Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Trojan Decision

Henry chased the last crumbs of apple pie on his plate as Winona, the lone waitress, stopped to refill his coffee cup and dropped another creamer on the table. He smiled as she sat down across from him. The move was easy and familiar. For the last several months while he had been eating Sunday supper here she had made it a point to spend a few minutes with him if she was working. They’d gotten to know each other, like each other. Sometimes he felt as if she could be like a daughter to him; his own sons had long since moved away from home and his wife, Addie, had died earlier that year. It felt good having a woman to talk to, even a younger woman. Sometimes he missed Addie’s company so much. He glanced up at the clock.

“It’s well after eight. Shouldn’t you be kicking me out and closing the place?”

“No, that’s O.K. The till is closed and the front door locked. I can’t close the kitchen yet. A private party in the back room. I’ll have to go in there in a few minutes but I want to rest a bit first. One of the reasons I left you sitting here, so I’d have company before I joined the horde.”

Henry raised his eyebrows.

“Just my brothers and their wives and all the kids. And my mom. You’ve met her haven’t you? It’s her birthday party. I won’t mention her age, but she’s a wonderful lady and I love her dearly.”

Through his conversations with Winona he had gathered that her father and mother had successfully run the restaurant together for over twenty years. When Mr. Brennan died of a heart attack, the children had tried to persuade their mother to sell but she would have none of that. She insisted that she needed to remain busy with the kitchen. All she wanted from them was help with the books and taxes. In return, she offered each of her children a share in the business. The boys bought in reluctantly; Winona was thrilled to manage the bar and dining room, help with staffing.

“So. You’re catering to the boss tonight,” he teased.

She laughed. “You know it’s not like that! It’s just that there’s more room here than in the apartment for all the grandkids. The only reason she consented to this party was for the kids, so she could fuss over them.” A cheer came from beyond a closed door.

“Henry, would you do me a favor? Well, two favors to be exact. When you finish your coffee, will you escort me to the party? Dinner should be over, but there’ll be wine and some marvelous desserts mom made especially for her grandkids.”

“And the second?”

Winona’s face became serious and she paused a moment. “I think I need some help with her birthday present. Will you? For me?” She reached out her hand and Henry took it. “For you, almost anything,” he said.

She grinned like a kid with a new treasure. “Wait here. You’ll love it.”

* * *

When she returned she looked somewhat different. She’d let her hair loose in a way he hadn’t seen it and suspected she’d put on or touched up her make up. She opened the door and led him into the private dining room. They were greeted by a swarm of youngsters and squeals of “Auntie Nona!” Ignoring the kids for the moment, she led Henry to the older woman seated at the head of the table.

“Mom, everyone, this is Henry Helmond, a friend of mine.”

“Welcome, Mr. Helmond! Scoot, Tiffany. Let the gentleman sit here.” She chased a young girl off the chair beside her. “Please sit down. I suspect you’ve been brought here as a token ‘older person’ to keep me occupied. Louisa, pour the gentleman a glass of wine. Arthur, pass that tray of goodies; you’ve had your share.”

“Congratulations on your birthday, Mrs. Brennan. Many happy returns.” He took her hand in his.

“No need to be so formal. Please call me Edna. May I call you Henry?”

Soon the two of them were engaged in small talk, ignoring the swirls of laughter and conversation.

Winona took several minutes to fuss over her nieces and nephews before rapping on the table to get everyone’s attention.

“I suppose all you guys have already given Mom her presents?” The question was answered by shouts from the youngsters. “I guess it’s my turn.” From somewhere she had pulled out an envelope. “Mom, happy birthday. Here are two tickets to that musical you want to see so badly.” She kissed her mother’s proffered cheek. “Since I can’t go with you, I believe Henry might be willing to escort you if you asked him nicely.”

The two older people looked at each other and recognized the surprise on the other’s face. Neither had had any suspicion of this development.

“ It seems, Henry, we have both been set up by this scheming young daughter of mine.” She cleared her throat and glanced at the date on the tickets in her hand. “Would you consent to be my escort to the theatre this Saturday night?”

Henry took a deep breath and heard himself say, “Madam, I’d be honored.”

Conversations began again until one of the younger girls asked in a voice that stood out above the general din.

“Mommy, did Auntie Nona give Gramma that man for her birthday?”

Laughter filled the room.

* * *

Several times during the next few days Henry felt a little uncomfortable when his thoughts turned to the coming Saturday evening. At times he felt nervous, like a schoolboy before his first big date. When he shrugged off that feeling, there still remained a nagging belief that he was betraying his Addie, that he was pushing her out of his life to make room for Edna. Every evening as he went to sleep he recounted his day to the memory of Addie as he used to when she was in the bed beside him, but every morning he woke up with thoughts of Edna.

On Friday afternoon he called the restaurant hoping to catch either Winona or Edna. He was relieved when Winona answered. Sheepishly he confided that there were a few details about the date she had set up that he needed to clarify. Where should he pick her mother up? She laughed.

“You can meet her here, at the restaurant. Mom and I share the flat above, didn’t you know?”

“Uhmm. I hadn’t thought about it, but that’s good. Oh, and how should I dress? It isn’t formal or anything?”

“Henry! How long have you been out of circulation?” she chided gently. You can find guys in jeans and T-shirt at the opera nowadays. Why don’t you wear slacks and a sport shirt? I’ll make sure Mom isn’t too formally or casually dressed. So, what time are you going to be here? Doors open at seven fifteen, curtain at eight. Do you want to come early for a bite to eat first, a drink while you wait for her?”

Henry interrupted and said, “Oh, no. Seven thirty tomorrow. I’ll see you then. The two of you.” He hung up quickly. His hand was as wet as that of a nervous teenager.

Well, that resolved some of his apprehensions. Time, place, dress. That left transportation. Drive his own car? He didn’t feel comfortable driving at night any more, and parking downtown was at a premium. That left taking a cab. He could walk the three blocks from home to the restaurant before and after. That is, if it didn’t rain.

* * *

With some trepidation and a hint of nervous butterflies, Henry presented himself at the restaurant at seven twenty that Saturday evening. Winona was on duty and hustled him to a seat at the bar.

“Can I get you anything, Henry? A beer, a drink?”

He declined and asked for a glass of water. She disappeared into the kitchen and he heard her call, “Mom! He’s here!” She came back behind the bar and poured his water. “She shouldn’t be too long. You know how women have to fuss over every last detail. She was ready half an hour ago.”

While Winona seated a party of customers just coming in, Henry quietly sipped at his water. If he remembered correctly, waiting for a date these days was no different than it had been when he was a schoolboy. He wondered if Edna was making the same kind of observations, if she, too, was nervous and hesitant. He sighed. He was only going to a performance with an acquaintance, to enjoy it in the company of someone else who would enjoy it. What was the harm in that? It had nothing to do with making a commitment to Edna or disrespecting Addie’s memory. He was preoccupied with these thoughts when Winona roused him with a tap on the shoulder.

“Psst. Stop daydreaming, Henry. Here she is! Tell her how lovely she looks. Flatter her, it’ll get you anywhere.”

Edna stood at the doorway that led back to the kitchen and she did look lovely, with her chestnut hair pulled back from her face. She wore a loose, yellow skirt, a short-sleeved buttoned blouse almost the color of milk chocolate, and sensible tan shoes. Henry stood up and walked over to her, boldly took both her hands between his.

“Edna, you look lovely. Earlier I pictured you dressed for a rock concert, all leather and metal and multi-colored spiked hair but you dispel all my worries. I’m honored to be your escort.”

Her chuckle sounded almost like the giggle of a young girl. He noticed the slight flush creeping over her face and hoped he hadn’t embarrassed her.

“Henry, stop being so gallant. We’re only two people going to a show we both want to see. I’m just glad to have the company. Shall we go?”

“Certainly. Let me call a cab. I’m not very secure driving at night anymore.”

Winona brought the phone from under the bar and set it in front of him. The taxi would be there within five minutes.

* * *

When they arrived, the pre-paid ticket line began to move as they joined it. Henry felt a little discomfited when Edna held out the tickets to the attendant. When he was dating such transactions were assigned to the male of the couple, even if he hadn’t paid for them himself. He smiled at the memory. Times change. Usually for the better.

Their seats were perfect: three and four to the right of center, in a row about a third of the way up the sloping floor. The sight lines seemed perfect; he hoped there would be no glitches in the audio. When they were settled, Henry remembered his manners.

“I forgot to ask. Would you like something from the snack bar before it starts?” Calm down, Henry, he told himself. You’re acting like a puppy, eager to please. Don’t be too attentive. Be cool.

Edna smiled up at him as if she knew what he was thinking. “I think I’ll wait until intermission. But a bottle of water might come in handy.” He made his way back against the flow of patrons looking for their seats. In a few minutes he was back with two bottles. He handed one to her and took his seat. In silence, they watched the theatre fill.

The actors, singers, and dancers performing on the stage captivated them. Only once did Henry feel disconcerted. While the beautiful young lead actress was dreaming her way through a love song, Henry felt Edna’s hand reach for and clasp his. Startled, he looked at her but she was so enthralled by the performance that her eyes never left the stage. He wondered if he was expected to initiate a hug or a cuddle, but decided to leave well enough alone. Even when the love song had ended, Edna held his hand.
At the intermission, he bought her a white wine and himself a beer. They stood quietly against a wall in the lobby and watched people. They exchanged opinions about the performers, about the songs. The story was that same old tale: true love never runs smooth, but overcomes in the end. The music and the songs brought it all to life again with a new glow.
During the second half Edna, unabashed, held his hand. Once she leaned close to him to whisper something in his ear and let her head rest on his shoulder for a few moments. Henry felt he shouldn’t move. He might break this spell. For the rest of the performance, his attention was divided between the actors on the stage and the woman at his side. To say the least, it was confusing.

The curtain came down, the audience clapped and cheered, the actors took their bows. They let themselves become a part of the flow of patrons leaving. Outside, Edna felt for his hand.

“We’ll never catch a cab here at this time. I know a little Irish pub about three blocks from here. If you don’t mind walking we can have a drink, maybe something to eat, call a cab later.”

They strolled together side by side, their arms occasionally touching, until she shifted her bag to her other shoulder and took him by the hand. She smiled and kept his arm pressed against her as they walked.

The pub was crowded and noisy. There were no tables available so they sat at the bar and decided against ordering food. They settled down with drinks, white wine for her, a Guinness for him. Henry tried to interest himself in the music the band was playing but the proximity of this enchanting woman interfered with his concentration. She kept holding his hand like a teenager and he felt unable to pull it away. He enjoyed her touch.

They only stayed for the one drink. In the cab, she sat close to him but didn’t take his hand, as if she was aware that the romantic gesture might embarrass him. When he delivered them at the restaurant, the cab driver pointed out that it had already closed.

“We know. I live here. Good night,” Edna told him. They were left standing on the sidewalk.

“Walk me around to the back, Henry. The back door has a direct entry to my apartment.” He followed her, admiring the grace of her movements as she walked. She fished a set of keys from her purse, unlocked the back door, then turned to him.

“Henry, if you want to come up I can make you something to eat.”

Slowly he shook his head. This time he reached for her hands, held them as he tried to express how he felt.

“No, it’s getting late. I just want you to know I had a great time this evening. Not just the show. I really enjoyed the company. When you see Winona, let her know how much I appreciate her kindness, even though she did sort of trick us both.”

He never figured out who made the first move but they found themselves embracing. Her cheek was against his and she whispered in his ear.

“I had a marvelous time, Henry. Please call me soon. I’d like to do something like this again. I swear, if you don’t call me I’ll call you.”

He felt her lips brush his cheek, then search for his lips and push against them. Gently he replied in kind, just enjoying the softness of her mouth, the grasp of her hands at his shoulder, the lean of her body into his. Then she stepped back.

“I mean that, Henry. I want you to call me. Soon. We aren’t youngsters any more.” She stepped inside and closed the door.

On the walk home Henry didn’t notice the cool night air. His mind was awhirl trying to decide what she had really meant. Just as if they were both teenagers again. At least, most of the mistakes and obstacles that beset the young were no longer in their path. He almost laughed out loud.

* * *

Often during the next several days he thought of calling her, but didn’t know what to say. There had to be a better reason to phone her than to simply thank her again. His mind was a whirl. Fantasies of Edna seemed to be replacing memories of Addie; or perhaps they weren’t replacing them but seemed just as prominent if not more so. If Addie, wherever she was, was aware of his thoughts about Edna, would she approve? Possibly. She had always said things like “I want what’s good for you, for both of us.” Then he would pose the question to himself. If he had died first, would he want Addie to be happy with another man? He thought so. But again.

The question hadn’t been settled in his mind when the phone rang just after noon on Wednesday. He picked up the receiver, expecting another telemarketer.

“Oh, Henry. It’s Edna. I didn’t know if I could catch you at this time of day. Am I interrupting anything?” She didn’t pause for a reply but continued. “I wanted to thank you again for last Saturday, but also to ask for a favour. We were talking about old movies and there’s a double feature of Bette Davis films playing at the Avalon, you know, the repertory house way out in the east end of town, and I’d love to see them but Winona has something planned and can’t go and I don’t really want to go alone, so I remembered that we talked about movies from the forties and fifties and it sort of crossed my mind that maybe you would be available and that I should maybe call and see …”

It dawned on Henry that the rising tone of her babbling meant she was nervous. He interrupted her flow.

“Edna! Am I to understand that you are calling to ask me out on a date?”

Several seconds of silence were followed by a demure giggle and a long inhalation of breath.

“Yes, I guess I am. I feel like such a schoolgirl! Henry, I don’t want to seem too forward, but would you be available to go to the movies with me tonight? It’s my treat. If you say yes I’ll even come and pick you up.”

“No, I’ll tell you what. I have nothing planned for supper so I’ll drop by the restaurant for something to eat. You can meet me there whenever you’re ready. I take it you aren’t working?”

“That’s perfect, Henry. I’ll drive if you don’t mind, you know. See you here, then? Six thirty or so?”

They agreed and disconnected.

* * *

Henry was just finishing his meal when he heard the teasing voice of someone coming up behind him.

“My, you look and smell nice this evening! Got a hot date?”

“Hello, Winona. I expect you know very well that your mother asked me to go with her to some Bette Davis films tonight. She said you were supposed to go, but backed out. Is this another one of your set ups?”

“No, no, no. Three of us girls got the chance to go to New York City in a couple of weeks, so I have to trade a few shifts to shake loose. I don’t want to miss that chance! No, it was Mom’s idea to ask you. She could have gone alone; she’s done that before.”

Winona sat herself down across from him and watched his face as she spoke.

“Mom asked me if it was alright for a woman her age to ask a man out, so I explained to her that at her age etiquette was not as important as seizing the opportunity as it presents itself. The next thing I know, she’s taking you out to the movies. I didn’t have anything to do with that.”

Henry remained silent, unable to find a proper response.

“Henry, if my Mom wasn’t her age, I’d think she had a crush on you. Maybe I’m out of line talking like this, but she matters a whole lot to me. I haven’t seen her so carefree and girlish in a long time, since Dad died, and it feels good. Be kind to her, O. K?”

With a quick grin, Winona left and disappeared into the kitchen. Her words hadn’t really come as a surprise. The attraction worked both ways, he was well aware. And then Edna appeared in the doorway.

She paused, almost as if deliberately posing. Her dark hair shone under the overhead light, tumbling loose to her shoulders. She wore a knee-length dress in a sort of a wine colour, a silver belt at the waist, and carried a matching silver purse. He felt out of place, as if not worthy to be seen in her company, but her face split in a mischievous grin and she reached a hand out to him.

“Come on, Henry, let’s go! We don’t want to be late!”

When he stood up, he almost overturned his chair. Clumsily he reached for his wallet and looked for a server to present him with the bill.

“No, it’s on the house. No one is going to present my date with a bill in my restaurant. Come on, the car’s out back.”

She took him by the hand and led him outside. At least she didn’t insist on helping him into the passenger’s side of her white Nissan.

He was quiet for most of the drive, letting Edna talk and only answering direct questions. She noticed.

“Relax, Henry. I know I’m the one who asked you out, and maybe you’re not exactly comfortable with that, but I’m not some wanton woman looking to have my way with you. As my daughter said to me, we girls deserve to have fun. And last Saturday evening I had fun, something I hadn’t considered in a long time. And much of it was because of you.”

They both remained quiet and thoughtful as she parked the car in a lot across the street from the theater. She spoke again before they got out.

“Maybe you’re thinking of your wife. How you used to do things like this together. How maybe you feel as if you’re being unfaithful. I know. I had to deal with the same sort of thing. At least I had Winona to talk to. It can be such a surprise when you find out how mature your own children can be in their outlook. That’s when you feel maybe you’ve brought them up right. It must be difficult when you no longer have anyone close. I’m sorry. I have no right to talk to you like this.”

Henry smiled and decided the remarks needed no immediate answer. He offered her his arm and led her inside.

* * *

The first movie was a dark thriller. At some time Edna grabbed his hand and held it in hers for the remainder of the film. Henry felt as protective as he had when he was dating, when he was young. He didn’t let it embarrass him.

The second one was more romantic. When they had finished the bucket of popcorn purchased during intermission, Edna cuddled up against him. He put his arm over her shoulder to hold her close, then was surprised when she tucked his arm under her own. His hand rested on her breast and she held it there with both her own, occasionally squeezing his hand against herself. Henry lost track of the movie’s plot.

He couldn’t bring his mind back to concentrate on the film. Every now and then Edna would use his hand to squeeze her breast or gently stroke it. When she laid her other arm on his thigh and softly rubbed his knee, he almost pulled back in surprise. For the rest of the movie he sat almost motionless; her nipple slowly hardened under his palm and her hand felt strangely warm on his thigh. Well, he thought, now I know how she feels about me! But he hadn’t considered how to react if and when this moment happened. He tried to keep as detached as possible.

When the closing credits appeared on the screen, they both feigned a need to stretch, and gathered errant body parts back to their usual places. The drive back to the restaurant was silent, no remarks about the movie. Both of them were examining the step toward intimacy that had been taken.

Parked behind the restaurant, Edna turned off the ignition and shifted to face Henry. She reached for his hand.

“Please, Henry. I can drive you home, but I would love for you to come up and have a drink or something with me. I can promise not to be forward or embarrassing because Winona’s home. Besides, I need some more time to think about us. I guess you do too. I know you know what I’m talking about. And maybe you aren’t as certain as I am, but that’s O. K. Please come upstairs with me for a few minutes anyway.”

He smiled in agreement and followed her. In the apartment they found Winona curled up with a magazine in front of the late night news on the television. She jumped up, greeted the two of them and began to grill her mother about how the date had gone. Edna cut the questions short and steered the conversation to safer topics. She bustled about in the kitchen and prepared the tea they had all agreed upon.

Henry let himself relax and enjoy the dynamics of being alone with the two women. He was far more at ease with himself when he decided to take his leave. Edna offered to drive him the short distance but he refused, said the short walk would be good for both his mind and his body. She accompanied him downstairs.

“Henry, I have no right to put any pressure on you, but you’ll have to decide for yourself if we can be together. I think I know how you feel, but you should know this too. I’m falling in love with you, Henry Helmond.”

Her kiss was fierce on his mouth and her body tight against his. She broke away, rushed back up the stairs without another word. He began to walk home slowly, his mind and body occupied with her.

* * *

He tried discussing his emotional dilemma with Addie, at least with his memory of her. He felt silly talking out loud when no one was there. It seemed almost as if Addie was saying in her practical way, ‘When you live your life, Henry, don’t suppress your feelings. We didn’t. This isn’t about you and me; it’s you and her now. Be kind to yourself.’ and dismissing him. In a strange way, he felt more alone than ever. For a day or two he moped and mooned around, trying to sort out his emotions.

Saturday morning he woke up with his mind clear, knowing he had made a decision and that now all he needed to do was to act on it. He found Edna’s number where he had folded it in his wallet and punched it into his phone. Winona answered.

“Hello, Winona, it’s Henry Helmond here. Is your mother available? I need to talk to her.”

Need? Henry was surprised that the word seemed so right.

“Hi! Sure, Henry. Just a minute.”

He discovered that the pause didn’t induce the small discomforts that he had expected. He took this as a sign that he had come to the right decision, that even Addie would approve of his actions.

When Edna came to the phone, his voice seemed abrupt, even to him.

“Are you busy tomorrow afternoon? I’ve been thinking, and I would like to talk with you in a quiet place with no distractions. Would you be free to go with me for a walk in the park? Centennial?”

In the long, long moment of silence Henry felt and heard his heart beat a thousand times. The reply, when it came, carried no sign of her emotions.

“Sure. We should do that, Henry. Meet me here at the restaurant at two, tomorrow afternoon. See you then.” Calmly the call was disengaged.

At times Henry marveled at the calm and strength he felt. He knew what he wanted from this budding relationship and was almost positive that Edna felt the same way. Their friendship and comfort with each other was such that it needed no questioning. A decision about expanding this to a physical relationship would have to be made. And now was the time. Several ways of introducing and exploring the question drifted through his mind but none stuck, none seemed to present itself as the perfect, the only way.

When he walked to the restaurant to meet her, Edna suggested taking the bus. As if by common consensus, they walked around the ball fields with scurrying kids and shouting parents toward the creek flowing along the other end. Side by side, not touching, her arms folded in front of her and his hands in his pockets. When the playground sounds had faded, Henry cleared his throat.

“I’ve been thinking…”

She didn’t say anything, didn’t even look at him. She was not going to make this any easier for him, he understood. But then, she’d been quite clear about her feelings and the response had to come from him and him alone. When he reached out a hand to touch hers she made no move. He tried again.

“Edna, I feel so awkward walking and talking and thinking and all. Can we find a bench and sit down?” He was embarrassed at the touch of a whine in his voice. At the next park bench she sat down primly and stared into the flowing water of the creek. He glanced at her and then turned to watch the same ripple in the water she was focusing on. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes.

“Edna, I think I love you. No, that’s wrong: I know I love you. I’m just not sure what to do with this. I want to make love to you. I want to take you to my bed and feel you naked against me but I’m afraid of the memories… I can’t see us at your place… renting a hotel or motel room sort of turns me off… but I do want you. I have for some time now. I think you knew even before I would admit it to myself.” He paused to take a long breath.


He opened his eyes at the demand of her voice, caught a glimpse of the shine of moisture at the corner of her eye as her face suddenly pressed against his and her arms pulled him tight. Her tongue stroked his lips, then suddenly forced its way into his mouth. He moaned at the ferocity and passion of it, wrapped himself around her as if this was the only natural way to be. As she had been the one to instigate the clinch, she was also the first to pull away.

“Henry. Listen to me. When we were leaving, Winona was planning to go out with a couple of friends. There should be no one home about now. The hired help is running the restaurant but the apartment is free and clear… Henry, will you take me home? We can do whatever you want, no whatever we want.” They stood face to face, smiling into each other’s eyes and holding hands.

“Come on,” he told her. “If you think Winona’s had enough time to clear out, let’s grab a cab back.”

On the ride home they ignored the cabby’s attempts at conversation. It seemed so natural to sit in the back seat holding hands, gazing into each other’s eyes. Words like silly or moonstruck didn’t cross their minds. As Henry paid the fare, Edna rushed around to the back stairs, almost skipping like a schoolgirl. He caught up with her as she opened the apartment door.
Resolutely, she pulled him inside. The first thing they both noticed was the large card propped in the middle of the kitchen table. The illustration portrayed two birds cuddled together on a branch. Edna snatched it up, glanced inside, and handed it to him. The inside was blank except for a hand-written note. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do! Have fun! W.” Left sitting on the table was a packet of three condoms. Trojans.

Edna blushed and picked them up. “I guess we should talk about health matters before we… I just never considered…”

“It’s alright.” He took the packet from her hand. “It’s better to be safe. I’m healthy, but if it’s the thought that counts…” He reached into his pocket and came up with a second packet of three condoms. Trojans. He grinned and looked at her.

“Me, too. No diseases, I mean.” She chuckled. “Wait here a minute,” she said and disappeared into her bedroom. She returned momentarily with her hands behind her back. Holding his gaze with her own, she slowly brought a hand to the front and laid something on the table. Another packet of three condoms. Trojans.

They burst out laughing, laughing as if they would never stop. When she caught her breath, she asked politely, “Would you like some tea, sir?”

“Later. First things first,” he growled. They disappeared into the bedroom, slamming the door against a determined daughter, two paperboard lovebirds, and nine unnecessary condoms on the kitchen table. Trojans.