed before the “era of the super model,” after which clothing suddenly became unflattering sausage casings for all but the very thin. And I never doubted Luke’s attraction to me, until I read his descriptions of Sandrine’s thighs and the “white expanse of her upper arms,” which sent me spiraling into a near-decade of self-doubt and insecurity.
People told me to take a trip, get out of town, go somewhere. But I couldn’t, maddeningly mirroring Luke’s phobic Sandrine, who atrophied in one spot her whole life. I even stopped taking short drives to the beach, afraid now to be seen in a bathing suit. On my sister Bree’s advice, I took up yoga; on my mother’s, online dating. Both very bad ideas, it turned out. The only thing going for me was work, so I clung to it, making my store the center of my life and my chief excuse for staying put.
Then Bree would accidentally let it be known that Charlotte was pregnant again, or that Luke’s “cool indy”
screenplay sold for “millions,” or that their Williamsburg loft was featured in Elle magazine, where Charlotte also worked as a freelance stylist. Information like that would send me reeling backwards in time, undoing progress made by a few tepid dates with some guy I’d half-heartedly had sex with. That my sister remained friends with Charlotte was the least surprising betrayal of all.
“Just ’cause y’all had a falling-out doesn’t mean I have to give her up, Dauphine. I was friends with her too, you know. That’s unjust.”
“Falling-out? She was my best friend. He was my boyfriend. They killed my whole world.”
“Eight years ago! Most of your major organs have completely replenished themselves in that time! When are you gonna move on? You need a man!”
What if you don’t need a man but you still want one? I wanted a man, just not all the mess—that murky pond of feelings the worst of them sometimes leave you sitting in.
Men, however, were about the only subject to which I always deferred to my mother. She was from Tennessee pageant stock and believed she knew a lot about men and their motives. She also believed she knew a lot about me. She disapproved of the way I dressed. Her face said it all one day when she and Dad came down from Baton Rouge to take me to my thirtieth birthday brunch, where I wore a gorgeous 1940s tea dress with a pillbox hat and little black veil.
“I understand there is probably a very moving story behind that hat, but you’re puttin’ out a message that says ‘Stay away from me, for I am peculiar, stuck in the past,’” she said. Peculiar was the worst thing you could say about a Southern woman of a certain age.
I shook my head at this brief bout of nostalgia and watched Elizabeth lay down a yellow nest of crimped paper strips. Mardi Gras had ended, and now we were gearing up for Easter. Yesterday I scouted around for ideas for a theme and today I could see that Elizabeth had seized upon quite an interesting one. When she finished tying up the back of a pale blue corset, I knocked on the window, giving her my best what the hell? face.
“What are you doing here so early, Dauphine? You’re on afternoons!” she yelled through the glass.
“I promised to style you. For your date tonight.”
Her eyes flew open. “Right!”
“What’s your plan here?” I asked, my finger circling the pile of mannequin legs and arms.
“Corsets!” Elizabeth held up a fistful of lace and ribbons.
“Right. When I think of Easter, I think: lingerie.”
People strolling past the store stopped to stare at the nearly naked mannequin and the two women yelling at each other over bras through glass. She plucked vintage white Playboy rabbit ears out of a bag, pairing them next to a pale pink teddy. “Look how cute!”
If you want to keep good people close, you have to let them loose every once in a while, my dad used to say. So I just had to trust that Elizabeth would put together another traffic-stopping display. Let her do this; let someone else take the lead.
I gave her a weak thumbs-up and headed inside.
My stomach rumbled. I had skipped breakfast, but we had a big shipment in from a hard-won estate sale and I wanted to go through those boxes myself before we opened. So I left Elizabeth to work her magic in the window box and unlocked the store, taking in my outfit in the full-length mirror by the front counter: a dark blue, A-line dress that buttoned up the front, circa late ’60s, the kind with a built-in bra, matching belt and slip lining; three-quarter-length sleeves and kitten heels. My red hair was pulled back in a chignon, now loose and fuzzy-edged from the humidity. I had on big, dark sunglasses, à la Jackie O. I had to admit it was a little warm for this dress, but they just didn’t make them like this anymore, something my mother celebrated and I, of course, lamented. But when did my collars become so high, the hems this long, my sunglasses so large? Who takes eight years to get over a guy?
With Elizabeth busy in the window and the store still quiet, I dug into my purse for my lunch, then realized I had left it on my kitchen counter. Customers weren’t allowed food or drinks in my store, but I ate all my meals perched on the stepladder behind the cash register. Screw it, I’d skip lunch too, and have a big dinner.
I dragged the smallest estate-sale boxes to the front counter. The first was filled with accessories, Elizabeth’s specialty, so I kicked it aside. The second box was all girly sundresses, straw hats (vile) and ballet flats. I wouldn’t need to put summer clothes out for a few more weeks, but I admired a dark green halter dress from the ’70s. It was stunning material, crepe, beautifully lined and floor-length. I noticed the hem was fraying. I could shorten it to kneelength and get a good price. Or I could keep it for myself. And show off my arms? Not a chance. Still, it was so pretty, the green, and with my red hair . . .
I set it aside for the “keeper” pile, which was getting bigger than the “for sale” pile. Why did I do this? Save things for some imaginary future or for some imaginary customer who would really appreciate it if given the chance.
“Our back room office could be a whole other store,” Elizabeth once said. “A better one than what’s out front.”
The third box was filled with men’s clothes: tweed jackets, several T-shirts, a pair of tuxedo pants (satin stripe down the side) and a matching tuxedo jacket with stylishly slim lapels. I put my nose to the thick fabric and inhaled. It was clean and smelled like men’s cologne. That manly-man smell was so intoxicating. It reminded me of a late night out, of cigars and aftershave, the back of a cab, desire. I felt a pang behind my belly button. I imagined getting this tuxedoed man home, unzipping my long velvet gown, surrendering it to the floor. Underneath it I would be wearing a silk slip. He’d lie back on my gypsy bedspread, smiling, putting aside his scotch. I could feel his hands on my shoulders as he pulled me down onto him, gathering a fist of my long, red hair, pulling my head back to reveal my tender throat. I would cry out his name loud enough to clear the cobwebs from the hallways of the abandoned house my body had become, and—
I nearly fell off my stepladder. “What in the hell, Elizabeth,” I said, dropping the jacket I’d been clutching.
“I called your name, like, ten million times!”
My stomach growled so loud we both heard it. Then I saw stars in my peripheral vision and grabbed the glass case to steady myself.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes, I just tuned out for a second.”
“Your stomach sounds like two wolves fighting in it. Go get some food. Sit outside in the sun. You don’t officially start until two,” she scolded with the adorable authority of the very young. She plucked my purse from below the glass case, grabbed my arm and shoved me towards the door.
“Return when you are well fortified, missy. And take your damn time.”
“Fine,” I said, still seeing stars.
Next door I nabbed the last empty patio table at Ignatius’s and ordered a hot bowl of gumbo. The Sunday shoppers seemed frantic, or maybe it just felt like that because this was early spring and the first time in a long time that I’d been outside, around people, instead of holed up in my store dealing with inventory. I had also been skipping breakfast, skipping mornings altogether. Maybe that’s why I was losing weight, something I was contemplating when I noticed him—him him—Mark Drury—the lead singer of the Careless Ones.
I’d never seen him with a beard before; I liked it. His band had a regular, early-evening slot on Saturdays at Three Muses. And Mark’s voice was a husky, alt-country dream. Every once in a while, he’d sing a cover of an old Hank Williams song that would make me swoon. He was all limbs and black hair and pale blue eyes. His stooped shoulders were those of a man with an instrument perpetually strapped to his back. And there he was strutting by my patio table and heading inside. He and some of his band mates would hit up the Funky Monkey for T-shirts, jeans and even outlandish wigs if they were doing a show during Mardi Gras. But I always shoved Elizabeth in front of them, too shy to help them myself. The Careless Ones was the only local band I’d go see alone, time spent listening to music being the only time I could really let go and be in my body. Music was the opposite of me. That’s why I was mesmerized by performers like Mark, who could stand on stage in front of everybody and give himself permission to let go.
Talk to him, I thought to myself. Just go up to him after the show and tap him on the shoulder and say, Hey Mark, when I feel like drinking alone, I watch you.
Smack. I’d sound like a crazy person.
I love watching you in the dark when I’m by myself.
I like to watch you move. Wrong. All wrong. I truly was turning peculiar.
I tried not to stare through the glass too long as Mark Drury took a seat at the bar inside. I cursed Elizabeth for telling me to leave the store. I cursed myself for wearing a dark blue dress on a hot spring day. But my gumbo had arrived, so I was committed. Plus, what if he had a girlfriend? You’re just talking to him. You’re just saying, Hey, love your work.
A few minutes later, the bartender handed him a takeout coffee and a wrapped sandwich. Bag pinned between his lips, newspaper held in his armpit, he pulled several napkins from a stainless steel dispenser near the door and headed straight for me. In my head, I was screaming, Here! Sit with me! But my eyes were shaded by my giant sunglasses. I was like a fish, mouth opening and closing, pressed up against the silencing aquarium glass.
Then, before I knew it, he was sitting at the table next to me, joining some dark-haired woman who had an empty seat at her table. They introduced themselves and fell into an easy banter as they ate. Watching him grin at her, making her laugh, hurt my stomach. I regarded my imaginary rival as discreetly as I could. She was pretty and fit, but I bet she didn’t know that Mark had chosen the band name the Careless Ones from The Great Gatsby, a book she’d probably never read, having cribbed notes in junior high from people like me. Bet she wouldn’t even like Mark’s music. Minutes later I watched him say goodbye to her by punching his number into her phone, imagining that he was giving it to me.
What happened to me? Where did I go?
“Are you okay?”
Had I said that out loud? I had said it out loud . . . directly to the dark-haired woman who’d been talking to Mark Drury and was now sitting alone. She stood, picked up a glass of water from her table and moved in slow motion towards me. She placed the glass in front of me, a concerned look on her face.
“Are you okay?” she asked again.
To this day, I have no idea why I said yes when she asked if she could join me; I so rarely spoke to strangers. But as my mother would say, “Some things are fatefully divine and some are just divinely fated.”
It was inevitable. Will and I both tried to avoid being alone, but the Café Rose was small with narrow hallways and dark corners.
“Thanks for staying late, Cassie,” Will said, the night the drywall got delivered. He’d asked me to watch for the truck.
“I wanted to.”
“Wonder if you could do me one more favor.”
“Sure,” I said. “What is it?”
“You know what it is,” he answered, his voice barely above a whisper. Crossing his arms, he leaned back on the cool glass door of the fridge.
“Is it this?” I asked, loosening the clasp on my apron and letting it fall to the floor.
“Yes. That’s it. Can you do me another favor?”
“I can,” I said, my voice so choked with longing I sounded underwater. I slowly lifted my shirt over my head, my hair cascading through the neck hole. I threw it down to the tiles. I wasn’t wearing a bra.
“Is it this?”
“Yes . . . you are . . . so beautiful,” he murmured. My skin had that effect on him and I knew it.
“Your turn,” I whispered.
Without hesitating, he whipped off his shirt and threw it near mine, his hair shocked upwards. Then he shoved off his jeans, leaving his white boxers on. This was our game.
“I won’t touch you. I promise,” he said. “I just want to look at you. That’s not wrong.”
I undid my jeans and stepped out of them, hooking my thumbs in the strings of my bikini underwear. He nodded slightly, aching for me to take those off too. I hesitated, looking out at the pitch-black street. What time was it? How long had we been alone in here like this? I inched my underwear down around my thighs and brought them to the floor. I was now naked.
“Come closer, Cassie. I want to smell your skin.”
I took a few steps towards him. Six inches from his bare chest, I stopped. At that distance I could feel our body heat mingling, his hot breath on my skin.
I let my hand travel up to my breast, cupping it for him, letting my thumb circle my nipple. A moan escaped his throat as he extended a hand. I stepped back.
“You promised,” I whispered.
“I won’t touch you. But you can touch yourself, Cassie. That’s not against the rules.”
True. I let my other hand travel down across my stomach, the muscle in my forearm flinching as I tentatively felt myself, how wet he was making me, relishing how insanely excited this was making him.
“This is too much, I can’t,” he said.
He was crazed. That’s the only way to explain why, with one deft forearm, he swept the condiment table next to us clean of the bowls and utensils, the trays of salt and pepper shakers, the ashtrays that hold sugar packets, the napkin holders—it all went crashing to the floor. Any other time I would have been pissed. But that night I was thrilled by his impatience, his ferocity. He spun me around and urged me down onto the table, my arms stretched to hold the edges.
“You said you weren’t going to touch me, Will.” “I’m not going to touch you. I’m going to fuck you,” he groaned, pulling my knees apart and standing naked between my spread thighs. He now held his heavy erection in his hand, stroking it, his fierce eyes on me as he prodded into my wetness, a hesitant inch, then another one, teasing, making me yearn and reach, asking, begging for him to fuck me, to fuck me hard, Oh, Will, my quivering thighs bracketing his narrow hips, my nails digging into his forearms as he—
“Excuse me. Is this seat taken?”
Oh shit, my fantasy broke like a bubble. A man—a real one—now stood looming over my metal patio table at Ignatius’s, his face shadowed from behind by the high, hot sun.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you,” he said. “The patio’s full and I noticed you have a table for four all to yourself. Very selfish.”
“Oh. I’m so sorry. Yes, of course,” I said, plucking my purse from one of the chairs at my table. I must have looked like a dozy ape, chomping on an ice cube and staring into the middle distance, fantasizing about Will—again. This bad habit had to stop or I would drive myself crazy.
“I’ll just eat my sandwich and drink my coffee and read my paper,” he said. “And we can pretend we’re not sharing a table for lunch.”
He had mischievous blue eyes, and though normally I didn’t like beards, even short, groomed ones, his was sexy.
“We wouldn’t want to speak or make eye contact over food. That would be weird.”
“And awkward,” I continued. “Not to mention rude.”
“The way people eat together and talk to each other. Over meals!” I added with a shudder.
There was a beat, and then we both broke character, laughing.
“I’m Cassie,” I said, extending my hand. The thought occurred to me that I never would have been capable of such banter just a few months earlier, before I’d been introduced to S.E.C.R.E.T. I had changed.
“Mark. Mark Drury.”
Flaky hipsters have never been my type. But this one had a nice smile and a great Cajun accent. Add those blue eyes and strong, lean hands . . .
“Lunch break?” he asked, folding his long legs under the table. “Kind of. You?”
“Breakfast time for me.”
“Occupational hazard. I’m a musician.”
“Get out! In New Orleans?”
“Strange, I know. And you?”
“I’m a waitress.” “What are the odds?”
There was that smile again.
Naturally, easily, we carried on the conversation, about the instruments he played (he was a singer, played bass, taught a little piano on the side) and the Café, where I worked (he knew it, hadn’t been in a while). The next stage when talking to someone who relies on tourism in this town was to discuss the awful necessity of the awful tourists, before exchanging information about the places these awful tourists don’t really know about. We accomplished that in about twenty minutes, enough time for Mark, who looked a little younger than me, maybe thirty on account of his messy brown hair and his beige leather Vans and his fitted jeans and his faded red T-shirt with the name and number of an auto body shop, to eat his sandwich and drink half his coffee, then wipe his hands on his napkin and get up to leave. Musicians do have the nicest hands. I’ve heard it said that the hand is part of the instrument . . .
“Wait,” I said, “do you want to try having lunch together sometime? We can do like today, no talking, no eye contact, just two strangers not eating a meal together.” Holy shit. Did I say those words?
“Um. Sure,” he said, laughing. “You seem harmless enough.”
Yes, harmless, unless you count the fact that almost two months ago I danced nearly naked on a stage for strangers, had sex with my boss, was gut-checked in the morning by his pregnant girlfriend, then joined a secret organization dedicated to helping women realize their sex fantasies with total strangers. Yes. Harmless.
“Okay, well . . . give me your number,” I said, digging in my purse for my phone. He took it from me and punched in his number.
“Okay. Nice not really meeting you, Cassie, and not eating lunch with you or talking to or knowing anything about you,” he said, extending a hand towards me.
I laughed as he turned to leave, glancing at me over his shoulder once. Wow. That was so . . . easy. Is this what recruiting is like? I basked for a moment in my newfound courage. I did that. I actually asked a man out for the first time in my life, a cute one at that. But why was that almost as hard as half the things I did last year, naked, in front of men I’d never met before? This is the sort of thing—men, dating, sex—that required practice. My year of fantasies had helped me understand that, though it might also have been the fantasy I was having when Mark sat down that prompted me to do what I did.
I was leaning back in my chair feeling proud, when I heard murmuring next to me. I looked around to see a redhaired young woman, wearing giant bug-eyed sunglasses, staring at me from the next table.
“What happened to me? Where did I go?” she mumbled, looking completely stunned.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
Maybe she was having a stroke, I thought, picking up a glass of water and making a motion to join her. She nodded, rubbing the back of her neck. She couldn’t have been more than thirty, but she was wearing a heavy blue dress, despite the heat, and it made her look older.
“Here,” I said, placing the glass in front of her.
She gulped the water back and wiped her mouth, regaining her composure.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “That’s never happened to me before. Maybe it’s the heat.”
“It is quite hot for early April,” I said.
“Maybe.” She took another gulp of water. “Sorry, I don’t mean to intrude, but that thing you did with that guy— asking him out? Very impressive.”
“You saw that?”
“I swear I am never this nosy. But that was hard to ignore.”
A strange compliment from a strange . . . stranger, but I’d take it.
“It was impressive, wasn’t it?” I said, sounding surprisingly pleased with myself.
“Well . . . thank you for the water and for your concern. But I’m feeling better. So I’ll just head back to work.”
She pushed up her sunglasses, grabbed her purse, and just at the moment she stood to leave, Matilda arrived. They awkwardly engaged in the “you first, no, you first” dance around the crowded patio table. The woman smashed into Matilda’s left shoulder, then her right. Finally free, it seemed she couldn’t get away from us fast enough.
Matilda and I watched her as she headed into the Funky Monkey next door. Matilda lowered herself into her chair, patting down her hair as though she’d just survived a small tornado.
“Who was that? Or what was that?”
My eyes stayed glued to the door of the store.
“I don’t know. Just a woman . . . I thought she was ill, so I checked on her,” I said. “But guess what?” I changed the subject with a grin. “I just asked a guy out. And the best part? He said yes!”
“Well, Happy Birthday to you, indeed!”
“Yeah, and that woman, she treated me like I was some kind of celebrity just for asking a guy for his number. It was weird. She looks nothing like me, yet she reminded me a little of me last year. Kind of timid. Kind of sad. Anyway, I feel like my confidence is really growing. I think I am ready to be a Guide. Here,” I said, reaching in my bag for my pledge. “Signed, sealed and delivered.”
“Thank you for this,” she said, putting away my pledge. Her expression was suddenly thoughtful. “I wonder if perhaps we’re looking at a possible S.E.C.R.E.T. candidate.”
“You mean that woman?”
“I don’t even know if she’s single.”
“That’s easy to find out.”
I felt my nerves fire up. “You think I should approach her? What if she thinks I’m crazy?”
“Everyone’s entitled to their opinion. You look great, by the way.”
I looked down at my outfit, nothing too “out there”— slim jeans that rested on my hips and a grey tank top under a cream corduroy jacket. I was never going to be one of those dolled-up babes who crammed Frenchmen on a Thursday night, drunkenly navigating the pocked street in treacherous heels. And I couldn’t for the life of me understand why I should put on mascara to go grocery shopping. But a year of being told I was beautiful and desirable by some of the best-looking men I’d ever laid eyes on made me want to put my best face forward.
“After lunch let’s go next door, talk a bit with that woman.”
“Today? Now?—” It was happening so fast. Why was I so nervous?
“Don’t worry, Cassie, I’ll take the lead, you follow,” Matilda said, scanning the menu.
Oh dear. Here we go.
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copyright © 2013 l. marie adeline
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