By Adel Aaron
“You were different.” Sheila said it with sensuous pleasure.
Andy thought for a moment. “Did you like it?”
“Yes.” She smiled, remembering the way she’d felt just a few minutes ago.
“Good. I liked it too.” He closed his eyes.
He didn’t answer right away. “It’s Valentine’s.”
“Oh?” She leaned on one hand and began playing with his hair. Soon she turned around. Their naked thighs touched. She liked the feeling. She lay on her back, satisfied, looking up at the ceiling, feeling warm and cozy.
“You want to take a shower? We’re cutting things very close.” Short brown hair growing high onto his clean forehead, the well-proportioned, muscular lines of his cheeks and nose gave his face an open and attractive look. Presently, however, it was clouded by the anxiety he’d experienced over the last few days.
“It’s still early.” She stretched her long, lean body, like a Siamese cat. He watched her quietly.
“What?” She raised herself on an elbow to better see the green digits on the clock. “Four thirty!” Sheila quickly got up. Before disappearing behind the closed bathroom door, she gave another quick, happy look at her Valentine’s presents peeking through the torn gold wrapping paper on the bureau: lacy lingerie and a big oval bottle of Obsession. In her early forties, she still looked very attractive and was in excellent physical shape. When her thick, fair hair was drawn back in a tight bun, the gray eyes under her high brow looked big; their gaze was pointed, penetrating, seductive. He called her a mermaid enigma: her perfectly shaped legs made her look even slimmer and taller.
Andy wanted a cigarette. Three sharp, vertical furrows cut deeply into the skin between his eyebrows. This was the first serious urge he’d had in the six months since he quit smoking. He was thinking about last Friday. He allowed his thoughts to stray to the Hyatt’s lobby, the restaurant. He remembered every minute detail: flowers in the corner, simple dinner, the elevator’s flight.
“I’ll be ready soon. Are you going to take a shower?” Sheila was drying her hair in front of the mirror.
He took a shower, shaved, and got dressed. He was thinking about his trip to Washington. He didn’t think about the conference; in his head, he was going over and over the night at the Hyatt, before he flew home.
“Ready?” He looked at Sheila’s high heels and thought of the restaurant’s busy parking lot. It would be difficult for her to walk in the snow. “I’ll drop you off first and then park.”
“Sure.” The set of wall-to-wall mirrors reflected her eye-catching image in prospective, from large to small, like a Russian nesting doll. She observed herself one last time and, satisfied, went downstairs, stepping soundlessly on the high, soft carpet. Andy turned off the light; the mirror gave a momentary spark before it went dark.
Back in December, Andy had reserved their favorite booth at the Pomegranate. It was always crowded there on Valentine’s Day. This time, too, they waited for menus for a long time. Elegant in her deep red velvet dress, Sheila sat straight, yet her body was relaxed. A keen, confident smile played on her beautiful face.
“Where are you?”
He felt a pang in his heart, as if he suddenly feared she’d read his mind. His well-controlled facial expression didn’t change, though, when he asked, “What do you mean?”
She was cool, her gaze inviting. “You’re a bit quiet, my darling.”
His thoughts were vague and obscure. What was the matter with him? He was forty-four years old and happily married. He was always happy with Sheila. They were served 1928 Krug.
“Am I?” He found her hand and kissed it. He noticed her freshly done nails and the ring with a carat blue sapphire: her birthday present from him. “I want to drink to my beautiful wife.” He raised his glass.
“I still remember your new, aggressive approach.” Whatever liner she’d used today made her almond eyes look even bigger.
For no apparent reason, he, from whose lips words always flowed so easily, became tongue-tied. What? Again, he thought of the Hyatt. What a cozy little place it was, with the French restaurant in the lobby, across from the escalator. With her back to the exit, Candy sank deeply into the soft leather cushions. Andy remembered how all at once a strange feeling had come over him. He must’ve been curious, he concluded.
Candy and Andy had been colleagues for a few years now. She was from DC. Every now and then they would meet at company events. Andy couldn’t say why he was so self-conscious of how much their names rhymed. When people chuckled and pointed out the obvious, they found no appreciation for their professed, as they thought, discovery. Before long, Candy began introducing herself by her middle name; it didn’t go unnoticed by him. Lately, they’d been working on the same project and met via teleconference almost every week. He saw her image on a seventy-five-inch screen and so did she. In the beginning it was a slog, a royal waste of time he could never recover during his busy day.
Soon, however, things had changed; he began looking forward to these meetings. They worked off each other’s humor and business ideas. Candy was the first to join the conference and the last to log off. She always seemed small in her chair, a tad too conservatively dressed. He liked her work ethic, could always rely on her being ready for the meeting. Never too harsh, she tactfully delivered her points. He appreciated her thinking process, though he couldn’t agree with most of her proposals; couldn’t afford them, rather. They were clever, unique, but required long-term strategies he wasn’t prepared even to consider. She chose the proactive approach, leaving him to deal with putting out the daily fires and, therefore, siding with the pragmatic flank far more often than he preferred.
Since last summer he’d contemplated attending the international trade show, a prestigious annual event in DC. However, he didn’t want to miss four days in the office; after all, February was the shortest month of the year. But when he found out Candy would be going, he made up his mind to go too. If he’d been asked whether he ever thought of her outside the work environment, he could deny it with a clear conscience. And yet it would have been a lie. Maybe I’m simply curious about her, he suggested to himself over and over again. But deep down, he knew he couldn’t free himself from thinking of her so easily. As a matter of fact, he was thinking of her all the time.
“I want to try it again tonight. You think you could duplicate your . . .” Sheila moistened her glossy, well-drawn lips, “aggressiveness?” She picked up her thin, half-filled flute; he saw the bubbles trying to escape from the glass, rushing up to the surface.
“Of course.” He felt her long, sexy leg pressing his under the tablecloth.
“Madam.” A young waiter brought the appetizers. Andy looked at his big, well-decorated plate with a small crab cake placed in the middle of it. “Bon appétit.”
When the waiter left, Sheila looked around the room, cramped with a loud, well-to-do crowd. “I’m happy you were able to get a booth. I love this place.”
“I love this place.” Candy pointed at a small candle on the table.
“I don’t mean to rush you, but I drafted a response to your proposal. I have it up in my room. I thought we could look at it tonight.”
She didn’t answer.
“What do you think? Are you done with your salad?”
Still she didn’t answer but moved her plate away, indicating that dinner was over. She reached for her purse. “May I . . .”
“You may not. You had a salad and a glass of water. I believe I can afford to cover both.”
“Thank you, Andy.” Suddenly, she’d become demure.
“My pleasure. Shall we?”
It was still early and they had plenty of time to get prepared for tomorrow. She followed his lead. In the hallway, they didn’t meet anyone they knew. The elevator stopped, its ring tone a musical note fa—fifteenth floor. His room, relatively spacious and pedantically clean, had a small corner balcony. He turned on the desk lamp, plugged in his computer. She stood in the middle of the room. Neither one had said a word since they’d walked in.
“Would you like to pull up a chair? We can look at the slides together.” He wanted to help her and accidentally touched her hand. She didn’t retreat. His fingers touched her shoulder. He felt how she trembled. He could have sworn she didn’t breathe. He knelt and kissed her on the lips. She responded tenderly, unpretentiously. Was he still only curious? Yes! He was on an exploration expedition. He submerged his hand in her red hair; it was short and nothing like Sheila’s: luscious, long, full, silky. He thought he should’ve been disappointed, but he found this boyishness surprisingly endearing. He was so much stronger; an urgent desire to protect this delightful creature shook him to his core.
He put her on his bed. She was still fully dressed. And so was he. She covered her face with her hands. Unlike Sheila’s, her nails hadn’t been done professionally; she probably did them herself. Her hands were small and soft. She wouldn’t be able to lift more than ten pounds, he thought to himself. She would break her fingers. He took her cold hands in his. He wanted to warm them up. He lightly touched her stomach. The quiet sound she uttered made the blood rush to his head. She was on the bed, in front of him, so ready, waiting for him with a childlike expression. Like a box of chocolates—he was free to choose any with fillings to his liking.
“Andy, please,” she begged.
“Andy, please pass the salt.” Sheila stretched out her hand.
With immense strength, he pulled himself out of the Hyatt room.
“Your cheeks are red. Is it from the champagne, or are you excited?” Sheila was in a playful mood.
“Candy, are you asking me to go on or to stop?”
“Please!” Candy carefully pushed her hand through the opening in his sleeve. He felt her fingers, how they caressed his arm, moved in sync with his muscles. He wanted to embrace her tightly, make her feel safe. She closed her eyes and bit her lip. He pulled down her leggings. Her silky skin was naturally tanned, so smooth, like cream. Suddenly, he wasn’t ready for this adventure; for one, he had no protection on him, and he was sure she didn’t either. It would be ridiculous to leave her here and run downstairs to a hotel shop. Idiot! He should’ve thought about that earlier. But he hadn’t. It all had happened so suddenly. He would have to improvise as they moved along. Maybe they wouldn’t move along. What was he doing standing here? How had he gotten himself in this situation with a woman he knew nothing about? What did he want of her? Was he in his right mind to be comparing this plain girl to his cosmopolitan, refined Sheila?
Unable to find the answers and amazed by his growing thirst, he, half-mechanically and half-curiously, unbuttoned her green shirt. Easy, no need to rush now. In awestruck surprise, he met with her lovely curves, her satiny skin, her youth; she was magnetic, sweet, so inviting. And yet he was constantly comparing. Sheila was so far superior to her. No doubt! Yet the smell of fresh soap mixed with the airy floral perfume Candy wore was intoxicating. Andy wanted to have her. Now! His fingers hurt her. She shrank and looked at him with surprise. He saw a few small wrinkles deepen her forehead.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“You didn’t,” she lied. She was gracious, somehow dependable.
She became even more flexible, trustworthy; she seemed to indulge in following every movement of his, holding nothing back. She was unbelievably honest and responded sincerely, gratefully, without hiding her feelings. He was surprised. He was going strong and she silently asked for more. She allowed. As if she had been waiting for this moment forever. She was grateful for everything he was willing to share with her. She was giving him more than she received. More than he’d hoped for.
Andy glanced at Sheila’s steak and then stared at the mussels in front of him. They were hot, steaming. Some of them were wide open, showing their internal nacreous colors. Their delicious, delicate tongue-shaped organs were pink from the light tomato sauce. Andy loved the taste of this fleshy anchor; he would catch the juicy meat with his lips, pull it from the shell, savor it inside his mouth and, after satisfying his sophisticated taste buds, slowly swallow, together with a mouthful of exquisite wine.
“You’re salivating, honey. Start your dish; I’m almost done with mine.” Sheila openly stared at him, her elbow leaning on the table, her arm nicely curved in support of her chin. He saw how much she enjoyed watching him being unusually mellow, less controlling, almost absentminded, something he was rarely guilty of.
Andy took a spoon and pulled a few shells apart. Soaked in thick sauce, like half-opened lips, the mussels were waiting patiently for him to taste them. The pearly hinged halves had a thin, aromatic red film over them; the best way to have this dish was to start by carefully dabbing the valves with soft, warm dough. He found a pit on the ventral surface; this was where a viscous secretion exuded to form elastic threads.
Sheila saw something new in his face. This entire evening she was guessing without much success. But she didn’t mind. “I love you.” She smiled and lowered her gaze intimately.
“I love you,” Candy said earnestly.
“What did you say?”
“I love you.” Her eyes were closed.
Slowly, he was coming out of a trance. “Don’t say those words ever again. I have a beautiful wife I love.”
“I’m sorry. It was totally inappropriate.” She raised herself from the pillow and sat straight up in bed, as if he’d splashed ice water over her face. She took a deep breath. “It’s pretty late. Let me go so both of us can get some rest before tomorrow.”
She went to the bathroom. She was trying to be quiet, but he could hear she was in a hurry. In a few minutes she was completely ready.
“OK, then. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
She was about to leave when he said, “Candy. I want to have a word with you. Just for a minute.”
She didn’t answer but stood by the door in her light black coat, the hood down, her gloves on. She was wearing high heels and he thought it would be difficult walking like that in the snow.
“How far are you going? Would you like me to call a taxi?”
“Very kind of you, thank you. I’ll call for Uber. It’ll be faster.”
“Look, I didn’t mean to be so harsh. I can’t get into a relationship, especially not with someone from work. It was a mistake on my part.”
“It was my mistake. I’m sorry.”
“I love my wife; I’m a very happy man. I couldn’t ask for more. God spoiled me.”
“That’s a very sincere confession.” She smiled. “Believe me, I understand! I’m sorry. It will never happen again, I promise.”
It was dark in the room. Light was coming from the hallway where she stood. She wouldn’t be able to see him with his back to the balcony, but he saw the lit hallway and the woman standing by the door. Her cheerful voice filled him with pain. She was smiling, but he suspected she wanted to cry. He couldn’t read her well; oddly, she looked apologetic.
“OK, then. I’ll see you tomorrow at the conference.”
“Yes. Good night.” She froze for a brief moment, as if she wanted to say something else. But she didn’t.
He had a sleepless night. He wanted to take a Tylenol for his intolerable headache, but the hotel shop was closed. In the morning, he was afraid of seeing her. She was late for the first session and then he was told she was ill and wouldn’t be coming in at all. He felt relieved. It would be awkward seeing her now. He couldn’t concentrate the entire day. He messed up his presentation and was happy to skip the last part of the conference to leave for the airport. There, he changed his flight and went home earlier than planned. The next day was Valentine’s.
He saw Candy’s image on the way home from the restaurant. His palms were sweaty, acutely aware of the rapid, tremor-like sensation coming in waves when he thought of Candy; he hadn’t been prepared for it. But he would be; he wouldn’t allow it in the future. But how much he wanted her now! Oh, how much!
“I’ll change into my new lingerie and be back in a moment. Don’t fall asleep.”
He took off his tie, his cuff links. Suddenly, he was angry at Candy for messing up his Valentine’s Day. He loved this holiday; he’d been looking forward to spending it with Sheila. And now he hadn’t enjoyed it at all.
His wife came out of the bathroom in the new set he’d given her that morning. She wore Obsession. She had a stunning figure. She was sure of herself. He put her on their bed. She looked at him and then touched his legs and he closed his eyes. He’d never done it in the past. Now he did because he was afraid of himself. He imagined different hands touching him, ever so delicately, so lovingly. He wanted to hear her voice. He wanted to hop on a plane and go to Washington. Gosh! Why was it so painful? Sheila accepted his advances with pleasure. He was aggressive again, but with another woman. He touched Sheila but saw Candy’s big brown eyes. At the very end, he vaguely remembered how the waiter at the table behind Candy had opened a thick-walled bottle of champagne. Andy had watched him holding the neck and carefully removing the wire protector. She was startled when the pressure, built inside the bottle with punt, made the cork pop. A strong stream of semisweet, foamy liquid filled two thin, tall glasses. He was done.
Sheila was long asleep, but not Andy. He was lying in bed next to her with his eyes wide open. On Monday, he thought, he would call Candy. He’d been rude. He must apologize. He would fix everything. Now he felt better. He was thinking about her and smiling. He closed his eyes. Yes, he would call her on Monday. He heard her voice, so pleasant, sexy. When he scolded her, her eyes went dark with utter embarrassment and disappointment. He’d hurt her twice in the same night. She hadn’t blamed him, hadn’t said a word but simply walked away, disappeared. If only she was next to him now, he would . . . He fell asleep thinking of what he would do with her if she were lying in bed next to him.
Adel Aaron was born and raised in the southern region of the former Soviet Union. She grew up in an old city strongly influenced by Muslim culture. When she and her father immigrated to the U.S., new values and concepts appeared before her in powerful and unprecedented ways. While foreign and provocative, her suppressed and starved mind of twenty years couldn’t resist the temptations. While her life has not been without heartbreaking and tragic events, Adel married, had four children, and earned an MBA degree. She has embraced America in its entirety. It is her home, her citadel, her way of life. Adel began writing because she wanted to share her thoughts and ideas. She wanted to tell her story and hoped it would encourage others to push forward, the way she has throughout her life. Adel is writing a novel she plans to publish in 2018.