Susan shook her head at her friend’s disgustingly healthy lunch of a grilled chicken salad. She bit into the chicken schnitzel sandwich she’d ordered along with fries and let out a long sigh of delight.
“What’s the shake of the head for you know I don’t eat that kind of calorie loaded stuff? You should take a tip from my eating and then you wouldn’t be groaning at the gym every time we go?” She gave her friend a warm smile along with a wink to take any perceived sting out of the words.
“I know, but its comfort food,” Susan said as she let out a long, heavy sigh. Then she pushed a fry into her mouth and exaggerated eating it much to the amusement of her friend.
Not to be outdone, Jillian matched the action as she munched on a carrot stick. “Have you given any more thought to going on vacation for a few weeks?”
“Thought about it…then dismissed it. I’m due to start a six week lecture series but they advised me to keep on standby since Dr Leyton’s surgery date is still up in the air.” While Susan continued to eat, she pondered that predicament. She and Charles Leyton were good academic friends during their years at the university but, like most things, time and circumstances change. Pity we never went on the same digs. He went into teaching I chose the more commercial side of the business. I’m glad he recommended me to help him out during his hiatus…it’s the tonic I need. I seem to have been in limbo far too long now…two years out of your life changes everything.
Jillian saw the preoccupation on her friend’s face. “What’s wrong with your friend anyway?”
“He has some sort of gastric condition that requires surgery and then he wanted at least a month to recuperate and have a vacation. Jeff, his partner, was panicking until Charles contacted me. I guess I was their ace in hole. The university would only fund him a temp for a month. I agreed to cover the other two weeks without pay.” Susan gave a nonchalant shake of her shoulders at her generous offer.
Jillian’s eyes twinkled. “That’s one of the things I love about you Sue, your willingness to help others.”
Susan reflected on the comment for a few moments. Her sage reply was, “I never used to be like that…well sometimes.” She blew out a breath. “…but like most people I looked after number one first.”
“I’m guessing that your trauma two years ago and the trial changed all that. It can change people into something better, or, far worse. I’ve seen it run the gambit.” Jillian gave her friend a nod of understanding.
“I guess in part that was it, although I think the people who saved me had the most effect. One in particular made me realize that helping another in difficulties was part of life too. I’ll never forget her kindness towards me.” Susan allowed her memory to drift to the woman called Zea lamenting that her reminiscences were fading as memories always do. Yet, the legacy of the short time she knew the woman etched her heart forever. I wouldn’t mind taking a vacation back there and thanking her in person.
Intrigued, Jillian asked, “What was her name? Did you ever see or hear from her again after she helped you?”
Susan replied, “I only ever knew her first name. Zea…it’s a strange name, however it suited my mystery woman perfectly.” Jill saw the dreamy look cross her friend’s face before she spoke again. “No, I never saw or heard from her again. I did write to the local police but they couldn’t divulge that information. They said they would pass on the request and that was eighteen months ago.” Susan held up her hands and shrugged in resignation. “Guess it wasn’t meant to be. I only wish I could have seen her face clearer so I would have something other than a shadowy recollection.”
Jillian mulled over the situation, before placing a hand on her friend’s hand. “Things happen for a reason Sue. She was in the right place at the right time to save you. Maybe in her world it was enough to know she saved your life. Some people are shy when it comes to heroism.”
“Perhaps, but I got the feeling that I was more of an encumbrance,” Susan pronounced ruefully. In fact, I had the feeling all the time I was there that I was an unexpected occurrence in her life and it would disappear quickly - I did.
“Well, I think you’re wrong and I’m sure Ms. Mystery woman called Zea thinks so too.” Jillian replied before she tucked back into her salad.
“Yep, but it would be nice to see her again. Ok, that’s enough of me, it’s your turn to tell all. Who’s the mystery woman in your life? You never did tell me how the blind date went two weeks ago.”
+ + +
“Ms. Callahan, will you be leading the summer expedition this year?” A second year student asked breathlessly.
Susan peered over her horn-rimmed glasses and smiled warmly at the young woman. “Not this year Sherri, I’ve a wedding to help organize and attend, maybe next.”
A disappointed expression clouded the bright intelligent eyes of the student. “Oh, that sucks!” Sherri said.
Susan chuckled. Well that’s one way of looking at it. She watched as the student slouched back to her chair and smiled. Not to worry you’re going to love having Gloria lead. She’s always in her element with fawning students. Susan shook her head and let out another chuckle. Whatever would the Dean say if he could read my mind?God, I can’t believe that the six week lecture sabbatical I agreed to cover evolved into more than three years. She let her eyes wander over her students as they finished their tasks. I guess the old saying is true…time really does fly. Then, she bent her head and went back to her task of making copious notes from a recent article she’d read.
A few minutes later, a buzzer sounded and her students collected their belongings and filed out of the lecture hall. She glanced at her leather strapped watch and sighed happily. “Another day over and another dollar banked. I’ve just got time to change and meet up with Paul for a bite to eat before we go see the exhibition.”
+ + +
Paul Sanders held the door of the exhibition hall open and Susan flashed him a demure smile before walking ahead of him. As she waited for him to buy their tickets and obtain a catalog, she looked him over in quiet reflection. He’s good-looking, young enough to be my boy toy and he has a wonderful, if serious, sense of humor.
“Here’s the catalog,” he said before he gave her his best boyish grin. “Where shall we start?”
“Do you realize Paul that this was the place we first met three years ago?” Susan flipped through the pages scanning the works noting that she knew some of the names while others she didn’t.
Paul replied, “Actually, it is three years, four months and ten days.” A slight smile played around his mouth as he added, “Not that I’m counting of course.”
Susan looked up quickly and noted the twinkle in his grey eyes and the quiver of his lips. He’s teasing me. “Not counting huh? Do you think she’s turned up?” She held up the catalog. “It doesn’t categorically say she will?”
“I hope so. Guess we will have to see for ourselves. Do you want to go there now or at the end?” the young man asked quietly.
The end I think…don’t you? It might give her more time to turn up. Let’s go see the Jan Lucas paintings. I heard she was about to release a few for sale.” They nodded at each other before walking to the floor that housed the Lucas exhibition.
An hour later, Susan shook her head and laughingly remarked, “You know Paul…I must be getting soft because my feet are killing me.”
The young man looked down at her feet and grinned. “And there was I thinking you were slowing down because you were getting old.”
He easily deflected the playful punch she threw at him as he moved fractionally out of the way. Susan smiled as she recalled the second time they’d met…
She was in line at the university cafeteria and recognized the young man from the exhibition almost immediately. “Hi Paul,” she said across the others in line.
He turned toward the voice and saw the woman he met at the museum three people behind him. When others in the line turned from their boring routine to look in his direction, he felt his face flush in embarrassment. “Oh, hi,” he said. “How are you?”
She was glad to a somewhat familiar face in an otherwise strange environment. “Want to share a table with me?”
Paul looked at her quizzically as he sat down with her. “Are you taking a class here?”
Susan laughed. “No, I’m a six week temporary lecturer.”
Thus began an unexpected friendship. At that time she had no way of knowing that the temporary six week situation would end up as permanent. Paul, in his final year of school, had helped her overcome her devastating grief when Charles succumbed to complications from his surgery and died six months later.
The unexpected friendship with the young man had blossomed and though he knew they could never be anything other than friends it seemed to be good for both of them. Paul achieved one of his goals in life when he became a photographer for one of the biggest newspapers in the state. His friends, as well as hers, had often referred to them as autumn meets spring, but she didn’t care and neither did he.
“I have enough energy in this old body to see the final exhibition you young buck. Let’s go, Helen Tobias waits…we hope.” They both laughed and headed to the exhibition hall where the photographer was showing her most recent portfolio.
Susan was in awe as she walked around each exhibit. The photographer captured the expression of each scene perfectly. The photos spoke for themselves -words unnecessary. She dragged her eyes away from a marvelous photograph of a particularly striking sunset reflecting off water. She hoped to catch a glimpse of the photographer among all the onlookers. Paul had shown her an indistinct photo of the woman but she was certain she wouldn’t recognize her. That is why I have my friend to be my guide in that respect since he’s met her twice. But where is my young whiz photographer hiding. Then she spied him talking animatedly with two young women his own age. Ah,I’d better not cramp his style.
When she returned her gaze to the exhibit, she was surprised when a woman’s low voice broke her concentration. “Have you found what you’re looking for in that photograph?”
Susan whipped her eyes around to see a much taller woman standing close to her. Where’d she come from? She blushed at the intensive regard from hard blue eyes. “No, at least…why do you ask?”
The woman’s head tilted slightly as her eyes traveled to the scene in front of them. “You’ve been staring at the picture for some time. I figured it might have a particular meaning for you.”
An echo of familiarity forced its way into Susan’s senses as the resonance of the voice floated in her head - she ignored it. I would remember meeting her…she appears so intense. Not only in her voice, but also by the supreme confidence she has in the way she carries herself. “I live in the city,” she said with a shrug. “I suppose it could be a dream of what could be.” Although Susan didn’t particularly want to converse with the woman, she’s way out of my league, the question passed her lips before she could stop it. “What about you?”
A far-away look settled in the blue eyes as Susan shifted slightly to watch the woman’s expression. “A long time ago, at least it seems that way now…it represented the end of a search and the beginning of hope.”
To Susan, the melancholy explanation was in total contrast to the words spoken. Before she could respond, a man shouted, “Helen, there you are. Freddy here wants to know when you’re going to sell him the seven veils of war series.”
Oh my god, is this who I think it is? Susan didn’t need anyone to tell her that her face paled considerably. Although the woman was still at her side she didn’t want to look directly at her. She took a deep breath and finally peaked up and squeaked out, “You’re the photographer Helen Tobias?”
Susan thought she saw a hint of hesitation or possibly reluctance before the woman spoke. Why would she want to deny who she was?
The voice said, “Yes, I’m afraid I have to go Ms. Callahan.” Then, before Susan could reply, long strides took the photographer quickly to the other end of the room and the waiting men.
She knows my name! How the hell does she know my name? Susan was still mesmerized and shocked as Paul returned with a big grin on his face.
“Hey I see you’ve met my heroine. What do you think? She’s cool huh?” He threaded his arm through hers as he headed her toward the coffee machine.
Susan allowed Paul to lead her out of the exhibit, more because she was still in a form of stupefaction than actually wanting to leave. “She knew my name. Paul, she knew my name did you tell her?”
Paul handed her a Styrofoam cup of black coffee and gave her a puzzled look. “Nope not me…maybe you mentioned it when you were talking with her.”
Susan felt her body tremble slightly. “I didn’t…if you didn’t mention it who did?” Susan asked.
Paul’s brow knitted in confusion. “Let’s go back inside and find out.” He headed back to the exhibition and Susan followed.
Once back inside, their eyes ran over the crowd but Helen Tobias was no where to be seen - she’d gone. Susan saw the man who had called the photographer earlier and approached him. ”Has Ms. Tobias left?”
The man smiled at her and nodded, “I’m afraid so. She’s a very private person and it’s an honor that she actually turned up at this evening. You can count on one hand the number of venues she’s appeared at in the last five years. If you want to leave your name, I can put it on the list for notification of her future exhibits.”
Susan reached inside her purse and brought out one of her business cards. “Thanks and if you see her again will you tell her for me how fabulous her photos are.”
A couple of hours later lying in her bed, the same thing kept turning in her head. How did she know my name? Sleep that night was a fitful affair until she finally succumbed to slumber. The recollection of the sunset and the water calmed her senses as she dreamed of another place and another woman who still haunted her - Zea.
+ + +
“Jill anyone would think that you’re nervous?” Susan teased her friend as they sat relaxing on sun chairs on the balcony of Jillian’s apartment.
“You’re right, I am…wouldn’t you be. I want everything to be perfect, Joyce deserves nothing less.” Susan noted the dreamy expression in her friend’s eyes as Jill mentioned her lover’s name.
Susan got up, strolled to the balcony wall, and looked down to the street below. A sense of melancholy invaded her thoughts as she considered how happy her friend was. I want what Jill and Joyce have found in the bustling world we live in. That’s becoming more and more unlikely. A gremlin in her head added, yeah and it would help if you went places to meet people when all you do is live in a fantasy world with a fantasy woman. “I would be too Jill. It’s going to be fine I promise. We have the venue organized, the cake booked, the photographer, the catering, what can go wrong.”
Jillian made a move herself and came to stand at the balustrade with Susan. “I never did thank you for persuading your friend Paul to accept the job to do our photos. No one in the family believed that I had such an illustrious friend to call on.”
Susan giggled. Paul would be delighted at that inference. True, his nomination for his photos of the recent Tsunami in Asia gave him worldwide prominence…he is very shy about that accomplishment and he is finding it hard to deal with. Partly because he said it changed the way he thought about life; the death and destruction hit a cord in him. “I’m sure you’ll introduce him around the family when he’s there. I bet Adrienne wouldn’t mind a personal introduction.”
Susan watched as the mention of Jillian’s younger sister brought a glow to her eyes. Yes, Ade would be the perfect match for Paul. Her major was in journalism. Outwardly she’s tough, but inside she’s like a marshmallow and beautiful too.
“Maybe its time I did some matchmaking for you Sue. How long is it since you went out with someone other than Paul?” Jillian asked with teasing eyes as her tone held a measure of seriousness.
“Don’t go there. I’m too busy for a relationship right now.” A nudge in the ribs had Susan laughing. “Ok, it’s been over five years. I’m out of practice.”
“You never forget you know. It’s like riding a bicycle.” Jillian chuckled as she saw the frown on her friend’s face.
“Yeah and like a bicycle you can fall off and be hurt.” Susan realized she sounded bitter and she shook her head at the insidious thought. Am I bitter? If I am why…only I can help myself to find a girlfriend. Exactly what am I waiting for anyway? I keep in shape, I have a good job, I’m reasonably intelligent and my friends think I’m witty. Except I’m waiting for her and I know it can never be.
“Maybe, but if you don’t try you’ll end up alone the rest of your life is that what you want?” Jillian cajoled quietly.
Susan considered that for a few moments, and then turned to her friend with a bright smile. “No I don’t want to be alone. Go ahead…if you think there’s a chance for me to meet someone, I’m game. We can see what happens at the wedding. I take it you’ve invited various single friends?”
Jillian laughed and placed an arm around her friend’s shoulders, “Of course and there’s a particular brunette bombshell who’s asked me for your number several times.”
Susan with wide unbelieving eyes gasped, “Really…you never said…”
The phone rang at that moment and Jillian left to answer it. Susan ran a hand through her hair as she smiled. Maybe I’m not on the scrap heap yet. A cry from the other room alerted Susan to a problem and she rushed towards her friend.
“What’s the matter Jill?”
“That was Joyce…your friend Paul has broken his wrist and can’t take the photos! What are we going to do now?”
Susan frowned. “Ok Jill let me go see Paul. I take it he’s home, rather than with Joyce?” She saw a barely perceptible nod. “Leave it with me. It’s my duty as best woman at the wedding to sort this out for you. Why don’t you go and see Joyce. You know she always settles any fears you have.” For some inexplicable reason, as soon as Jill was within feet of the woman she loved everything else faded into the distance. What I wouldn’t give to have someone like that in my life…oh well, onwards I need to find myself a photographer.
+ + +
Paul had promised that the photographer would be even better than he was. He’d better be my friend or you’re doomed. Susan glanced around the small restaurant wondering what the replacement for Paul would look like. Damn you Paul, you didn’t even give me their name, just that cryptic message on my machine that you’d arranged for us to meet over dinner two days before the event. Jill’s having kittens and I’m not so sure the odd fur ball isn’t about to appear on my plate if this doesn’t work out. The waiter had arrived to take her order a couple of times, but on both occasions she replied that she was waiting for someone. That someone is late…in my book very late. They should have been here an hour ago.
This is getting ridiculous and is heading toward the absurd…I’m going to call Paul. As her anger increased, she reached her hand into her purse and she pulled out her phone. I’m going to give him an old fashioned ear bashing. Susan was stunned as a low voice, which was certainly one she recognized, spoke to the waiter behind the small private wall close to her table.
“Give us a few minutes Roger, oh and bring the wine list please.”
No it can’t be, can it? Susan craned her neck but was unable to see who was behind her. Then she almost jumped out of the chair as that same voice spoke directly to her.
“Ms. Callahan, I’m sorry for being late but I was unavoidably detained.” The slight smile on Helen Tobias’s face softened her features considerably.
“You!” Susan exclaimed in a mixture of shock and surprise.
Helen Tobias inclined her head slightly as a strange unfathomable look shown in her eyes. “Yes, were you expecting someone else? If you no longer require a photographer for your friends wedding then …”
“No, my god no! I just didn’t know… at least Paul never mentioned. Oh god what will you think of me…I’m rambling.” Susan felt the flush taint her cheeks as she placed her palms against the hot flesh.
“I see. Paul didn’t explain that I volunteered, how interesting.”
The waiter arrived and placed the wine list in Helen’s hands. “Thanks Roger. Do you have any preference Ms. Callahan?” When she saw a look of confusion, she added, “Of wine that is…or perhaps you don’t indulge?”
“Oh I indulge, but if you’re an expert I’ll happy go along with what you order. My only preference is white over red.” Yeah and why don’t you just say the cheaper the better. I can’t believe this. How did Paul make this happen? Just exactly what hasn’t he been telling me about his relationship with this woman?
Helen Tobias rattled off a foreign name and then sat back in her chair with negligent ease. Confidence seemed to be oozing from every pore. “Have you decided what to order for dinner?”
Susan, with nerveless fingers, picked up the menu for the umpteenth time. She used the document and time to ease her stunned reaction to the woman who sat opposite her. God if I’d known I would have made a better effort to dress. She looked down at her casual shirt and well worn jeans. The restaurant didn’t look like an exclusive one so she went for casual over formal. Big mistake!She looks like a million dollars in that silk shirt and those perfectly tailored trousers.
A discreet cough brought Susan’s attention back to the woman opposite her. “I’m sorry, yes. I’ll have the 6 oz steak, medium with fresh vegetables please.”
Susan watched as Roger noted her order then smiled at the Tobias woman. From Susan’s viewpoint, he appeared to be fawning over her making a part of Susan feel sickened by the action. Then she listened intently, as Helen’s voice quietly rattled off a dish she couldn’t even read off the menu never mind pronounce.
The waiter left them with a cheery, “I’ll be right back with your wine Ms. Tobias.”
Once Susan found a modicum of composure, she said, “I’m sorry for my rudeness when you arrived. It was the …well Paul wasn’t specific and I thought you’d be one of his colleagues from the newspaper.”
Helen didn’t speak immediately. “I figured you for a seafood person not steak.”
Susan inwardly shook her head. Where did that come from? Then she felt that her mouth was wide open. I must be gaping like a fish. She stared openly at the woman who had a very bland expression on her face. Her eyes do hold a hint of interest in my reply. “I am usually, how could you tell?” Stupid fool…Paul probably told her. God what else has he told her about me.
A well-manicured hand waved in the air as the woman cocked her head to one side. “Nothing more than an educated guess. Now, please tell me about the wedding. When do you need me and what do you expect…that type of thing.”
Their conversation began hesitantly, but as soon as Susan was in full flow it took on an animated dimension. Before she knew it, they finished the meal, including dessert and they were amicably drinking the final dregs of the wine.
Susan took some courage from the fact that Helen was less intimidating after speaking with her for the last few hours. She quietly asked, “How did Paul manage to convince you to help us out? I’m sure it isn’t exactly your usual commission…far from it I bet.”
“Keeps me humble when I can help out a friend,” Helen said with a vague derisive twist of her lips.
“Forgive me for asking, but how long have you and Paul been friends? I’ve known him over three years and only a month ago he insisted he didn’t know you to converse with.” Susan frowned. Did Paul lie to me? Why would he... it doesn’t make any sense. In fact, the whole situation felt like it was a scenario out of a novel.
Helen picked up her wine glass and twisted around the stem before taking the last sip and locking gazes with Susan. “I’ve met Paul a few times, but you’re right, until three weeks ago he and I would hardly term our previous meetings as good buddies. Providence put us at the same convention and …the rest, as they say, is history.”
A stab of jealousy struck Susan at the inference that they struck up an immediate friendship. Her problem was she couldn’t decide exactly which of her thoughts were correct. Am I jealous because Paul’s my friend and I’m loath to share him? Or worse, am I jealous of Paul for having made an instant friend of this enigmatic woman. Susan smiled slightly and brought her glass up in the air. “Cheers to providence for entering the equation.”
Helen didn’t reply but a veiled expression filled hooded eyes and she waved over the waiter to fetch the bill.
Ten minutes later they were standing in the lobby. Susan pulled her jacket closer to her body as the unusual cold snap that had arrived that day drifted through the half open door. “Thank you for the meal and the fascinating conversation. I thoroughly enjoyed myself. You have my number Ms. Tobias, if you need to speak with me before the event, please feel free no matter the time of day or night.”
“My pleasure Ms. Callahan. I’ll see you bright and early Saturday. Goodnight.”
Susan watched her exit the restaurant with self-assurance exuding from every movement she made before she was gone into the darkness of the night. She blew out a breath that she felt she’d been holding all night. When Roger the waiter arrived at her shoulder she felt her body jump.
“Sorry to bother you Ma’am. Has Ms. Tobias left already?”
“Yes. Is there anything I can help you with?” Maybe her credit card had bounced after she’d insisted she pay for the meal. Yeah right and that’s going to happen to her.
The man smiled brightly. “She must have forgotten about the package she left at the reception when she arrived. We’d best send it on to her studio.”
Susan said the first thing that came into her head. “I’ll be seeing her the day after tomorrow she’s taking the pictures at a friend of mine’s wedding. Maybe I could give it to her for you?”
The waiter seemed pleased with the suggestion. One less problem on his shift, Susan thought as she caught his obvious grateful glance and swiftly placed the small oblong package in her hands.
Heavy brown paper wrapped around the object and Susan could feel the bubble wrap protection under that. Oh, the temptation to pop a few of those bubbles. She laughed as she carried it under the arm and headed for the taxi waiting outside.
It had been a strange encounter with Helen Tobias and one she wasn’t sure if deep down she actually enjoyed or just survived. Her stomach had been in knots from nerves at the beginning of dinner and then had slowly uncurled to cause another organ to respond - her heart. Whatever else she had to do tomorrow, Paul was priority number one for breakfast coffee.
She carefully placed the brown package on the table by the door and headed for the kitchen and cup of hot chocolate before bed.
+ + +
“Jillian you look beautiful,” Susan said as she hugged her nervous friend. She was careful not to crease the pristine silk suit Jill wore as they stood in the center of her living room. “Not that I haven’t always thought that.” She kissed her friend’s cheek and moved to the sofa to collect her purse and a few other items for the wedding that day.
As she did, she mentally ticked of the main items, civil ceremony booked for nine, breakfast reception organized for ten-thirty, hotel honeymoon suite booked, evening celebration booked for seven o’clock. There was only one other thing on her agenda-the photographer.
Typical, Paul had a meeting at the newspaper early the morning before so she never had the opportunity to catch up with him. He isn’t going to get away today…he’s going to be a captive audience. I’m going to find out how he persuaded one of the most respected, famous and talented photographers in the world to do this for us.
“Hey I thought it was just the celebrants who were nervous today, you look pensive. Is there a problem you’re not telling me about?”
Susan shook her head mentally and smiled warmly at her friend. “None at all. I take my position today seriously I was going through the check list to ensure everything was set.”
Jillian gave her a cautious look. “Are you sure. This photographer friend of Paul’s is going to arrive right? Should I call Joyce and check that she’s there.”
“Jill she’s there. I received a call when she arrived at Joyce’s. Now let’s go or your bride will think you’ve stood her up.”
Susan chuckled as she heard her friend whisper, “No chance in hell of that happening. She’s stuck with me.”
The taxi ride to the ceremony made Jillian go silent.
She’s probably pondering on the next few hours, Susan mused. It is after all it’s an important decision for anyone to make. Pledging to spend the rest of your life with someone…I wonder if I’ll ever feel that committed to anyone or anything.
She cast her eyes to the traffic build-up on the freeway taking them out of the center of town. The ceremony is outside of town, I hope the traffic lets up and doesn’t cause us any delay. Her mind traveled to the brief conversation she had with Helen Tobias that morning. It could hardly be a conversation…more a one sided explanation…
“Hi, this is Tobias. I’ve arrived at Joyce’s home on time as discussed. I’ll catch up with you at the ceremony.”
Susan blinked several times at the clipped words from the woman who had jumped into the breach at last minute to bail them out. “Thanks. Sure we’ll see you there. I’m sorry you had to be up early on a Saturday.” She glanced at her watch indicating the time as seven am. God and I am still lounging in bed.
“It isn’t a problem I’m always up early. I’ve found it has attractive qualities to see the sun rise in a morning.”
Susan couldn’t be sure, was that a wistful note I heard in her voice. “Yeah me too. I used to cycle…oh well never mind it’s not important now. I’ll see you in a couple of hours.” Her alarm shrilled out at that moment and she pressed the buzzer off immediately. “Sorry about that.”
There was a soft attractive chuckle at the other end of the line as Susan groaned inwardly. God what will she think of me? I’m in bed and she’s working already…unimpressed come to mind. However the next words amazed her.
“I take it you’re still in bed. Kind of wish I was too. The impression is very alluring. I’ll catch up with you at the venue.” The phone went dead.
Now what the hell did she mean by that?
“Hey Susan we’re almost there, do I look ok?” Jillian asked as she smoothed her hands over the fine silk of her trousers.
Susan shot her friend a look and grinned. “Never better Jill, never better. Maybe we can reverse the roles one day and I can ask you that question.”
Jillian turned in her seat to gaze directly into her friend’s eyes. “When that day arrives I’d be honored. Who knows, you might meet that special someone today, wouldn’t that be the icing on the cake.”
When the taxi pulled up outside the building where the civil ceremony was taking place, Susan smiled at her friend. “Yeah who knows? Now come on my friend let’s see you hitched.”
They climbed out of the taxi and several friends greeted them with hugs and kisses. It wasn’t long before everyone became embroiled in the celebration of the day.
+ + +
The reception was in full swing. The meal sated everyone’s appetite and the speeches were as raucous as they were touching. Susan sat back in her chair and congratulated herself on a job well done. Then she spied Paul sitting on one of the far tables in an animated conversation with Adrienne. Yep, I knew those two would make the perfect pairing.
She discreetly looked around the room for the women Jillian said were available. They all look agreeable enough…oh get off your pedestal Callahan…agreeable…what the hell kind of word is that for a potential date. I must be getting either too old for the dating game or too set in my ways…maybe both.
A chair scraping the wooden floor caught her attention as a man with the shaggiest beard she’d ever met sat close to her - too close.
“They tell me you’re looking for a date, had any takers?” Breath, reeking of alcohol, fanned her cheek. Susan’s first thought was he could take shares in a brewery with that potent smell. Then her defensive senses alerted her to the actual question. Who the hell said that? I’m certainly not that desperate!
With a demure shake of her head she replied. “Sorry, I think someone mislead you I’m with someone.” Ok it was only a white lie…no harm.
The bushy looking man grinned good-naturedly. “Don’t go all shy on me little lady my brother said you were free. I can give you a good time. I’m in town for the next week so why not show me the sights.”
His suggest wink made her stomach churn. Yuck. Susan swallowed hard. God I’d rather go out with a cardboard cut out in public than this guy. Who the hell does he think he is anyway? I’m going to kill whoever his brother is. With a saccharine sweet smile she shook her head. “As I explained…I’m taken.”
This time the man gave her a sneer. “I know your type. I’m not good enough for a teacher right. I’m some country bumpkin that you think is inadequate. Well let me tell you little lady…” His tirade stopped when a low menacing voice interceded.
“Darling, I see you’ve met a new friend…want to introduce me?”
Susan was of two minds. I want the floor to open up and swallow me but then again am I grateful. “Of course, I’m sorry I didn’t quite catch your name.”
The man gave her a contemptuous glance. Then peered up at the woman towering over him and threw back his head in a show of masculine bravado. “A dyke, I should have known. If ever you want to feel something real not imitation between your legs you let me know.” He pushed away the chair and stormed off towards the bar area.
Susan felt her cheeks growing warm as she finally caught the eyes of the woman who had rescued her. “Thanks, I could have handled it on my own though.”
Helen Tobias tilted her head and gave Susan a serious look before shrugging. “I’m going now. I’ve taken all the shots I need. Tell your friend when they’re back from the honeymoon they can call my studio to make their choices.”
The movement of Helens’ head was becoming as familiar to her as the tone of her voice. It made bells in her subconscious ring but she didn’t exactly know why. Oh crap why can’t I just say thank you instead of looking like a silent movie extra.Is there any wonder I’m on my own. “You’re coming to the celebration tonight aren’t you? After all you’ve done for Jillian and Joyce they will want to thank you properly.”
“You mean just like you just did when I tried to help you out? Nope, I can live without that kind of thanks.” She walked towards her equipment and began to pack them away in protective cases.
She took a deep breath and rushed after the photographer. Just as Helen was about to retrieve her tripod Susan placed a hand on her arm, “I’m sorry. I guess I go all defensive when someone tries to get me out of a jam. It’s a weird feeling not being in control. Please will you reconsider? After all, the guy might think I’m on my own again if you’re not there.”
Helen Tobias glanced at the smaller hand on her arm then looked over to the bar where the shaggy looking man was leaning heavily against the counter. “Are you asking me to attend this evening as your date?”
Stunned, Susan could only nod.
“Then you have a date, I’ll collect you around seven.”
Before Susan could muster up her shocked senses and reply Helen Tobias was heading for the exit. Oh my god, I’ve got a date with the most exciting and mysterious woman I’ve ever met bar one…how the hell did that happen. Then she glanced at Mr. Shaggy and decided that if things went well tonight she might even buy him a drink.
Wow, I have a date with Helen Tobias! Her heart was doing a happy dance.
+ + +
Susan was nervous waiting for Helen to pick her up for their date. She changed several times until she finally decided on a pale blue dress that accentuated her generous curves. She debated the wisdom of having a drink to settle the butterflies in her stomach before Helen arrived. God if I do that she might think I’m a drinker if she smells alcohol when I open the door. Ok I can do this…I really can…piece of cake right? She’s helping me out of a sticky situation. I’m sure neither of us thinks this is a bona-fide date. The thought made her feel a bit of sadness tugging at her heart. “I wish it were though. She’s exactly what I need in my life. I can’t go living a fantasy forever…mind you her seductive voice reminds me of…”
The doorbell rang and Susan gave herself a mental slap on the mouth for talking to herself. Get a grip Callahan if you don’t slip up maybe she might ask for a proper date.
Seconds later she opened the door and smiled at Helen as her heart flipped when she stole a quick glance at the woman. Blue jeans emphasized the woman’s long powerful legs and a pale blue silk shirt fit in all the right places. The perfect compliment for her dress wow she must read minds.
“Hi, you’re right on time…the last thing Jill said to me when I left her earlier was don’t be late,” Susan said. She smiled warmly as she reached for her purse and spied the package. “You left a package in the restaurant the other night. Do you want to take it with you now or wait till we come back?” As she waited for the answer, her hand was poised between opening the door and retrieving the package.
Helen merely smiled with an enigmatic expression on her face. “When I bring you home I’ll collect it. I don’t like to let anyone down when it comes to deadlines. It can sometimes be a question of life or death.”
Susan felt the words keenly, recalling her own dice with death and nodded her head. “Well then, let’s go enjoy this party…it should be good.”
“It should?” Helen asked seriously.
Susan winked as they entered the elevator to ride the three floors down. “Yeah, I arranged it all, trust me.”
Helen said nothing but her expression seared Susan’s soul. What are you trying to say to me?
The doors closed and they descended to the lobby.
+ + +
The party was a huge success. As Susan watched Jillian dancing with Helen she felt that the mysterious woman was enjoying herself. She’s smiling at least and that has to be good.
“Hey stranger, you did good…it’s been a brilliant day.” Paul sat down next to her and she noticed that his mood was buoyant. It’s probably a mix of alcohol and the woman at his side.
“Hi yourself stranger. Hey Ade," she said with a nod. “I see you and my salacious friend have met.”
A giggle from Jillian’s younger sister indicated she also had her fair share of booze. “Yes indeed. Jill looked great didn’t she Sue? I hope I’m as happy as she is one day,” she said as her hips swayed with the music.
Susan grinned casting a look in the direction of her gyrating friend. She stopped herself short of looking at Helen Tobias for fear that she couldn’t keep her eyes off the woman. “Yes she does and I’m sure you will.” Her attention then turned to Paul. “Level with me, you told Helen my name at the exhibition right?” she said as she captured his eyes. “I’m going to have words with you also about a technicality of you two being more than mere acquaintances.”
Paul laid a hand on his heart and with that boyish grin of his he shouted, “Not me, I promise Susan. We spent a good deal of time together at a recent convention, which is why we are on speaking terms and, she agreed to be my mentor though I’m sworn to secrecy ” He placed his fingers to his lips and gave a shushing noise.
Unable to prevent herself from doing anything else, she burst into laughter. Well secrecy wasn’t the issue anymore. Pretty much everyone in the room heard his explanation. “I’ll keep your secret but I think…”
“I heard it in the middle of the dance floor.” A low seductive voice remarked.
The presence of which had Susan’s pulse racing and she cast her eyes in the direction of the voice. The serious blue eyes of her date captured her eyes immediately and they locked. Susan was unaware that she was holding her breath until she felt the warm breath and the words that followed.
“If you don’t breath you’ll turn light headed.” Susan turned and saw the twinkle in the blue eyes that accompanied the statement.
With a gulp of air Susan replied, “Yeah, silly of me.” She might have released her breath but her eyes couldn’t tear themselves from Helen’s.
Paul stood up unsteadily and moved the few paces to his mentor confining her in a fierce affectionate hug. “Sorry Helen, you’re not mad are?” His face puckered into a puppy dog expression.
“No. Go, your girl looks like she wants to dance and if you leave it too long someone else might claim her.”
Paul looked over and saw Adrienne tapping her feet and moving her body in time with the music. He slurred a goodbye and seconds later hit the dance floor with Adrienne.
Jillian watched as the situation unfolded from her vantage point behind Helen. She couldn’t help but notice how Susan’s features soften when the woman spoke and that made her smile. “Look, I’ve got to go find my wife the slow songs will start anytime now. See you both out there,” she said pointing to the dance floor.
For a moment Susan’s attention drifted from the blue eyes to her closest friend. Hell I didn’t even see Jill standing there. Without skipping a beat, she returned her gaze to Helen and was please that she had taken the seat opposite her. She watched as Helen took a drink of her soda and sucked in a deep breath. ”May I ask you a question?”
Helen took another sip and over the rim she tilted her head in agreement.
Susan drew in a shallow breath. “If Paul didn’t tell you, how did you know my name at the exhibition?”
Helen took another sip of her drink before she answered. “I asked someone.”
Susan frowned. That doesn’t sound at all plausible. She gulped her vodka twist. “Ok, though I’m not convinced.” A wry smile crossed her face. “How did you know where I lived?”
Susan fully expected that she would state Paul must have mentioned it - she didn’t.
“I looked you up in the phone book.”
The quiet explanation stumped Susan for a few moments.
The strains of Frank Sinatra singing the first few lines of All of Me had Helen placing her drink on the table, standing up and extending her hand. “Will you dance with me, I love Sinatra?”
Susan automatically stood and clasped the hand like a lifeline. When she did she felt a scorching heat travel through her whole body. Oh god, if this is love please don’t let it end. “He’s one of my favorites too.”
+ + +
Susan stood outside her apartment door with Helen at her side. She placed her key in the door then turned and stood like a statue as she once again gazed into Helen’s eyes. Oh my god what a fabulous face you have. Your lips are so close and inviting I want to reach out and touch them. From somewhere deep inside, she whispered, “Would you like a nightcap Helen?”
Helen looked down at the keys in the door and then at the time on her wristwatch. “It’s late I’d better go.”
Susan couldn’t disguise the look of disappointment that flood her features. Astonishment then filled her face as Helen’s hand lifted her chin and their glances caught. “If I stayed it wouldn’t be for coffee.”
Susan felt the world shake on its axis at the sensuous admission. I shouldn’t say this…I know it’s going to be a one night stand and I don’t do that ever, but right now, right here it’s the only thing I want. “Stay…please.”
Helen gave one of her enigmatic smiles and pushed the apartment door open wider. Before Susan knew what was happening Helen picked her up and carried her over the threshold placing a searing kiss on her lips.
Susan was drowning in the sensations of having Helen’s lips on hers. The feelings they created made her feel like she was in a movie divorced from real life. No way could this be happening…I’m dreaming. But god help me I’m not imagining the feel of her lips crushing mine or the way her tongue feels as it seductively seeks refuge in my mouth.
It was at that moment that Susan realized that she’d finally replaced her fantasy with real life. This is the lover that I’ve been waiting for all my life. If it turns out a one night stand so be it. I can work through the pain of rejection later. All that mattered to her was the tapering hand caressing her body and her clothes peeling like an orange skin from her body.
She hoarsely whispered into Helen’s ear, “I’m yours,” before running her tongue along the sensitive skin of her collar bone.
+ + +
Susan cast her eye over the crumpled bed linen with a sated expression on her face. Her lips tugged into a smug expression. My god I don’t think anyone in my life has ever loved me like that. She was incredible, from the moment her fingers touched my body, I responded like a fine tuned violin. She knew every string to pluck and she fingered them all…did she ever! As the thoughts brought about a molten feeling in her legs Susan sank on the edge of the bed and closed her eyes. The erotic memory of the previous evening’s love-making flooded her thoughts and traveled lower.
I can taste her tongue in my mouth seeking pleasure. Her fingers tugging at my nipples with the pressure of her mouth sucking them to a fevered pitch. Her caresses to my body threw it into a frenzy with fleeting strokes, teasing and tempting before demanding what I had to offer as she dipped into the core of my need for her. God I felt that I was going to die of pleasure with the first orgasm she gave me. Susan tentatively touched her fingers to her lips as she reveled in the sensation that was Helen Tobias. I didn’t even get the chance to make love to her she was so intent on making me feel loved.
A guilty stab of disappointment invaded her erotic thoughts. After they made love for the second time Helen held Susan tenderly, stroking her hair and soothing her with gentle sounds as she fell asleep. I remember saying I wanted to please her too and all I recall is that she said I had, more than I would ever know.
Susan stood and walked over to the window of her bedroom that looked out onto a park. It was raining and dull but that didn’t dampen her bright spell of happiness. Helen had woken early and kissed her lightly on the forehead, I remember how good that felt. Half asleep I can still recall her half-smile as she said she had an assignment to finish. She said she’d call when it was over,then my lips captured hers and I’d contentedly murmured ‘anytime’.
Susan hugged her arms around her middle as she spoke to the empty room. “If that was one wild glorious night of passion and it never happens again I’ll be forever grateful. In that one moment as we stared at each other at my door I knew unequivocally that I was falling for her. The rest of the night was a given, she could have asked me for anything and I would have happily obliged. All I need do is wait for her call.” As she spoke the words her heart rebuked her defeatism. It sure didn’t felt like a one night stand.
The phone rang and she moved back towards the bed with a serene smile on her face anticipating the voice - I hope this is Helen.
+ + +
You can spend your whole life waiting! I’m sure someone somewhere said that. Right now that’s exactly how I feel. Susan fidgeted with her pen swirling it around between her thumb and fingers then spinning it on the desk top, her eyes casting occasionally over the students taking one of their mid-term exams.
She gazed at the date and a sense of betrayal seeped into her heart as she recounted silently when she’d last seen Helen Tobias - three months and six days ago. I really thought she meant it when she said she’d call. What an idiot I was to believe that she felt something other than lust for me. I wasn’t even in her league she was just exercising her sexual appetite on a willing party. She sighed heavily then closed the book on her desk. I haven’t even seen Paul. He’s been abroad on an assignment. Besides, he’ll probably feel guilty that he hadn’t warned me of her take –em-and-leave- em disposition. I’m so stupid. I said it wouldn’t matter if it were a one-night stand. God how wrong could I be? Talk about a blinkered outlook.
The buzzer on her desk went off and she stood up. “Ok everyone, you have five more minutes then I collect the papers.”
The five minutes seemed like an hour as she waited for the second buzzer. Glad finally for something to do other than chastise herself over and over again; she began to collect the papers.
Fifteen minutes later, the room was empty and bizarrely quiet. Susan felt a feeling of having lost her way. Maybe it’s time I went back out into the real world and not hole up in this place. Then a voice inside her head retorted, maybe you should call her. It isn’t a one way street you know.
Her face contorted into a frown at that thought because it wasn’t such a bad idea. In fact, I can do better than that. She forgot to take the parcel she left at the restaurant. It can’t be important or she would have asked for it back. Yeah that’s what I’ll do. I’ll call round to the studio tomorrow and give it back. The decision made Susan feel the bitterness she felt towards Helen depart. At least I’ll get to see her one last time. Oh god, how pathetic do I sound.
+ + +
Susan arrived home an hour later and picked up her mail. Her eyes ran over the names of the sender in the hopes that there was a communication from Helen - there wasn’t. She sighed heavily as she automatically checked her answering machine - three messages. She pressed the button she listened
The first was from Paul. “Hi Sue, sorry I haven’t seen you in a while and yes I know it’s my fault…duty called. Call me I have news.”
Her heart flipped at the word news. Could it be about Helen? No, why would it? I doubt that she’d tell Paul about our one night of passion. He can’t be that good a friend to her…maybe he is?
The second message was from Jillian. “Hi Sue, can we reschedule the run in the park this weekend? Joyce wants me to go with her to her conference in Millville. I know you’ll understand. Catch up with you when we get back.
A smile tugged at her lips, but also tore at her heart. “What a fool I was to think I loved her.” She shook her head in self rebuke until her eyes opened wide. “Oh no, was I fool enough to say it aloud when we made love?” Damn I bet I did and that’s why she never called me. She blew out a breath and shook her head again. “Wise up Susan, the last three months of over analyzing has brought you nothing but headaches. Accept it and move on.”
The third message was from Paul again… “Sue, there’s going to be a small party tonight at Harry’s bar. Get out your glad rags I want you to be there. Before you shake that pretty head of yours, I’ve booked a taxi it will arrive at seven sharp.”
What the hell! Susan glanced at her watch it was six fifteen. He’d done that on purpose, not given her a chance to debate the issue. Well that puts my plans to take the package back to Helen’s studio on hold. I’ll do it on my way to work tomorrow.
Exactly at seven she heard a honk outside and with a twitch of the curtain Susan saw the taxi and waved to the driver. Harry’s bar here I come. I wonder what the news is.
+ + +
People having a good time filled Harry’s bar to the gunnels. Friday’s were always first-class for a night out to begin the weekend. In a town with a prestigious university there was never a lack of people more than willing to indulge. Susan scanned the crowds of people and by sheer luck rather than anything else a large man moved to the side of a table in one corner of the room and she spied Paul and a couple of others she knew – Adrienne, Jillian’s sister one of them.
She politely pushed her way through the mass of bodies and eventually arrived at the table. Paul greeted her immediately by standing up and wrapping his arms around her.
“Susan, you made it. I’ve missed my best friend. Hey guys move over Sue needs a seat and a drink.”
The smell of alcohol was heavy in the air all around her and she smiled indulgently. Well what do they say…if you can’t beat them join them. “I’ll have a vodka twist please. Now tell me, what are we celebrating?”
Paul complete with his trademark boyish expression, puffed out his chest and pointed directly at his chest. “You’re gonna be proud of me Sue, I won that award for my work and better than that.”
Susan felt the pride keenly he deserved the top prize. “There’s more?” she teasingly replied.
“Oh yeah! I’m going into partnership with my mentor can you believe that?” She saw his eyes fill with an enormous wonder at his own good fortune. “When she gets back with the drinks you can ask her all about it.”
When she gets back with the drinks - she’s here! Oh no, I can’t deal with this…god what was I thinking. She struggled to sound calm as she bit, “That’s wonderful news Paul I’m really happy for you.”
Adrienne who had returned from the bar with several drinks, smiled at Susan, “Hey Sue, Helen’s been informed of your tipple of choice but remarkably she had it under control must have seen you enter.”
Under her breath she muttered, “Must have.” Then turned to the bar and saw the tall familiar frame of Helen Tobias. “I’ve changed my mind on that drink. I’ll see if it isn’t too late to change it.”
Before anyone could reply she headed for the bar and arrived at Helen’s elbow as she paid for the drinks.
Susan remarked, “How much was my drink? I’d like to pay for it myself.”
It was barely perceptible but Susan saw the stiffening of the woman’s back before she turned to face her. The throng of people seemingly disappeared and it was only the two of them.
Blue eyes stared into the green ones and Susan knew at that moment that all her aggression and bitterness towards this woman floated away. She felt vulnerable and open to whatever Helen decreed for her. This sucks it isn’t fair!
“There’s a kitty on the table we all placed fifty dollars in for the evening. They probably didn’t tell you.” It was quiet rejoinder as she picked up the two drinks on the counter and handed the vodka twist over. “How have you been?”
Numb fingers took the proffered glass. Susan felt like an idiot as the information seeped into her confused brain. What the hell do you care! Unable to stand the strain any longer she turned and walked briskly to the table.
Paul saw them and moved to allow Sue to sit beside Adrienne. “Want to join them Helen?” he asked with a suggestive wink.
Helen for her part glanced at the two women and shook her head. “I’d rather stand thanks.”
From her vantage point, Susan saw Helen’s refusal to sit with them as another snub. Now she can’t stand sitting next to me. Well I don’t care I couldn’t stand it if she sat next to me either. What gave her the nerve to ask me how I was? How was I? I’m bleeding internally from a broken heart that’s how I am! She downed her drink in almost one mouthful making Paul chuckle.
Paul waved to the waitress and when she arrived he whispered something to her and then the celebrations began in earnest. As he told his friends about the new venture he was undertaking and that he’d be leaving for the African continent in two weeks.
Susan listened intently. It helped to keep her mind and eyes, from the woman who she felt sure was watching her closely with that serious hooded expression of hers. It’s probably my imagination but I dare not look up. Somehow her eyes see everything and right now I can’t handle her amusement at my expense. There was no way she wanted to experience the pain of exposing her raw feelings especially there in front of Helen. Who the hell ever said love is glorious didn’t know what they were talking about. It’s the pits if you choose the wrong person.
Soon the waitress arrived with several full bottles of differing drinks and with a wink she handed the bottle of vodka to Susan. “Here you go Sue this will dull whatever ails you.” Paul grinned and carried on the conversation with the large guy she’d seen earlier.
She looked at the bottle and wondered if it was a good idea to have another drink. She was already feeling light headed, but was that because of Helen Tobias…or maybe because she hadn’t eaten since lunch. Unscrewing the top, she threw caution to the wind and poured out an overly generous measure.
+ + +
Susan felt the world spinning all around her making her see three of everything. From a distance she heard people talking, about her rather than to her.
“That’s it guys, she’s had enough. For god’s sake she looks like death warmed over.”
“Oh your a spoil sport Sues. Can’t take your drink can you Sues?”
The voice was familiar to Susan. Probably Paul. For the life of her speech was impossible no matter how hard she tried.
“She’s had enough I’m taking her home.”
That voice was determined and authoritative. Susan felt her lips tug into a quirky smile. Oh isn’t that cute someone’s looking out for me.
An aggressive tone replied, “I’ll take her home she’s been coming onto me all night.”
I wonder who I’ve been coming onto. Oh crap not that flashy blonde friend of Ade’s.
Then, from the depths of somewhere, Susan wasn’t sure where she was when she cried out, “I’m going to be sick.”
In a blur, someone half carried to the bathroom, placed in a cubicle as the door shut behind her and the person who had brought her there.
The world held no meaning except the edges of the toilet bowl that she clung onto for dear life. Her stomach contents flowed until she began retching bile.
Susan’s only consolation was the comforting hand on her hair and the murmur of words. She was unable to make them out but it sounded as if they were soothing her through her ordeal. When she finally felt like she could move the few inches away from her spot she looked up pathetically grateful to the person who had rescued her.
A low groan pierced the cubicle and seemed to bounce of the walls. Oh god of all people it had to be her.
To Susan, Helen gave her a bland expression and she was sure the woman’s facial features barely moved. Then she spoke quietly, “Do you think you’ll be in a fit state to travel home without puking in the taxi?”
Good question. Hmm am I? Probably. All I want to do now is curl up in a ball in bed and die. “Yes, will you call it for me?”
Helen gave her an enigmatic glance then opened up the cubicle. “Stay here just in case. I’ll be right back.”
She was certain she heard murmurs of disapproval and chose to ignore them. If she just opened her eyes a crack she could make out what she thought were a few wry glances of the people on the other side of the door. Her ears perked up when she heard understanding mumbles. “Yeah,” Susan mumbled before she shut the door behind Helen.
True to her word, Helen was right back. Before Susan knew it, they were in a taxi. Her body betrayed her. It could have been the mass consumption of vodka or the proximity of the woman at her side - probably both. She leaned into Helen’s shoulder. She dozed off as a sigh of satisfaction passed her lips. I want to have this shoulder to lie on the rest of my life-no I want this woman for the rest of my life. Then sleep claimed her.